How the UN Can Prove It’s Not a Failure

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“To maintain international peace and security, and to that end…achieve international co-operation in solving international problems, promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all…”

For some, these words have become a punchline to a rather cruel joke—a joke impassionedly played out across the last seventy years, tantalizing its captivated audience with bright ideas of global governance and universal freedom and worldwide democracy, while it works its way towards an utterly and depressingly disappointing culmination. An odd and uncomfortable silence dangles in the air as the joke abruptly ends, offering not a bang but a faint whimper.

The audience is confused; is that all? Can’t you do more? Some members of the audience stamp their feet and march out of the theater, muttering and fuming about what a let-down the show was. The spotlights all coalesce to focus on the young performer sweating and squirming onstage, stripped of his bravado and charm, his mighty words and bold rhetoric torn from his mouth.

This caricature isn’t a far cry from how much of the global public perceives the faltering, ever-frail, and potentially failing United Nations—an organization I have both deep-seated respect and skeptical concern for. The excerpt at the beginning, of course, is the most recognizable line from the 1945 charter of the UN, the characteristically generic document that lays out the fundamental duties and responsibilities of the organization. It is a document unparalleled in its support for an international effort to confront the threats facing us all—inequality, instability, poverty, oppression. Needless to say, the charter lays an impressive and inspiring groundwork—but how much of this plan has really been put into action? How much has the UN actually done to defend the principles it is predicated upon?

In the eyes of many, the UN is a rubber toy for the world’s elite, a mouthpiece for the countries already recognized as the most powerful. It is a stage for vocalizing generic promotions of national policy rather than a forum for shaping a single, unified global plan of action. It is a so-called “guardian of peace” that can only endorse weakly defended rules but lacking legitimate consequences for violations. It markets itself as an international democracy in spite of the ability of five nations to dismiss any and all actionable decisions made by the rest, for no reason that is valid in the modern age. It is a meeting place for diplomats who come prepared with unproductive and utterly predictable speeches, refusing to entertain any room for improvement in their country’s policies. It is supposedly a defender of freedom that ceaselessly elects nations whose prisons overflow with illegally detained journalists and human rights advocates charged with the crime of criticizing their leaders. It is a vexingly bureaucratic agency made lazy and ineffective by its’ officers’ tendency to sit at desks rather than serve in the field. It is a problem-solver whose capacity for work is often limited to “observe, report, and recommend”, to use the notorious phrase. It is an organization weighed down by nationalistic agendas at its ankles. It is a global body whose skill-set is largely limited to making bold, powerful promises it cannot follow up on.

As I’ve stated before but feel the need to make clear again, the UN is an organization I have genuine and unwavering admiration for. The values they embody—universal human rights, collective usage of resources, enhanced free communication and trade, mutual responsibility to maintain peace, regard for the sovereignty of another country, free and fair democratic processes—are to be respected and appreciated, regardless of whether the organization has actually lived up to the standards its professes. The UN and its various agencies’ accomplishments are multifaceted and call for gratitude. These include the eradication of smallpox by the WHO, two-time-Nobel-Prize-winning aid to refugees by the UNHCR, 50% decline in child mortality rates via the UNICEF, serving justice for war crimes in central Europe, highly efficient deliverance of food to earthquake-battered Latin America, diplomatic handling of tension throughout the Cold War and especially the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a plethora of others. Basic principles of international law that we often take for granted, such as nuclear non-proliferation, were largely codified and popularized by the UN—and it deserves whatever respect we can offer to it for that.

Hence, the question at hand is not whether the UN has succeeded or failed. Such naively black-and-white terms only undermine the vast and elaborate nuances at play here—the 70-year experience of the UN has been diverse and uneven, adorned with victories and littered with unfortunate missed shots. It would be unwise and far too simplistic to label this multifaceted organization, possibly the largest-scale global enterprise in human history, a success or a failure. (This simple principle has not stopped critics from doing so, however.)

