Does the UN still serve a purpose?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Last week the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly got underway in New York as leaders from the 193 member states took their turn at the rostrum to deliver their reflections on the state of the world. Given all the ills that plague humanity, the mood on these occasions is rarely cheerful. Yet this year that mood was particularly gloomy. The war in Ukraine with all its global repercussions and which dominated proceedings at last year’s General Assembly drags on, with no end in sight but thousands more killed. New conflicts have broken out in the meantime, notably in Sudan where fighting between two rival military factions has led to the deaths of over 7,000 civilians and 5mn people have been displaced, many seeking refuge in neighbouring Chad and adding to the 60mn refugees and displaced people already in the world today. As the General Assembly began, another long-simmering conflict flared up, this time in the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh as a new offensive by Azerbaijan, following on from the previous one in 2020, resulted in Baku gaining full control over the region. This led to fears of the ethnic cleansing of the 120,000 remaining Karabakh Armenians. Over 60,000 have departed voluntarily already. Baku countered by promising to uphold the human rights of its new Armenian minority and to stop blocking much-needed humanitarian assistance. Yet Armenia, increasingly critical of the passivity of the Russian peacekeeping force in Nagorno Karabakh, demanded the immediate dispatch of a UN observer mission, thereby putting yet another intractable conflict on the already overloaded UN agenda. The UN already has its hands full trying to put together a multinational police force under Kenyan leadership to go to lawless and gang-ridden Haiti.

Yet it was not only the reality of violence across Africa, Europe, the Caucasus and the Caribbean that depressed spirits in New York. According to the UN, we have just experienced the hottest year ever and a summer of back-to-back natural disasters that have uprooted hundreds of thousands and put unprecedented pressure on the UN’s capacity for humanitarian response. The flooding that destroyed the city of Derna in Libya was not met with any visible international response for weeks, as if the international community, already struggling to deal with forest fires in Canada, Greece and Hawaii, earthquakes in Morocco or illegal migrants arriving in their thousands on the tiny Italian Mediterranean island of Lampedusa had run out of bandwidth to pay much attention to Libya. In his opening speech, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, called Derna “a sad snapshot of the state of the world today”. He went on to warn the assembled leaders and delegates that “humanity has opened the gates to hell” by not dealing more effectively with global warming and that the planet is currently on track to become 2.8% warmer over pre-industrial levels, way above the target of 1.5% maximum set at the UN COP conference in Paris in 2015.

This year, as if unwilling to face up to the enormity of the challenges, many heads of state and government stayed away, opting to send their foreign ministers to New York instead. Of the five permanent members of the Security Council only Joe Biden showed up at the General Assembly. Despite their pretensions to lead a new, non-Western global order, both Xi of China and Putin of Russia stayed away from the UN, as they did from the recent G20 summit in New Delhi. The UN Security Council has long been dysfunctional, not having been able to take any decisive action on the war in Ukraine, as previously in Syria, Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo. On the eve of the General Assembly, Mali expelled the UN MINUSCA peacekeeping force and the long-suffering UN Special Envoy to Sudan, Volker Perthes, decided to throw in the towel after failing to have much leverage over the two rival generals, Burhan and Dagalo. In recent times, the UN peacekeepers in the DRC (MONUSCO) have been barricaded into their camp by the irate population of Kivu province given the UN’s failure to stop the incursions of M23 rebels supported by Rwanda. The DRC President, Felix Tshisekedi, has now demanded the withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping mission by December. The UN’s efforts to maintain a foothold in Afghanistan and to persuade the Taliban regime to respect the rights of women and to allow girls to be educated beyond basic levels have met with false promises and stonewalling.

Many of the low- and middle-income countries have criticised the UN for being too involved in the conflicts and disputes in the northern hemisphere

One of the UN’s few successful attempts at conflict resolution, namely in Libya, where the previous UN Special Envoy, Stephanie Williams, persuaded the rival governments in Tripoli and Benghazi to agree to hold national elections and expel foreign military forces, has now turned sour with the two governments unable to agree to the modalities for holding the elections. Periodic attempts by the UN since 1974 to overcome the division of Cyprus have been rebuffed as well. Conflict resolution seems to have transferred to regional groups such as the African Union (AU) and ECOWAS in the Sahel endeavouring to restore constitutional rule after military coups in Niger, Gabon and Burkina Faso. The AU has also taken over from the UN in Somalia and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), under South African leadership, has assisted Mozambique in combatting its Al-Shabaab insurgents. Moreover, UN Security Council Resolutions are increasingly flouted where they are not altogether ignored, as North Korea and Iran regularly demonstrate through their nuclear weapons programmes and ongoing missile tests. Israel too is no closer to withdrawing from occupied Palestinian territories than it was in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, already 56 years ago. The only bright spots in recent times have been the UN involvement in negotiating the Black Sea grain deal, although this has now been ditched by Russia with little hope of a revival, and getting Syria to open some additional crossings along its northern border with Türkiye for the delivery of humanitarian relief to those besieged in the Idlib pocket.

