By Tarun Nair*
A terrible death seems to have befallen the United Nations in recent times, an entity which was born out of the horrors of the great wars and was instituted as a collective to serve mankind in the times to come. Today, it is an endeavour devoid of the very direction and purpose it was endowed with at its inception, failing time and again to grasp the demands of contemporary realities. The foremost platform of incisive international action has turned into a farce of sorts, a tool in the hands of prominent powers, myopic as they are in the confines of their own interests. So do we need UN anymore?
One cannot discount the fact that the organisation has certain glaring loopholes in its existing structure which prevent for its optimum functioning. The debate regarding reforms and more importantly, what kind of reforms are needed, has been going on for several decades now, with extreme positions being taken up on the spectrum of consensus. The process of reforms however, is problematic in itself considering the sheer enormity of power being wielded by member nations.
To pay or not to pay
Addressing the conundrum of reform in the funding structure first, the issue of accountability is of paramount importance. Since several decades the UN has been operating on a shaky financial foundation, with the sword of insolvency resting upon its committees’ heads, preventing the performance of essential functions. The UN is funded through assessed and voluntary contributions by its member states. Assessed contributions refers to the dues accrued by nation states as agreed through consensus, by the General Assembly in a fiscal period. The rationale behind this estimation lies in an approximation of funding needed for organisational activities under the regular budget (to be delineated from the peacekeeping budget which follows the same method). A nation state pays depending on its ability to do so as derived from its Gross National Product, with percentages going from 0.01% to 25%.
(Schaefer) Allegations from
various quarters abound regarding misspending of these funds, internal
misappropriation including kickbacks etc. Even though reports are issued, they
are usually unnecessarily elaborate and lack clarity on actual spending. Cases
like the Oil for Food scam are still fresh in public memory, and don’t do well
to reassure nations when they pledge taxpayer’s earnings to functions of the
Another problem is that money contributed sometimes goes against a nations approach to a situation or nation, with regard to foreign policy. Taking the case of the United States, several factions within the nation have pressurised the government to demand extensive audit reports from the UN, in addition to existing accountability related documentation. This has been done in response to public claims that taxpayer’s money has strengthened the World Intellectual and Property Organisation (WIPO) and its coffers in ensuring the transfer of dual use technology to Iran and North Korea, both of which have been sanctioned regarding technology transfer, under US domestic law as well as internationally.
(Newman)Even the sanctity of
the Office for Oversight (the secretariats internal audit instrument) has been
tarnished, as the body has been embroiled in a web of allegations regarding
financial wrongdoings and subsequent coercion by ‘higher’ authorities to hide
the same. In the case of voluntary contributions, the existing layer of
transparency too is pulled away, leading to an environment which can be termed
at best, as ideally conducive to financial misappropriation. The UN’s recent
foray into engagements with business leaders and corporations has unwittingly provided
a gateway for motivation based pecuniary transactions, which further erodes the
credibility afforded by its neutral status.
Security Council: A case of flawed composition and representation or something more?
The Security Council is arguably the foremost committee within the UN when addressing crisis management and important security issues. This is bolstered by the powers invested in it, making its resolutions binding upon those required, ensuring complete compliance other than in cases where nations turn rogue and disregard the rules imposed. Even in such cases, the powers bestowed upon the council through chapters VI and VII of the charter ensure that stringent countermeasures can be enacted with a great degree of immediacy. However it is perhaps the most prominent body to be at the receiving end of scathing criticism, considering the stark polarity in its composition and the ambiguities in its mandate. Debate regarding the first aspect of criticism is singularly centred on the veto power. The veto was instituted with the founding of the council, considering that the major powers of the time wished to project a unanimity in their decisions, apart from the fact that they wished to safeguard their status and legacy, as in the case of Great Britain (later UK) for generations to come. However several points are important in this context. Firstly, the changing geopolitical realities have left certain nations with the ‘mantle of leadership’ as opposed to others who have been relegated to the side lines. The unchanging structure of the veto powers while being undemocratic does not reflect this new reality. Secondly, an instrument like veto is counterproductive when it impedes decision making and promotes indolence.
History stands testament to this fact, as is seen in the lack of intervention in situations demanding mediation. A prominent example of the same would be when the UN was left helpless as Israel unleashed their war machine on the citizens of the Gaza strip in 2008 as part of operation cast lead. When resolutions were brought about to curb Israel’s defiance in the face of international pressure, close allies America were quick to shoot it down.
