United Nations has completed seventy years of its existence in 2015 ever since the organization was established on 24 October 1945 after World War II with a larger objective to prevent another such conflict in future. The chief objectives of this international organization were to foster international security, peace and cooperation, human rights, socio-economic development, environment protection and humanitarian aid in the event of armed conflict, natural disaster and famine. Needless to mention its 51 founding member states have now grown to strength of 193 states with its headquarters in Manhattan, New York.
The United Nations work to achieve its objective through six main organs namely the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Trusteeship Council, International Court of Justice and UN Secretariat. The organization is financed through voluntary contributions from its member states. All members of the United Nations are obliged to accept and implement its decisions. While other organs of the United Nations can make only recommendations to member states, only the Security Council has the power to take decision as also action to ensure the member nations implement it under the UN Charter.
Over the years, it has been debated at various forums and by different thinkers and ideologues whether UN has met the objectives for which it had been created. So often it has come under the criticism for its partisan role and purported inability to handle international conflicts, at times of even a minor one. Critics have often argued of double standards in handling issues in different parts of the world rendering the UN Charter largely unenforceable. The UN has also been often criticized for elitism, dictated by few influential nations often supporting hegemonistic tendencies and genocidal policies.
How far UN met its Obligations?
So is it true that the UN has miserably failed in achieving its defined role and objectives over the years? Is it true that it is a failing organization increasingly losing its relevance in maintaining the world order despite its growth and expansion with the passage of time? Well these are complex questions with no direct answers as one can argue in favour and against citing several illustrations and instances. Let’s have a look at its known objectives and arguments in favour and against thereof to understand this.
The UN was constituted with the chief objective of preventing future conflicts among nations and consequent bloodshed and sufferings. There have been a large number of conflicts and wars around the world during the past seventy years and the UN has failed to avert or contain the most of such eventualities in the past. Yet a solace can be derived that there has not been a major escalation or outbreak, since its emergence, like the World War II wherein millions could have suffered and died. Though it failed to avert several wars but its timely intervention has minimized aggression in certain regional conflicts like in cases of Korea and the Middle East. It acted as intermediary in making peace in several conflicts including that of the Iran-Iraq war.
The UN Charter provides for cooperation among the member states in solving international problems and in promoting respect for human rights. There has been human rights violation world over particularly by many autocratic regimes. The case in point could be genocidal civil wars in Balkans and Central Africa in nineties or even civil war in 1971 in the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) leading to intervention by the neighbouring India to prevent genocide and other crimes against innocent civilians, women and children. It is also paradoxical that the countries like China with a history of persistent human rights abuse in the past have permanent membership and veto power in the Security Council. On the flip side, it can be argued that human rights violations take place within states and the UN with the explicit policy of non-interference in the internal matters of any nation has no mandate to directly intervene in such matters. Whatever may be the legal status, the fact is the inability of UN to take effective measures to prevent civil wars and human rights violations so often drag neighbouring countries to indulge in and escalate such conflicts.
The UN is besotted with serious institutional problems in so far as the working of two major bodies namely the General Assembly and Security Council are concerned. At occasions, the General Assembly resolution with a widespread majority support is stymied by a single veto from one of the permanent members in the Security Council. There have been occasions when such veto was exercised by one of the permanent members with vested interests in favour of an erring nation. This has also triggered a unilateral action by the countries like the USA and / or organizations such as NATO, undermining the credibility and authority of the UN.
However, to counter above allegation, it could be argued that decision making in the UN has considerably improved after the end of the Cold War and disintegration of the erstwhile western and eastern blocks. In the changed scenario, five permanent members avoid using veto power as for as possible as it projects a negative image globally. Thus even in the unreformed Security Council, there is a better conducive atmosphere where issues can be openly debated, and compromises worked out even in the absence of collective action by consensus.
There has been yet another perception that the UN bureaucracy is so often ineffective and tardy in taking decisions and operation failures to resolve issues. Also the UN organizations like UNESCO are besieged with corruption and the UN has done little to curtail it. On the other hand, independent institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization have significantly contributed to the progress and prosperity of nations without intervention of the UN. Notwithstanding several failures of the UN and greater role of other organizations in peace and prosperity of the world, the fact cannot be denied that no other organization can fill the vacuum or assume the role of the UN with the kind of authority and responsibility the latter has through its Security Council and other bodies to foster and maintain progress, peace and security in the global context.
