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 two. Click here for part one.
Part one responses from: Hans von Sponeck; Richard Falk; Rose Parfitt; Balakrishnan Rajagopal; Thomas MacManus; Zillah Eisenstein; Sital Kalantry; Göran Therborn; Ian Hurd.
Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad
Karim Makdisi is Associate Professor of Political Studies at the American University of Beirut; Vijay Prashad is the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. They are the co-editors of Land of Blue Helmets: The United Nations and the Arab World (University of California Press, 2017).
The question is wrong. It is not whether the UN is ‘relevant’: which UN are we talking about?
The UN is not one thing. It reflects the contradictions of the world order and the imperatives of geopolitics, but also serves as a site of contestation where world order is actually produced and struggles from below for legitimacy, recognition and rights are played out. Meanwhile, UN bureaucrats in New York, Geneva and in the field go about doing their work, sometimes on behalf of power and other times for the marginalised, disadvantaged or vulnerable.
The most visible face of the UN is the Security Council (UNSC), which has come to stand in as the executive of the UN body on all matters of international security. It comprises fifteen states, five of them permanent members (the P5: China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) that hold veto power, allowing them to define which matters to deliberate on and which decisions to scuttle. So, Yemen is off the table, Russia blocks resolutions on Syria, and the US halts otherwise unanimous decisions on Palestine. These vetoes, however, are the exception not the rule: the UNSC was set up precisely to further great power interests. Vetoes reflect anxiety at the top in policing world order. When France and the UK broke ranks to veto US plans to invade Iraq in 2003, it precipitated a moment of genuine crisis in Atlantic relations. The fate of Iraqi civilians did not much bother them.
The UNSC stands in for the General Assembly, whose one hundred and ninety-three members set the tone for world opinion and produce or oversee the bulk of the UN’s huge social, development, environmental, and humanitarian agenda and actions. Following de-colonisation, the General Assembly mounted a radical challenge on behalf of the global South against the stifling structures set up by big powers. However, it has been largely tamed by the P5 in the post-Cold War period and after the Third World bloc broke apart. The relationship between the UNSC and the General Assembly remains fraught, with the former seeing itself as independently able to chart policy while the majority of the world’s states see the latter as the embodiment of a true democratic institution.
As the UN passed resolutions and drew up conventions, a myriad of indispensable, specialised agencies developed to deal with the various crises of the modern age. These UN agencies provide relief and advocacy for refugees, protect labour rights, move nuclear energy from war to peace, improve telecommunications around the world, provide development assistance, and many other functions. They are routinely taken for granted by critics of the UN, and pay the price for dependency on funding from, and the political whims of, rich states such as the US. When the P5 do agree on an important task, such as eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons, funding and political will become non-issues in the completion of the task. When they do not agree, there is paralysis.
The UN, in all its forms, mirrors the contradictions and tensions in the world’s political environment. That is both its strength and its weakness. The question, then, is not about relevancy but about what the crises say about humanity.
Journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto, 2018). He has a PhD in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.
To ponder whether the United Nations is still relevant is to argue that, at one point in time, it actually was. Interestingly, the UN was established in 1945 to replace a body that too was rendered irrelevant, the League of Nations. But why has the UN survived all these years despite the fact that it is also miserably failing to end war and achieve the coveted global security?
Perhaps, then, the UN was never established to tackle the problems of war or global security in the first place, but rather to reflect the new power paradigm that caters to those most invested in the existence of the UN in its current form. Indeed, the UN was purposely constructed to safeguard the global power system that resulted from WWII, and which saw the rise and dominance of the United States as the single most powerful superpower.
As experience has shown, the US is committed to the UN when the international organisation serves the American agenda and is uncommitted whenever the organisation fails to meet American expectations.
For example, US president George W. Bush repeatedly censured and demonised the UN for failing to support his unlawful war efforts against Iraq. In a speech before the UN General Assembly, in 2002, he asked: ‘Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding or will it be irrelevant?’ ‘The purpose of its founding’ here refers to the US agenda that remained a top UN priority for decades. Any failure on the UN’s part to satisfy this agenda, renders the organisation, from an American viewpoint, ‘irrelevant’.
