Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

Role of the United Nations in the contemporary world

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Asoke Kumar Mukerji
    Venue: Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi
    Date: August 23, 2017

It is generally accepted that the United Nations (UN) has been given the mandate by the UN Charter of 1945 to play a role for maintaining international peace and security, for using international cooperation to address global socio-economic, cultural and humanitarian issues, and for upholding respect for human rights and non-discriminatory fundamental human freedoms. These are often called the three pillars of the UN system.

The "Declaration by United Nations” was formally launched on 1 January 1942 at a conference of 26 allied nations in Washington DC, convened by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the United States. The intention was to create structures of global governance under the broad framework of the UN to both secure and sustain the peace that would come after the Second World War ended. Though divided between British India and Indian Princely States, India was one of the 26 participating nations in this Conference. India participated in the UN process as an original member. Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, then India’s Agent-General in the United States, signed the Declaration on behalf of India.

Preventing a third world war after 1945 has often been considered a success of the UN. This is despite the fact that by the end of 2016, more than 65 million people across the world were displaced by war and violent conflict, the highest such figure since the end of the Second World War.

Any assessment of the role of the UN in the world today would have to begin with a survey of the structures that the UN has created, because the responsiveness of the UN to the issues confronting the world can only be gauged by the effectiveness of its structures.

The attempt to establish the first structures of contemporary global governance under the "Declaration by United Nations” framework took place even before the Second World War ended. This revolved around the creation of a triad of organizations to deal with financial, developmental and trade policies to sustain the peace. Two specialized international organizations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (or the World Bank) were established through negotiations conducted during July 1944 at Bretton Woods in the United States among 44 participating nations. Their objective was to overcome economic nationalism, which had given rise to conditions leading to the Second World War, and to facilitate the flow of capital for investments in reconstruction and development, especially of infrastructure, to sustain economic growth.

Efforts to create the third international organization to coordinate globally on trade issues, recommended by both the Bretton Woods Conference, and subsequently by the UN, foundered due to opposition in the Congress of the United States. A provisional arrangement, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs or GATT, dealing with liberalization of tariffs imposed on trade in goods, was reached by 23 countries in 1947. This provisional arrangement was not enforceable. It was only on 1 January 1995 that agreement was reached on establishing a global trade organization, based on the two fundamental principles of equity, namely Most-Favoured-Nation (MFN) treatment and National Treatment applied to trade in goods and services, with an enforceable dispute settlement mechanism. Five decades after the UN was established, the World Trade Organization (WTO), consisting of 123 countries, completed the triad of international organizations created to sustain the peace. India is a founding member of the IMF, World Bank and GATT/WTO.

The UN itself was created through negotiations on adopting the UN Charter. The Charter, adopted in June 1945 in San Francisco by 51 founding members, created the UN General Assembly (UNGA) which today brings together 193 countries or member states. The Charter endorsed the democratic principle of decision-making with the principle of one-country-one-vote in the UNGA and its subsidiary bodies, with decisions on specified important questions requiring a two-thirds majority vote. All structures in the UN system work under the UNGA.

The Charter created the UN Security Council, initially consisting of five self-selected permanent members (France, the Republic of China, the United Kingdom, United States and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), and six non-permanent members who would rotate every two years. Under Article 12 of the Charter, the UNGA was not allowed to make any recommendation on issues before the Security Council. "Primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security” was given by all signatories of the Charter to the Security Council. Unlike the General Assembly, the Charter allowed decisions by the Security Council to be taken only with the "concurring votes” of all its five permanent members. Although the Charter was amended in 1963 to increase the number of non-permanent members to 10, the Security Council is the only structure in the UN which is not democratic in its selection, and not democratic or accountable in its decision-making. This has implications for the role of the UN in the contemporary world, to which we will return later.

The UN Charter anticipated the importance of socio-economic development out of the destruction of the Second World War, and created the Economic and Social Council or ECOSOC, which is elected by the UNGA. India’s signatory on the UN Charter, Sir A. RamaswamiMudaliar, was elected the first President of the ECOSOC by the General Assembly in 1946, and chaired three out of its first four sessions. Initially structured to accommodate 18 out of the 51 original members of the UN General Assembly, the Charter has been amended twice, in 1963 and 1971, to expand the ECOSOC membership to 54 members. These members are democratically elected and accountable to the UNGA, following the UNGA’s decision-making power through majority voting.

