The United Nations: Tension, Progress, and Failings

The United Nations has taken great strides toward increased global justice and equality, but more needs to be done.

Portraits of former United Nations Secretary-Generals are seen in the empty arrivals hall at U.N. headquarters during the 75th annual U.N. General Assembly high level debate, which was held mostly virtually due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in New York, U.S., September 22, 2020. Mike Segar/Reuters

The United Nations (UN) deserves the celebration of its 75th anniversary.  It is an enormous step forward in the organization of relations between nation states and, timidly, between humans. Along with the system of agencies, programs, and funds to which it gave its name, it has been hailed for what it has achieved, but also been a subject of attacks and abuse. This tension between praise and denunciation is inherent in the charter of the UN and in the international system within which the organization operates. This tension is not a shortcoming of the UN. It reflects the ideals and realities of the international state system that created the organization and still conditions its subsistence at present and in the foreseeable future. The ideals resulted in significant progress for humankind. The realities condemned the organization to failings in a host of political and economic questions.

The Tensions

There are several manifestations of the tension between ideals and realities. However, two deserve to be initially discussed. In the first words of the preamble of the UN Charter, “We the peoples of the United Nations” proclaim the organization’s ideals. The “peoples” declare some lofty ends that they are determined to achieve, but a few paragraphs later the “peoples” leave it to their governments to agree to the charter that established the organization. The first tension is between the peoples that declare the ends and the states that establish the organization or join it later. States are represented by their governments, which are only responsible for the safety, security, and wellbeing of their own peoples. For many governments, these objectives have absolute primacy, irrespective of the interests of other peoples that partook in the solemn declaration of the lofty ends. This is obvious in the nationalism and populism that spread across the globe from North America to Europe to Africa and Asia at the beginning of the third decade of  the 21st century.   

The second manifestation of tension in the UN charter is an extension of the first and can be found between the crucial first two articles of the charter. Article 1 on the purposes of the United Nations defines the ideals that moved the founders to establish the organization. These purposes include maintaining international peace and security; developing friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples; achieving international cooperation in solving international economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems and in promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms; and being a center for harmonizing national actions to attain these common ends. These lofty ideals and goals for humankind have been uncontested in all cultures over the ages. 

Article 2 lays down seven principles that the organization should observe in the realization of its purposes. These principles include the sovereign equality of member states; members fulfilling obligations assumed under the charter in good faith; settlement of international disputes by peaceful means; and member states refraining from threat or use of force against territorial integrity or political independence of any state. The prohibition of war, therefore legitimate, as a means to realizing states’ objectives and interests, is an immense achievement of the United Nations that constrains states’ actions in the interest of the entire community of nations and peoples. 

But there is a principle which inserts a measure of reality and opens the door for circumscribing the hopeful aspirations of the community of “peoples”: non-intervention by the United Nations in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state. Undoubtedly, this principle has its justifications as it preserves the independence of states and protects them from intervention in their internal affairs orchestrated by the influence of powerful states in decision-making processes. This principle preempts possible outcomes of power disparities and, as such, is welcome. However, it can also undermine the realization of the UN’s purposes. At different points in time, some member states may consider harmonizing national actions and cooperating in solving common issues and in promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms as interventions in their internal affairs. Two purposes of the United Nations would thus be frustrated. 

Tension also exists within the principles of the United Nations. While Article 2 explicitly provides for the sovereign equality of member states, an implicit principle of inequality is hidden in articles 23 and 27. In these two articles, five states are given permanent seats in the Security Council and then granted veto power over the decisions on the maintenance of peace and security that may be reached by other “equal” member states. The justifications of these privileges can be understandable: without them the United States and the Soviet Union would not have joined the United Nations. A universal organization without the two most powerful states at the end of World War II would have neither made sense nor been effective. The lessons of the United States not joining the League of Nations a generation earlier and thus contributing to the League’s inability to prevent World War II were only too recent.

