The United Nations
Fifty-one countries that participated in San Francisco Conference unanimously envisioned four fundamental aims of the United Nations Organization: maintenance of peace throughout the world, development of friendly relations among member countries, providing assistance to the countries for reduction of poverty, elimination of hunger, elimination of diseases and illiteracy as well as respect for human rights and dignity, and provision of platforms for coordination at the global level to achieve all these goals. That body of 51 countries has now expanded to 193 member states and it has successfully enhanced its role from merely a conflict-resolution agency to an agent of socio-economic development. In its history of 77 years, the United Nations has many achievements to its credit and many failures that mar its image. In the instant article, we will dwell upon some of its crowning accomplishments as well as a few ignominious failures.
The development of a body of International Law is undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements of the UN. This organization has been at the forefront for providing legal frameworks in areas like environmental protection, regulation of migrant labour, and elimination of drug and human trafficking. In many areas, the legal work done by the UN was pioneering and it helped start legislation in member states. The body of law developed by both the Legal Committee (the Sixth Committee) and the International Law Commission is enshrined in conventions, treaties, protocols and agreements. UN General Assembly is the main deliberative organ on matters relating to international law. It has succeeded to come up with binding conventions and covenants dealing with crimes like genocide; racial discrimination and that against women; civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights; laws of the sea, rights of children, nuclear proliferation, terrorism financing, rights of disabled persons, and more. Similarly, UN Law Commission has come up with many drafts on aspects of International Law that were eventually incorporated by the UNGA into multiple conventions like non-navigational use of international watercourses, Law of Treaties, Succession of States, and crimes against diplomats and other internationally protected persons. The enactment and enforcement of International Humanitarian Law dealing with means and methods of warfare along with the protection of civilian lives is also a laudable area where the UN has done well, though with limited success. So far, more than 500 multilateral treaties have been deposited with the UN Secretary-General’s office which speaks volumes about the enormity of legal work done by the UN.
This legal work has contributed a lot to international peace and security and the advancement of economic and social development across the world. The legal contributions of the UN continue today as international law is assuming a new and central role across a broad spectrum. The legal role of the UN is not limited only to progressive development and codification (enshrined in Article 13 of the UN Charter), this multilateral body has come up with an implementation mechanism as well to enforce all these conventions and protocols and provide a platform for judicial settlement of disputes, albeit with the consent of states.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ), International Criminal Court (ICC), and War Tribunals are important tools in the hand of the UN Security Council to enforce International Law. The ICJ is an organ of the UN and it has the mandate of resolving inter-state disputes surrounding economic rights, the rights of passage, non-interference in internal matters of a state, maritime boundaries, land frontiers, territorial integrity, rights of asylum, and others. So far, this permanent Court has considered more than 170 cases.
In the realization that individuals should also be held responsible for committing crimes, the ICC was established in July 2002 with the jurisdiction of prosecuting individuals over crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. Though ICC has a controversial record and is often subjected to criticism, the very fact that a permanent legal body working in criminal law exists is a big achievement in itself. UN-assisted Tribunals have also played a major role in providing some semblance of justice to the victims of the worst human rights violations. The UN has established many tribunals and prosecuted many culprits since its inception. The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials to convict and prosecute Nazi and Japanese officials, International Criminal Tribunals for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR) are some examples.
All in all, the legal works of the UN have been laudable efforts and they have impacted overall political and legal developments across the globe.