US ambassadors to the UN have worked ceaselessly to undermine various UN institutions that refuse to toe the American line. The current US ambassador, Nikki Haley, is even more aggressive than her predecessors, as her antagonistic language and undiplomatic tactics, especially in the context of the illegal Israeli Occupation and Apartheid in Palestine, further highlight the deteriorating relationship between Washington and the UN.
The UN is not a monolithic institution. It is a supranational body that simply reflects the nature of global power. In post-WWII, the UN became divided around political and ideological lines resulting from the Cold War. At the end of that era, in the early 1990s, the UN became an American tool reflecting the US hunger for global domination.
Starting in 2003, the UN has entered a new era in which the US is no longer the only hegemonic power; the rise of China and Russia as economic hubs and military actors, in addition to the rise of regional and economic blocs elsewhere, are causing greater and growing challenges to the US at the Security Council and various other UN institutions.
Although the General Assembly remains largely impotent, it is still able to challenge the dominance of great powers through its support of other UN bodies, the likes of UNESCO, the International Court of Justice, the World Health Organisation and so on.
The world is changing, yet the UN continues to operate based on a faulty formula that crowned the winners of WWII as the world’s leaders. There can be no hope for the UN if it continues to operate based on such erroneous assumptions, and it should not take another global war for the UN to be reformed to reflect this new and irreversible reality.
Research Associate at the London Middle East Institute (LMEI) at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Her recent publications include Understanding the Yemeni Crisis: The Transformation of Tribal Roles in Recent Decades (Durham University, Luce Series, 2016). She edited Why Yemen Matters: A Society in Transition (Saqi Books, 2014) and other books. Her latest book is Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State (Saqi Books, 2017), which will be published in the US by Verso in 2019.
As the only supra-state world institution, when established, the UN was given a heavy responsibility for political development and world peace. Its constitution also made it explicitly subject to the will of the most powerful states, the UN Security Council Permanent Five members (P5). Increasingly dysfunctional, its continued support in world public opinion is simply due to the absence of an alternative. Yemen is a prime example of UN political failure, even if, at the humanitarian level, its agencies have been effective in alleviating Yemen’s disastrous humanitarian crisis, which the UN describes as the worst in the world.
In the current conflict, the UN Political Affairs department (DPA) has been a major participant in Yemen’s internal affairs since the 2011 ‘Spring’ uprisings. Tasked with supporting a political transition from the Saleh regime, DPA staff failed to prevent the country descending into civil war. Since the internationalisation of the war in March 2015, it has been unable bring about a peace agreement.
While the personal skills of the three UN Special Envoys can be praised or criticised, UNSC Resolution 2216 objectively prevents any effective UN intervention. Initiated by the UK, the pen holder at UNSC for the Yemen file, it was voted through in April 2015. It demands the withdrawal of Huthi forces from all cities and asserts the ‘legitimacy’ of President Hadi, whose official term as President of the transitional period would otherwise have ended in February 2014. It forms the internationally recognised basis for military intervention by the Saudi-led coalition.
Since then, regardless of the balance of power on the ground, the UN has been paralysed: peace is achieved by negotiating with one’s enemies, not one’s friends. For three and a half years now, the UK has resisted submitting a more balanced resolution, allowing the humanitarian situation to deteriorate to the point of famine. The recent UN-sponsored Geneva ‘consultations’ didn’t even start, as the Special Envoy’s office was unable to ensure safe travelling conditions for the Huthi delegation.
So in the Yemeni context, it is clear that, at the political level, the UN does not work in the interests of peace in Yemen but in those of the UK and USA, whose close alliance with the Saudi-led coalition appears to determine their position. While millions of suffering Yemenis may appreciate the UN’s humanitarian organisations, they have also noticed that they are constrained by Saudi-led coalition funding of UN humanitarian activities in many other countries. The implications of this funding are clear as, in 2016, Saudi Arabia threatened to cut funding for the UN to ensure it was removed from the ‘child killer’ list in the UN’s annual report on Children in Armed Conflict.
