By: Ryan Mitra
Ever since its formation in 1945, the United Nations has served as one of the theatres for diplomatic endeavors in context of the ever-changing geopolitics around the world. After a period of what academics describe as stagnation during the Cold War, the 1990s were conceptualized as the period where the UN would reclaim its role as the global benefactor, and rise up to be the intergovernmental organization at the forefront of global security and cooperation. But as the century came to an end and a new one began, we are still left asking the question: why has the UN failed in achieving its mandated goals?
Horror stories from Rwanda, Bosnia, Indonesia, Myanmar, China, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir in India, and so many more capture a major space in the public imagination. The failure to protect the victims of genocide, war crimes, or draconian statesmanship一 in public rhetoric, more often than not this failure is accorded to states as singular entities or the United Nations as a whole. This seems to drive the misconceptions about the UN’s role as an actor in international relations. It is almost too easy for politicians and the media to rouse civilians by shifting the blame to the ‘United Nations’ without acknowledging the complex network of operations that states themselves have established within this organization.
Adding to this, actions of UN organs that have saved thousands of lives from disease and hunger are almost never acknowledged under the same light by the same entities. The ‘United Nations’ is nothing more than a symbol, a flag, a few buildings, and a motif. It is more of an ambiguous blanket structure than an embodiment of specific, highly specialized sub-institutions that actually partake in modern international relations and impact the global system and every single actor within. On the same lines, the criticism of the ‘United Nations’ and calling for its reform is equally ambiguous which prima facie may seem as the necessary step to fix a broken system, but with a little deeper thinking one realizes that it’s a really hollow approach to looking at this system in the first place. In short, one should ask themselves, ‘not what, but who is the UN?’
Furthermore, the current argumentation for reform needs to be looked at on 2 levels – accountability and purpose. Like every state, the United Nations is a system constituted of a network of organs, bureaucracies, and actors, which actually undertakes operations to meet the political will of its members. Now within a state, when there is a call for reform, one doesn’t criticize the ‘state’ but rather a particular actor within it who is accountable for the grievance at hand. For example, one can look at the recent procurement of Rafale fighter jets that has enveloped much of India’s discourse一 the criticism was at first of the Indian government, and then more specifically at the Ministry of Defense. On the same lines, if one was to look at the tragedies or crises that the world has faced recently, the actors from the UN could be boiled down to identifiable units. The United Nations Security Council in the crises in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, the World Health Organization (as ironically pointed out by former President of the United States, Donald Trump) in the handling of the coronavirus.
The call for reform gestures to a call for accountability. The call for reform of the ‘United Nations’ may seem like a clarion call, but it really does lack any substance. If we associate the failures of the WHO and the UNSC to the UN as a whole, then its victories must also be considered. The success of the World Food Programme in 2020, the WHO’s eradication of small pox, and the on-going eradication of polio should, by the same thread of logic, be associated to the UN as well. Here is where the dissonance takes place. How can the UN be responsible for the ongoing pandemic but also win the Noble Peace Prize the same year? How can the UN be responsible for inaction in preventing genocide but also be undertaking commendable efforts to protect refugees fleeing from these acts? For academics who’ve studied this for years, it is easier to see the finer distinctions and the flaws in public discourse. But it is time for the latter to be clear on what it is asking for.
This brings us to what is the purpose of the reform of specific organs of the UN. Is the reform supposed to indicate a symbolic shift and widen representation, or is the reform supposed to change the functioning of the organ altogether? If public discourse is to permeate to policy deliberations, debates around UN reform should not be looked at along homogenous lines, which can cause misconceptions around the probable results of these reforms. Consider the proposed UNSC reform by the Group of 4, that widens permanent membership of the council. This would definitely be a symbolic change in the structure of the council and would widen substantial representation, making it more equitable. At the same time, there is no evidence that indicates that it would actually cure the inertia of the council. Permanent members would still have executive authority to veto action at their discretion. Thus, the nexus of power still boils down to individual entities that are empowered with the power of a veto; the only change is that there is an increase in the number of such entities.
On the other hand, the abandonment of and decreasing faith in organs such as the WHO because of its shortcomings in addressing the coronavirus is anathematic to the very principle on which the organization was founded. The WHO is supposed to be the gatekeeper for alerting the world of potential epidemics, and in this case, it failed to do so in a timely manner. But that is not its sole function, nor is the coronavirus its sole prerogative. The WHO undertakes various operations and research initiatives spanning across thousands of maladies and pathogens. It is also responsible for the delivery of vaccines and other medical supplies in all parts of the world, especially in conflict and post-conflict regions. A blanketed call for reform or abandonment will impact individual entities on the ground, which otherwise have no recourse to accessible medical aid.
Experiences should drive the discourse that the common person undertakes about the UN. But it is important一 especially in an age where paradoxically an excess of information and disinformation have engulfed our conversations一 that we speak of these experiences in a larger context of other experiences that we might not be privy to. The organs of the UN have impacted all our lives in some manner. It could have been through their inaction, their relentless efforts, or simply through their presence in our daily culture. It is time we speak of the shortcomings of these specific organs in pursuit of accountability rather than simply blaming a larger motif. The reform we as a global community so deeply desire won’t happen to the ‘United Nations,’ it will occur to a very specific sub-institutions, and it’s time we speak on those lines as well.