Despite turning 75 at a time of deep crisis, can the UN save the world – and itself?

Despite turning 75 at a time of deep crisis, can the UN save the world – and itself?

Secretary-General António Guterres (on screens and at the podium) addresses the opening of the general debate of the 74th session of the General Assembly at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York on 24 September 2019.

(United Nations)

The United Nations turns 75 this year and, amid a year-long programme of events and initiatives, one of the highlights of its commemorations will be a one-day high-level meeting titled The Future We Want, The UN We Need to be held at the UN General Assembly in New York on 21 September. However, to some observers, the UN’s future doesn’t look too bright. Weak and underfunded, the health of the UN is deeply compromised. Growing rivalry between nations is undermining international cooperation, while the rise of nationalism and populism worldwide poses an existential threat to the multilateral architecture that defines the organisation.

In addition to these challenges, Covid-19 has created the biggest global crisis of our lifetime, widening economic inequality, exacerbating social unrest and striking a major blow to the UN’s flagship Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a detailed agenda to end poverty, take urgent climate action and close the gender gap (among other objectives) by 2030.

Still, at a moment when these tensions threaten to divide the world further, the collaborative spirit that founded the UN may be humanity’s best hope to deter another global conflagration that this time would very likely be terminal. A reformed UN architecture will be needed and, most importantly, a renewed commitment to cooperation.

The UN was created in 1945 to “avert the dangers of unbridled nationalism, of power politics that ignored international law,” says Fabrizio Hochschild, the special advisor to the secretary-general on the UN’s 75th anniversary.

Peace and security, human rights and development are the three pillars of the UN, made up of the Secretariat and several bodies based in New York, the most relevant of which are the General Assembly, where the 193 UN member states are represented, and the Security Council, the only entity that can emit legally binding resolutions and authorise military interventions. The UN is also a system of three dozen programmes, funds and specialised agencies located worldwide and funded mainly through national voluntary contributions, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Food Programme, the International Monetary Fund and the International Organization for Migration.

In recent years, “unbridled nationalism” has resurfaced as threats to the UN’s multilateral essence. “The biggest fear of the founders of the United Nations was that there would be a reprise of what they twice had seen in their lifetimes – two devastating world wars, and in particular a nuclear confrontation,” Hochschild tells Equal Times.

Nationalist politics has made headway in countries like the United States, Brazil, India and Turkey, influential nations that once seemed firmly rooted in democracy. For the first time since 2001, autocracies are a majority, according to a 2020 report by the V-Dem Institute, a think tank based at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

Undemocratic governments currently rule 54 per cent of the global population, while 35 per cent of the world’s people live in countries that are becoming autocratic. By almost every measure – from labour rights to racial justice to the state of the natural environment – social progress appears to be on the decline.

“The post Second World War order is really very shaky,” says Thomas Weiss, professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and author of What’s Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It. “Multilateralism is under attack, not only from the US and the Trump administration but by lots of other countries.”

The Paris Climate Change Agreement, a set of timid voluntary commitments designed to contain an environmental catastrophe that would make the world unliveable, exposed the deterioration of international cooperation. The US, which led the negotiations under the Obama administration, has formalised its decision to withdraw. Brazil has announced national environmental plans incompatible with its commitments. And many other countries are way off track if they are going to reduce their carbon emissions enough by 2030 to keep global warming well below 2˚C.

What went wrong?

The UN, in many ways, has been incredibly successful. It has contributed to what is considered by some to be the most peaceful world era since the Middle Ages. It has also played a role in the dramatic reduction of extreme poverty, the decolonisation of the Global South, and the foreseeable eradication of diseases such as polio and tuberculosis. Through the UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were adopted. Twenty five years ago the UN also launched the Beijing Platform for Action, which remains one of the strongest commitments to women’s rights worldwide.

The organisation also has inherent flaws that erode the credibility of international collaboration. The veto power of the five permanent members of the Security Council has crippled the UN since its inception. “The Security Council was always going to be a dysfunctional body at the centre of the UN,” says Louis Charbonneau, the UN director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US possess the veto prerogative. One veto blocks any resolution, even when supported by the 14 other Council members (which includes 10 elected members who served two-year terms). This dysfunction resulted in the failure to stop genocidal wars in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and has been key to the prolongation of serious violations of international law in Yemen, Palestine and Syria. The Council’s limits were also on full display in March 2003, when the UK and the US invaded Iraq without authorisation. The Council is now also failing to prevent the ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya people in Myanmar, which may amount to genocide, according to the UN.

