Is the United Nations Still Relevant?
By Roxanne Hughes-Wheatland
On October 24, 2020 the United Nations (UN) will celebrate 75 years since its birth. Commemoration of this historic event will occur in the midst of many crises that include a global pandemic, global economic decline, and multiple environmental disasters – to name a few. Among the crises is the question, "Is the United Nations still relevant?" Despite a 6.5 billion dollar budget for peace keeping operations, the UN has been for the most part ineffective in dealing with the conflicts in Yemen, Libya, and Syria (Gladstone, 2020). Furthermore, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues with no end in sight. While the UN has lived up to its goal of preventing another world war, more recently Secretary General António Guterres has not been able to motivate the international community to seriously address the needs of the most vulnerable. The feeling among those who study international affairs is that the UN is currently on a downward trend in terms of influence and effectiveness largely because most countries have turned inward, especially due to the pandemic, to focus on their own needs. Many countries are now not as interested in multilateralism that requires cooperating with other countries to solve global problems.
Part of the problem is that the structure of the UN has kept power in the hands of the victors of World War II – Britain, Russia, United States, France, and China – and given little significant power to the General Assembly with its 193 member states (Gladstone, 2020). In addition, the fact that Britain, Russia, United States, France, and China are permanent members of the 15-seat Security Council and have veto power has been a major impediment to addressing international problems. This is because they often deadlock on issues and they also do not represent the current balance of power in the world. Furthermore, the dysfunctional relationship between the United States, China, and Russia has not helped. Moreover, these five permanent members of the Security Council are not keen on making structural changes to the organization. The problems with the UN structure not only imperil the lives of those impacted by conflict, but also are imperiling the ability of countries to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html). These 17 goals aim to fast-track for those furthest behind a reduction in poverty, hunger, AIDS, and discrimination against women and girls by 2030.
Another challenge that is impacting the UN is the present autocratic leadership in several countries that does not see value in international cooperation and collective security. According to an article written by Patrick Wintour, diplomatic editor at the Guardian, on 23 July 2020, David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee believes that we are now," living through an age of impunity" where there are no limits on behavior and the external power constraints that the UN Security Council should be able to provide are not there.
However, despite its challenges some ambassadors still see value in the UN system, if only as a place for member countries to air their grievances and "defuse the domestic pressure exerted on governments faced with intractable problems." There are also proposals to do, as Samantha Power, the former United States Ambassador to the UN has said, "workarounds" that would allow work to be done outside the UN Security Council, such as in the UN Human Rights Council where the veto does not exist (Wintour, 2020). Because of its role as the only international body where countries can come together to discuss their multiple concerns and challenges, the UN still has relevance in today's world.
As Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed, President of the International Court of Justice said in a recent article published in the UN Chronicle (Ahmed, 2020), "…if the UN did not exist today, it would have to be invented." However, a UN 2020 would likely not be invented with the same structure. He further explained that after all, the current UN system is "not carved in stone." It has been adjusted in the past and "can be modified again" for the common good of humanity (Ahmed, 2020).
There is hope that the needed alterations to the UN system will be done by the younger generation of leaders who see borders not as limits but as opportunities to ensure that humanity is treated equally and fairly. Certainly any changes in the UN system will not happen overnight, but in order for this much needed international organization to continue to be relevant and address future challenges, the balance of power will need to change so that it better reflects the current needs of the international community.
Black, M. (2008). The no-nonsense guide to the United Nations. Toronto, Canada: New Internationalist Publications.
Gladstone, R. (2020, September 16). The United Nations turns 75 amid calamity and conflict, The New York Times, p. A7.
Publications Department United Nations Association, USA (2005). The ABCs of the UN.
United Nations Development Programme. (2020). The sustainable development goals. Retrieved from https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html
Wintour, P. (2020, July 23). What is the future of the UN in the age of impunity? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/23/what-is-the-future-of-the-un-in-the-age-of-impunity
Yusuf, A. A. (2020, July 10). The charter of the United Nations after 75 years: Personal reflections. UN Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/un-chronicle/charter-united-nations-after-75-years-personal-reflections