Given its declining relevance to conflict resolution and crisis management, it is not surprising that the UN decided to focus this year’s General Assembly on the global, transnational challenges where its authority is less contested, and its power as the global convenor allows it to bring all countries and interests around the same table. So, in parallel to the General Assembly, the UN secretariat ran a Climate Week and a Climate Action Summit. Only those countries that the UN judged had made sufficient progress towards greening their economies and meeting their commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions were invited to speak. This brought about the unusual situation of the United States climate envoy, John Kerry, and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, being relegated to sitting in the audience. The UN also focused the General Assembly on a review of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Seventeen such goals were adopted by the General Assembly in 2015 as a follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals which were intended to mark the UN’s ambition for the new century. The UN secretariat wanted to use the General Assembly to have nations re-commit to these goals as only 15% of their individual points have been implemented thus far. No further progress has been made on 50% of those action points since the onset of the Covid pandemic, and in some areas, such as child vaccinations, progress has actually gone into reverse with UN funding appeals going unanswered and short-term crisis response funding coming at the expense of longer-term development goals. Putting the SDGs at the top of the agenda was a way for the UN to try to demonstrate to low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) that it is still attuned to their priorities at a time when other organisations are moving into the UN’s traditional space. The BRICS has set up a New Development Bank and, at its recent summit in Johannesburg, invited six new countries to join, and the G20 recently made the AU a member. The World Bank – albeit linked to the UN system – and the IMF are reviewing their lending mandates to see how they can promote sustainable green economies and longer-term debt relief rather than individual projects or the handling of budgetary crises and bailouts. Many of the LMICs have criticised the UN for being too involved in the conflicts and disputes in the northern hemisphere, whether Ukraine, Kosovo, Cyprus, Türkiye/Syria or Nagorno Karabakh, at the expense of the LMICs. In addition, the repeated failures to agree on the enlargement of the UN Security Council to bring in permanent members from Africa, Latin America or Southwest Asia to reflect the shifts in the global population and the future economic potential of these regions have alienated many countries. So far Germany and Japan have been more talked about than India, Nigeria or Brazil. Hence the sense in New York and Geneva that the UN needs to return to core business as a platform to raise awareness and debate solutions for global challenges linking high-income countries (HICs) and LMICs.

The world is dividing into rival blocs with no single set of norms and rules being universally accepted as the minimum level of global governance

Yet the UN is inevitably subjugated to what its member states, particularly the bigger ones, want to talk about. The global stage is too good an opportunity to miss. So, the war in Ukraine couldn’t be played down or avoided, even if Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, didn’t mention it in his own address. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took advantage of the absence of Putin and Xi to occupy centre stage in New York and try to rally support – as well as weapons and finance – for the Ukrainian cause at a time when the slow progress of Kyiv’s much-touted counter-offensive has dashed hopes for an early end to the war-making ‘Ukraine fatigue’ a significant danger for Kyiv. Zelensky received much support from his Western partners, especially German Chancellor Scholz, and addressed the Security Council as well – although Lavrov did not stay around to listen to him, avoiding a direct clash. US President Biden addressed the broader strategic implications of Russia’s aggression pointing out that a Russian victory in Ukraine would only encourage more Russian adventures and other authoritarian states to resort to military force. Once again, the UN tribune gave leaders the chance to bloviate about their foreign policy obsessions, making many speeches sound like replays of well-worn recordings. Israel’s Benjamin Netyahanu once again denounced Iran for its nuclear programme while Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi denounced the hypocrisy and double standards of the West for continuing to impose sweeping sanctions on his country. Lavrov denounced the Western democracies for imposing neo-colonial exploitation on the LMICs and for trying to maintain their global hegemony at a time when power is shifting to the BRICS countries. Lavrov justified his absence from Zelensky’s Security Council speech by saying: “We know what he had to say. Why waste time?” But this observation applies to him and Russian diplomats arguably more than to any other UN member state. It is this posturing and bloviating with no attempt to build bridges or to seek common ground or constructive solutions that have brought the UN General Assembly session into disrepute and made many observers simply tune out. It has also led many to question the purpose of the UN and its role as a public platform strong on rhetoric but short on action and with diminished authority and credibility. Zelensky himself gave vent to this perception when he told the General Assembly in 2021 that “the UN is a retired superhero who has long forgotten how great they once were”. Is the UN still relevant or are its best days behind it?

