The year 2020 will have a unique distinction in terms of the United Nations as it has challenged the relevance of the UN system as it was never before. As the UN is in the process of celebrating its 75th birth anniversary, it also fights hard to be effective during the pandemic. The ever-present wedge was again at the display when the member countries struggled to achieve consensus on commemorative declaration making the 75th anniversary of the signing of the UN charter.
Genesis of the United Nations
- The United Nations is an international organization that was founded in 1945. A total of 193 countries are its members currently.
- It was born out of the experience of League of Nations and its failure to avert another world-devastating war.
- Being a brainchild of the then US President Roosevelt, it was formed to bring in a new peaceful and harmonious world order.
- The UN charter of 1945 is the foundational treaty of the UN which creates an intergovernmental organization based on democratic principles. Year 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the agreeing upon the charter.
- The work of the United Nations is guided by the principles contained in its founding Charter.
- The main organs of the UN are
- The General Assembly (UNGA)-
This is the main deliberative, representative, and policymaking body with all 193 members having representation. Every year it meets for an annual general assembly session and decides on important international matters.
- The Secretariat–
It consists of the Secretary-General and a mammoth UN staff hailing from the member countries who carry out the day-to-day work of the UN as mandated by the UNGA. The Secretary-General is the chief administrative officer, appointed by the General Assembly (on the recommendation of the UNSC) for a five-year renewable term.
- The UN Security Council–
Under the UN charter, UNSC has the primary responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security. Made up of 15 members- 5 permanent with veto power and 10 non-permanent without veto power, it represents the undemocratic character of the UN system.
- Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)-
It is the principal body for coordination, policy review, and recommendation on socio-economic and environmental issues. It implements internationally agreed development goals. It has 54 members elected by UNGA for three-year terms.
- Trusteeship Council–
It was established in 1945 by the UN charter to help ensure the trust territories were administered in the best interest of their inhabitants. The trust territories are non-self-governing territories placed under an authority by the trusteeship council.
- International Court of Justice–
It is the principal judicial organ of the UN. Established in 1945 by the charter of the UN, it is a successor of the Permanent Court of International Justice.
- Apart from these six main organs, there are many affiliated funds, programs, specialized agencies such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN population fund (UNFPA), the UNDP, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), etc.
What are the objectives of the UN?
As mentioned in the preamble of the Charter, the objectives are,
- To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war
- Reaffirm the faith in the fundamental human rights and human dignity
- Strengthen conditions under which justice prevails and respect for international law can be maintained,
- Promotion of social progress, better standards of living in the interest of larger freedom.
So, it can be said that the UN was established for the peace and prosperity of the world community.
How the UN has fared in its 75 years?
- The most important success of the UN can be its success in preventing a 3rd world war on the face of cold war world order which many a time came very close to another world war.
- Since its inception, the UNGA has served as a “parliament of humanity”. As a deliberative, policy-making and representative body of the UN, the UNGA provides a forum to share perspectives, forge partnerships and build consensus rooted inequality of both voice and vote.
- Within its remit as a principal organ of the United Nations, the General Assembly has assisted in guiding the transformation of our world over the past three-quarters of a century. It adopts resolutions across a wide breadth of issues that reflect the aspirations of humanity across the three pillars of the work of the United Nations: Human rights, Peace and security, and development.
- In 1948, it adopted the UN Declaration on Human rights giving some inalienable rights to the people of the world and a framework for the assessment of nations based on their performance in human rights protection.
- In response to the peoples of the United Nations yearning for independence, the Assembly, in its fifteenth year, adopted resolution 1514, which provided the most authoritative and comprehensive formulation of the principle of self-determination. In 1966 it declared apartheid as a crime against humanity
- It has sought to end all kinds of discrimination in its all forms. The declaration on the rights of disabled persons (1975), the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (1979), Declaration on the elimination of intolerance and religious discrimination (1981), convention on rights of the child (1989) are some of the commendable actions by the UN.
- The end of the Cold War around 1990 added even more meaningful dimensions to the world order, driven by aspirations of free trade (World Trade Organisation), political integration (European Union), and economic cooperation (Group of Twenty) and BRICS. And finally, the last decade witnessed the noble aspiration to ‘Leave No One Behind’.
- Its refugee agencies care for more than 60 million of the most vulnerable people around the world.
- UN observers help to ensure free and fair elections and its peacekeepers intervene in the most troublesome areas of the world and try to maintain peace and also help to build back.
- Without the Non-proliferation treaty, the world would have seen an excessive race for nuclear weapons development. The normative strength of the UN helped the world powers to come together for a non-proliferation regime.
- Its organs such as the World Bank and IMF have extensively engaged in monetary stability of the world and development of the least developed countries.
