The United Nations (UN) was set up 75 years ago with the aim of maintaining world peace and security. However, the 21st century world is very different from the 20th century one. The humanitarian and economic losses due to the Covid-19 pandemic are comparable to that of major wars. Unemployment is worse than at any time since the Great Depression of 1929. The pandemic has highlighted the new challenges before the multilateral UN system.
There has been a general trend of challenges that are trans-national in character (for example, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, pandemics, climate crisis, cyber-security, and poverty). The UN being the epitome of a multilateral world order will be much needed in dealing with such global issues. Reforms in the UN are necessary to strengthen its effectiveness as a multilateral organization and to bring more transparency to the institution which will enhance its credibility.
The conflict between the US on the one hand and China and Russia on the other has become a new reality. It has given birth to a new cold war. Despite the enduring post-War alliances, there is a growing divergence between US and its European partners on many global issues. Some of the differences between the US and the other powers are very visible in the Iran Nuclear Deal. Rejection of post-War multilateralism and post-Cold War globalism was at the heart of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.
The UN has been unable to respond effectively to the once-in-a-century global crisis triggered by the coronavirus. At the UN Security Council (UNSC), China blocked a serious discussion on the origin and sources of the crisis. The US walked out of the World Health Organisation (WHO) alleging that it was unduly supporting China.
Why reforms are needed?
The Security Council’s membership and working methods reflect a bygone era. Though geopolitics has changed drastically, the UNSC has changed relatively little since 1945, when wartime victors crafted a Charter in their interest and awarded “permanent” veto-wielding Council seats to the Allied victors. The UNSC was expanded only once in 1963 to add 4 non-permanent members. Although the overall membership of the UN has increased from 113 to 193, there has been no change in the core composition of the UNSC.
There is inequitable economic and geographical representation in the UNSC. While Europe is over-represented, Asia is underrepresented. Africa and South America have no representation at all. Various issues including UN interventions in Libya and Syria in the name of responsibility have put questions on the credibility of the institution. The permanent UNSC membership portrays the big North-South divide in the decision making over security measures. For instance, there is no permanent member from Africa, despite the fact that 75% of the UN’s work is focused on that continent. Issues such as deepening economic interdependence, worsening environmental degradation, transnational threats also call for effective multilateral negotiations among countries based on consensus. Yet, all critical decisions of the UNSC are still being taken by the permanent members of the Security Council.
UN’s Limitations and Failures
Although a third world war has been successfully prevented so far, violence, arm races, nuclear races and cold wars still occur among nations. The world body continues to see a tussle between ‘principle’ and ‘power’. While the hopes of a peaceful and just world are represented by the UN, the most powerful states are privileged by granting them commanding heights over international politics via the undemocratic instruments of veto power and permanent seats in the UNSC.
The UN has been unable to present itself as a multipolar and multilateral organisation. At the time of formation, the UN had 5 permanent members with a total of 51 members. Now it has 193 members but permanent members in the UN General Assembly are still 5. The organisation has not been able to cope with increasing globalisation. The UN has been a laggard in overall development; no institutional arrangement is there to deal in particular with pandemics or new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence.
Areas of UN Reform
The UNSC is the UN’s main executive body with the primary responsibility of maintaining international peace and security. However, the veto powers possessed by the UNSC’s five permanent members are used as an instrument to shore up their geopolitical interests, regardless of the disastrous consequences for victims of armed conflict, as can be seen in Syria, Iraq, etc.
The UNSC is considered the ‘nucleus’ of the UN system. It is the only body that has real punitive powers. Thus the leading powers of the international system try to dictate terms. The fact that the UNSC membership expansion reforms haven’t taken place for decades together signifies how the leading powers want it to remain a ‘closed club’. Further, it does not reflect today’s distribution of military and economic power, nor geographical balance. Thus, the structure of the Security Council ought to be more democratic and representative. This has been long overdue, while the demand grows, especially from the so-called Group of 4 (G4) countries — Brazil, Germany, India and Japan — for a permanent seat for all of them.
History teaches that crises catalyse states to rise above inertia, myopia, and narrow self-interest. This can be reflected in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the conferences at Bretton Woods and San Francisco in the 1940s, etc. The present pandemic is similar to the crisis that can lead to a tectonic shift in world affairs. Further, given the global issues today, the world needs multilateralism more than ever. Thus, it is necessary to reform the UN. In this context, India must utilise the next two years of its non-permanent membership of UNSC for bringing the much-needed reforms in the system.
India has harboured ambitions to be on the seat of the high table of global diplomacy from times as early as India’s first Prime Minister saying that India should get its rightful place in the comity of nations, a well-deserved place owing to its great civilisation. Several permanent members of UNSC have backed India’s candidature at the high table of the council, but it is fairly safe to say it is not going to materialise anytime soon.
The UN has survived and thrived and has certainly seen incremental changes over the last 75 years, but the time has come for the UN to change and change for the better. The sooner the better, the later the more redundant. In a nutshell, as far as the whole UN is concerned, complete reform is needed so that its principles and policies are not written by the most powerful anymore.
The writer is from Raiyar Doodhpathri and writes regularly on current affairs. [email protected]