“Fixing” the United Nations

July 5, 2006 | By | 3 Replies More

We all know the story of the League of Nations. An early, botched attempt at international diplomacy, history tells us it collapsed due to its own lack of authority and under the chaos created by a body of countries all fighting for individual interest, rather than global good. In history classes, we read that the League of Nations proved totally ineffectual, doomed from the start by its own design.

In recent years, such criticisms have likewise fallen upon the League’s replacement, the United Nations. Citing failures such as Iraq’s 17 ignored resolutions since 1991, the corruption behind the Oil for Food Programme, and more recently, the UN’s inability to respond to crises such as the genocide in Darfur and the nuclear development of North Korea, the UN’s critics see the body as both powerless and bogged down in bureaucratic corruption. The UN either needs massive reform, critics say, or we should take John Bolton’s suggestion and blow ten stories off the UN Secretary Building and rid ourselves of the mess.

Such fiercely anti-UN rhetoric may have its home in the United States, but much of the world seems to recognize the need for a sweeping change. Attempts at reform have come in a variety of packages, but have yet to achieve any results that pacify complaints.

In 1997, Kofi Annan created an official reform program that aimed to make the UN’s bureaucracy “more efficient, transparent, and effective” by holding it more accountable, as well as an even more vague goal of making the UN “more democratic”. If this attempt panned out, its success didn’t reach far and didn’t receive much publicity. We know from the later Oil for Food scandal that Annan’s reform attempts at the very least failed to clean up bureaucracy.

Then in September of 2005, the UN convened a World Summit with widespread reform in mind. The goal sounded commendable, but the actual ground covered by the meeting seems largely symbolic at best. The text agreed upon at this summit includes:

  • the creation of a Peacebuilding Commission to provide a central mechanism to help countries emerging from conflict;
  • The agreement that the international community has the right to step in when national governments fail to fulfill their responsibility to protect their own citizens from atrocity crimes;
  • a Human Rights Council;
  • an agreement to devote more resources to UN’s internal oversight agency;
  • several agreements to spend billions more on achieving Millennium Development Goals;
  • a clear and unambiguous condemnation of terrorism “in all its forms and manifestations.”;
  • a Democracy Fund;
  • an agreement to wind up the Trusteeship Council due to the completion of its mission;
  • clear and unambiguous acceptance by all governments of the collective international responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity;
  • increasing Security Council seating from 15 to 24 members

Some of these provisions sound excellent. Making the Security Council larger, for instance, would assuage some of the concerns that the Council does not adequately represent world opinion. “Winding up” the Trusteeship Council makes sense too—no need to leave unnecessary bureaucracy hanging around longer than we need it. But what does the rest of this agreement actually say? These provisions call for the creation of another committee, a new council, and a new fund, all to address issues the UN already had in its scope- peacebuilding, human rights, and the spread of democracy. The creation of new sub-entities hardly seems like the way to cut down on the oft-criticized bureaucratic waste of the UN.

In all fairness, perhaps these new entities will make the UN’s many jobs easier. Spreading democracy, rebuilding damaged areas, and addressing humanitarian concerns all require a large-scale, multifaceted approach, and most would agree that the UN still has more ground to cover in these arenas. If the UN faces criticism for neglecting human rights abuses, the UN ought to place more energy into addressing the problem, after all.

So let’s instead inspect the remaining provisions: the agreement that the UN should not condone terrorism, and the agreement that nations have both the right and responsibility to step in during instances of crimes against humanity. Do these phrases refer specifically to the genocide in Sudan, for instance? It doesn’t matter, because this mostly empty rhetoric calls for no actual change in policy or organization. Instead it simply agrees, in a frustratingly nonspecific way, that nations in the UN have ethical responsibilities, and also that no one likes terrorism. Hardly earth-shattering stuff.

