One Question
United Nations
(Part One)

One Question
United Nations
(Part One)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

Is the United Nations still relevant?

Due to the number of responses we have received, we have split them into two parts. This is part one. Click here for part two.

Part one responses from: Hans von Sponeck; Richard Falk; Rose Parfitt; Balakrishnan Rajagopal; Thomas MacManusZillah Eisenstein; Sital Kalantry; Göran Therborn; Ian Hurd.

Part two responses from: Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad; Ramzy Baroud; Helen Lackner; Gerry Simpson; Obiora Chinedu Okafor; Anne Marie Goetz; Dan Plesch; Tom Farer.

United Nations Part One

Hans von Sponeck

Former UN Assistant Secretary-General (Iraq) and UN Resident Coordinator (Pakistan & India). He has written a number of books, including A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq (Berghahn, 2006).

In 2000, US Senator Jesse Helms, attending a meeting of the UN Security Council, reminded his audience that the US would support the UN as long as it was in the interest of the United States. The UN was relevant whenever the US and the UN agendas tallied. Long before, meetings preparatory to the creation of the UN during the years 1941 to 1945, especially at Dumbarton Oaks, Bretton Woods and Yalta, had unequivocally confirmed the competitive ambitions of Stalin, Roosevelt/Dulles and Churchill to take control of the evolving post-WWII global order. Who should own the United Nations was the issue. The Mexican delegate to the San Francisco UN conference observed: the 51 founding members ‘had created an institution which could control the mice but the tigers would roam around freely’.

Western economic power, finance and leadership, with a majority of permanent members in the UN Security Council, led to a UN multilateralism controlled by the western world, with decision making essentially dictated by the United States. Subsequent globalisation, de-westernisation and the failures of the West in responding to geo-political challenges in the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere led to a questioning of unilateral US leadership. The UN became an arena of increasing confrontation. As a tool for western, or more accurately US, interests, the UN began to lose its political relevance.

UN relevance, it must be stressed here, relates not just to its political but also to its operational dimension. National representatives in the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly have a political mandate. The UN operational system of Agencies, Funds and Programmes led by the UN Secretary-General is responsible for multifarious tasks in development, peace-keeping and humanitarian assistance. It is considered an important, albeit chronically under-financed, contributor to the global order. Its relevance is rarely questioned.

In order for the political UN to be the credible institution defined by the UN Charter, reforms have to be introduced with a sense of urgency. The shelves are full with many proposals for change. The 193 UN member states (governments and civil society) at long last have to muster the political will to consider such change. East, West, North and South have to be ready for compromise, convergence and accountability in handling global relations. Once this process has started in earnest, the affirmative answer concerning UN relevance will be easy to give.

Richard Falk

Professor Emeritus in International Law, Princeton University; between 2008-2014 he served as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council; his most recent books are Power Shift: On the New Global Order (University of Chicago, 2016) and Revisiting the Vietnam War (University of Cambridge, 2017).

My initial response is to suggest that our current concern should be less on ‘whether relevant’ and more on ‘how relevant.’ If the question is put in this way, then I would suggest that the UN is less relevant, especially on peace and security and human rights issues, than it was in the years after it was established in 1945.

There are two different kinds of interpretation of UN relevance that seem helpful at this stage. If we look at the UN from the perspective of big global challenges in an ever more inter-connected world, then the need for a stronger UN is greater than ever before. It is difficult to envisage successful approaches to climate change, global migration, extreme poverty, and nuclear disarmament without a robust UN that enjoys the support of its leading members.

However, if we consider the UN from the perspective of current geopolitical trends, then it seems to have declined almost to the vanishing point with respect to overarching challenges that states acting on their own cannot hope to overcome. There is a global trend away from internationalism, with a renewed emphasis on ultra-nationalist approaches to a range of concerns including international trade, refugee policy, and security issues. It is not only the UN as a global problem-solving mechanism that is in decline, but the UN Charter as a guide to the limits on the behavior of sovereign states.