The Charter created the Trusteeship Council, which was meant to regulate issues related to the listed territories held in trust by the UN and colonial powers as they moved to independence or self-government. Palau was the last of these territories to become independent in 1994, after which the Trusteeship Council was suspended since it had successfully delivered on its mandate given by the Charter.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is another important structure created by the UN Charter as the "principal judicial organ of the United Nations”. All members of the General Assembly are ipso facto parties to the Statute of the ICJ.

It would be fair to say that since the UN was created in 1945, the political landscape of the world has undergone radical change. This is illustrated by the membership of the UNGA, which was 51 in 1945 and stands at 193 today. The main driver of this has no doubt been the process of decolonization, which was accelerated by the independence of India in August 1947, and which culminated with the admission of scores of newly independent developing countries, who form the majority in the UNGA.

The second broad change that has occurred since 1945 is the steep rise in the numbers and aspirations of people across the world for a more prosperous life, which has been accelerated by emerging technologies.

The third momentous change for the UN is linked to the first two, focusing on asserting human rights and empowerment. In the larger framework of international relations, the UN is confronted more and more by the emergence of trans-boundary, global issues, involving both states and non-state actors, which make its core function of international cooperation more relevant today than ever before. This includes challenges like terrorism, organized crime, humanitarian disasters, and securing the global commons in the maritime, cyber and outer space domains.

How have the structures created by the UN responded to these developments? I would like to begin on an optimistic note by taking up the second pillar, which deals with socio-economic development and impacts directly on all of us.

Over the past seven decades, the role of the UN has been perhaps the most visibly successful in responding to the challenges of socio-economic development. The ECOSOC has relied on many UN specialized agencies, such as UNESCO, ILO, FAO etcwhich were linked to the General Assembly under Article 57 of the Charter, for this purpose; as well as structures responsible for specific programmes like the UNDP, UNCTAD UNIDO and the World Food Programme, approved by the General Assembly under Article 22 of the Charter.

The functioning of the UN structures has brought to the forefront the need to respond coherently and effectively to the challenge of what is called today "sustainable development”. In terms of its origins, this challenge goes back to the first UN Conference on the environment held in Stockholm in 1972. Indira Gandhi, the only head of government to attend this Conference, remarked that "poverty is the biggest polluter”. Her statement was widely criticized as an attempt to evade the obligation of countries to act more responsibly to safeguard our planet.

However, the twin objectives of sustaining the environment and achieving socio-economic development, which initially were dealt with separately within the UN structure, coalesced in September 2015 when world leaders at the UNGA adopted Agenda 2030. In this process, the UN learnt from the shortfalls of previous attempts to promote international cooperation for socio-economic development. For example, the way the 8 Millennium Development Goals or MDGs for the social sector were designed and put forward for implementation by developing countries in 2000 was replaced by a multi-stakeholder process from the ground up. This created an interlinked and interdependent global development framework in Agenda 2030, which is universal in its application including both developing and developed countries.

Agenda 2030 has 17 Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs at its core. Significantly, the first of the SDGs is the Eradication of Poverty, which is the over-arching Goal of Agenda 2030, vindicating the position taken by India in 1972. World leaders recognize today that unless poverty is eradicated, the impact of achieving other parameters of development cannot be sustained.

Apart from including the important social goals of the MDGs which focused on health, education and gender issues, the SDGs incorporate the main climate change aspirations, and contain significant economic objectives such as infrastructure and employment, which are of direct relevance to developing economies such as India. Implementing Agenda 2030 is a challenge facing the international community, especially in ensuring the flow of financial resources and technologies to accelerate the achievement of the SDGs.

From this optimistic note, we turn to the third pillar of the UN, dealing with human rights, where the UN’s role has been a mixed one. Endorsing the principle of non-discrimination has been a success story of the UN, requiring over 40 years of patient multilateral diplomacy to fructify. Initially, the UNGA considered issues relating to the upholding of human rights, exemplified by its resolution on racial discrimination in South Africa, which was moved by India in 1946. This issue merged into the regular scrutiny by the UNGA of the apartheid regime in South Africa, which lasted for more than forty years, resulting in the imposition of UN sanctions against South Africa, until the emergence of a multi-racial South Africa presided over by Nelson Mandela. President Mandela led the South African delegation to the General Assembly in 1994.