In Yemen, the UN is still very relevant, but more as a negative, than a positive force.
Professor of International Law at the LSE, teaches and practises international law. He is the author of Great Powers and Outlaw States (Cambridge, 2004) and Law, War and Crime: War Crimes Trials and the Reinvention of International Law (Polity 2007), and co-editor (with Kevin Jon Heller) of The Hidden Histories of War Crimes Trials (Oxford, 2014) and (with Raimond Gaita) of Who’s Afraid of International Law? (Monash, 2016).
The UN’s ‘relevance’ has been in question since its inception in 1945. Then the question was: could it be relevant in a world dominated by a single superpower? Remember the warning issued by the Americans to the delegates gathered in San Francisco to draft the UN Charter when those other delegates threatened to defy the US on the question of the veto: ‘No veto, no UN’.
By the late 40s, the relevance of the UN was threatened by a Cold War competition that seemed to sideline (or ‘politicise’) the organisation altogether. Then there was decolonisation – dozens of new states that might well have viewed the UN as an old hat, old hemisphere creature. Why bother with New York and the East River when the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement at Bandung was so clearly the moment and place where global politics could be rejuvenated?
Later, the UN was indicted for its failures in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Somalia. It always seemed to be either failing to intervene disastrously (Syria) or intervening disastrously (Iraq-Kuwait). By the turn of the century, the UN was by-passed by a gung-ho US President (George W. Bush) and a compliant British PM (Tony Blair), as a ‘Coalition of the Willing’ did to Saddam Hussein what the UN Security Council was deemed incapable of doing.
Now, the UN feels like yesterday’s news: mired in its sexual harassment, gender inequality and expenses scandals. Next week, Donald Trump will chair a meeting of the Security Council.
How bad can it get?
No wonder my brightest students at LSE want to work for the International Criminal Tribunals or the banks (sometimes claiming an intention to ‘subvert these from the inside’) or cool NGOs, or political start-ups or web-based movements. Anything but the UN.
But the UN trundles on, displaying a remarkable ability to make and remake itself. Throughout the past near-70 years, the organisation has thrived through improvisation and bloody-mindedness. It simply refuses to go away. During the Cold War, the UN invented peacekeeping and ended up at the heart of many of the great Cold War conflicts in the Congo, in Kashmir, in Egypt. Later, it embraced a radically expanded agenda in the fields of gender discrimination, anti-terrorism, cultural property, war crimes, international humanitarian law and, of course, human rights. Today, it remains a place where states meet and where advances (and sometimes retreats) are made in the realm of global public policy.
Is it relevant? As Talking Heads might have put it: ‘Same as it ever was’.
Obiora Chinedu Okafor
Professor of Law and the York Research Chair in International and Transnational Legal Studies (Senior Tier) at the Osgoode Hall Law School of York University, Toronto, Canada. He is also the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and Solidarity, and a former Chair of the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee. His publications include: The African Human Rights System: Activist Forces, and International Institutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Legitimizing Human Rights NGOs: Lessons from Nigeria (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 2006).
If the UN did not exist we would have to invent something like it (of course with many important alterations). The UN’s main goal is to help maintain worldwide peace and security; contribute to the development of friendly relations among States; and foster cooperation between nations to ameliorate (and even solve) economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems. The UN may not have achieved a perfect grade in attaining any of these lofty heights, but it certainly continues to be relevant to the struggles to achieve them.
Caught between (and at times hobbled) by the ‘games Nations play’, the international political context in which it operates, funding gaps that increasingly restrict and constrain its capacity, and other such constraints on its ability to reach its objectives, the UN has nevertheless managed to make a significant (if often modest) impact on problems such as insecurity, drug addiction, climate change, health, education, piracy, and hunger.