During the Cold War the ideological tensions between the West and the Soviet Bloc often paralysed the UN in the peace and security context. In the present global context, considering such issues as the Syrian and Yemen wars, the whole diplomatic process seems to depend on the contradictory policies of states concerned with the outcomes, with the UN a helpless spectator even in the face of sustained, unlawful, aggressive interventions that cause massive human suffering. The inability to protect the Palestinian people from the apartheid policies and practices of the Israeli state is another illustrative failure of the UN that makes a mockery of the claim to protect vulnerable people.

Despite these recent disappointments, it remains essential to appreciate the contributions that the UN continues to make in promoting human wellbeing. In countless ways that are not reported in the media, the UN contributes to our knowledge on health, education, culture, children, the environment, and human rights, in particular helping countries struggling to meet the basic needs of their citizens. Also, the UN is important in shaping Legitimacy Wars by assessing grievances and highlighting wrongdoing from the perspective of international law and morality. In this regard, the UN has helped the Palestinians gain the upper hand with world public opinion in their struggle for national self-determination, despite the geopolitical pressures mounted by Netanyahu/Trump seeking to extinguish their basic rights once and for all, and declare victory for Israel.

In sum, the UN has declined in current relevance due to the rise of ultra-nationalist leadership in many leading states at the very time when its role in providing human global governance is most urgently needed. The future of the UN, and of world order, depends on the progressive activism of civil society to attain a sustainable and desirable future world order, which must include enhancing the relevance of the UN for present and future generations.

Rose Parfitt

Lecturer in Law at Kent Law School and Senior Research Fellow at Melbourne Law School, where she leads an ARC-funded research project entitled ‘International Law and the Legacies of Fascist Internationalism’. Her book, The Process of International Legal Reproduction: Inequality, Historigraphy, Resistance, is coming out in early 2019 with Cambridge University Press.

This is a question that surfaces at very specific moments. A year and a day after the September 11 attacks, for example, US President George W. Bush put it to the General Assembly: ‘Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding or will it be irrelevant?’ This was, of course, a threat: if the Security Council refused to authorise military ‘action’ against Iraq, the US would go in alone.

The relevance question, then, tends to arise whenever the UN, treated as synonymous with the Security Council, is seen to be obstructing a deployment of disciplinary or ‘humanitarian’ violence. From this perspective, it might indeed seem plausible – as the acutely internationalised civil wars in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere drag on without (much) Chapter VII ‘action’; as refuges flee in their millions, only to drown, starve or be interned indefinitely without ‘action’; as governments from DC to Delhi unleash racist tirades and discriminatory policies against ‘immigrants’ without ‘action’ – to argue that the UN has lost its capacity to ‘maintain or restore international peace and security’.

However, even if we bracket, for a moment, the problems involved in reducing the UN to its security apparatus, it remains the case that this apparatus has seldom had much direct influence on the quantity and nature of global violence. To see this, we need only compare the experience of Iraq post-2003 (unauthorised intervention; the US and its allies did go in alone) and Libya post-2011 (authorised intervention). This might suggest, on the face of it, that the United Nations has never been particularly ‘relevant’.

Yet both of these conclusions (the UN is no longer/has never been relevant) rely on an over-simplified view of the international order. Specifically, they dramatically underestimate the degree to which the UN contributes indirectly to the brutal nature of the world it has helped to build. This indirect contribution, I would suggest, stems from the UN’s configuration as an organisation open exclusively to ‘sovereign’ nation-states. This seemingly banal observation has three crucial implications.

Firstly, it ensures that the UN remains committed to the exclusion of non-state entities from its most important decision-making and norm-creating processes. This militates against any right on the part of Indigenous and other non-state communities to resist state violence effectively, or to assert the validity of alternative ontological and normative systems of being and justice.

Secondly, the nature of the UN’s anatomy, as an individualistic structure ‘writ large’, encourages the pursuit of ‘national self-interest’ within a framework of formal sovereign equality. Promoting as it does the systematic upwards distribution of wealth, power and pleasure, this framework drains the Charter’s cooperative rhetoric of substance – encouraging precisely the ‘reject[ion of] ‘globalism’ and ‘embrace [of] patriotism’ (as one of Bush’s successors put it to the General Assembly just this week), which torpedo its stated aims.

Thirdly, we should not underestimate the UN’s role in normalising the assumption that the state system (barely half a century old in its ‘universal’ form) is the natural end-point of all human history. This state-centric ‘reality’, constructed and reconstructed every day through countless international interactions, makes it increasingly impossible to imagine and articulate, let alone realise, any ‘viable’ alternative.

