The United Nations – Geared for Change?

For I dipp’d into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonders that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens filled with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew,
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue,
Till the war drums throbbed no longer and the battle flags were furled,
In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the world.

(Lord Alfred Tennyson, Locksley Hall, 1842)

The Phoenix-like emergence of the United Nations Organisation from the ashes of the Second World War was a calculated move to fend off the possibility of such a catastrophe ever recurring, something that its much-discredited predecessor, the League of Nations, had failed to do. To be fair, the sort of baggage the League of Nations had been saddled with had primed it for disaster. For one thing, the Covenant of the League, drawn up by the victors of the First World War, was primarily designed to supplement the terms of the uneven peace treaty with Germany. Such arrogance was not well received in the US, whose senate refused to ratify the Covenant.

Though the the main features of the United Nations had taken shape when the Second World War was still in progress, the term being reportedly coined by US President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1942, the UN charter was drafted as an independent legal instrument at a conference especially convened for the purpose, leading to the establishment of the organisation on 24 October 1945.

Unlike the restrictive nature of the League, the input of as many as 50 nations went towards refining the final text of the UN charter. The cooperative nature of the organisation which emerged contributed in no small part to the independence of erstwhile colonised regions, which in turn generated a rapid growth in UN membership.

Each of these 193 member states enjoy equal representation in the UN General Assembly, which is its principal deliberation and policy-making organ. True power however lies in the UN Security Council, which is the only forum charged with the authority to pass binding resolutions. Its impact is however diluted by the veto power allowed to the five permanent members, which is something the victors of the Second World War wouldn’t compromise on; it was either that or nothing. While seemingly detrimental in most respects, the veto has in its own way served to keep the peace by letting the major powers preserve the status quo in matters where they feel their core interests are threatened. Compliance would have been difficult anyway in such cases.

For the first forty five years of its existence, the hot dynamics of the Cold War kept the UN under check. There were however feeble attempts to oversee implementation of ceasefire agreements in the Middle East in 1949 and in Kashmir one year later. The UN Security Council’s forceful demand in June 1950 for North Korea to withdraw its troops back to the arbitrary border (the 38th parallel) could only come about because the USSR had boycotted the session and because China’s permanent seat was being occupied at the time by the nationalist government in Taiwan. The Korean War was thus fought by the US and its allies under the UN banner. The first UN peacekeeping force could likewise only be established (in 1956) to end the Suez Crisis because it enjoyed the backing of both the superpowers, while the Soviet invasion of Hungary the same year, to quell an insurrection, went uncensured. The UN also deployed troops in 1960 under UNOC(UN Operation in the Congo) to bring the breakaway state of Katonga back into the fold of the Democratic Republic of Congo. By the time order was restored four years later, the crisis in Cyprus also necessitated the stationing of a peace keeping force there.

The UN has, to be sure, notched up some notable pluses and minuses insofar as maintaining the peace is concerned. Successes, relatively speaking, have only come about through the active participation of a major player. Failures likewise stemmed from a lack of collective political will. It’s most monumental failure was in Rwanda, where despite signs of an impending planned genocide, it chose to do do nothing as the 1994 ethnic massacre, which left over a million people dead, unfolded before its eyes. Bosnia of the early 1990s was an equally depressing story as an incoherently defined mission and grossly insufficient troop authorisation allowed not only the siege of Sarajevo to get needlessly prolonged but also enabled town after town to be overrun by Serb nationalists, climaxing in the 1995 massacre of 8000 men and boys in Srebrenica as the much-reviled Dutch peacekeepers stood idly by. Ironically, the shock waves that this hideous incident generated ultimately forced the US to play a more active role in the conflict and bring about the Dayton Accord the same year. Somalia of 1995 was another sad episode, where after the humiliation of US soldiers in Mogadishu, the US and consequently the UN pulled out all its troops which had been employed for humanitarian intervention.

Global peacekeeping missions considerably expanded in scale and scope since the end of the Cold War. UN peacekeepers at present serve in as many as 16 different operations worldwide, South Sudan being the most problematic. As far as resolution of disputes is concerned, UN can either offer non-binding recommendations for Pacific Settlement of Disputes under Chapter 6 of the charter or decide upon stronger measures like the use of armed force or economic sanctions under Chapter 7.