The question here, the crux of the matter, is whether the UN is suffering from key fatal flaws that may handicap its ability to be an effective vehicle for international problem-solving in the current day and the near future, when it will be needed more than ever. What matters now is identifying the existence and evaluating the magnitude of such threats to the UN body and working to confront such problems, because regardless of whether the UN has failed to stay faithful to its core values, it is hard to deny that the UN is unequivocally the closest opportunity we have to secure global cooperation. Any efforts to dismantle the UN system and construct a new one, in hopes of not repeating the mistakes of the past, will be a futile, expensive, and ultimately destructive nightmare.

In short, is the UN genuinely capable of acting as the global, democratic problem-solver and multinational forum that it presents itself as?

Several key issues abound when evaluating the efficiency and integrity of the United Nations—some potentially fatal towards the UN’s overall effectiveness on an international scale, and severely damaging towards its repute in various regions of the world. It is vital to outline the major flaws in the UN system and examine the underlying factors affecting the organization, in order for the United Nations to remedy such problems and secure greater global support.

First of all, the UN has an elitist problem. Its discussions are often governed by the interests of its most powerful members. In 1991, the Iraq War brought its wrath upon Kuwait, which was almost immediately subjected to the protection and assistance of the UN. In 1997, civil war in Rwanda climaxed in one of the worst genocides in modern history, leaving a million dead and a nation crippled. This was mostly shrugged off by the UN. Little to no action taken.

What’s the difference? Oil.

Kuwait’s bountiful oil fields ensured the close attention and care of the United States and most of the other P5 (permanent Security Council members), spurring UN action on the matter. Sadly, Rwanda had no oil, no diamonds, no resource valuable to the Western world. One million lives were lost in the now-infamous Rwandan Genocide as a result of inaction and nonchalant finger-twiddling from the UN.

Another example closer to my home turf—in 1971, the Pakistani Army conducted Operation Searchlight in the streets of Bangladesh (which was then known as East Pakistan), orchestrating genocide as it slaughtered men, women, and children without discrimination. It was a malicious tool to control the rebellious masses; it was a mass killing with the sole purpose of slaying the morale of a population which had become impatient with the Pakistani government’s tyranny. Common sense can tell you that Operation Searchlight spat in the face of practically every agreement ever ratified in the history of the UN Security Council, and grossly violated the founding charter of the UN itself. So it was a fundamental duty of the UN to ensure that justice is served and that mass genocide does not go unpunished, correct? When the following nine months of war witnessed constant gang rapes of Bangladeshi women by Pakistani soldiers, assassinations of Bangladeshi intellectuals, and ceaseless barbarism at the hands of the Pakistani army, it was the UN’s job to make sure that these crimes make it to court, right?

Apparently not. Pakistan at the time was a staunch backer of the U.S. administration (then under the presidency of Richard Nixon) and thus enjoyed support from the United States, both militarily and diplomatically. Without the eagerness of its most powerful member, the UN apparently decided to let this one go—shrugging off mass genocide and essentially doing nothing in the face of active war crimes. In the end, it was not the UN that helped Bangladesh push back Pakistan’s unlawful, tyrannical military presence in the country—it was India, a relatively young country itself that provided military support to the people of Bangladesh and changed the course of the war.

Whether it be America’s previous support of the Pakistani regime or Russia’s modern support for the oppressive Syrian government, such alliances and enmities have far too often obstructed the UN’s efforts to protect human dignity and safety.

In addition, the actual effectiveness of the UN in conflict zones has often been pulled into question, and not without reason. Military action from the UN must undergo lengthy, convoluted administrative processes, usually entailing a Security Council meeting and healthy debate among member states. Yes, such debate is helpful when evaluating a logical global policy, but it can be a hindrance when handling emergency situations calling for immediate action. Not to mention the fact that modern Security Council discussions are often weighed down by the traditional animosity between the U.S. and the Russian Federation, manifesting itself in long-winded face-offs between the two nations—hence slowing the process of reaching an agreement, or making it impossible altogether. Necessary UN action in conflict zones are also sometimes cut off by the notorious veto power, which shall be discussed here soon.