From the perspective of those who reject the nationalist and capitalist logic of the state, therefore, the United Nations remains only too relevant.

Balakrishnan Rajagopal

Professor of Law and Development at MIT and a leading expert on international law, law and development and human rights. His publications include International Law from Below: Development, Social Movements and Third World Resistance (Cambridge University Press, 2004) and International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008). 

The UN is certainly still relevant but for reasons which have little to do with the goals of the UN Charter or the founding ideals of San Francisco. The UN failed to maintain peace and security during the Cold War, or to effectively tackle threats to peace or acts of aggression.

It has not done better since. Nuclear Armageddon has been barely avoided, and for reasons which have little to do with the UN’s role. It helped to end formal colonial rule, but was unable to help tackle its re-emergence in other forms as imperial control. Indeed, in failing to resolve the ‘colonial’ question of Israeli occupation and Palestinian self-determination, the formal colonial regimes of the past have not even ended.

It has tried to revive its relevance to its own goals of peace and security and decolonisation through peace-keeping operations, but most of those expensive missions have not led to stable, peaceful or democratic regimes. Wasteful and corrupt practices and lack of accountability for the crimes of UN blue helmets and bureaucrats remain matters of grave concern.

So why is the UN still relevant? For three reasons. First, in the absence of a global Parliament, it remains the most consultative, if not the most representative mechanism for divining global opinion and consensus among cultures. This matters in a deeply unequal world until we have other options. This is especially so for the world’s small and marginal states, who will otherwise be even more vulnerable to the whims of the powerful. Voices of weak states matter more in the UN than anywhere else – one reason why powerful states like the US have an anti-UN position.

Second, the UN has come to provide an important platform for global civil society to amplify its voice and concerns. This happens in many ways – through UN conferences such as the Beijing conference on women, or through participation in norm-creating and enforcement processes under international law, in areas as wide ranging as human rights, environment and even trade. Without the legitimation provided by UN engagements, many civil society groups will be crushed and eliminated – as many currently are – by the world’s increasingly authoritarian governments.

Third, the UN specialised agencies render yeoman service, by holding the frontline in tackling the world’s crises, from refugees, to global health to cultural property. There is no replacement for the UN in this role. While one can remain dubious about whether the UN is still relevant, we must ask: relevant for what purpose?

Thomas MacManus

Works at the International State Crime Initiative (www.statecrime.org) in the Department of Law at Queen Mary University of London (UK) where he researches and teaches state crime, state-corporate crime and international criminal law. Thomas is admitted as an Attorney-at-Law (New York) and Solicitor (Ireland).

There are two major subdivisions of United Nations (UN) work: humanitarian and geopolitical. They need to be viewed separately to answer the question. Yes, the UN is still relevant, in its humanitarian work. However, it is not relevant enough in its geopolitical mandate and risks complete irrelevance if not reformed.

Today, the UN coordinates USD$25b of aid for 145m people, provides food to 80m people in 80 countries, and supplies vaccines to 45% of the worlds’ children. Without its unnecessarily bloated and over-bureaucratic global structure, the world’s suffering would increase dramatically. The UN’s humanitarian work cannot be left to international NGOs and charities. The rampant corporatisation and politicisation of that sector, beyond a few outliers doing excellent work on the ground, casts serious doubt on their ability to carry out their missions with due regard to the interests of those people they purport to serve.

The real, hard power for the most fundamental UN goal of ‘maintaining worldwide peace and security’ lies with the UN Security Council. The five, self-appointed permanent members of the Security Council – ‘the winners’ of the European War (1939-1945): China, Russia, France, UK and USA – too often use and abuse their veto power for political ends and self-preservation to the detriment of victims of state crime. None of the other 188 UN members have such formidable veto voting privileges.

Take the example of the genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya: China and Russia have signalled that they will veto and scupper any attempts to seize the matter or refer it to the International Criminal Court. As a result, the Security Council has failed to prevent or punish the genocidal murder of some 22,000 people. This example compounds serious failures by the Security Council in China, Israel, Somalia, East Timor, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Srebrenica), Sierra Leone, Sudan, Rwanda, and others.