The role of the United Nations in the socio-economic realm has also benefited all peoples. UN General Assembly, UN Secretariat, UN Economic & Social Council, and multiple subsidiary organs and specialized agencies associated with the UN are responsible for carrying out economic and social development across the world. There are many specialized and subsidiary agencies that are working in scores of areas for the economic development of member countries. For instance, UN Development Program extends direct support to more than 4800 projects in areas of poverty reduction, good governance, crisis management, and environmental protection. UNICEF works in more than 150 countries for child protection, immunization, girls’ education and emergency aid. UN Conference on Trade and Development has successfully helped conclude trade agreements and secure preferential treatments for exports. The World Bank, which reports to ECOSOC, has provided loans and grants to many countries and has, so far, completed more than 12,000 projects in 170 countries. International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has performed extremely well. It has standardized all the parameters for the safety, security, efficiency and environmental soundness of air travel. The progress in all fields of civil aviation can be gauged from the fact that 590 passengers out of 21 million were killed in air accidents in 1947 and now that number has reduced to 173 out of 3.1 billion passengers. Similarly, International Maritime Organization (IMO) has also done a great job of making international shipping safe, secure and environment-friendly. The Universal Postal Union, with more than 650,000 post offices across the world, has become one the biggest networks providing a key bridge between physical, digital and financial operations and is acting as a key partner in global development. In a nutshell, UN with its specialized agencies has helped humanity cross many milestones in various aspects of economic development.
Social development is another area where the UN has performed exceptionally well. First, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have guided UN work in social welfare and development. In this regard, the UN and its specialized agencies are working extensively for bringing and expediting social development in member countries. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is helping developing countries modernize agriculture and achieve universal food security. UNESCO is working for the preservation of historic, cultural, architectural and natural heritage and it has successfully preserved more than 1000 archaeological sites as World Heritage Sites. The UN is also working to ensure scholarly and scientific cooperation. More importantly, the World Health Organization has played a leading role in combating various diseases and epidemics. It has spearheaded the global campaign for vaccination against the Covid-19 pandemic under the COVAX initiative. It is leading programs against AIDS, hepatitis, polio, and other diseases. Moreover, it managed to eradicate polio from most parts of the world and eliminate smallpox for the first time in the 10,000-year-long history of humans. UN High Commissioner for Refugees has helped countries resettle and absorb refugees and migrants across the world including Pakistan and Iran. The Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention under the UN system has assisted member countries in curbing crimes and eliminating narcotics through various programs. In short, the UN’s role in social development has created tangible dividends in the form of improved literacy, poverty reduction, disease elimination, crime control and scientific development.
Human rights can be considered one of the most pronounced achievements of the UN. The development and codification of human rights have drastically changed state-citizen relationship and helped transform the political systems of many countries. Human rights were first adopted by UNGA in 1948 as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and later, two covenants – the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – were also ratified and entered into force in 1976. These three documents are collectively known as the International Bill of Rights. Later on, the UN Human Rights Commission expanded the range of recognized rights in areas of women’s rights, torture, disappearance, racial discrimination, apartheid, labour laws, and indigenous peoples. More importantly, the UN has done a commendable job in the formulation and implementation of women’s and children’s rights. Now there is a fully-dedicated UN agency – UN High Commission on Human Rights – that monitors the situation regarding human rights and reports violations. UNHCHR has Human Right Council as well to ensure worldwide compliance with the International Bill of Rights and dozens of legally-binding agreements. Though the approach of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights has always been guided by geopolitical considerations, the enactment of the legal framework surrounding human rights and some implementation mechanism – howsoever weak it is – are everlasting achievements of the UN system.
On the downside, the UN has failed conspicuously in some areas of hard politics — international peace and security which was one of the fundamental aims of the United Nations. There were many occasions in the past when the UN did nothing to stop the war and fulfil its peacekeeping duties, let alone carry out peace-building and peacemaking responsibilities.
Though the number of inter-state or state-based conflicts and associated deaths has indeed reduced drastically since 1945. As per the Global Conflict Tracker by Council on Foreign Relations, there are 27 ongoing conflicts around the world (in 2022), which is certainly a major triumph for the UN. But the United States could not fully eliminate the outbreak of war and incidents of genocide and aggression. Israel occupation (1948-now), Kashmir dispute(1948-now), Cambodia violence (1975-1979), Somalia Civil War(1991-now), Rwanda Civil War (1994), Srebrenica Massacre (1995), Darfur Conflict in Sudan (2003-now), Iraq invasion (2003-2011), Syrian civil war (2011-now), South Sudan (2013-now), Yemen civil war (2014-now), Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar (2017-now), and Russia-Ukraine war (ongoing) are some examples that indicate the constrained role of UN in peaceful resolution of the conflicts. The role of major powers, particularly the United States, can be blamed for this sorry state of affairs. In a report by a China-based human right group, out of 248 armed conflicts that occurred in more than 153 countries/territories across the world between 1945 and 2001, the US instigated 201 conflicts. The War on Terror also left a devastating trail of destruction but the UN remained a silent spectator and could not stop the unilateral and largely illegal US-led War on Terror.