Certainly, the environment in which the UN has to operate has become more complicated and contested. The world is dividing into rival blocs with no single set of norms and rules being universally accepted as the minimum level of global governance. The COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have induced nations to seek out coalitions of the like-minded. The beneficiaries have been the G7, NATO and the EU, expanding and reinvigorated on the one hand, and groupings like the BRICS or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, trying to break free from the shackles of the US dollar and the Western-dominated global trading system and markets on the other. The blocs have organised their own conflict resolution and peacekeeping missions as with the Russian-led Central Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) intervention in Kazakhstan, the Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh or the NATO KFOR force in a Kosovo still nominally under UN jurisdiction (UNMIK). In the middle have been the swing states that see an advantage in having a foot in both ideological camps and extracting the highest benefit by playing them off against each other. The UN has suffered proportionally as these regional organisations have strengthened, leading the UN Secretary General to speak of the “great ripping”. With the Security Council paralysed, initiative and decision-making powers are gravitating to these regional organisations with little contact with each other. The days of the NATO-Russia Council are long since gone and NATO has not established a dialogue with the CSTO or Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It has put China on its agenda with no plan to set up a NATO-China Council. Meanwhile, the leader of North Korea meets Putin in Siberia and the Russian Defence Minister travels to North Korea and Iran. Putin will finally leave Russia in October to visit Xi in Beijing. Partnerships are strictly for the like-minded.

The “great ripping” undoubtedly challenges the UN to refocus its priorities and double down on what it is good at. The agencies focusing on their sectoral and technical missions have long been better value for money than the raucous and over-politicised General Assembly and its subordinate committees in New York. The High Commission for Refugees, the World Health Organisation, the World Food Programme, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, and the Human Rights Council – which recently suspended Russia for its brutal conduct in Ukraine – are the heroes of the piece. Other agencies such as the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), UNESCO and the Committee on Disarmament are of more questionable value. Certainly, a stocktake leading to a reduction in the number of UN agencies and their consolidation as well as of the number of committees at UN Headquarters in New York and Geneva would be a useful starting point. Some UN functions could be transferred to regional organisations particularly in peacekeeping or conflict resolution as the UN has done in Somalia. Just as the EU has adopted the principle of subsidiarity, whereby the EU should only take on the things that it can do better than the 27 individual member states, we need a debate on what the UN can do better than the growing number of regional or even sub-regional organisations. Human rights would still seem to need a universal competence but could culture, education, transportation and telecommunications, or food and agriculture not be sub-contracted regionally? Of course, UN reform would be highly political and difficult especially if consensus or two-third majority voting rules are applied to individual proposals. But a high-level commission of the Secretary General on UN reform would at least get us away from the current obsession with the enlargement of the Security Council. This is needed and is indeed long overdue, but it is often presented as a panacea that will give the UN all the extra legitimacy and buy-in that it needs. Yet there is no evidence, in a divided world, that a Council with 24 or 30 members would be more effective unless majority voting replaced the veto or the use of the veto was restricted to extremely limited circumstances as the UK and France have done for the past decade. It is difficult to see the US, Russia or China surrendering the privilege of veto power without leaving the UN altogether. Zelensky suggested that Russia should lose its veto power because of its numerous violations of the UN Charter and that the General Assembly should be given the power to override vetoes in the Security Council. Yet it is difficult to imagine this ever happening or that UN members which similarly violate the Charter would have their membership or at least their voting rights suspended.

Few currently believe that the latest indictee, President Putin of Russia, will have his day in court

So, if UN reform will be an uphill process, what can the Secretary General and his staff do now to optimise the organisation’s usefulness?

