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.
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 diplomatic 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.