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A Facelift for the UN
How a fortified United Nations could enhance global cooperation
By Yu Lintao | NO. 40 OCTOBER 1, 2015

 

People hold the flags of their respective nations during the Peace Bell Ceremony to commemorate International Day of Peace on September 21 at the UN headquarters in New York City (CFP)

The United Nations (UN) is celebrating its 70th birthday. As the world's largest and most authoritative international organization, the UN is playing a commendable role in maintaining world peace.

However, the world in its current state is far from tranquil. Numerous, decades-long regional conflicts still exist; more recently, Syrian and Ukrainian political crises have led to large numbers of civilian casualties; and terrorism continues to pose enormous security risks to communities around the world. Europe has been hit with the largest refugee crisis in recent history, with families risking everything and fleeing at all costs to get to a safer space. All of the aforementioned have had effects on people's daily lives as they work to protect and provide for their families.

Many people who are distressed by such international social disorder tend to blame the UN for its weak leadership, complaining that the UN has not fully lived up to its responsibilities. In spite of palpable dissatisfaction, the complaint is without a doubt a reflection of the high expectations the international community places on this unparalleled international body.

Limitations 

As the UN turns 70, the international community is taking an inventory of the UN's strengths and weaknesses. The general consensus confirms the need for the UN to continue its efforts to safeguard world peace.

However, there continues to be a gap between the UN's potential for resolving conflicts and its realized success. The more than half-century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still protracted. Behind Syria's civil war and the Ukrainian crisis is the wrestling of the world's major powers. Despite the fact that the majority of UN members might hope for a peaceful resolution to the numerous and varied crises, the ability of the UN to solve these conflicts is not always manifested. Some even claimed that in the face of these problems, the UN merely provides a platform for empty speeches and a forum for diplomats to express regrets.

"It is a fact that the collective UN responses to these issues are weak, but the real issue is the policy differences behind the scenes among the member states," explained Zheng Qirong, Vice President of China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU) and a member of the UN Association of China.

Given that the UN is an international organization comprised of 193 member states, it generates no power itself unless authorized by a majority of its members to act. Thus, Zheng noted, if the UN is not authorized by its members or no consensus is reached by member states, the UN cannot take effective actions on its own accord. Its power is therefore limited to the will of the majority.

Further still, the heightened power of the UN Security Council members gives participating states the possibility of abusing the veto power.

It is widely known that behind UN decisions regarding regional hot-button issues lie the world's big powers as they try to wield their influence for their own or their allies' interests. For instance, to show support to its historical ally, Israel, the United States has used its veto power in the Security Council against UN resolutions to solve the Israeli-Palestinian territorial conflict about a dozen times since 2000 alone. The conflicts have left tens of thousands of Palestinians homeless.

Jia Lieying, Director of the UN Research Center under the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU), said that as an international organization, the UN is a platform for world member--led first and foremost by big, influential powers--to play a role in dealing with world affairs. If its most powerful members give no substantial support to the platform, the UN can hardly perform its role.

"The UN is dependent on the funding it receives from its member states. But funding is consistently insufficient as many countries shy away from investing the required financial or material needs. Without the necessary support from its members, the UN is limited in its ability to provide the resources to effectively live up to its potential as the world's largest peacekeeping body," Jia said.

 

Haitians and UN Stabilization Mission members load an injured woman into a helicopter after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince on January 13, 2010 (CFP)

Contributions 

Although the UN mechanism has its own limitations, foreign policy experts claim the UN's role over the last 70 years has been crucial to today's peace.

Starting just after the UN was founded, the Cold War threatened the very existence of major world powers and their peoples. But after 40 long years of posturing for strategic advantage, the Cold War was brought to a close through diplomatic means without nuclear confrontation.

Official statistics show that in the past 70 years, the UN Security Council has adopted more than 2,000 resolutions to handle disputes and promote stability. UN peacekeeping forces have carried out 71 missions to deescalate regional conflicts. Despite disastrous setbacks in Somalia and Rwanda, UN missions have prevented most of the crises from getting worse.

Under the promotion of the UN, many nuclear-weapon-free zones around the world were established; the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction process made substantial progress; and a number of treaties on arms control and nonproliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons were signed.

