What now for the U.N.?

| November 7, 2023

It is no secret that the UN needs reform. Nearly eight decades on, and with great power competition having returned, the UN is bleeding relevance.

The UN charter came into effect 77 years ago on 24 October 1945. Today, following an unparalleled global pandemic, ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, global recession, supply chain disruption, soaring inflation, spiking energy prices, and a growing climate crisis, the UN is facing one of the most challenging times in its history putting immense pressures on its already constrained organisational and financial resources.

As echoed by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “The international community ‘seems incapable of coming together’ to respond to a slew of growing global challenges and rising geopolitical tensions.”

The pandemic claimed millions of lives, underscoring the failure of the UN to bring countries together, prompting renewed calls to reform the world body to meet challenges different and daunting than those at its birth. Since the latter half of the 20th century, numerous wars have erupted, with some still ongoing, all occurring under the watch of the UN.

For example, UN Resolution 1483 sought to validate the Iraqi invasion, conducted on the basis of erroneous claims by the US and the UK regarding the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in  Saddam Hussein’s  possession. Another classic example is the never ending cycle of instability and violence in the Middle East as demonstrated in the recent Israel-Hamas conflict whereby the international community seems to be both inept and helpless to deal with a crisis spanning close to eight decades with no end in sight.

A common critique of the UN is its limited capacity to enforce mandates effectively. The world has been perilously impacted by the consequences of significant big power rivalries, as evident in the heated political debates of 2023. The UN’s effectiveness is inherently dependent on the willingness of its member states to comply; states who often prioritise national interest over international obligations.

As the foundations of global governance are undergoing swift changes, it is exposing the UN’s institutional weaknesses and highlighting a noticeable shift in norms as the UN finds itself in a precarious position across a range of critical areas, including public health, advancement of the sustainable development goals, intensifying climate crisis, and governance of artificial intelligence (AI), among others.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not only imperilled millions of Ukrainians and breached the UN Charter, but also exacerbated and interconnected crises in food, fuel, and energy. Earlier, the UN’s inability to effectively respond to the COVID-19 crisis  negatively impacted its global standing.

Internally, the UN is grappling with significant financial constraints. Member states have fulfilled only 60 percent of their contributions to the UN’s general budget. Certain UN-appointed human rights experts under the Human Rights Council were unable to carry out their mandate to address human rights violations.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees operated with only 47 percent of its US$9.1 billion budget, leading to reductions in essential programs like emergency shelter, water, and food for refugees. The continued viability of UN operations is in jeopardy unless nations increase their financial support for the organisation.

The definition of security has evolved significantly, but the UN has not yet adjusted to this new reality. In addition to its outdated composition, another significant issue with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is the veto power, which persists in obstructing critical decision-making when mass atrocities unfold.

The resurgence of great-power rivalry is resulting in growing concern about a potential new cold war between the US and China. The UN’s failure to resolve the Ukraine conflict is reflective of its lack of capacity to navigate the pivotal challenges of the current time. The imperative for the UN’ success lies in reforming the Security Council to foster inclusivity, representation, transparency, and enhanced effectiveness, along with promoting increased cooperation and consensus-building.

While it would have been ideal for the Security Council to find a way to effectively deal with the veto power when addressing matters of existential threats, it seems far-fetched. An alternate option could have been to override a UN security council veto if three-fourths of members of the UNGA cast their vote in the opposite direction.

Like in the US, while the president can veto a bill approved by Congress, Congress can override this veto with a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers. Delaying reform of the Security Council increases the risk of it losing relevance. As the threat to global peace evolves, the world’s crucial security matters are increasingly shifting to other forums and venues.

International forums like the G20 and BRICS have emerged as responses to an outdated global governance structure that has failed to address the needs of the contemporary world. These forums are gaining traction due to a lack of representation on critical issues within the existing system.

Countries like Japan, Germany, India, South Africa, and Brazil, whose aspirations for permanent membership in the UNSC have been sidelined, have been seeking alternative forums where their voices are given due consideration.

To grasp the significance of the UN, one also must envision a world in which it doesn’t exist. In such a scenario, who would be responsible for addressing our shared requirements in areas like education, healthcare, humanitarian aid, and overall progress in social, economic, and cultural aspects? Globally, 690 million individuals still experience hunger daily, underscoring the vital role of organisations like the UN World Food Programme, which extends food and cash aid to over 80 million people.

The UN serves as a vital support network for millions of individuals worldwide offering assistance to nearly 69 million displaced individuals forced to leave their homes due to persecution, conflict, or human rights violations. UN agencies play a critical role by providing vaccines to 45 percent of the world’s children, preventing an estimated 2-3 million lives from being lost each year to preventable diseases.

Despite the recurring setbacks in achieving the necessary levels of development, there is still hope for a positive turnaround. It requires not only crafting and passing resolutions but also diligently following up with practical actions that align with these commitments.

By doing so, the international community can work together to address the challenges of development and make tangible progress towards achieving shared goals. The world in the 21st century is marked by an array of complex and interconnected challenges, which demand a reformed UN that is better equipped to effectively address them.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.