UN peacekeeping missions, on many occasions, did not act promptly and pre-emptively to avert humanitarian crises and acts of genocide. In 2000, in a self-evaluation report commissioned by the UN about the effectiveness of the UN peacekeeping mission, the authors concluded that the United Nations repeatedly failed and would continue to do so absent significant institutional reforms and increased financial support. Logistical and political problems including muddled mandates, inadequate resources, the parochial interest of great powers, and indifference on the part of major powers led to inaction in the face of mass atrocities in Rwanda, Srebrenica and South Sudan. Peacekeeping missions also faced allegations of sexual exploitation, abuse and corruption that have further tainted the image and undermined the efficacy of peacekeeping activities. But one thing that is worth-acknowledging is that UN missions have acted quite effectively in their stated objective of no resumption of violence in the post-conflict scenario.
The UN was intended to be the beacon of international peace, stability and economic development. However, structural constraints, geopolitical confrontation, the lopsided organizational structure of the UN Security Council, the restricted role of the ICJ, and other political, institutional and financial problems have led to inaction and lukewarm response in the wake of world’s worst political and humanitarian crises. Out of all the constraints, the undemocratic and unrepresentative nature of the UN Security Council is the foremost root cause of the rapidly-shrinking role of the United Nations. Its structure does not reflect the current geopolitical realities. Since China joined UN Security Council in 1971, the body’s composition has remained unchanged. Two-thirds of countries don’t have any representation and this body has always given undue deference to the political interests of P5 that resulted in the worsening of crises and further reducing the relevancy of the UN. A few suggestions to improve the structure and function of the UN have been discussed below:
Inclusive, representative, transparent and effective UN Security Council; the establishment of an international consortium for fighting viral diseases, biodiversity protection and strengthening warning protocol within UN agencies; transformation in global institutional frameworks to focus more on the Indo-Pacific region rather than Europe to reflect on shift in distribution of power and resource mobilization; the establishment of a dedicated UN institution that focuses on climate change as a separate environmental problem, instead treating it as a cross-cutting factor impacting all spheres of human life by coordination among all UN initiatives and agencies including UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Environmental Program (UNEP); development of communication platform within framework of the United Nations to avert possible China-US war and providing an alternative to synergize efforts on common agenda like peacekeeping, climate change, poverty reduction, disarmament, antiterrorism, non-proliferation and regional security; creation of global framework for data collaboration under the auspices of United Nations for data governance, development of data value-chain technical standards covering data sharing, collection, use, storage and insight from AI; making UN structure more inclusive by giving representation to nonprofits, grassroots movements, corporations and local authorities to accommodate the non-state actors in decision-making process; and, more importantly, successful tackling of the challenges to the multilateralism by defusing geopolitical tensions, expediting global development and fighting populist, Xenophobic, ultra-nationalistic tendencies should go a long way in reinvigorating public trust in the UN.
The United Nations rose from the ashes of the devastating global fight for supremacy and hegemony. It is, undoubtedly, the most significant collective organization that humans have ever carved out. It has shown remarkable resilience over three-quarters of a century and many entities within the UN system have been surprisingly effective in tackling myriad challenges. Though this body’s achievements are eclipsed by missed opportunities and failures in recent decades and years, few would argue that the world has been better off had it not been for the United Nations to run global affairs since 1945. In this time of upheaval when strain is being exerted by the forces of unilateralism and militarism on the frameworks of international institutions entrusted with the responsibility of peaceful conflict resolution, the urgency of reforming this vital institution is more relevant than ever. The UN has been a great initiative and it deserves expansion, consolidation and reinvigoration as the world is set to face transnational crises of climate change, proliferation and infectious diseases which are beyond the power of any state on the face of the Earth. The United Nations is the only feasible answer to tackle them.
The writer is a graduate of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He writes on national and international affairs.