According to Zheng, the UN has played a unique role in safeguarding international security and minimizing transnational conflicts.

In addition, Zheng told Beijing Review that, without the UN's continued existence, one could not imagine a situation in which so many sovereign countries have a seat at the table. When the UN was chartered, most of the world was under the colonial rule of Western powers, while smaller countries with newfound independence were often impoverished and enfeebled.

There were only 51 member states when the UN was created, but now the number of UN members has reached 193. Zheng said, "The wave of independence for countries around the world was directly related to the UN's promotion of decolonization and its support for social development."

Another recognizable contribution of the UN is its role in promoting economic development worldwide. "Even though people usually attribute economic development to technological innovation and individual countries' domestic incentives to grow their own economies, the UN's contribution cannot be overstated due to its strong commitment to reducing extreme poverty and its efforts to coordinate global development," said Zheng.

Since the 1960s, the UN has launched four development programs in succession. In 2000, the UN initiated the 15-year-long Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In many ways, the MDGs have helped improve the lives of millions of people. In 1990, nearly half of the population in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 a day, while that proportion dropped to 14 percent in 2015; worldwide, the mortality rate for children under age five dropped 50 percent, from 90 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 43 in 2015, according to UN statistics. These figures represent astonishing progress.

At the end of September, UN members are poised to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The agenda seeks "to build on the MDGs and complete what these did not achieve. They seek to realize the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental."

On the UN contribution on protecting human rights, Wang Wei, a researcher with the China Institute of International Studies, noted that besides issuing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international covenants on human rights, the UN's role in promoting social and economic development can be seen as the most significant contribution in protecting human rights.

 

UN peacekeepers record details of weapons recovered from Rwandan militants after their surrender in Kateku on May 30, 2014 (CFP)

New energy  

With a rise in conflicts around the world and their global impact, it has become both more necessary and urgent to reform the UN to give it new life.

At a recent seminar on world order construction at CFAU, the majority of participating Chinese scholars of international studies agreed that the current world order should be improved on the basis of the UN framework.

It is important to note that although the global political situation continues to change rapidly--with devastating consequences for those least fortunate--observers tend to agree that there is no need for the international community to construct a new institutional body to bypass the UN.

"The current international system led by the UN is stable and irreplaceable, and what we need to do is take reform measures to improve it," said Xia Liping with Shanghai-based Tongji University at the seminar.

Zheng also noted that improving the world order under the framework of the UN is an option much more likely to be accepted by the international community.

As a massive organization, the UN has consistently had problems related to overstaffing, inconsistent management, and inefficient mechanisms.

Zheng believes the UN reform should start with strengthening internal management and extend to enhancing efficiency and streamlining authority channels. He also believes it is important to improve the political will to facilitate the UN's reform and ensure the UN can always be effective. The support of member states, particularly big financial and political powers, is crucial to achieving this goal.

"For big powers, their support to the UN first should be paying their contribution on time and in full while using veto power with caution," Zheng stressed.

In the past several decades, the world order has witnessed a series of big powers extending their influence over the work of the UN. It started with general confrontation of bipolar powers; then the Group of Eight's dominance of the world economy; and more recently the focus has been on the emergence of the Group of 20, also known as the G20 and the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

Jia with the BLCU told Beijing Review  that the variation of national strength and international status of the countries also requires UN reform to reflect these changes.

Jia believes that the voices of China and India, the two fastest-growing economies in the world, in the IMF and World Bank should be increased; as two big fund contributors to the UN, the role of Germany and Japan should also be promoted within the UN system. "We need to at least create some mechanism to show the corresponding status of these countries in the UN, which will boost their willingness in participating in world affairs and maximize their roles in promoting the development of humankind."

Observers also noted that the UN needs to adapt its focus to tackling new challenges. As issues such as non-traditional security threats, climate change, as well as an imbalance of regional economic development increasingly concern people's lives more directly, the UN needs to invest more energy in addressing their related challenges.

Zheng stressed that economic development has now become the most prominent issue facing world leaders. "Without comprehensive economic expansion, none of the problems can be adequately resolved," he added.

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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