Current plans to restrict the use of the Security Council permanent member veto in the face of genuine, credible accusations of genocide and other international crimes, and gross human rights violations, are welcome. Reform is necessary if the entire super-supranational institution is to remain relevant in maintaining peace and security. Otherwise we will be left with a humanitarian-focused organisation, powerless to prevent the causes of humanitarian catastrophes. The UN was designed to unify the best of humanity in order to prevent or curtail the worst of us. As long as that mission remains relevant, the UN (or something like it) will be too.

Zillah Eisenstein

Professor of Politics at Ithaca College in New York for the last 35 years and presently a Distinguished Scholar in Residence. Her books include The Audacity of Races and Genders: A Personal and Global Story of the Obama Campaign (Zed Books/Palgrave, 2009); Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy (Zed Books/Palgrave, 2007); and Hatreds: Racialized and Sexualized Conflicts in The 21st Century (Routledge, 1996). Her website is at: zillaheisenstein.wordpress.com.

The 73rd session is opening today (September 18th), and runs through Oct. 5 – President Trump is supposed to chair the Security Council and Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi Jinping will not be attending. Still relevant? You tell me.

From the start, the UN was an organisation dominated by Western interests, especially the US. But, now, the more economic borders have been decimated; the more global capital eviscerates nations and dislocates peoples to refugee, migrant, and homeless status; the more sexual violence undergirds endless wars; the more extreme inequalities and poverty become – the UN must be a necessary brake.

As the globe becomes more right-wing, with Modi in India, Erdoğan in Turkey, Sisi in Egypt, Duterte in the Philippines and Trump in the US, the UN is realigned with little of its own doing. The more rogue global capital and totalitarian regimes become, the more relevant the idea of the UN is.

The UN has recently condemned the US policy on Jerusalem, declared the right of immigrant children to protection, criticised the global migration and refugee crisis, condemned its own peace keeping forces for rape – it has become more relevant and necessary to hold the line against global fascism.

The world is better for the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF. None of this is sufficient, but it is more necessary than ever. This question of relevance reminds me of the old reform or revolution query. The clear demarcation does not hold today. Why? Because too much is in flux. As we demand and fight for reforms we actually build a revolutionary practice.

This question has instigated imagining a new UN – united against global excess in a world where no one is a refugee or displaced, but rather a citizen of the world. An imagining where no one faces the destruction of the earth and climate; or sexual violence; or economic jeopardy, or war. So, make the UN more relevant. And, then let us make a revolution.

Sital Kalantry

Clinical Professor of Law, Cornell Law School. Author of Women’s Human Rights and Migration: Sex-Selective Abortion Laws and Politics in the United States and India (University of Pennsylvania, 2017).

I was invited to the UN a few weeks ago to speak to an expert committee on women and the law. They were interested in learning about my work on surrogacy. One of the UN Special Rapporteurs had just issued a report claiming that any binding contract for surrogacy was tantamount to trafficking in children. The committee that invited me wanted to hear the perspective of a women’s rights lawyer.

The expert committee consisted of women from many countries just as one would expect of a UN body. I testified before them about my interviews with women in India who bore children for other couples. They felt they earned a better living doing that than anything else they could do. While I thought they should be allowed to sell their labour, they were doing so on unfair terms. The committee’s recommendation is still pending but they may take a different position than the UN Special Rapporteur. They may find it violates women’s rights to prevent them from serving as surrogates.

Focusing on the human rights work of the UN, I think its relevance varies among countries. Some countries will take the report of UN Special Rapporteur on surrogacy seriously – they may change their current policies in response or courts might cite the report. Other countries will ignore it. The United States is one of those countries that has resisted entering into binding human rights treaties. But even in the United States, advocates are using accountability mechanisms, such as shadow reports and advocacy with UN Special Rapporteurs, as a way to hold the US accountable.

Under the Obama administration, the US was more engaged in responding to the concerns raised by advocates. But under Trump’s administration, they often do not even show up for hearings at institutions such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. To sum, the UN’s relevance in promoting and protecting human rights around the world varies with country and administration. But there is still hope.