The first activity is climate change. Antonio Guterres has associated his mandate with this single issue and will be remembered principally for it. His increasingly strident warnings about the consequences of not addressing rampant global warming have struck a chord with activists, experts and politicians alike and ‘cut through’ to a broad swathe of public opinion – to use the media term. The UN has become the global hub of these climate debates and the forum uniting the unrivalled expertise of the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change with the specialist NGO community and civil society campaigners like Greta Thunberg. The UN COP meetings, as in Glasgow or Sharm el-Sheik have exemplified this multi-stakeholder approach, maximising the political pressure on governments to commit to more ambitious targets for achieving net carbon zero by mid-century and to funding programmes for technology transfer and historical loss and damage. The UN has made the climate space its own. Its reports, like the Climate Impact Assessment it published at the beginning of September, and the statistics it collects and analyses, have become the gold standard for policy formulation and action on climate change. The UN climate report was clear that we are way off track to reach the Paris goal of 1.5% of global warming over pre-industrial levels and that a 43% cut in carbon emissions by 2030, and 60% by 2035, over 2019 levels, will be required to get us back on track. That means that 20 gigatonnes of CO2 will need to be removed from the atmosphere. The report also called for the elimination of the $450bn that are currently devoted to fossil fuel subsidies.

Yet the UN has been able to broker climate agreements as well. Last week, on the margins of the General Assembly, a new treaty was signed by 60 countries to protect the oceans and in particular the biodiversity of the marine environment. It responds to the decision of the General Assembly last year to sanctuarise 30% of the land and maritime surface of the world by 2030, the so-called ‘30 by 30’ initiative. The treaty will ban fishing in the protected zones and subject all significant human activities to environmental impact assessments. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has called for the treaty to be endowed with its own fund of $500mn to kickstart the setting up and governance of the ocean sanctuaries. Certainly, the new treaty needs to be ratified and to come into effect, but it demonstrates the importance of the UN system in translating aspirations, needs and ambitions into new norms and concrete member state commitments. 

Another core area of UN relevance is humanitarian relief. The UN has a long track record in this field from mobilising supplies and temporary shelter to those affected by wars and natural disasters to looking after refugees in camps for generations. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) administration in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan has been doing this since the late 1940s. The UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Martin Griffiths, is one of the few well-known UN senior officials apart from the Secretary General. He has worked tirelessly to improve the plight of the 14mn people displaced by the conflict in Syria. The outgoing head of the World Food Programme, David Beasley, has performed similar miracles to relieve famine in East Africa. The UN has an experienced and professional relief organisation in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which coordinates well with regional humanitarian bodies such as the EU’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) and the International Committees of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. Of course, to the extent that regional organisations such as the AU or Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) develop their own humanitarian relief bodies, the UN should cooperate with them. But in the meantime, the UN has an unrivalled network of regional offices; warehouses of pre-positioned supplies of tents; blankets and food in particularly fragile areas; transportation contracts; and a highly professional and experienced staff, which make it indispensable for dealing with natural disasters and humanitarian crises. It also has the capacity through its appeals to mobilise governments and the public to provide emergency donations. All of us have long been familiar with the UNESCO Christmas cards.

A third core mission is ending the culture of impunity when it comes to war crimes and crimes against humanity. One of the UN’s greatest achievements in recent decades has been the establishment of specialist tribunals to indict and prosecute those involved in atrocities and war crimes. Over 161 individuals were indicted for these crimes by the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which was established by the UN Security Council in 1994. They came from all the principal ethnic communities involved in the fighting and included political leaders, such as Milošević and Karadžić, as well as the military commanders, Mladić and Krstić, who carried out the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in July 1995. The ICTY established the principle that leaders were as much responsible for crimes as the foot soldiers who pulled the trigger. It secured the first convictions for genocide and mass rape as war crimes. Of the 161 indictees, over two-thirds ultimately appeared in dock in The Hague. When the ICTY was wound up in 2010, it transferred its judicial functions to local courts in Sarajevo and Belgrade which could try lesser war crimes or individuals for whom evidence only emerged at a later date. The ICTY was also followed by the UN Specialist Chambers in The Hague, which is currently judging those accused of war crimes in Kosovo during the fighting there between 1998 and 1999. Yet what was also significant about the ICTY was not just the convictions but the new ways of gathering evidence, particularly on-site, the painstaking investigations and the witness protection procedures.