Criticism UN Invites globally
Administrative Criticism: One could decisively say that the United Nations have never represented a true equilibrium of developing and developed, rich and poor, and powerful and weak nations. It may not be exaggeration if it is said that the Security Council has been hostage of the five permanent members and truly represent their strategic interests since its constitution. This has been apparent from their role even in humanitarian interventions when they adopted different approach and standards in protecting oil rich Kuwaitis and resource poor Rwandans in the past.
The use of veto power by the five permanent members often against the wishes of a vast majority of nations has been a subject of criticism and bone of contention in the Security Council all along. Given the sweeping overriding powers in the name of veto, on many occasions in the past objection or dissenting note of one nation have crippled the opinion of the majority nations. The case in point could be constant casting of the veto power by the United States against any resolution moved in the Security Council which was not in favour of Israel. Similarly, any attempt to impose sanctions on Syria have been constantly vetoed by Russia in the past. These are only illustrations and actual incidences are umpteen ever since the formation of the Security Council where one or more permanent members have used their veto to negate a resolution affecting a policy issue or a nation against an overwhelming majority. It is a general impression that the five permanent members have repeatedly used veto power to promote their own political interests or geopolitical ambitions over the years.
It has been over two decades that voices have been raised by other major countries representing larger economy, democracy or geopolitical influence like Japan, Germany, India and Brazil to make the Security Council more representative by including non-nuclear and regional powers. Technically any country can be elected as a temporary member of the Security Council to serve for a period of two years but here too many countries have not gotten a chance for even one term. Occasionally, voices have also been raised to remove the concept of the permanent membership altogether but the fact remains that every move for the reform in the Security Council has been defeated or sabotaged mainly due to selfish interests of the existing permanent members with elite status and partly also due to lack of consensus among the fraternity of nations due to regional rivalries and interests. The way three western powers of the permanent five have colluded at occasions to pursue and press their agenda through the Security Council, it has often been perceived with a distaste by a vast majority of nations in the past.
While the UN Charter provides for maintaining international peace and security, and if necessary this can be ensured by preventive or enforcement action. For illustration, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, UN secretary general U Thant played a critical and valuable role as the chief negotiator between the then American and Russian presidents to diffuse tension and avert a possible nuclear face-off but, ironically, on many occasions the permanent members of the Security Council have themselves prevented the UN to discharge this responsibility due to their vested interests or other political considerations. In fact, during the recent decades the way NATO forces under the leadership of USA and occasionally Russia have taken unilateral decisions to intervene in hotspots like Iraq or Syria, it raises doubt if the UN would remain at all relevant in the 21st century.
Political and Diplomatic Criticism: Apart from the administrative lapses or failures, the UN is under criticism for political and diplomatic failures. The case in point could be some of the prominent events involving international crisis. For illustration, the UN was completely ineffective in preventing atrocities on civilians in general and Bengali Hindus genocide in particular by the Pakistan army during the 1971 that eventually compelled India’s armed forces intervention to prevent the mass murder and atrocities leading to the liberation of Bangladesh.
Another example of ineffectiveness of the UN in recent times is the infamous war in Darfur wherein the Arab Militia Janjaweed, with the active support of the Sudanese government, indulged in ethnic cleansing and genocide of the indigenous population leading to the killings of an estimated three lakh civilians. This went on for considerable period yet the UN failed to effectively intervene to prevent mass murder and human rights violation in the region. The conflict involving the states of Israel and Palistine have perhaps occupied maximum debate time, resolutions and resources of the UN without much political or diplomatic success in the past and the latter was often criticized for bias against Israel by USA and its allies for alleged support for the Palestinian militancy. These are only a few citations of numerous events of international
Criticism on Accounts of Scandals: Apart from the administrative, political and diplomatic criticism, the UN has also remained under fire and criticism for scandals from time to time. An organization which represents aspirations of billions of people world over has been under shadows and severe criticism for its scandal and corruption cases. The famous Oil-for-Food scandal has put forth a severe blow to the credibility of this world body. Recent investigation has revealed that the former head of the United Nations’ Oil-for-Food programme in Iraq took kickbacks to help an oil company win contracts. Another senior UN official is also charged with soliciting bribes.