Another early initiative taken by the UNGA was to prevent the commission of mass atrocity crimes such as genocide. India, along with Panama and Cuba, sponsored the UNGA resolution in 1946 which mandated the negotiation of the 1948 Convention on Genocide. Here, while the role of the UN has been successful in creating the legal framework against genocide, the way some UN structures have failed to function reveal the difficulties of applying the principle on the ground. Mainly, these shortfalls have occurred due to the non-functioning of the first pillar of the UN, dealing with peace and security. Bangladesh in 1971, Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, and Rwanda in 1994 and several crises currently underway in Africa and West Asia are examples of this. We will return to this issue a little later.

The track record of the UNGA to initiate and sustain a focus on gender equality counts as one of the UN’s success stories so far. Member states have undertaken legal obligations under the first human rights treaty of the contemporary era, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UNGA in 1948. The concept of "all human beings are equal”, found in Article 1 of the UDHR, was proposed by Hansa Mehta of India, and endorsed by the chairperson of the drafting committee, Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt (widow of President Roosevelt).

Subsequently, the UN has supported gender equality and the empowerment of women through a rights-based approach, beginning with the 1975 Mexico Conference on Women, which eventually led to the creation of a dedicated UN structure in 2010 called UN-Women, that brings together all the stakeholders involved in upholding gender equality and empowerment of women.

Another success of the UN’s role in human rights has undoubtedly been the UNGA’s decision in March 2006 to create a dedicated human rights structure composed of 47 states, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The UNHRC was established in response to heightened concerns about human rights issues by the international community, and is based in Geneva. Its members are democratically elected for three-year terms, and accountable. Decision-making in the UNHRC is through majority voting. Its major achievement to date has been to conduct Universal Periodic Reviews or UPRs, of human rights issues in all UNGA member states between 2008 and 2012. The primary responsibility for promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms, one of the objectives of the UN Charter, is today that of the UNHRC. This aspect needs to be recognized and used more vigorously by governments and stakeholders, who sometimes take human rights issues straight to the first pillar of the UN, especially the UN Security Council, for robust humanitarian interventionist action.

The track record of the UN’s role on peace and security issues, which is its first pillar, has gradually deteriorated. The Charter gives primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security to the UN Security Council. All members of the UN also agree in the Charter to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council.

During the past three decades, the nature and number of crises affecting international peace and security have mushroomed, imposing huge human and material costs, and jeopardizing the progress made in the second and third pillars of the UN. As a former UN Secretary General said publicly, "without peace there can be no development”. The Security Council has been unable to prevent such crises, and has been ineffective in resolving them.

To redress this problem, world leaders unanimously mandated early reform of the Security Council in the 2005 UN World Summit. They felt these reforms would "make it more broadly representative, efficient and transparent and thus to further enhance its effectiveness and the legitimacy and implementation of its decisions.” This clear mandate involves both the structure and the functioning of the Security Council.

As noted earlier, the only time the UNGA had successfully amended the Charter to expand the Security Council was in 1963, when the number of non-permanent rotating members on the Council had been increased from six to ten. The experience of the newly elected non-permanent members since then has underscored that decision-making in the Security Council is dominated by its five permanent members.

Attempts to seek equitable representation and participation in decisions of the Security Council began in November 1979, when India’s Permanent Representative Brajesh Mishra galvanized a group of developing countries to inscribe it on the UNGA’s agenda, as this reform needs an amendment to the Charter. Since then, both the process and parameters of UNSC reform have been agreed to in the UNGA. UNSC reform would require "the affirmative vote of at least two thirds of the Members of the General Assembly” according to a unanimous resolution passed by the UNGA in December 1998. Today, contrary to assertions by countries like China and Pakistan, there is no requirement for complete consensus on UNSC reforms, if 128 out of 193 countries vote in favor of the resolution in the UNGA.

In 2007, the UNGA decided to entrust negotiations to an Inter-Governmental Negotiations or IGN process. In 2008, the UNGA decided that five inter-linked issues would form the parameters of UNSC reforms. These are: categories of membership; the question of the veto; regional representation; size of an enlarged Security Council and working methods of the Council; and the relationship between the Council and the General Assembly.

After 23 years of discussions, more than 122 countries (including the 54-member Africa Group, many developing countries from all regions of the world, major financial donors to the UN budget like Japan and Germany and two permanent members, the UK and France) propelled a unanimous UNGA decision, tabled by the President of the General Assembly (PGA), Sam Kutesa of Uganda, on 14 September 2015 adopting a negotiating text on UNSC reform. These countries have recognized and supported the need for UNSC reform as being in their own national interests.