That said, the UN may over the long arc of time drive itself into irrelevance (especially for the mass majority of people in our world who live in the Global South, and the increasingly very large number of people in the Global North who are actively impoverished and immiserated by the dominant socio-economic governance models and praxis of our time). This will occur if it does not revamp its institutional design and conceptual orientation – including, in some cases, in a root and branch way.
For example, the veto power exercised by permanent members of the UN Security Council is outdated, and the identity of those who wield it is now incongruous with the rationale offered for maintaining it. Too often the exercise of the veto power has left the UN on the sidelines of major international disputes. Another example is that the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the UN, has historically tended to be composed of a bench that has included four permanent members of the UN Security Council who do not accept the compulsory jurisdiction of that same court. This is a startling and troubling fact from the point of view of the authority of that court and the UN’s relevance to the settlement of all too many international disputes.
Anne Marie Goetz
Clinical Professor, Center for Global Affairs, School of Professional Studies, New York University. Formerly Chief Advisor, Women Peace and Security, UN Women, where she led initiatives to ensure that the UN Security Council engaged women in peace processes and addressed the full range of security threats to women in conflict situations. She writes on accountability for gender equality for instance: Governing Women (Routledge, 2009) and No Shortcuts to Power (Zed, 2003).
The UN has been unable to stop wars in Syria and Yemen, or settle conflict in Mali or DRC, or prevent the Rohingya genocide. How can it address the increasingly complex challenges of the 21st century? It can’t if what you see is a sclerotic and inefficient bureaucracy in which outdated departments never die, and underperforming or even abusive staff are parked in remote corners but never fired. It can’t if what you see are bickering countries each pursuing a blunt rationale of national interest, producing bland, under-demanding and non-binding agreements. This is not the place for nimble out-of-the box thinking, decisive decision-making, and global cooperation to make peace and promote social change.
But maybe you can see the UN is an achievement that is much more than the sum of its parts, best expressed in its human rights treaties, in its prosecutorial agenda in implementing international law through convictions of war criminals in international tribunals, in the heady promise of ideas like the ‘responsibility to protect’ and in the courage and truth-telling of leaders such as the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein.
What the UN has done (slowly, true) is chip away at systemic injustice, like apartheid and racism, patriarchy, authoritarianism. Its only mechanism for this, since it has next to no real accountability tools (if the P5 will not cooperate), is universal membership and universal exposure.
This has worked to advance some of the most uncomfortable issues the UN addresses, like women’s rights and sexual violence in conflict. Women’s rights, gender equality, and the criminalisation of violence against women are counter-cultural concerns, everywhere. Countries don’t want to be told what to do; women’s freedoms are seen as a private, cultural affair. But (albeit with agonising restraint) the UN has brought women’s rights out of the private sphere, and through a global treaty, and a series of world conferences on women, has brought most countries in the world to agree to standards of equality much faster than they might have done on their own. It is true that states sign agreements they have no intention of implementing, to look good on the international stage. But these are the entry-point for change domestically, and feminist movements have used them to compel significant change.
The UN will always be torn between its foundational respect for national sovereignty, and the requirement of universal jurisdiction for international law. The UN is not the only game in town for transnational social justice initiatives. But it remains one of the most legitimate forums for shaming venal states.
Directs the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. He is author of America, Hitler and the UN (IB Taurus, 2010); The Beauty Queen’s Guide to World Peace (Politico’s, 2004); Wartime Origins and the Future United Nations (Routledge, 2015); and most recently Human Rights After Hitler (Georgetown University, 2017). This is his MOOC on the UN.
‘The United Nations is the only hope of the world’, Winston Churchill told his generals. Why? Because he and his entire generation understood that international co-operation was a realist necessity and not a liberal accessory attached to the victory over Nazism. Absent cooperation we were doomed to repeat world war. The central challenge for humanity is the self-destructive potential of industrial society. Two World Wars, the Bomb and Climate Chaos keep reinforcing this reality.