- The WHO has been spearheading many critical programs to end diseases such as Polio, TB, AIDS with commendable success.
- The UN platforms work in environmental protection through research, actions, and conventions by bringing the world together. By doing this, it strengthens its position as an organization that leaves no one behind.
- In 2015, all the member states agreed to build on the successes of Millenium Development goals and strive to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (2015). The Paris climate deal began in its embryonic form as a General Assembly resolution.
What are the criticisms against the UN?
- Despite being a leading light in the goal of a peaceful and prosperous world, it has failed on many fronts and hence the demand for its reform.
- Though it has averted a possible 3rd world war but the world order is far from a peaceful The world has witnessed many wars between different nations in different regions.
- The weapons proliferation has not been stopped though the countries pledge on the international platforms.
- The UN could not prevent the genocide in Rwanda (1994), Mogadishu (1993), the question of Palestine persists, West Asia remains in an eternal fear of war. These are regarded as occasions on which the UN fell short.
- The US invasion of Iraq was against the principles of the UN but the security council could not prevent it from happening.
- Despite approving many resolutions and conventions, the UN could not implement those effectively because of cold war politics and conflict of interest of big powers. The example of the failure of the UN Human rights Council to uphold human rights in the case of Myanmar, Many African Nations, the refugee crisis, etc.
- The slow progress of Sustainable Development Goals, climate actions also expose the glaring inabilities of the UN system.
- Organizations such as the World Bank and IMF, though fighting hard to make a difference, remain largely unsuccessful in handling the huge socio-economic problems of the world. The World Bank and IMF are often criticized for their one-size-fits for all approach and their preconditions for aid that deny national aspirations.
- The UN is hostage to the big powers, mainly the P-5 nations which use the platform for selfish interests. These powers blatantly neglect the UN process and regulations if they do not agree to their interests. The Chinese disregard for UNCLOS judgment, the Iraq invasion, The US policy of America First, and consequent retreat from major organs such as UNESCO are some of the examples.
Why is there a need for reforms?
- The above failures of the UN system largely come from its systemic inabilities. The UN largely remains stuck in 1945 when it comes to the worldview when the world has seen an ocean of changes since then.
- The UNSC represents an elitist nature of the UN where most of the important resolutions get vetoed by on or other permanent member countries.
- It does not represent the world situation of today when many other countries have become important vis-à-vis the P-5 nations and they aspire to play a larger role in the UNSC.
- The UNSC has no balancing element and has become the place of aggrandizement.
- The funding system of the UN has two parts. The UN’s regular budget depends largely on mandatory contributions but the main implementation agencies such as specialized agencies depend on voluntary contributions.
- The member countries in recent times have politicized the role of these agencies and refused to pay voluntary contributions (e.g. USA on the occasion of Palestine’s inclusion in the UNESCO system).
- The critical agencies such as the UN Human rights council fails successively to hold countries accountable for human rights for the lack of punitive powers.
- In the age when intra-state conflicts have become more pronounced rather than inter-state conflicts, the jurisdiction of peacekeeping needs an overhaul. The rising threat of non-state actors also poses a challenge that cannot be the traditional way of peacekeeping.
- The Bretton woods institutions suffer from a democratic deficit as the voting powers depend on the economic might of a country and there is a disregard for the democratic principles. Due to this, the performance of these organizations remains skewed towards some countries. The developing countries cannot set the agenda for development.
- The membership of the UNGA is seen as increasingly undemocratic as the elected governments of the countries send their representatives and there is no representation for the people and non-governmental organizations.
- The power struggle between the USA and China recently has crippled many for global cooperation and undermined the peace and stability of the world.
- The most glaring failure came at the face of the current pandemic when WHO lost substantial credibility over its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The WHO and larger UN system is still unable to come to terms with the pandemic and fails to give a substantial action plan to fight against the pandemic let alone for the future course of action.
- The UN-Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a most stinging speech recently called for a “New Global Deal” in the face of a growing threat to the future before it destroys our economies and societies.
- He highlighted the growing inequalities among the nations and people of the world.
- The UN Sec-Gen acknowledged that the pandemic has reversed decades of progress made by the UN in eliminating poverty, disease, inequality.
- He also criticized the powerful nation for their selfish inability to push for reforms in the global governance systems. He called for the “New Social Contract” among nations to create equal opportunities for all, respect for rights and freedom for all.
- As of now, the UN and its organizations face a serious legitimacy crisis and there is a serious condition of reform or perish for the UN system
What are the reforms that are being demanded?
- The process of reforms must start with the debate on the charter itself. As the charter is based on the principles of sovereignty and political independence of all members, many conflicts like Rwanda, Syria remains unsolved. There can be a democratic debate on clear conditions in which Un or Un mandated states can intervene in the domestic affairs of countries.