(Chossudovsky) Within the general
ambit of this discussion, it is also relevant to discuss the Responsibility to
Protect, a norm introduced by a Canadian policy organisation which is fast
becoming a de facto basis for intervention. While proponents of the principle
believe that the veto goes against R2P’s basic ideals, the norm has been
misused within the overarching authority of the Security Council to justify
invasions against nations, often trespassing their territorial sovereignty as
in the case of Libya in 2011. (Adams)Therefore it is
unclear as to when and how R2P can be invoked, along with a chapter VII
resolution. This lack of mandate is seen even in the case of laws of engagement
involving peacekeeping forces. The disastrous episode in Rwanda saw confused
Belgian peacekeepers lay down their arms in front of the local militia only to
be massacred in cold blood. (Ponthus) Interestingly, the
international community could not come to a consensus regarding intervention in
Rwanda, and therefore turned a rather convenient blind eye towards one of the largest
genocides ever witnessed.
If the Security Council is to succeed as an organisation, it will have to do better to define and enforce a mandate regarding intervention, peacekeeping and use of veto in crisis situations. Proponents of a democratised UNSC have suggested doing away with the veto altogether instead of complicating the decision making process by offering more permanent seats, but the recondite article 108 is an obstruction to such endeavours. The article in lay terms suggest that a veto power may veto a resolution to get rid of the veto itself, a clever self-preserving peace of legalese which acts as a shield for wanton self-interest, which is unfortunately propagated using the security council as a shield.
(Charter Of The United Nations)
Peacekeeping Blues: A need for permanency
The precarious funding of the UN peacekeeping office has led to calls for ensuring its permanency instead of its impermanent mandate. It has occurred in the past that during a crisis situation, the expedited nature of the issue has stymied planners who in the absence of concrete long term plans have instituted a response mission but have been unable to provide the peacekeepers food for more than 10 days at a stretch. Often there is no time for members of different army elements to combine and train resulting in a confusion on ground. This was most recently seen in the 1993 American mission to capture and extract Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. Had the Malaysian and Pakistani elements on ground as part of the UN mission there trained together, one may imagine that many American lives would have been saved when the operation fell to pieces and the UN intervened.
Therefore the Security Council should work proactively towards a standing UN
force, simply because the vagaries of 21st century warfare demand
timely and organised intervention, especially in the case of civil conflicts,
which erupt across the globe at various moments in time.
It is imperative for the problems of today to be combatted by a UN of today, instead of being confronted by a beleaguered organisation with lack of clarity on role, purpose or methodology. While arguments continue about whether the UN should play a greater role in world affairs or expand its humanitarian efforts, one cannot mince words regarding the changes needed or their urgency. Engagements in today’s world are not bound by the conventional boundaries of the nation state. Today transnational actors are playing an increasingly important role in dictating the flow of global currents. In such a scenario it is crucial that the UN awakens and rethinks the impact it wishes to have, as a collective action body, on this world.
Adams, Simon. "Libya and the Responsibility to Protect: Results and Prospect." 28th March 2014. Global Policy Journal. 25th May 2015. <http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/28/03/2014/libya-and-responsibility-protect-results-and-prospects>.
"Charter Of The United Nations." n.d. un.org. 25th May 2015. <http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/chapter18.shtml>.
Chossudovsky, Michel. "The Invasion of Gaza: “Operation Cast Lead”, Part of a Broader Israeli Military-Intelligence Agenda." 4th January 2009. Global Research. 25th May 2015. <http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-invasion-of-gaza-operation-cast-lead-part-of-a-broader-israeli-military-intelligence-agenda/11606>.
Clarke, Walter and Jeffrey Herbst. "Somalia and the future of humanitarian intervention." Foreign Affairs (1996): 70-85.
Newman, Alex. 23rd July 2012. The New American. 25th May 2015. <http://www.thenewamerican.com/usnews/foreign-policy/item/12178-lawmakers-blast-un-for-handing-us-technology-to-north-korea-iran>.
Ponthus, Julien. "Rwandan convicted of killing Belgian peacekeepers." 4th Jul 2007. reuters.com. 25th May 2015. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/07/04/us-rwanda-genocide-belgium-idUSL0469900520070704>.
Schaefer, Brett D. "United Nations: Urgent Problems That Need Congressional Action." n.d. The Heritage Foundation. 25th May 2015. <http://www.heritage.org/research/lecture/2011/02/united-nations-urgent-problems-that-need-congressional-action>.
* Tarun Nair is Research Intern at CPPR and a student of International Relations at FLAMES, Pune
The Authors views are personal and does not in anyway represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.