The United Nations Needs a Makeover
By: Emanuel Louis
The United Nations is known to be one of the largest international organizations in the history of mankind. Comprised of both countries and non-governmental observers alike, the UN has tasked itself with the grandiose mission of securing world peace through the use of their “powerful” influence. All that said and done, countless people have harshly criticized the organization, accusing it of failing to reach its objectives. Some members such as the United States of America have even threatened to leave the association, going as far as halting all monetary contribution to the World Health Organization managed by the UN. And quite frankly, the frustration axed towards the UN is more than justified. Where did it all go wrong with their noble cause?
It is important to first take a look at its ancestor, the League of Nations. After World War I, the League of Nations was created to ensure world peace. As benevolent as their mission was, the League of Nations was doomed to failure. Firstly, some major powers such as the USA outright refused to join in the first place, while others who joined, such as Germany, Italy, and Japan, left shortly afterwards. In order to prioritize cooperation, all decisions taken by the League of Nations had to be approved unanimously for them to come into effect. Obviously, most resolutions proposed in the League would fail, since members would be in constant disagreement. Most countries having suffered from WWI were prioritizing their own wellbeing, thus directly going against the entire concept of collaboration the League was aiming for. With the League not being able to do anything, many political conflicts that could have been otherwise prevented took place. Conversely, the League’s evident inactivity and uselessness undermined most of the international community’s trust. This came at an especially bad time, considering that nationalism was already on the rise as an aftermath of WWI. The continuous discord that would reign across the globe despite the League’s efforts would eventually lead to World War II, and the subsequent disbandment of the League of Nations.
After World War II, the United Nations was founded in 1945 with “one central mission: the maintenance of international peace and security”. Nevertheless, it ran into many challenges, some of which are rather similar to the obstacles that the League of Nations had to face.
First of all, the United Nations is obliged to respect state sovereignty, in other words, the concept that each country is entitled to their own independence and to the full governance of their own internal affairs without interference. The only UN committees that can breach state sovereignty and pass executive orders, more specifically legal or military interventions, are the International Court of Justice and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Due to the nature of this structure, the UN suffers from a severe power imbalance, with only the 15 countries comprising the UNSC having the ability to take any concrete action whatsoever. The power dynamic is further worsened by the veto power held by the 5 permanent members of the UNSC: USA, France, UK, Russia, and China. The ability to veto/block any motion was given to them on the grounds that they are the 5 countries that hold the most military and economic power. However, it has been shown throughout history time and time again that these 5 countries hold rather contradicting political agendas. Disagreement between these members of the UNSC leads to the overuse of veto power, and, once again, very little gets done. Just as it was for the League of Nations, the UNSC has turned into nothing more than a political symbol leaving many preventable conflicts unattended.
The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was a commitment entrusted to the UNSC ensuring that they would intervene in any situation that involves genocide and crimes against humanity if the national government fails to protect its people. A responsibility that is appealing on paper, but ultimately useless in practice. With the 5 permanent members still prioritizing their own interests and disagreeing with each other, the eventual result was that any action taken, if any, was insufficient. Their inactivity can be most recently noted by their stance towards the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Despite many of the human rights and ceasefire violations, all the UN did was “condemn” the incident. Their condemnation made for a nice headline in the news, but concretely changed nothing and sent the message that, while the UN does not like what is going on, it will not do anything about it.
Then what about the other committees under the UN without executive power? They are also impractical, but for slightly different reasons. Without the authority that the UNSC yields, committees such as the WHO, ECOSOC, etc. rely on the ratification of treaties, in other words, the voluntary willingness of countries to be legally bound to the treaties they adhere to. As a result, members of the UN who do not ratify the resolutions passed in these committees are never really obliged to respect them. And even when countries decide to ratify a certain treaty or resolution, they are allowed to withdraw from it at any time. Not only that, often times there is little to no punishment that occurs if countries do not respect the treaty they ratified. The best example that illustrates this are the UN resolutions surrounding climate change. After many countries ratified the Kyoto Protocol, a promising resolution that could prevent the worsening of climate change, most of them ultimately failed to reach their carbon emissions goal by the pre-established 2012 deadline. Once said deadline approached, members simply decided to come up with a new treaty, the Paris Agreement, that pushed the deadline forward to February 2020 with new unrealistic goals that members would once again fail to reach. This overall lack of accountability circles back into the UN’s principal flaw, its inactivity.
Another huge issue that plagues the UN is funding. All members need to commit to a minimum of 0.001% of the UN’s budget. However, that small percentage is far from enough, and more often than not, UN committees need to rely on 3rd party sources of funding such as but not limited to Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Limited funding inevitably leads to limited aid and limited efficiency when it comes to the solutions that the UN wishes to implement. Furthermore, larger countries find themselves contributing the most to the budget without receiving much in return. The United States contribute to 22% of the UN budget yet distances itself from committees such as the WHO which it accuses of being biased towards China. Naturally, the most logical move for the USA is to get rid of that funding, which would result in a massive financial loss for the UN. This case illustrates a very similar scenario to the League of Nations where a rise in nationalism and the departure of a large power could bring the downfall of the organization.
Does this mean that the UN should simply be undone? Such a measure would be a bit extreme considering that despite many of its shortcomings, the UN has accomplished several achievements regarding international peace throughout its history. However, the status quo is clearly unacceptable, and change needs to happen. Many members have called on the UN to abolish veto power within the UNSC as it has been made excessively clear that the permanent members have only been using it for their own benefit. However, from 1945 until now, the 5 permanent members continue to provide the same response: veto is absolutely necessary, and they are not open whatsoever to remove it. A different solution regarding the UNSC that has been more universally accepted is the addition of more members to ensure better international representation. In terms of solutions for funding, the UN could increase the minimum percentage for which every member must contribute to the budget. This would appease the larger countries who are already contributing the most, but it would add a considerable financial strain onto the smaller or less developed countries that are affected by socio-economic instability and that are in need of aid.
All in all, the UN’s mission is extremely crucial now more than ever with the increasing political tension across the globe, but due to its many issues, it plays the role of a bystander rather than an actor.
*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.
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