Moreover, the UN’s effectiveness and reputation has been marred by another dilemma—the devastating issue of UN peacekeepers themselves taking part in gang rape, child molestation, illegal prostitution, and violence in the lands they are supposed to protect. This startling revelation has only made headlines in recent years, eliciting a sheepish apology from the current UN Secretary-General (as well as the last) and a handful of undedicated promises to immediately rectify the problem—promises that have dissipated as rapidly as the UN’s withering reputation as the world’s guardian of peace and human rights.

This all calls for a logical framework for reforming the UN—changing and adapting its structures in a way that makes sure that it is able to function as it was meant to, as a true guardian for peace, equality, and liberty. Reform is a word that can strike fear into the hearts of lazy bureaucrats and administrators who fear the expensive, messy, lengthy procedure. But I would argue that reformation is not just important, but essential to the future of the UN and hence global peace itself. In fact, if certain reforms would enhance the UN’s efficiency and integrity, then I would simply argue that it’s the UN’s job to make sure it’s doing its own job properly.

First of all, the UN must—absolutely must—take the time to honestly re-evaluate the veto power it gives to its Permanent 5 nations (USA, UK, Russia, China, France). The veto power allows any of these nations to stop any action proposed in the UN Security Council single-handedly, by simply voting no. This veto power comes from a period during early UN history when the Permanent 5 countries were seen as the “policemen” of the world, perceived as the most influential, powerful, and responsible nations. That has changed now, for sure.

Emerging powers and the rise of powerful non-Western countries have changed this situation entirely. The veto power allows UN discussions to often become one-sided, focusing only on matters that are important to certain countries—whether it be because of economic interests in certain regions or protecting one’s allies. Regardless, it has been shown that the veto power has eliminated fruitful resolutions on topics such as Palestine, Syria, Jerusalem—contentious matters that ought to be acted upon but have failed to be properly approached due to the veto. The U.S. has constantly vetoed resolutions condemning Israeli settlements in Palestine, and Russia has ceaselessly vetoed any military action threatening the Syrian regime.

The expansion or abolition of the veto power (or permanent membership itself) ought to be considered. It is indeed true that very few other countries can match the power and influence of the U.S., UK, China, France, or Russia—hence it has been proposed that instead of individual countries gaining permanent membership, the veto power should be given to regional blocs. For example, the African Union (an alliance of African countries, similar to the European Union) would gain a permanent seat on the Security Council as well as the veto power, as would Asian representatives such as SAARC or ASEAN. This would ensure that regional interests and equality are protected by the UN, instead of the Security Council being monopolized by Western powers.

Interestingly, it has also been proposed by the organization Amnesty International that the usage of the veto power be forbidden when it comes to matters of genocide. This view maintains that genocide is too important and urgent for the veto power to be exercised on such matters; rapid and immediate action to approach genocidal acts cannot be hindered by the risk of the veto.

Another essential area that must be reformed in the UN structure is its power to actually, effectively punish a nation for violations of international law, especially when it comes to human rights. The UN’s abilities usually meet their limit at “observe, report, and recommend”, instead of actually exerting real consequences for human rights violations. Saudi Arabia’s consistent track record of silencing religious-political critics as well as Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya are two prime examples—the UN’s influence in these two matters are limited to observing the situating and publishing scathing reports. But that has stopped neither Saudi Arabia nor Myanmar. Actual consequences for human rights violations—in other words, to make the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a truly binding document—is essential if the UN is to actually play a role in bringing down such networks of crime and corruption.

As a final note, I must remind myself once more that I do respect and trust the UN. It has been instrumental in establishing international law and orchestrating humanitarian efforts on a multinational dimension. Its mission and its intended purpose is quite honorable, a testament to human goodwill regardless of borders—and that purpose is what I believe should be protected by reformation of the UN. This organization was borne from half a decade of war, rising from the ashes of destruction and witnessing the worst of what humans are capable—yet boldly resolving to place its trust in the ability of humans to come together, work together, and achieve greatness together.

Sadly, that brave resolution is exactly what is at stake here. That dream, that vision, that promise will dissipate into the history of failed ideas—unless the UN is able to confront the problems that threaten its fundamental existence.

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