Finally, tension exists between the norms of the United Nations and the distribution of power in the larger international system. In the General Assembly, the one-state, one-vote formula—materializing the principle of sovereign equality of member states—is the means to decision-making, with no veto power for any state. Even if resolutions were generally adopted by consensus in the last several decades, it is difficult to go against the large majority of developing countries that by far outweigh great powers. Many resolutions are thus adopted that are not to the liking of these powers. This makes them consider that the equality principle undermines the military, political, and economic power which they hold and that they would like to benefit from their dealings in the international system. They do not openly criticize the General Assembly’s one-state, one-vote formula. Nonetheless,  to make up for this “unfair treatment”, great powers, especially the United States, attack the United Nations, question its legitimacy, cast doubt on its honesty, and interfere with its functioning, in particular by withholding payment of their assessed contributions to the organization’s budget. The United Nations secretariat, which  implements the General Assembly’s resolutions, in particular, is the object of these attacks.      

The review above does not regret the tensions but rather registers them. These tensions did not keep the United Nations from making great strides forward in the last seventy-five years. But failings also marked the history of the organization. Hereafter, the examples of progress and failing registered by the United Nations will be particularly but not exclusively drawn from the Middle East and Africa.  

Progress Realized by the United Nations

The ideals that inspired the United Nations were powerful enough to draw the organization toward the realization of a number of its purposes. Decolonization and the access to independence for states in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Ocean are possibly the foremost achievements of the United Nations, by which the organization wiped out the affront that large swaths of humankind experienced since the 18th and 19th centuries. This is a materialization of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples that is one purpose of the United Nations. It is true that most newly independent states still suffer from underdevelopment and an unjust international economic system. But independence is a necessary, even if insufficient step, toward full emancipation and justice. 

Operationalizing the collective security principle enshrined in the charter, referred to in the principles of the organization as “enforcement measures under Chapter VII”, the United Nations intervened militarily to liberate Kuwait in 1991 and restore its independence.  

The United Nations could creatively interpret the charter to remedy breaches to international security in cases of divergence between permanent members of the Security Council. This creative interpretation was applied for the first time in Egypt to remedy the breach in international peace and security that the Suez campaign represented in 1956, and ten times thereafter. 

Still in the Middle East, the United Nations deployed its first military observers on the truce lines between the Arab States and Israel in 1948. In the 1970s, it deployed disengagement forces between Egypt and Israel, between Syria and Israel, as well as an interim force in south Lebanon to keep Israeli forces in check. 

In Africa, the United Nations mobilized action against the crime of Apartheid, including the adoption of a specific convention to eliminate it, until it was finally vanquished. It was under UN auspices that Namibia became independent from South Africa in 1990.

Since the 1960s, the United Nations has adopted successive international development strategies intended to further the development of newly independent and other developing states. In 1974, it went a significant step further with  the adoption in the General Assembly of Resolutions 3101 and 3102 on the establishment of a new international economic order (NIEO) that was more just and conducive to development. The NIEO receded into oblivion and the development strategies did not produce their intended results. But it is not the United Nations that should be faulted for that. It is rather that the United Nations cannot affect the functioning of the world economy and politics. There is too little and ever declining United Nations influence relative to the global economic and political environment. Since the 1980s, the regular budget of the United Nations has been under constant pressure, with zero growth rates in real and even in nominal terms for much of the period.

The legislative role of the United Nations has been nothing short of outstanding. It negotiated and adopted norms of international law in a number of significant areas. Inter alia, the General Assembly adopted conventions governing the seas, outer space, and the environment as well as treaties on the codification of international law. 

In the field of human rights, the United Nations adopted eight major conventions and related protocols that give legally binding effects to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a materialization of a clearly formulated purpose of the organization. But the implementation of these conventions in ways that effectively protect the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms comes up against the principle of non-intervention in member states’ internal affairs. Invoking this principle is at times justified. At other times, it is not, and only serves to justify authoritarian modes of governing that scorn human value and despise what freedom could bring to societies. This is an embodiment of the tension between the purposes and principles of the United Nations. 