“What has the UN Security Council done in Myanmar? Almost nothing. We saw that in Sri Lanka [during the civil war of 1983 to 2009],” says Charbonneau.

With a paralysed Security Council, the UN has frequently been ineffective in its mandate. In other instances, however, it has avoided mass violence. In the last decade alone, the UN and the African Union have been credited with deterring genocidal campaigns in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, Hochschild says.

There have been at least six different proposals to reform the Council by adding members, abolishing or limiting the veto prerogative or, simply, improving its work methods. However, permanent members have consistently blocked any attempts at reform, and Charbonneau is not optimistic about the chances of impending Council reorganisation: “Not in my lifetime,” he says bluntly. Even France’s modest proposal for permanent members to voluntarily relinquish their veto power in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes on a large scale only received support from the UK.

The UN’s intermittent action does not only derive from the Council but also from the secretary-general, whose leadership sets the organisation’s principles and priorities. The UN’s current secretary-general, António Guterres, has been “very reluctant since he took office in 2017 to criticise UN member states that are engaged in the worst atrocities. He does not want to single out countries,” says Charbonneau. “This is something that has become his trademark.” Most notably, Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, has been silent on the so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang province, part of the Chinese government’s programme of mass arbitrary detention, torture, and surveillance of Uighurs Muslims.

The secretary-general’s reluctance to criticise member states occurs as authoritarian countries gain more influence within the organisation. After the US, China is now the second-largest financial contributor to the UN, and it has used that leverage to “systematically undermine the importance of human rights,” according to Charbonneau. China’s increasing clout within the UN “is not in any way to be seen as strengthening multilateralism,” Weiss says. “It should be seen as strengthening China’s investment in foreign policy.”

‘The Future We Want’?

In the midst of the most severe pandemic in a century, which by the beginning of September had caused over 850,000 deaths worldwide, the outlook for multinational cooperation is sombre. With the highest Covid-19 death toll in the world, the US has withdrawn and defunded the UN’s World Health Organization as an attempt, critics argue, to cover up its disastrous response to the pandemic.

The decision comes when poor people worldwide desperately need solidarity from wealthy countries. The ILO has warned that 1.6 billion informal workers – nearly half of the global workforce – are in immediate danger of losing their livelihoods due to Covid-19. The economic recession resulting from the pandemic will push an estimated 50 million people into extreme poverty this year alone.

Meanwhile, the combined wealth of US billionaires ballooned by a staggering US$800 billion during just five months of the pandemic. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, became the first person in the world to be worth US$200 billion during the pandemic, adding US$10 billion to his fortune in a single day.

“It seems to me that the single explanation for the rise of populism, if we have to find one, is globalisation and its discontents,” says Weiss. Globalisation has meant the expansion of inequalities within countries and between countries, he explains, and burgeoning fear of what is perceived as massive migration to industrialised nations.

The UN could contribute to offset the negative repercussions of globalisation by focusing on what it does better than any other intergovernmental entity, says Weiss. It should keep promoting ideas, norms, principles and standards worldwide, and monitoring the members’ compliance with international commitments such as the SDGs and the Paris Agreement.

The UN has made, for example, “huge differences in women’s rights, refugee rights and water and sanitation services,” according to Weiss. To be more effective operationally, he explains, the UN should concentrate on the 40 to 50 countries that require post-conflict institution building, which the organisation does “quite well.”

The UN member states agree that changes to the current system are needed. In its Declaration for the Commemoration of the Seventy-fifth Anniversary of the UN, to be adopted on 21 September, they commit to “instil new life in the discussions on the reform of the Security Council and continue the work to revitalize the General Assembly and strengthen the Economic and Social Council”. They also state their support for reviewing the peacebuilding architecture. A reformed UN, however, will not be enough to counter the current global threats. Growing inequality, poverty, hunger, armed conflict, terrorism, insecurity, climate change and pandemics “can only be addressed through reinvigorated multilateralism,” according to the Declaration.

Indeed, only a renewed commitment to international cooperation, similar to the spirit that animated the UN 75 years ago, can hope to preserve the system that has sustained peace and supported the progress of the last seven decades. Honouring the former South African president Nelson Mandela, Guterres warned: “We stand together, or we fall apart.”