Most people, and even many countries, tend to assess the UNs performance through the linear lens of subjectivity. It could understandably not offer much by way of resolution of complex conflicts in Vietnam, Israel-Palestine and Kashmir for reasons not hard to discern, but that shouldn’t lower its standing as a much-needed fixture in the global landscape. The unpalatable truth however is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. The United States, apart from being the biggest military power, also hosts the UN headquarters in New York in addition to being its largest contributor both for its core and peacekeeping missions. The UN is also as strong or as decisive as the sum total of the 15 member countries that constitute the Security Council, particularly the five permanent ones. Money too is a powerful incentive as evidenced by the recent withdrawal of a human rights report condemning the atrocities of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The threat to withhold Saudi funding for the much-needed poverty alleviation schemes would have put, as Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pointed out, millions at risk had it materialised. Funding can also be a powerful tool for political blackmail as US Republican Presidents have kept threatening to choke it over contentious issues like Israeli settlements and repeated Israeli aggressions.

Talking of subjectivity, we in Pakistan tend to laud the UNSCs historic resolution on plebiscite in Kashmir, while condemning in the same breath its inability to see it through. Since the issue has already been discussed threadbare over the years, permit me to offer just a few passing comments before moving on. Firstly, it was India that had taken the case to the UN under Article 35 of the charter, its sole objective being the reversal of gains made through Pakistan’s alleged aggression. The case never got referred to the International Court of Justice, so the legal aspects didn’t come under the scanner. Once the supposedly aggrieved party, India, which claimed to hold the Instrument of Accession, voluntarily agreed to bow to the will of the people, the Council had its job cut out for them. But the devil, as they say, lay in the details. UNSC accordingly agreed in principle with India that groundwork for the ‘plebiscite’ should be laid first, which entailed a pullback of all of Pakistan’s fighting elements in the initial stage, followed by a progressive reduction of Indian military personnel to the barest minimum required for maintaining law and order. The five member UN commission formed for the purpose was plastered by so many reservations by both India and Pakistan that it gave up in frustration by the end of 1949. A small representation of theUN Military Observors Group in India and Pakistan(UNMOGIP), a remnant of that bygone era, still exists on Pakistan’s side of the line of control, whose notice is regularly invited to all ceasefire violations from the Indian side. Another vital factor figuring in the equation is that the case was adjudicated under Chapter 6 of the UN Charter, which pertains to Pacific Resolution of Disputes, and its recommendations are thus non-binding, with its enforcement being solely dependent on the participants’ goodwill, which in this case didn’t exist. But it was the Simla Agreement of 1972, which binds both adversaries to bilateral negotiations for resolution of disputes, that drove the final nail in the coffin of international mediation. And thus the matter rests…………….. and rests!

The UN is however much more than just the Security Council or even the General Assembly. Other constituents like the UN Secretariat, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council and the International Court of Justice were all part and parcel of its foundational structure. As many as 15 specialised agencies, notably the World Health Organisation, the World Food Programme, UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP, the International Maritime Organisation, the World Bank and the Human Rights Council all serve specific vital functions. The important roles these organs are playing in their respective domains cannot be denied.

One of the aspects that the UN places the utmost emphasis on, at least in theory, is that of human rights. Based on Secretary General Kofi Annan’s suggestion in his ‘In Larger Freedom’ report, the UN Human Rights Council was set up in Geneva in 2006 to replace the UNCHR as the main body responsible for human rights. Though a ‘Universal Periodic Review’ is conducted every four years, overseen by a 47-member elected body, yet in practise, very little has changed: the Council is still subject to the same criticism as earlier, namely the high-profile positions given to those member states that did not respect the human rights of their own citizens.

The perception that changes brought about in the UN mode of governance are reactive in nature rather than proactive may not be completely off the mark, yet the fact remains that the organisation continues to pursue an ambitious agenda for the people’s betterment. The more or less successful culmination of the Millenium Development Goals(MDGs) around two years back, which constituted the most robust global poverty alleviation effort ever undertaken, has given way to the the even more ambitious Sustainable Development Agenda(SDG) which aims to end extreme poverty, narrow inequalities and ensure environmental sustainability by 2030. Results are ultimately dependent on the will of the individual countries themselves, and Pakistan has unfortunately been bracketed in the bottom category of states falling far short of the Millenium targets.

