The UN at 70: The Case For/The Case Against

By Tim Marshall.
The United Nations makes itself easy to criticize. After all, it is the sum total of its parts and its parts are the 193 members. As Schopenhauer said ‘Each nation mocks the rest, and all are justified in doing so’.

So the 193 bumble around in New York, blocking this initiative, supporting that proposal, usually only in pursuit of the national interest, but occasionally raising their eyes to the horizon of international interest.

The case against is easy: Inefficiency abounds. Overspending is endemic. Pointlessness ever present – (see ‘Office for Outer Space Affairs’ for details) second rate minds infest its incontinent report writing departments, failure to speak any known language other than management gobbledygook, failure to investigate itself, an 8 hour/5 day work mentality in New York, and then there’s the serious stuff…

Rwanda, Bosnia, peacekeepers who oversee war, accusations of rape by Blue Helmets, corruption at low and high levels, Gaddafi’s Libya chairing the UN Human Rights Council, the frequent paralysis of the Security Council, and the disruptive politicking in the General Assembly and every single committee meeting ever held.

Unveiling of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Unveiling of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

But then again…. The case for is easy: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the World Health Organization’s eradication of smallpox, UNESCO saving the pyramids, UNICEF saving tens of millions of people’s lives, the International Maritime Organization and International Telecommunication Union and other bodies providing platforms for global co-operation. And there’s more…

The United Nations HQ in New York provides what cynics call a talking shop – but talking shops can be good things. During the Cold War grievances were aired, and un gundiplomatic battles won and lost. It was better than real warfare. More recently the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty has set benchmarks for reducing nuclear arsenals. That it has not been an unqualified success does not negate the necessity of setting the targets.

The UN also promotes ‘global norms’. Many states, signed up to the UDHR are merely paying lip service to the idea that there are universal human rights. Nevertheless, their signature holds them to a standard of behavior, and when falling below those standards, allows the outside world to pressure them. It also gives those suffering inside an abuser state a legal definition and moral platform on which to fight back.

Other ‘global norms’ include regulations for nuclear reactors, rules for the sea lanes, anti-piracy projects etc.

Much criticism of ‘the UN’ is actually criticism of, and frustration with, the Security Council (SC). It is true that the Permanent 5 (P5) of the SC reflects the world in 1945 and the victorious powers in of WW2. France, UK, USA, China and Russia jealously guard their permanent positions and vetoes even while simultaneously recognizing that the world has changed and the Security Council (and indeed the UN as a whole) needs reforming.

Whenever the subject of reform comes up, so do the proposed solutions. For example, that there should be a P10, or P12, or a P something but one in which no state has the power of veto. Another idea is to extend the SC from 15 (there are ten rotating members) to 25 with a majority vote system.

Then comes the real problem – who gets to join? India might be a natural choice, but Pakistan would have something to say about that, and would ensure that the other Muslim countries joined it in trying to block such a move. Japan? China would make sure that didn’t happen. Latin America? Brazil is the obvious choice, but Argentina might oppose. Agreement on a rotational Latin American member is possible, but complicated.

When you consider that the UN’s rules say that to change the composition of the P5 requires the backing of 2/3rds the General Assembly, which includes the current P5, you see that reform of that magnitude is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

But does that mean we should rip it up and start again? Hardly, that in itself would involve exactly the sort of the international politics as described above and would result in another flawed sum of its parts.

So UN or no UN? Surely there has to be a UN. If there wasn’t we’d try and invent it. Better to reform the current version’s budget and behavior in the immediate future, and work towards a reformed political structure over the long term.

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3 Comments on "The UN at 70: The Case For/The Case Against"

  1. The case against: you forgot the most important and egregious item: the UN’s obssession with Israel in almost every one of its forums, but particularly at the Human Rights Council and the Security Council.

    This obssession makes a mockery of human rights, security issues and any other kind of international norm. The UN has become a parody of itself, is not fit for purpose and should be abandoned. It could possibly be recreated as a union of democratic states only. Real democratic states, that is, not states with the word “Democratic” in their name.

  2. what about the elephants in the UN room. Religion, why is there no universal Bible, Holy Book Koran etc., Suadi Koran have infidels (Jews ) in brackets….what about difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter……what about money that should be paid into UN coffers by rogue or failing states….Vatican stance on on birth control has a consequence they should pay for child care…..

  3. I certainly agree that if there wasn’t a UN, we would have to invent it. However the problematic parts of the UN are not as inconsequential as you make out. It is not all about inefficiency, bureaucracy and corruption. The UN is too easily perverted and manipulated, and the damage is real.

    As an Israeli, I will obviously highlight the damage being done to our region by the UN’s obsessive treatment of Israel vs. it’s virtual silence on the hundreds of millions across our region and in other parts of the world who are being butchered and oppressed by tyrannical governments with impunity because they have a good supportive bloc behind them in the relevant UN bodies. Or the absurdity of UNWRA that has been prolonging the plight of the Palestinian refugees for half a century instead of handing them over to the UNHCR who could have resettled and rehabilitated them years ago.

    I could go on. The damage is real in human suffering and while the UN should surely exist, there is something essentially wrong with the the way it is structured that allows its bastardization and abuse by manipulative parties.

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