However, China’s opposition, despite being party to the 2005 unanimous mandate to reform the Council, and to the 2015 unanimous decision to engage in text-based negotiations, have stalled progress in the UNGA on Security Council reform. The outcome has been an abrupt change of the IGN’s successful Chairman, distorting the agreed parameters of text-based negotiations, and, most significantly, a visible dilutionin the rock-solid African Group support for text-based negotiations. In October 2015, for example, the common position of India and Africa in favour of additional permanent seats in a reformed Security Council could not find any mention in the Delhi Declaration issued at the end of the India-Africa Summit.

While the structure of the Security Council remains frozen in the Charter, its ineffectiveness on the ground due mainly to decision-making without accountability by its five permanent members, demonstrates the dangerous implications of the UN’s inability to maintain international peace and security. The examples of political crises in West Asia and in Africa, where the bulk of the human and financial resources of the UN’s $10 billion annual peacekeeping budget are spent, are public indictments of the ineffectiveness of the Security Council, especially of its permanent members, who have abrogated to themselves the right to draft Security Council decisions as "pen-holders”. This is a role not given to them by the Charter. The use of peacekeeping missions by the Security Council is gradually becoming ineffective due to the unrepresentative and ineffective method of decision-making in the Council for peacekeeping mandates, which jeopardizes the lives of civilians as well as UN peacekeepers on the ground.

None of the five permanent members have been able to prevent or resolve these ongoing crises. Beyond these kinds of crises, the UN Security Council’s response to global challenges to international peace and security, especially terrorism has been ineffective, despite it having adopted more than 30 counter-terrorism resolutions. The Council has not even been able to prosecute and penalize terrorists who have killed or taken hostage UN peacekeepers deployed under the Council’s mandate in Africa and Asia. This is mainly due to inherent structural and procedural flaws related to decision-making in the Security Council.

In all the structures of global governance today, decision-making reflects the democratic norms of transparency, accountability and majority voting. Even the IMF has agreed to reform its system by 2019 to enable emerging economies equitable representation in its decision-making. Only the UN Security Council continues to be deadlocked on this issue, which is an aberration in the 21st century, especially when the clear majority of the 193-member states of the UNGA are democracies.

The only way to break this deadlock is through amending the Charter by a UNGA resolution. How can such a decision be taken by the UNGA? The most successful method adopted by the UNGA in recent years, while responding to challenges posed by sustainable development or upholding human rights, was to adopt a multi-stakeholder approach to inter-governmental negotiations. These were web-cast to provide transparency and accountability. A similar approach by the UNGA on Security Council reform would generate public pressure on more than 128 member states for adopting a resolution to amend the Charter.

Responsiveness to public pressures and perceptions has always played a role in reforming the UN. The most recent successful example of this has been the election of Antonio Guterres as the new Secretary General after several rounds of transparent public interactions. In his vision statement circulated in April 2016, Secretary General Antonio Gutteres informed the member states of the United Nations that he is committed to restoring the core vision of the UN Charter, which is the peaceful settlement of disputes, by strengthening the "nexus between peace and security, sustainable development and human rights policies - a holistic approach to the mutually-reinforcing linkages between its three pillars.”

In conclusion, we need to ask ourselves the question: has the vision of the UN Charter been overtaken by the changes in the world over the past seven decades? The most appropriate answer, in my view, was given by Dag Hammarskjold when he was Secretary General of the UN. He said: "Do we refer to the purposes of the Charter? They are expressions of universally shared ideals which cannot fail us, though we, alas, often fail them”. Foremost among these ideals is the peaceful settlement of disputes, which is at the heart of the Charter. The UN’s International Day of Nonviolence celebrated on 2 October every year focuses on this ideal. The Charter begins with the words "we the peoples”, underscoring a holistic approach to the world around us. The UN’s International Day of Yoga received the unprecedented co-sponsorship of 177 members of the UNGA precisely because we believe in this shared commitment. The Preamble of the Charter emphasizes fundamental human rights, the dignity and worth of the human person, the equality of nations large and small, based on the equitable rule of law, to promote social progress in larger freedom. Continuing to focus on these values will enhance the role of the UN in the contemporary world.