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OP-ED: Do we need to change the way the UN works?

  • Published at 07:40 pm February 4th, 2021
United Nations logo-UN logo
File photo: The United Nations headquarters building is pictured though a window with the UN logo in the foreground in the Manhattan borough of New York Reuters

The United Nations has been ineffective in safeguarding global peace

The three major building blocks in the formation of the United Nations in 1945 included ensuring international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations, and promoting social progress and human rights. However, over the years, it has faced increasing reproval for failure in realizing its foundational goals and objectives whilst being strongly criticized for many of its institutional policies and practices, interventional efficacy, and ideological biases.

Major criticisms of the UN include, among others, inequality and prejudicial representation, bureaucratic inefficiency, programmatic inaction, over-inclination for globalism resulting in economic inequalities, geo-political tensions, environmental hazards, loss of cultural identity, abuse of power, corruption, and misappropriation, and/or waste of resources, ineffectiveness in obtaining results -- including prevention of armed conflicts and protection of fundamental rights. 

Although many calls for reform of the UN have been made, most have been futile with very little consensus on how to achieve an effective UN.

In 2015, the UN member states adopted the SDGs with the universal aim of eradicating poverty, protecting the environment, and establishing universal peace and prosperity. However, these goals have often been criticized for being too ambitious, with several inconsistencies and inaccuracies in quantifying, implementing, and monitoring progress. 

Moreover, the SDG index, which is being used to assess each country’s position towards achieving these goals is fundamentally incoherent, giving the illusion that rich countries have high levels of sustainability when, in reality, it is quite the opposite.

The infamous case of “Iraqi Oil for Food,” where Saddam Hussein earned billions of dollars through illegal oil smuggling in collaboration with UN staff members, is a burning example of corrupt practices within the organization. In response, the UN tried to sweep the matter under the rug, either by claiming their complete lack of awareness of the matter, or by providing excuses of isolated incidents, while these malpractices continue to grow.

Furthermore, the UN’s core feature of utilizing the veto privilege exclusive only to the five permanent members in the Security Council is not only undemocratic but also provides these nations a way to abuse their powers by exercising control over the General Assembly. 

Veto power has been criticized as being anachronistic, unjust, and counter-productive, and the main reason behind inaction in preventing genocides and crimes against humanity.

By conferring special privileges to the Northern rich nations, UN continues to widen the gap between the North and the South where the interests and needs of the former are iniquitously catered for by the outdated UN structure. 

It has failed to uphold the rights and freedoms of people from deprived parts of the globe while floundering to condemn the privileged perpetrators. The use of veto by China and Russia against the draft SC resolution to condemn the Zimbabwean government following a violent and controversial election of Robert Mugabe in 2008 is an example of the above that in turn led to the loss of political freedom of the people of Zimbabwe.  

In terms of its overall effectiveness, UN has again failed to uphold its duty to maintain international peace and security through preventive diplomacy, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding. 

While fulfilling its peacekeeping duties, it often appears that the “powerful” nations -- the “perm-five” in particular -- are at a more benevolent position in many of the so-called UN collective interventions, as they continue to enforce the veto powers to further their own political, economic, or ideological agenda in the backdrop. References in this context are frequently made in the attempts to legitimize the US’s irrational and unjustified invasion of Iraq in 2003 by attempting to pass UN Resolution 1843.  

While the UN claims to be the promoter of world peace, questions continue to arise as to how global peace and security can be effectively achieved by the decades-long non-recognition of countries and territories such as Kosovo, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria (Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic), Union of People’s Republics (Novorossiya), the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, or Taiwan.

Not only has the UN failed in upholding international peace to the extent envisioned by its foundational charter, it has also evidently shown to be a weak and debilitated mechanism for the enforcement of fundamental human rights and freedoms. 

Due to lack of authority and direct policing jurisdiction, the UN often stands as a mere bystander in situations of conflict and infringement of human rights, while depending on the authority and political discretion of states concerned for their actual enforcement. Moreover, because of the prevailing geo-politico-economic power-play between influential nations, UN efforts in this field often turn futile.

In terms of remedies and redress for victims of violation and violence, while the UN’s specialized human rights bodies, the Human Rights Council, and the treaty monitoring organs in particular, have been constrained by methodological barriers, the recommendatory nature and discretionary authority of member states, the principal judicial organ of the UN -- the ICJ -- is also stilled by its jurisdictional strains of hearing or deciding cases only between states, and only when they volunteer to accept such jurisdiction.

In conclusion, the crucial question seems to be not whether it’s time for another total overhaul of the organization (like the one from the League to the UN in 1945), but more of how the prevailing drawbacks can be meaningfully addressed. Something more than conventional thoughts of reform is required -- perhaps a comprehensive reconditioning and renovation of such major areas as greater transparency and accountability of the secretariat, restructuring of the Security Council mandates, improved resource and financial management, and promoting cross-sectional diversity and democratic practices, among others.

Dr MD Parvez Sattar is an ex-human rights and governance expert in the UN Systems and currently a faculty member at the Department of Law, Independent University, Bangladesh. Barrister Safura Mahbub is a BPTC graduate and an Accredited Civil/Commercial Mediator. Arafat Reza is an LLB graduate of BPP University, UK.

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