Image : Mat Reding (Unsplash)
In 2020 the United Nations (UN) celebrated its diamond anniversary for being in existence for 75 years. Its celebrations were however, muted and sombre with the global COVID-19 pandemic at the forefront of its global agenda. A year since its 75th anniversary, I think it is a good time to reflect upon the UN’s existence, relevance and track record in the international arena.
In 1945 at the end of World War II (WWII) nations were in ruin and the world wanted peace and stability on the globe. On the 25th of April 1945, 51 nations met in San Francisco and began drafting the UN Charter which was adopted on the 25th of June 1945. The core aim set out by the charter established the UN as an intergovernmental organisation (INGOs) that aims to maintain “international peace and security, protecting human rights, delivering humanitarian aid promoting sustainable development and upholding international law and achieve international cooperation”. Most importantly the UN at its establishment included the United States (US) which had emerged out of WWII as a global superpower. This was important, as the predecessor to the UN, the League of Nations (LoN) which failed to prevent WWII did not include the US. The UN is headquartered in New York and has various other offices in Geneva, Nairobi, Vienna and The Hague. The UN has various bodies which consist of the UN General Assembly (UNGA)(deliberative assembly for all UN members), UN Security Council (UNSC) (for international security matters) and The International Criminal Court (ICC) (court of international law matters) which are arguably its most important. The UN began with 51 member states but now boast 193 sovereign nations which make up the UN, these 193 states are also responsible for the funding of the UN. Additionally, the UN has numerous programs to tackle various economic, social and environmental challenges.
When reflecting upon the UN existence, it is important to note that the UN is not a supranational authority or “global government” that the laymen may label it. It is a group of nations states who “try to work together and collaborate” to solve various global issues but ultimately, states may act in their own interests and there is often not much the UN can do.
The early years of the UN, specifically the first 45 years were marked by serious inadequacies and ineffectiveness, as the Cold War between the US and Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) hamstrung the UN and especially the UNSC which is responsible for international peace and security. The US and USSR along with France, United Kingdom and China are known as the permeant 5 (P5) within the UNSC. These members hold a veto vote which was used more often than not by the US and USSR to stop the UN from intervening in the Cold War. A prime example of this was the UN not being able to intervene in Vietnam and the Cuban Missile crisis. Once the Cold War ended in 1989, the UNSC still had some major failures such as, failing to act in the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994, its role in the US invasion of Iraq, its inaction against Israel’s illegal displacement of Palestinians and the continued weak action and intervention in Syria and Yemen, to name but a few. These complexities and UNSC inter-political dynamics are still at play in the modern UNSC as demonstrated by the cases of Syria and Yemen. As some of the P5 nations have their own interests at heart and not that of global peace.
Though they may have had some major failures, the UN has also had some major successes. Most notably, since its creation there has not been a global war. It has played a major role in making the world free of nuclear weapons through the Partial Test Ban Treaty and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Additionally, the UN has acted as a vanguard for the protection of human rights through the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. Furthermore, since 1945, the UN has had 172 successful peaceful negotiations which have ended regional conflicts.
There is so much more to digest about the UN, one can see that the UN has had a somewhat “mixed bag” of results. It has for the most part maintained international peace and security, prevented global wars and helped shaped the world for the better. However, the internal workings of its most important body, the UNSC is hindered by internal politics which will always hinder the impact and effectiveness of the UN. Additionally, with every unsuccessful mission or operation the UN loses the trust of the global population and of its member states. The only way for the UN to be truly successful would be to remove the veto power of the UNSC P5 and dismantle the law of sovereignty which is neither possible nor realistic. Thus, this writer remains ambivalent about the UN’s next 75 years. To conclude, here is a thought for the reader to consider, does the UN and especially the UNSC P5 really have the interests of global peace at heart when the P5 are responsible for the production of 90% of global arms and weapons?
Jervin Naidoo is the founder of The Art of Politics and works as a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pretoria.