- The UNGA needs serious reforms as it is bereft with red-tapism, bureaucratic and political domination of the west. It requires reforms in the context of the UNSC. When there is a deadlock in the UNSC due to successive vetoes, the charter should mention that the UNGA will have powers to override the veto.
- At present, the Acheson plan permits UNGA to override the veto in the form of uniting for peace resolution. But the Acheson plan has not been accepted by many member states.
- The trusteeship council which is suspended from since 1994 has lost relevance should be abolished or be given a new mandate. It can be given the responsibility of global commons.
- The UN secretariat needs efficient resizing, transparency, and cutting down of red-tapism in its working. Also, its bureaucracy must represent the developing and least developed countries.
- There is long demand for reforms in the UNSC to make it representative of the current world order. It needs a membership, veto power, and other procedural reforms. Some suggestions can be-
- If the elimination of veto power is impractical, it must be expanded to other responsible countries.
- UNGA should have the power to override the veto.
- While using the veto, countries have to categorically establish its absolute necessity.
- The Peacekeeping operations too need reforms. The mandate of the peacekeeping must be overhauled to specify with clarity when and where the peacekeeping operations could take place. They must also include instability created by non-state actors.
- The funding to the peacekeeping operations must also be standardized and made transparent to maintain appropriate levels of funds, contain misuse, and for effective utilization.
India and UN reforms
- India is an ardent advocate of UN reforms for a better future. It is a part of G-4 along with Brazil, Germany, Japan which demands permanent members with veto power. It also supports the Ezulwini Consensus of African union which demands two African representatives with veto power.
- India is one of the biggest contributors to the peacekeeping forces. It has stakes in reforms in peacekeeping operations.
- India plays the role of the leader of the third world countries and their interests. India’s interests have always lied with the interests of the poor countries. Even if the current global position of India is in transition, remains the most vocal force for the equitable world order.
- Recently, the Prime Minister at the high-level segment of the UN ECOSOC called for use of the current pandemic challenge to reform the global multilateral system to enhance its relevance and effectiveness to make the basis for a “new type of human-centric globalization.”
- The PM highlighted India’s continuous commitment to the UN and its agencies in their developmental, peace works. He highlighted the concurrence of Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas Sabka Vishwas with the SDG program.
- India has been the first responder to the various natural calamities in its extended neighborhood true to the ideals of the UN.
- India has made its case for reforms in systems of global governance based on:
- Changed global realities
- Its population
- Its democratic credentials
- Underrepresentation of global south in these organizations
- Its success in poverty alleviation and overall development
- Its increasing economic might and global presence.
- As the world is at the crossroads when it can emerge stronger or can fall in a prolonged period of instability, chaos, poverty, and conflict, the UN system needs to rise to the occasion and reform itself.
- The UN security council reforms remains a contentious issue as the P-5 will not be happy to let their privilege go away. It needs a concerted effort by the countries at the UNGA and other multilateral platforms.
- Recently, the USA has been enthusiastic about bringing India on various multilateral fora such as G-7. On the backdrop of the rising Chinese revisionism, other countries could see merit in India being a permanent member of the UNSC as a balancing force.
- The other reforms such as UNGA working, the secretariat reforms are relatively easier as they are beneficial for the working of the UN resulting in the benefit of the world community.
- The charter needs a serious reform considering the rise of non-state actors that impact more than most of the nations in world affairs. They include huge MNCs, global NGOs, and other successful multilateral organizations.
- The global organizations and think tanks are pushing for the establishment of a UN Parliamentary assembly of a directly elected representative of the people and a UN World Citizens Initiative where world citizens can directly initiate proposals on the UN agenda.
- If these reforms materialize, it will open a glorious road for a democratic UN, globalized humanity, and harmonious world citizenry.
- The liberal world order and democratic values are under threat world over, being a central point of such order, the UN should lead the way and reform itself to put forth a guiding example.
- The world is still far away from being a better place to live as half of the world struggles to live a life of dignity. The concentration of wealth, threat to global climate and environment, rising anxiety among the poor and middle-income countries about the UN’s ability to solve their issues are some of the problems that could decide the future of the world in near future.
- Hence, Reformed UN is a necessity of times that we live in and the times to come in the future.
The relevance of the UN has been aptly summarized by the Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-general of the UN as, “Un was created not to build heaven on earth but protect it from becoming Hell.” Though This statement holds even after 75 years of its formation, the time demands Un to exceed its potential and expectations to emerge as a true parliament of humanity. The world does not need less UN today but it needs the UN now more than ever.
Practice Question for Mains
Critically analyze the relevance of the UN in current times. What reforms it must undertake to be relevant. (250 words)