Göran Therborn

Professor emeritus of Sociology, University of Cambridge. Among his so far thirty-seven books are: Cities of Power (Verso, 2017), The Killing Fields of Inequality (Polity, 2013) The World (Polity 2011), and Between Sex and Power: Family in the World, 1900-2000 (Routledge, 2004).

The United Nations is highly relevant, because it is the only (almost) pan-human organisation. As such it mirrors both the deficiencies and the advances of humankind.

It expresses a world of states, of different size, power, and regime, not a world government, nor world law, nor can it function as a world judge. It is subject and subordinate to power politics, and it is only marginally a mediator and a vehicle of conflict resolution in the latter. To the capitalist world economy, the UN is largely irrelevant.

However, what little civility there is among humankind has largely come about through the United Nations. The worldwide recognition and partial respect for human rights is a UN achievement. The UN Conventions, against racial discrimination, against the discrimination of women, on the rights of children, and others, have contributed significantly to the decline of existential inequality in the world. The UN Conference on Women in Mexico in 1974 and the UN Women and Development Decade 1975-85 were an enormous boost to international Feminism, and women´s rights.

The sectorial agencies of the UN family, the FAO, the ILO, UNESCO, the UNICEF, the WHO et. al., are improving and enriching the lives of hundreds of millions of people. The UN is also a producer of highly relevant valuable knowledge in a number of fields, through small outfits like the UN Development Program, UN-Habitat, its Population Division, UN Women, the WIDER institute in Helsinki and the UN University in Tokyo, etc.

The General Assembly and the Security Council, while certainly not governing the world, do constitute a global public sphere, where, in the Assembly, voices from almost the whole World can be raised, and listened to, and where, in the Council, the powerful are lying and quarrelling in public.

A world without the UN might not be more violent than it is already, but it would be a more ignorant world, a more unequal world, and a world with more hunger and more children dying.

Ian Hurd

Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. He is the author of How to Do Things with International Law (Princeton University, 2017) and After Anarchy: Legitimacy and Power in the UN Security Council (Princeton University, 2008), as well as a leading textbook on international organisations. He is currently writing a book on the history and practice of liberal internationalism.

The United Nations is many things. It is a global bureaucracy of offices and staff assigned to issues from trade to refugees to climate change to mediation to pollution. It is an authority on international conflict, with decisive legal power to impose itself on any ‘threat to international peace and security.’ It is the hope for a future without war and the memory of the ‘failures’ that brought about World War II. It is legal rules, normative aspirations, a place for meetings and a player in them, an alternative to Great Power politics as well as its embodiment.

Assessing relevance means sorting through diverse and contradictory understandings of what the UN means. ‘Relevant’ to whom and for what?

The UN is often used as shorthand for the Security Council, and its broad authority to take coercive action around international conflicts. It rarely activates these powers but when it does – to intervene in Libya in 2011 or to regulate the ‘financing of terrorism,’ for instance – it can be dramatic. Even in inaction the Council has notable consequence: its inaction in Syria in recent years and before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 may signal to others a licence to proceed. The UN may be largely irrelevant to the goal of preventing Syrian government massacres but very useful to the Russian and Syrian governments, who can rightly say that the Council has not found it necessary to intervene in the conflict.

The UN is often invoked to represent the normative aspiration for a future that is better than the past, and specifically for a world organised by decent standards and perhaps enforceable rules to tame the forces of parochial self-interest. It is in this sense that the UN is frequently called the last best hope for humanity, a symbol of progress in the face of what Kofi Annan called ‘problems without passports.’ This version of the UN is normatively powerful despite being largely mythical in practice. It provides the rhetorical resources for countless schemes for world improvement and historical comparisons that pit the ‘new world order’ against the past. The imaginary UN is a useful foil to highlight either the progress from the past to today or the possibilities of progress from today to the future.

The UN is relevant when it is put to use by someone. Its many meanings can be invoked, positively or negatively, as resources to advance a wide range of goals. It’s not surprising therefore that it is most used by, and most relevant for, the strongest governments. They have the capacity to influence what the UN is and does and are most likely to benefit from it. And while weaker actors may sometimes gain status or resources through the UN, as when the Palestinian Authority was accepted as a non-member observer state in 2012, it’s more common for the UN to be relevant to the plans and interests of powerful players.