The Failings

The implicit principle of the United Nations, which consecrates the primacy of five members, bears the greater responsibility in the United Nations’ failings in a number of questions affecting international peace and security. The first of these questions is Palestine and by extension the Middle East problem. This is not the place to trace a history of the Palestinian question. Suffice it to say that the purposes of maintaining international peace and security and the principle of self-determination of peoples were not sufficient to push for a settlement of the Palestinian question that included the exercise by the Palestinian people of their right to self-determination, albeit in only a small part of mandate Palestine. The permanent members of the Security Council could not live up to their supposedly prime responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. In particular, the United States specifically and repeatedly abused its veto power to obstruct the adoption of resolutions it deemed to be against Israel’s interests. 

The United Nations continues to be helpless before the Syrian tragedy. It could do nothing to prevent or to stop the civil conflict and the destruction of Syria. Russia’s threat to use its veto power frustrated any effort to adopt a resolution on the situation in Syria. Ironically, the grounds for the threat were the abuse of the Council’s resolution on Libya, which was used to change the regime there rather than protect the Libyan population.

Because permanent members did not want to act, in Rwanda, the United Nations stood by as 800,000 people were massacred in 1994. In the following year, the organization could neither prevent nor stop the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. 

Extended sanctions were imposed on Iraq in the 1990s that brought hunger, disease, and suffering to the Iraqi population without affecting its supposedly targeted leadership. Another failing was that the organization stood by watching the world hegemon intervene militarily in a member state without the authorization of the Security Council, as was explicitly mandated against in Article 42 of the charter. This was the case of the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003. A similar intervention was that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Kosovo in 1999.    

The Way Forward

The Middle East is the theater of quite a few examples of failings and abuse of the United Nations. This makes the skepticism in the region about the organization understandable. But is this helplessness and abuse not compensated for by the organization’s specific interventions in the region such as in Egypt, Kuwait, and Lebanon, and by its functions and universal roles? In its interventions, the United Nations is an actor. In its role of development of international law, the United Nations is a forum where developing countries come together in defense of their interests. Middle East states are among these developing countries. Collectively, they are in a much stronger position than they can ever be individually. Middle East countries also benefit from the exchange of experience and knowledge that is at the heart of international cooperation.

Reform of the United Nations is not the subject of this short article. However, when considering reform, the observer finds that such a process would be about relaxing the tensions discussed above. This is not an easy undertaking considering the present state of the international system. Even though they are at times abused and hamper the purposes of the United Nations, the principles of non-intervention in internal affairs and of the defense of sovereignty protect member states from undue interference. 

It is obvious to all concerned that the reform of the Security Council is the principal bone of contention in the reform of the United Nations.  It can indefinitely put off meaningful reform because the “unequal” members of the organization are not close to relinquishing their privileges. A meaningful reform of the Security Council is therefore difficult to envisage for the moment. Nonetheless, a reasonably modest one should be attempted. 

The overall reform of the United Nations does not only concern the Security Council. Reform does not need to take up the tensions directly and frontally. Thought could be given to developing structures of economic and social cooperation governed by the one-state, one-vote formula. Multiplying the democratic organs of the organization should water down the privileges accorded to permanent members in the peace and security sector of the organization. It would hopefully also contribute to altering the distribution of power in the environing international system that conditions the functioning of the United Nations.

Ibrahim Awad is professor of practice of global affairs and the director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies in the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. From 2005 to 2010, he acted as director of the International Migration Programme at the International Labour Organization (ILO), Geneva, and prior to that, between 2005 and 2010, he was the ILO’s director for the North Africa sub-regional office. His most recent publications include “The Challenge of Global Governance in the Sustainable Development Agenda,” “The Multiple Levels of Governance of International Migration:Understanding Disparities and Disorder,” and “Towards a Joint Approach to Migration and Asylum in the Euro-Mediterranean Space,” to name a few.

Read More