“The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven but to save humanity from hell.” – Dag Hammarskjöld, Second UN Secretary General.
The UN was created in a world different from our own. The British Empire was about to wither away leaving behind post-colonial states in varying degrees of poverty and instability, and the world was embarking on a new era of superpowers and ideological rivalry. At its creation there were 51 member states and now the number stands at 193. The UN must be understood as both a forum and framework for international diplomacy but also as an entity in itself, which through its numerous agencies has sought to save humanity from hell. The UN is an easy institution to criticise. Its multilateral nature means it often suffers acute paralysis on global issues; its agencies have responsibilities in almost all policy areas meaning it is never far from blame. Then there is the issue of the UN’s structure: archaic and representing a post-war order no longer borne out in reality. The UN is desperately in need of an update in terms of the structure of the Security Council, but it should be questioned whether such an update would change the UN’s effectiveness as an institution. It could be fairer and more representative of the modern world and rising powers, unquestionably, but the reality of great power politics will always endure.
The UN was an attempt to accept the self-interest of world powers, but to work this into a system which might work for humanity’s self-interest. Since its initial foundation, the various agencies of the UN have become instrumental in safeguarding refugees, combating disease and alleviating poverty. These are not easy tasks and these agencies frequently fall short of their goals, becoming targets for criticisms from bureaucratic inefficiency to corruption. National governments have shown a reluctance to intervene and carry out these tasks: if it wasn’t for the UN then who would? The reality is that the UN will always suffer unavoidable difficulties due to the fundamental nature of the world, divided into states. These states, with different opposing identities and interests will inevitably clash. The UN as a body can structure and try to resolve these conflicts, as was its original, core mission in 1945. Where the UN fails to act, it is primarily down to the conflicts between the great powers within the Security Council. Kofi Annan resigned as the Special Representative to Syria for the UN in 2012 complaining that “there continues to be finger pointing and name calling in the Security Council” instead of action for the millions displaced or thousands being killed in the conflict.
In situations such as the Syrian Civil War, the UN seems irrelevant. With differing opinions as to who should govern Syria between Russia and the US, a deadlock endures. The veto granted to any of the permanent members of the Security Council freezes any potential attempts to solve security issues in a way that infringes on the interests of any great power. Without agreement in the Security Council the UN as a body cannot act. Instead, nations follow their own interests with the US-led coalition bombing Daesh and Russia bombing everyone who opposes the regime. It is impossible to set up a no-fly zone or establish safe zones for civilians without united action. Even the most radical reform of the Security Council membership, being the removal of the old imperial powers, France and Britain, and their replacement with emerging powers, such as India and Brazil, would do little to solve such crises. Great power feuds would continue to endure and continue to cause chaos and devastation. The Syrian Civil War, the rise of Daesh and the instability across the Middle East are not the fault of the UN. The veto which the 5 permanent members of the Security Council hold has also come under fire. Whilst causing paralysis in great power conflicts, it has also enabled the US to threaten to veto all UN peacekeeping missions in the Bush era unless its immunity to the International Criminal Court was confirmed. Yet whilst it is the pinnacle of unfair privilege, the Security Council’s power is vital to the function of the UN. A system which privileges power encourages engagement by the strong. This was the lesson learnt from the League of Nations; by giving the great powers a stronger say in the organisation, they are encouraged to engage with it. This is far better than having the UN circumvented, as the League was by France and Britain in instances like the Hoare-Laval Pact. In this case, France and Britain attempted to do a deal with Fascist Italy despite its clear violation of the rules of the League in invading Abyssinia.
The relationship of the Security Council to the General Assembly is also problematic. With its one member, one vote system and reliance on consensus, the assembly produces notoriously weak resolutions. Whilst the General Assembly could arguably be strengthened by moving away from consensus to simple majority voting, this might, like Security Council reform, simply encourage states to ignore the UN or disengage. The UN is both weak and powerful because it is multilateral. Sanctions by the UN work due to the global nature of its membership, although because of this the UN is rarely able to take such actions. The organisation works because when it is finally able to throw its weight behind a course of action, it means the vast majority of the world’s governments stand behind it. If the UN became a simple majority system, it is easy to see the UN losing its authority or becoming ignored by national governments if rulings went against them.
As an institution, therefore, it is difficult to conceive of reforms which could solve the problems the UN faces. Any attempt to make resolutions easier to arrive at would weaken the institution itself. Therefore, whilst the UN may appear to struggle, it is not the institution itself which is at fault. The reality is that any international organisation with the UN’s declared aims and ambitions falls prey to the differing interests of member states and their conflicts and disagreements. To change this would involve altering the UN’s core structure into a global government, which would create only new problems. These would be similar to the current perceived democratic deficit in the EU and the difficulties involved resolving conflicts between national democratic institutions, their electorates and supranational institutions. Thus this remains unimaginable for the near future, even in our hyper-globalised world. Ultimately, we are still in the era of the nation-state. The UN will therefore remain an attempt to reduce the destructive tendencies of states rather than an attempt to supplant them.
The UN currently performs vital work through agencies such as the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and World Health Organisation (WHO). Both of these organisations carry out frontline work for the world’s most vulnerable in situations where direct aid from the rich nations of the world is not forthcoming. The WHO in particular facilitates a concentration of experts and specialists to deal with the world’s most pressing problems. In the event of a major pandemic, the WHO’s ability to coordinate a response should not be taken for granted. The large scale and ambition of these agencies leaves them open to criticism, yet the work they do is critical to international stability. Multilateral organisations are needed to deal with global problems that do not obey international borders and UN agencies represent the most systematic attempt to deal with these. Funding is often short and direct aid from rich states still seems to be needed to augment UN efforts in a major crisis: take the deployment of the hospital ship RFA Argus to Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak or the dismal state of refugee camps in the areas bordering Syria. UN agencies are often, indeed constantly, overstretched but they do vital work. To many of the 65 million displaced people in the world, the UN may be the difference between starving and survival. This says a lot about agencies like the UNHCR; ultimately, they are life-support systems for people when the governments of the world fail to resolve crises. The UN takes responsibility when no one else will.
One area the UN undoubtedly needs to improve in is the practice of peacekeeping. Repeated failures of command have led to peacekeepers failing in their primary task which must be protecting civilians. These failures are ultimately down to the differences in aims between the UN and the militaries who contribute to peacekeeping forces. The UN has yet to learn from Rwanda and Srebrenica. Recent failures such as the fall of Goma in 2012 seem to indicate that the fundamental difficulty still exists; the Indian commander ignored orders from the UN to hold the Congolese town and instead followed the instructions of his own government not to fight. Again, we must see that the UN is undermined by national governments. In a perfect world, where states put the greater good before their own interests, peacekeeping forces would not face conflicting instructions from above. If the Security Council were not paralysed by the threat of a Russian veto, these more effective peacekeepers could be deployed to the conflicts in Syria and the Ukraine.
There are no simple answers to the institutional problems the UN faces. Adding or removing members of the Security Council will not change its nature; we should not pretend that the new powers of the world are any less self-interested than the current permanent five members. In terms of agencies, the UN seems to be constantly undergoing reform as it seeks to improve its performance from each crisis to the next and these will remain vital crisis management bodies for the foreseeable future. The key difficulty the Security Council and General Assembly face if they wish to reform is to enable the UN to take action whilst remaining relevant and inclusive, and not forcing certain nations out. We should remember that reform will inevitably favour some states over others; Germany, Japan, Brazil and India are not pushing for Security Council seats to merely make the world a better place, but to increase their own power and prestige. It is this self-interest which the UN’s aims and goals will always have to deal with, one way or another.