Way back in 2005, a senior Russian diplomat too was apprehended for taking kickbacks. Only recently, the former president of the UN General Assembly, an Antiguan diplomat, was arrested with a charge of accepting more than $1 million in bribes from Chinese business companies in exchange for furtherance of their interests in the UN, including support for a UN conference centre in Macau. It is more so disturbing and surprising because it is rather unusual to find UN officials charged for corruption as the UN bodies normally do not experience the same auditing, press scrutiny and political investigation as globally national organizations face.
Major Failures of the United Nations
As already referred to in earlier paragraphs, one of the chief mandates of the UN Charter involve the maintenance of the international security and peace besides developing friendly relations amongst nations. Notwithstanding the world body’s success in many such ventures, there have been a number of marked, rather catastrophic failures, leading to human rights violations, millions of innocent civilian deaths and destruction of property. Some illustrations of such more significant failures since the UN inception are listed below.
Nuclear Proliferation: The United States was the only nation to have tested, owned and used nuclear weapons when this world body was created. This was followed by remaining four permanent members of the Security Council to test and acquire nuclear weapons in later decades. In spite of the fact that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was signed by the majority of the world nation, the nuclear threat and its unabated growth have continued with the ever growing list of such nations of known capacity including India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and some Islamic countries and even terror outfits allegedly involved in covert operations to acquire such weapons.
While for some countries, it is a question of the national security and survival, others are doing it merely to flex muscles and blackmail neighbours driven by regional rivalries, ambitions and narrow interests. Needless to mention the UN organization has completely failed to curb nuclear proliferation in enforcing necessary checks, rules and regulations. Consequently, today the world is sitting over a nuclear stockpile with many flash points where even a minor event or misunderstanding can escalate nuclear show off threatening the world peace and security at large.
Bangladesh Genocide: Pakistan (erstwhile West Pakistan) launched its Operation Searchlight in March 1971 in a crackdown to suppress Bangladeshi (erstwhile East Pakistan) movement for self determination consequent to suppression and denial of the outcome of the democratic electoral process by the former. There are different accounts by different sources reporting the killings of estimated three to thirty lakh people and rape of two to four lakh Bangladeshi women by the Pakistan army and supporting militias during nine months’ struggle and war leading to the liberation of Bangladesh. Besides, about estimated ten million people, majority of Bangladeshi Hindus, crossed the border to take refuse in India.
All along the period, major western powers, then supporting dictatorial regime in Pakistan, shut their eyes and ignored the genocide treating it Pakistan s internal matter thus thwarting efforts, if any, by the UN body to resolve the crisis. Finally, India under the heavy burden of the continuous influx of refugees and moral pressure of the human rights violations in the neighbouring country had to militarily intervene and act as a savior to stop genocide.
Unabated Terrorism: Experts trace the history of modern terrorism to an Israeli passenger aircraft hijacked by an Arab terrorist organization namely Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine on July, 1968. Fortunately, there were no causalities and all passengers were saved through diplomatic negotiations in exchange for sixteen convicted Arab prisoners. Following decades have witnessed spurt in airline hijackings and International terrorism with bloody trail world over, more pronounced with Islamic extremist outfits. The deadliest attack in the history of terrorism was perhaps that of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre wherein apart from the massive commercial damage, an estimated three thousand civilians were killed. Except for occasionally denouncing such attacks or passing resolution against such crimes, the UN body has collectively not been able to take any effective action to check the growth of terrorism.
The war on terrorism led by the US and some western allies has so far led to full scale invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and several operations in countries like Pakistan, Syria and Yeman. Millions of deaths have been reported over the decades due to terror killings and incidents and worst affected nations in the recent years have been the countries like India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Thailand, Philippines, Russia and Israel. The most of such affected countries have been fighting their war on terrorism in solo mode with hardly any concrete assistance from the UN body. Of course, some of the terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and Taliban have been put on the banned list and some individuals have been notified as outlawed terrorist but clearly this is not adequate to fight terrorism.
Child Sex Abuse Scandal: United Nations peace keeping forces are deployed in several countries in Africa, Middle East, Europe and Latin America engaged in political turmoil and civil war. The local populace in war torn territories look at the UN peacekeeping forces with hope and trust. Instead disturbing instances have been reported in the past from the countries like Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Mozambique and Haiti peacekeeping forces involvement in the child prostitution rackets. Reportedly, the soldiers offer allurement to children with small sums of money or candy in exchange of sexual relationship. The UN Body has been under criticism for failure to take effective cognizance of such offences for whatever reasons.