The ICTY had a sister tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania to handle those involved in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. It was less visible and successful than the Yugoslav tribunal and prosecuted far fewer individuals. Many of the genocide’s ringleaders escaped justice. In 2002, the Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a permanent tribunal, also in The Hague. It has had a mixed record, judging one former head of state, Charles Taylor of Liberia, but not so far getting its hands on other high-level indictees, such as Omar el-Bashir of Sudan or Said al-Islam Gaddafi of Libya, who up to now have remained under house arrest at home. Few currently believe that the latest indictee, President Putin of Russia, will have his day in court. The ICC does not have the advantage of the ICTY in having supporting NATO member states chase and arrest the war criminals or put economic pressure on countries such as Serbia and Croatia to round them up and transfer them to The Hague. Nonetheless, the war in Ukraine has enabled the ICC to innovate by sending a special team of investigators to the country to gather massive amounts of evidence on war crimes on the ground before these vital materials disappear. Numerous witnesses have been interviewed before their memories become vague. The ICC Chief Prosecutor, Karim Khan, has been assisted by forensic teams from the UK and France. Many countries have given funds to help the ICC to carry out its investigations and preserve the evidence. The EU has also launched a special project, using Eurojust in The Hague, to gather evidence to support the establishment of a new UN tribunal to prosecute the crime of war of aggression – something that is outside the current remit of the ICC, which focuses on individuals and not states.

The UN has thus usefully established a legal framework that makes it easier for countries to engage in war crimes issues and raise their visibility on the international stage. A good example of this happened last week when 23 countries including the UK, Canada and 12 EU member states petitioned the International Court of Justice in The Hague to back a request from Ukraine to reject an attempt by Russia to instrumentalise the UN Genocide Convention of 1948 to indict Ukraine for the persecution of its Russian speaking population. There is no evidence that Kyiv has carried out these human rights abuses and a large proportion of Ukrainian Russian speakers have lived under Russian occupation since 2014 already. So, the UN framework can not be used only to uphold international law but also to guard against its misuse.

The UN is after all the sum total of its member states and it can only be effective to the extent that those states engage with it and give it the resources to function

A fourth and final useful function is to promote arms control and disarmament. The UN is the guardian of the core global treaties such as the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The UN treaties are not perfect. For instance, the Biological Weapons Convention has no verification mechanism. Yet they represent an important barrier, both moral and legal, to the use of weapons of mass destruction and to their testing and development – such as in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Other treaties prohibit the placing of weapons of mass destruction in outer space, on the ocean bed or in Antarctica. The UN cannot prevent violations of these treaties as in Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, or the nuclear weapons programmes of Iran and North Korea. Yet its well-respected verification agencies, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna or the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague – which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – can cut through the propaganda smokescreen and establish facts and responsibilities. Their expert findings carry weight and provide the Security Council the means to impose sanctions and to take punitive action if it has the political will to do so. Certainly, there is still a massive amount of work for the UN to do in the arms control and disarmament fields. The UN Committee on Disarmament has toiled for decades in Geneva to try to conclude a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty. A group of government experts in New York has been trying for years to agree on a set of norms and obligations to regulate the responsible use of cyberspace. The core UN treaties such as the NPT or the Outer Space Treaty are badly in need of modernisation to take account of emerging technologies, particularly those with multiple uses – civilian and military. The UN has much to do and urgently to regulate the military use of artificial intelligence, cyberspace, robotics, autonomous systems, quantum computing and bioengineering. Yet you do not need treaties to make peace with your friends. Arms control and disarmament treaties, like climate change agreements, need to be universal and impose the same norms and obligations on everyone to be effective. The NPT and CWC have been signed by over 190 countries. So, there is no alternative to pushing ahead with the UN process, no matter how slow and painful. Outer space, where there is a common interest in preventing attacks against and interference with government, commercial and international agency satellites, would perhaps be the best place to start.

The most well-known UN Secretary General is Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden who famously said that “the purpose of the United Nations is not to take mankind to heaven but to save humanity from hell”. This reminds us that we should not have inflated expectations of what the UN can deliver as the number of its member states has quadrupled since 1945, and finding the common denominator among so many competing interests and priorities becomes an ever more difficult balancing act for the Secretary General and his senior staff. The UN is after all the sum total of its member states and it can only be effective to the extent that those states engage with it and give it the resources to function. UN peacekeeping for instance costs each year far less than the budget of the New York City police department. It is too easy for states and their leaders to dump on the UN problems and conflicts that they are unwilling and unable to handle themselves. The former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, used to joke that the initials of his title stood for ‘scapegoat’. Certainly, the UN needs reform and the streamlining of its subordinate bodies and missions. However, given the need for consensus, that process of reform will be difficult and protracted. The Security Council is a case in point. But what Antonio Guterres and his organisation can do is to refocus the UN’s activities, such as big conferences and General Assembly sessions, and priorities on these four core areas where the UN’s added value and usefulness are most evident. This will help to save mankind from hell (if not take it to heaven anytime yet) and, in the meantime, encourage more heads of state and government to show up in New York every September and do more there than just give a short speech before they fly home.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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