Discussions on reforming the world body have been a regular feature, with its pace noticeably quickening after the end of the Cold War. The UN has invested in some key studies in a bid to improve upon the way it conducts its primary peace support mission. The ‘Agenda for Peace’ report of 1992(an initiative of Secretary General Boutros Ghali) highlighted the need for bolstering the organisation’s capabilities in preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and post conflict reconstruction. The Brahimi Report of 2000 by a panel(set up by Secretary General Kofi Annan) of high level independent experts referred again to the importance of capacity building, while pointing out at the same time the major impediments being faced by the UNs peace support missions, namely the reluctance of member states to commit financial resources or even personnel. A sort of progress report(‘In Larger Freedom’) on the UNs efficacy in tackling all the key fields of security, development and human rights was presented by Secretary General Kofi Annan before the UN General Assembly in 2005. The ‘High Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations’ established by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on 31 October 2014 also released its report within a few months.

Calls for institutional reforms to make the UN more effective, responsive and transparent continue to gather pace, much of it regrettably guided by narrow national objectives. The G4 Group(comprising Germany, Japan, Brazil and India), created in 1992,continues to agitate for a permanent seat for each of its members. Two of these countries, Japan and Germany, happen to be the 2nd and 3rd largest donors of UN funds, while the other two are the largest contributors of troops for UN-mandated peace-keeping missions. The ‘Uniting for Consensus’ Group spearheaded by Italy, the 6th largest donor, while voicing its opposition to any change in the permanent membership, desires a fairer global representation through the addition of 20 additional non-permanent seats. Needless to say, Pakistan is a staunch supporter of this group. It is a fact that the Asia-Pacific region in general, which accounts for 55% of the world’s population, is grossly underrepresented(just 2 of the 10 rotating SC seats). India has surprisingly garnered the support of four of the five permanent SC members for its bid, while the fifth,China, is not averse to offering the country its conditional support. Pakistan’s UN delegation has thus got its work cut out for them. African countries on the other hand are interested in bagging two permanent seats for the continent to atone for ‘historic injustices’. Progress in the matter is thus understandably slow because of such deeply entrenched positions.

The four nations initiative( an endeavour of Chile, South Africa, Sweden and Thailand) aimed at enhancing accountability and transparency through governance and management reforms is something that the world needs to take more seriously. On a different level, voices being raised by the developing countries for a more democratic set-up are not likely to be heeded by those enjoying the fruits of the status quo.

As mentioned earlier, developed countries, which provide compulsory annual contributions in line with the strength of their economy(GDP), do tend to use these payments as a tool for furthering individual national interests. Additional voluntary contributions also enhances this leverage. Having said that, the UN also rightfully comes under fire for its endemic corruption, waste and mismanagement of resources. It has been argued that spending on all UN bodies and activities, which came to $45 billion in 2013, is negligible when compared to the world economy’s annual GDP of $100 trillion. Increased funding will however not come about till the donors’ valid concerns about accountability are not met. Instances of corruption in the UN oil-for-food programme in Iraq gave rise to a reform agenda covering oversight, integrity and ethics. The Office of Internal Oversight Services(OIOS) was created in 1994 to fight corruption and mismanagement within the UN system. The 60th UN General Assembly Summit in 2005 specifically addressed the issue of UN accountability and transparency, laying down some detailed recommendations in the process. The reform process is thus an ongoing one.

It must be admitted that as a world body the UN does have its limitations. In the same breath, it cannot be denied that the vital services it is providing in terms of war prevention, keeping the peace, conflict resolution, poverty alleviation, human rights, education, health awareness, maritime safety, maritime security, climate change concerns and environmental betterment is beyond comparison. It is after all the UN which has gathered together all nations big and small under one umbrella. With so many problems plaguing the planet, if ever the world needed such a common platform to stand upon, it is now. We in Pakistan have as big a stake as anyone else, as the vast majority of conflicts currently raging are in the broader Indian Ocean region to which we belong. It should thus be our endeavour in concert with other like-minded nations to agitate in favour of bringing about the improvements needed to inject justice, fairplay and transparency into the system. This would hopefully make the world body more responsive and accountable, and the world in turn a better place to live in.


Note: This article was published in the July 2017 edition of the ‘Global Age’ monthly magazine.




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