Srebrenica Genocide: During the Bosnian War in July, 1995, more than 8,000 civilians, mostly men and boys, were killed in and around Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serb Army. This Bosnian War massacre is considered as the single worst act of mass murder on European soil after World War II. This happened despite of the fact that the UN had declared the besieged enclave of Srebrenica in the northeastern Bosnia as a safe area under the UN protection. This was one of the most glaring failures of the UN peacekeeping forces comprising of Dutch soldiers who failed to protect the town and subsequent massacre.
Pol Pot Regime in Cambodia: During 1975 to 1979, Khmer Rouge under Pot Pol resorted to an extreme form of intolerant communism wherein any suspected dissidents including professional, intellectuals and ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese and Christians were killed in masse. As per estimates, almost 2.5 million were killed by the autocratic regime and finally Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 to oust Pol Pot ending his tyrannical regime. Ironically, new government was not recognized by the UN which continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge till 1994 as government in exile, a glaring example of apathy towards human rights and double standards in international diplomacy.
Darfur Genocide: Darfur region located in the Western Sudan is an abode of about six million Muslim tribal and nomads. Around 2003, allegedly the Sudanese government unleashed Janjaweed, an Arab militia group, against mostly non-Arab rebel groups fighting against the anti people policies of the Sudanese government. Janjaweed militia allegedly backed by the Sudanese forces attacked hundreds of villages killing people throughout Darfur destroying over 400 villages forcing millions of civilians to flee their homes. Darfur genocide allegedly claimed lives of over three lakh and displaced over two and a-half million people.
In June 2005, the International Criminal Court (ICC) took cognizance and launched investigation into human rights violations in Darfur despite non-cooperation from the Government of Sudan. In 2009, ICC indicted Sudanese President for involvement in the campaign of mass killing, rape and pillage against civilians in Darfur. The Sudanese government appeared unwilling to check the human rights violations and to restrict the activities of the Janjaweed. Despite human carnage at such a large scale, the UN completely remained ineffective in taking concrete action to stop the gross violation of human rights violation.
These are only a few illustrations of failures of the UN Organization over the decades to take timely and appropriate action to save mass population in trouble spots over the globe from genocide, inhuman killings, rape and other crimes against humanity. The other major failures include Sri Lankan Civil War (1983 to 2009), Rwandan genocide of 1994, Somalia in nineties and Cold War.
Misuse of Veto Power
It is often alleged, the Security Council all along has been the captive of the five permanent members of the UN organization as they enjoyed the luxury of veto power since inception. The way it was designed if any permanent member casts a veto or negative vote on any issue, the Council resolution cannot be carried out irrespective of the international opinion or majority support. There have been umpteen occasions when due to vested interests or political considerations of one or more permanent members in the Security Council, resolution passed in the UN General Assembly with overwhelming majority could not be implemented because of the veto exercised by them. This has been a major stumbling block ever since the constitution of the UN Body. It needs to be reassured that at least in matters of war and peace, genuine interests of affected nations would not be compromised. During the past half-century, the veto has been invoked in many other circumstances, such as blocking resolutions and opposing nominations.
Way Forward: UN Reforms
Talking of the UN reforms is not new and has been under the discussion and scanner since early days of its inception. There are view and opinions to expand its role in world affairs as also to restrict its role only limited to humanitarian aspects. However, what is undisputable is the need for the United Nations to adapt to the new global power configurations. When we talk of reforms, it usually usurps a wide range of subjects like Security Council, international peacekeeping efforts, protection of human rights, socio-economic and other global development initiatives, UN Secretariat transparency and diversified interests including budgetary and management reforms of the UN system.
From what has been detailed in the previous paragraphs, it would appear that the most crucial organs of the UN organization continue to be its General Assembly and Security Council, and its current structure and role impacting global developments at large. Various reforms have been on agenda of the UN Organization for over last two decades without much progress. Consequently, in the recent years the UN is proving increasing ineffective or irrelevant in the event of upheavals in various parts of the globe. The cases in point could be the direct intervention of the US and its NATO allies in Iraq or Afghanistan and Russian intervention in Ukraine or Syrian civil war disregarding the majority UN opinion in the recent times.