Where are we without the UN? Either no global organisation or perhaps an Alliance of Democracies? Who is to decide who is democratic? The United States with the finest elections money can buy? Do we really want a world with no international organisation at all? No one in the 1940s argued that because the League of Nations had failed to stop the dictators we should abandon the attempt at international organisation and revert to pure balance of power and the secret treaties of 1900.
And the UN has been a great success. Building on the Kellogg Briand pact of the 1920s, invasion conquest and annexation have for the first time in history been removed from the norms of international politics. Exceptions exist, but the norm keeps the Palestinian issue alive. And it was the UN that recognised and validated the state of Israel. Colonialism and Empire, once a norm, are now an anachronism. Popular revolts by the colonised for once found succour in a legal international system.
The Paris agreement on Climate Change is not a panacea – but would Gerry Brown’s California be more or less empowered to act without it?
Gender Equality is enshrined in the UN Charter thanks to Brazilian delegate Berta Lutz, without it where would gender politics be?
The UN has faults, mostly those of any large institution. Where it is weak strengthen it. Do not weaken it and then use its weakness as grounds to destroy it. It helped arbitrate the Cold War, and even when brushed aside over Iraq provided a norm to validate those who opposed it.
For Democrats in the US looking for a progressive international policy they should not look to the militarised think tanks in the Blob/Swamp/Beltway. They should look at the wealth of ideas brought by states to the UN and vetoed these many decades by the US.
Time is not on our side. We continue to survive the Bomb by luck and the Climate is appearing to accelerate its changes. Does the UN have a future? We surely have no future without it.
University Professor at the University of Denver, and previously dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He has served as President of the University of New Mexico, President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and President of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs. He has published a dozen books and monographs and over 150 book chapters and articles. His penultimate book is Confronting Global Terrorism and American Neo-Conservatism: The Framework of a Liberal Grand Strategy (Oxford University, 2008). He has just completed a book on liberal nationalism, migration and integration.
References to the UN as if it were a cohesive, vertically-organised institution are a misleading commonplace of chatter about international relations. In fact, it is more like a body of behavioral norms associated with a cluster of organs and functions grouped under a single corporate name, all created by a multilateral treaty, the UN Charter, which is a kind of constitutional document for the universe of sovereign states.
The document distributes authority, including the authority to make additional organs, and declares the fundamental rules of international relations, above all the prohibition of acquisitive and preventive war. As long as that norm inhibits the threatened or actual use of force by powerful states to coerce weaker ones, the UN Charter will remain relevant even if the institutions to which it is attached were to wither. What would then remain would be an update of the old Kellogg-Briand Treaty outlawing war. Whether the norm shorn of its institutional connections – for example the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Office of the Secretary-General and its Secretariat – would retain the vitality it still possesses in the face of a number of recent and blatant violations is conjectural.
In at least three other respects the UN is more relevant than ever. The Charter included promoting human rights among its primary purposes. The General Assembly could be said to have begun the process of giving flesh and bones to the idea of human rights by enumerating them in the 1948 Declaration. In recent years it has become a major actor in exposing (albeit selectively) their gross violation, by employing independent experts as investigators and through the medium of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and his staff. The election of a right-wing ultra-nationalist President in the United States has added to the institution’s importance.
A second area of heightened relevance stems from the global refugee crisis. By acting through the medium of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, governments can assist the millions of persons displaced by persecution and armed conflict, without offending the sensitivities of states giving refuge by having official organs of another country operate on a large scale in their territory. The UN presence does not raise nationalist hackles in countries like Jordan and Turkey because they themselves are members, and thus symbolically partners in the institution.
A third area of relevance, even if not heightened, is peacekeeping and peace enforcement. Here too nationalist sensitivities and concerns about neutrality sometimes allow the UN to mount an armed presence inside sovereign states, and to mobilise for the purpose troops from countries that might be reluctant to second their forces to the command of another state.
So yes, the UN is still relevant.