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Making sense of the United Nations

  • Published at 11:21 am October 21st, 2017
Making sense of the United Nations
People are disillusioned with the United Nations for one reason or another. But it could be boiled down to one simple summary: people think it is biased and not effective. But there are different reasons why people think that. A lot of the time though, people think so because the regime they support was met with harsh judgements by the UN.

Who hates the UN?

In the wake of the recent and ongoing massacre of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, one supporter of the government posted on Twitter: “Myanmar are not allowing international because we found that UN, NGO and INGO are supporting Terrorists.” This attitude is not uncommon at all and generally echoed throughout the world by supporters of state sponsored crimes. When the state of Israel was created through a resolution at the UN, it was cheered on by the Israelis. But Israelis now routinely vilify the UN calling it “anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitic”, because of the UN's criticism of Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Just recently, the United States, Israel's biggest ally, announced its decision of withdrawing from UNESCO to make a stand against the agency's “anti-Israel bias.” UN reports, coming in many forms and on many occasions, accused Israel, among other things, of inflicting “collective punishment” on the people of Palestine and accused Israeli forces of committing “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions. The UN is now universally hated in Israel, as mirrored in its mainstream media.

But is it actually biased?

It is true that the structure of the organisation inherently provides certain privileges to powerful countries. The existing structure came out of the experience of an earlier attempt and failure to consolidate a similar body, namely the League of Nations. “We need to remember that the failure of the League of Nations, the predecessor of the UN, to contain the rise of Germany that eventually led to the outbreak of the Second World War led to the idea of a world body that would be able to overcome the challenges experienced by the League. The architects of the postwar peace arrangements decided that an international body should rest its consultable and actionable power vested to a few countries instead of going for the majority decision-making procedure,” said Dr Sohela Nazneen, professor of International Relations at University of Dhaka (DU). The notion that the UN helps big powers often originates from the contentious veto system. The veto power is popularly seen as an obstacle to successful working of the UN. Dr Ashequa Irshad, professor of International Relations at DU thinks that the veto power is not the problem in and of itself. “Even if the veto was done away with, would it make the UN more effective?” she rhetorically asked. Therefore, the notion that the UN is biased toward big powers is mistaken. The prevailing mechanism relies on five big powers to maintain peace and security in the world. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China, also commonly known as P5 members, who hold veto power, are largely responsible for making the UN an effective international body. “The P5 members, like all the other countries, are driven by their own national interest and this is reflected in their decision-making at the UN. Therefore, when we assume that the UN favours big power, this is flawed,” Professor Nazneen explained.

How do you explain the inefficiency?

The reason people think the UN is inefficient is because there are still numerous wars going on in the world; ethnic cleansing can be carried out by a member state with apparent impunity and oppressive regimes just go about torturing people with free rein. Meet the “problem of enforceability”. The inefficiency of the UN stems mainly from the paradoxical situation with enforceability. The UN can pass resolution after resolution, but there is no real policing mechanism in place that will enforce them. Even the rulings by ICJ (International Court of Justice, the primary judicial branch of the UN) cannot be enforced like legislations or court orders within a sovereign state. In simple terms, it means that if the ICJ found the wall built by Israel across the West Bank to be a violation of international law, as it has, and the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that condemned the barrier by a vote of 150–6 with 10 abstentions, as it did, then there are no UN police who will go down there to bring the wall down. Ultimately, UN resolutions and ICJ decisions are as strong as the political power of a sovereign that wants to enforce or violate those resolutions and decisions. “…producing reports on any issue does not necessarily indicate that the UN has the power to implement the recommendations of the report. This may lead to the misconception regarding the UN being manipulated by any particular country,” said Dr Nazneen.

What is it good for then?

While the problem with enforceability limits the UN’s function, the organisation provides certain deterrence capacity which safeguards against potentially worse situations. It is indeed sad that the best thing that can be said about the only collective effort by the whole of humanity is that it’s not worse. However, that will be too simplistic a statement and too harsh to the organisation. The reports and study produced at the UN by its various agencies and bodies are authoritative and do command relatively undisputed acceptance. “The UN has its multiple organs and institutions that commission reports on issues relating to global peace, security and development. Apart from that, often the UN Secretary General also requests different UN bodies to investigate issues that require global attention. A team of experts are appointed to carry out such investigations. Over the years, the UN has been able to earn a reputation on the authenticity of its reports,” said Professor Nazneen. Ultimately, the UN is neither the messiah people wish it was, nor it is the devil people imagine it is. “In spite of all its drawbacks, the UN is still the most effective forum for all states, particularly the not-so-powerful ones,” Professor Irshad said. “The UN does impart a formal recognition to big powers, but even without it, the powerful states would have been in an advantageous position,” she added.