We can easily look at the UN with harsh criticism, though. This world and the nations within it face myriad issues, endlessly complex conflicts of interest and need. To expect the UN to address all of the issues it embraces- eliminating poverty, raising living standards, preventing armed conflicts, controlling humanitarian concerns, fighting disease- makes for a very unrealistic demand. People like John Bolton can look at the instances of inefficacy and corruption within the UN, recognize that the US fronts 22% of the organization’s budget, and conclude that we shouldn’t waste our time and money on an inherently flawed body. The very fact that the UN faces many of the same issues as the League of Nations suggests that indeed, international diplomacy may come with some inherent flaws. Perhaps we really should just save ourselves the trouble.

In June of 2005, the House of Representatives passed a bill threatening to sever UN funding in half by 2008. This bill has never made it to the Senate, but the basic sentiment behind it looms over US international affairs. We can still hear the complaints now: The UN is biased against us. If anything will get done in this world, we have to do it ourselves. The UN holds no real relevance anyway, why should we adhere to it?

That exact mentality led us into Iraq despite international clambering against it. That mentality cannot help us resolve the current nuclear development conflict with North Korea. Thanks to Iraq, we’ve spread ourselves too thin in men, in finances, and in international patience. If ever the powerful, individualistic US has needed the world’s good favor, we need it now. If ever the world has needed an international organization to address diplomatic and humanitarian issues, the world needs it now.

Ultimately, the House’s bill to pull UN funding by 50% failed to come to fruition because the Bush administration, as well as many Democrats, warned that such a move would only harm efforts at UN reform. UN reform must have great importance if even the mostly UN-shunning Bush administration could recognize it.

So, why should we bother “fixing” a body that seems in many ways doomed to the same fate as the League of Nations? First, we often neglect one of the reasons for the League of Nation’s failure. The League of Nations had no army, and hence no power, as we never fail to recall. But the League failed for one more crucial blunder: every member-nation still behaved in the best interest of itself, not with international cooperation in mind. The US failed to join the League of Nations and provide it with legitimacy it desperately required, not unlike the way the US fails to take the League’s modern-day counterpart seriously. Yes, the UN has many issues that need to see real resolve, no one doubts that fact. But to make the necessary changes, the US must willingly cooperate and contribute. Hell, even the Bush administration can see that.


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Category: Current Events, Politics

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (3)

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  1. Sujay says:

    No wonder the resolutions passed are so vague. The problem with the UN, is that while it does condemn conflicts not involving a superpower, it is always equivocal when it does involve a superpower. What for instance is "terrorism"? Does the U.S. invasion of Iraq and subsequent death of 100,000 people qualify as terrorism? These terms have been kept vague for the convenience of the superpowers, so that they can use UN for conflicts they are in, and shut it up, if it becomes a nuisance. That apart, the U.N. seems to have been sidelined in conflict so often, it has come to accept the function of merely providing the tag of 'international solidarity' to side X in a conflict. There is little action taken by U.N. forces themselves. To see how perfunctory the role of U.N. has become in today's times, watch the excellent movie "No Man's Land".

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    I suspect that many of the achievements of the U.N. are less visible than the failures. For instance, I thought that this list of U.N. achievements, despite the self-congratulatory spin, was quite impressive.

    I also think that having an official place and method of communicating ideas is important, even if most of the communication is not productive and even if some of the communication is counterproductive.

    There are always two ways of looking at flawed organizations: disband them or improve them. Thank goodness there are still people willing to try to improve the UN (e.g., the 2005 summit). For me, it boils down to this question: without a flawed UN, then what? It is irresponsible to cast stones at an institution that is meeting important needs without proposing a method of improving it.

  3. rosa says:

    the united nations is only as good as the people who run it, if the governments are corrupt then it will be corrupt, it is the us that supports it most especially with more than 20 percent of it';s finances.

    from my perspective it is basically just one big bankcorp. the us and britain (or bankers depending on who you ask) will support the un and give it teeth when it is in the best interest of the world power know as the anglo american world power (or those who actually own it) it is being used to subjugate the world not liberate it or give it equal power. it is like a front corporation.

    it is about consolitdating the power. join our united nations and do what we say or we will prevent you from doing business with anyone or we will attack you poitically or in the end we will attack militarily.

    but who are the real owners? I have yet to figure that one out, some say international bankers, some say wealthy politicians or maybe some one else? if anyone can shed some light that would be nice. who are the actually owners of the super banks? who are the major shareholders?

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