Then, there is another conflicting and touchy issue of states' sovereignty. While members had originally agreed in 1945 to bind and come together in various ways for the common good, yet they emphasized national sovereignty and prohibited intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state. Perhaps in a way, the interpretation of this stipulation has been the major reason and constraint why the UN body has not been able to effectively intervene to protect human rights and mass civilian killings in countries infested with civil war like situations. These sentiments continue to equally rule the national agenda in autocracies like China as well in the context of truly democratic countries like India. Hence any efforts to improve the United Nations may have to factorise these sentiments too. Thus in the long run the UN organization would be only as effective as member nations agree and desire it to be.
It remains a million bucks question if the UN member states at large or the permanent members of the Security Council will ever agree to whole range of reforms but for its survival and continuing relevance, first and foremost need is reforms in the Security Council as it is the most crucial organ for maintaining international peace and security inter alia safeguarding human rights. Initial strength of eleven i.e. five permanent and six non-permanent members was in the context of fiftyone founding members of the UN organization largely comprising of the victors of the World War II and their close allies which was later increased to fifteen in 1965 with more nations joining the UN.
Over the years, there have been significant changes in the world’s polity, socio-economic order as also military strength. The current membership i.e. five permanent and ten non-permanent members unchanged during the last fifty years with current UN membership reaching to 193 nations and is no more practical and representative. Therefore, the Council certainly needs expansion to make it more representative with a view to balancing power and removing regional imbalances commensurate with the aspirations of the majority of nations.
Today, Japan and Germany are the biggest contributors to the UN organization. In view of the size in the world economy and their contribution to the UN, it seems grossly unfair to exclude them from the Security Council. Then there are major emerging economies like India and Brazil which also happen to be the largest democracy and geo-politically large nations, respectively, and their opinion and aspirations cannot be ignored for long. Moreover, currently the second largest continent Africa with 53 countries is totally unrepresented in the Security Council, with countries like South Africa and Nigeria making relatively strong case for permanent representation.
Thus to make the Security Council more balanced and representative, there is a strong case for its expansion by adding 4 to 6 permanent members and at least same number of non-permanent members in the Security Council. Such proposals in the past have been enmeshed in political objections by the vested interests of existing permanent members and regional adversaries of probable candidates. Yet quite obviously, sooner this reform is undertaken, better would be for the survival and continued relevance of the organization.
The other alternative could be the removal of the permanent membership tag and representation of different countries by turns for their region or part of the world. Quite obviously, the existing permanent members will not be amused with the idea of losing their advantage; hence this preposition may not be workable ab initio.
The other important issue to resolve is the existing veto powers of the permanent members which further complicate prospects for Security Council reform. The drafters of the UN Charter then assumed the chief role of Big Five for maintaining the world peace by acting against any aggression in future. It has since been seventy years and geo-politics and power equations have dramatically changed with economic growth and militarization and nuclear arsenal acquisition by many more countries due to varying factors, compulsions and ambitions. Otherwise also the use of veto power by the permanent members during the past decades has been largely driven by the vested interests and political reasons rather than objective considerations. The countries like the US and Russia have used it more frequently for blocking resolutions and opposing nominations over the years.
So the increase in permanent members with veto powers may increase potential risk of misusing more vetoes similar way. A more pragmatic solution would be that within the expanded Security Council with more regional representation, the veto rights could be done away with and decisions are taken by the majority vote. But it is highly unlikely that the existing permanent members would agree to cede their advantage. In such scenario, the only pragmatic solution would be that the new permanent members are also allowed veto rights as introducing any other category may only discriminate and complicate working dynamics of the Council. However, the eventualities for the use of veto rights should be clearly defined to avoid misuse in future as has been done on many occasions in the past.
The reforms affecting areas other than peace, security and human rights (for which largely General Assembly and Security Council are responsible) are welcome but are not so crucial in view of the fact that many independent organizations like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization etc. are so effective and doing well in their respective domains without UN intervention and countries are actually listening to their calls and finetune accordingly. The world peace and security is the most important factor and the survival as also continued relevance of the UN organization in future would largely depend on how promptly and effectively it carries out necessary organizational and functional reforms with the changing world order.