How Effective Is the United Nations?


In order to assess the effectiveness of the United Nations (UN), we have to recognize that the UN is an association of voluntary membership consisting of independent sovereign nations. By joining the UN, a state does not sacrifice its independence and sovereignty. In other words, the UN has no real authority to overrule any member state’s actions, however bad. This is the point that many people don’t understand. They expect that the UN is a higher supra-national organization that can impose its will on a member country that misbehaves. In fact, the UN is not designed and organized to be that way due to the overriding principle of state sovereignty.

Then what is the point of joining? Well, joining the UN does not mean having a big brother to always stand by your side. Any country, big or small, wants a combination of the following benefits that constitute its foreign policy:
*Recognition of status: For instance, Taiwan wants to be recognized as a sovereign state independent of China. The Palestinians want recognition as having a new sovereign state. Both want to join the UN.
*Legitimization of action: The US tried to legitimize its invasion of Iraq in 2003 by putting up a case of weapons of mass destruction at the UN.
*Protection of self-interest: Many small countries expose the injustices and hostilities done to them by other countries at the UN.
*Influence on others: Bigger countries try to rally world support for their actions, good or bad.
*Assistance if necessary: Many poor countries need help in case of natural disaster, disease, famine, even mediation in a civil war.

Thus joining the UN opens a conduit to the world community. It also offers a platform for a member country to have its voice heard.

The term United Nations was coined by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the beginning of World War II. It referred to the Allied countries fighting on the US side against Nazi Germany and Japan. The term was officially used in the Atlantic Charter of 1942 where 26 governments signed and pledged to continue with the war effort. When WWII ended, the United Nations was formally established in 1945 in San Francisco with 50 initial members. Its headquarters was later moved to New York city and membership has grown to the present 193.

Note that the UN predecessor, the League of Nations, formed after World War I to safeguard the peace, had collapsed due to lack of cooperation from major European countries. It shows that the success of a world organization hinges on the supports provided by the major powers at that time.

How can the UN manage to avoid the same fate as its short-lived predecessor? One reason is that the world had been transformed to a bi-polar one after WWII from a multi-polar system consisting of multiple powerful countries mainly in Europe. The other reason is that nuclear weapons make people aware that there are no clear winners in a war. The two superpowers, USA and the former USSR, despite their opposing ideologies, determined to become anchors of the UN to safeguard the peace. Together with three other victorious countries, China, France and Great Britain, they made themselves the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto power over all major UN decisions. Without the cooperation from these five countries safeguarding world peace, it is difficult to imagine the UN has survived up to now.

On its official website, the UN specifies five areas where it engages the world: peace and security, development, human rights, humanitarian affairs, and international law.

The top priority is of course peace and security. That is why the Security Council assumes most power in the UN organization. Major conflicts that erupt around the world are brought before the Council for deliberation by its members (5 permanent plus 10 non-permanent serving a two-year term). The Council makes binding decisions such as armed intervention that member governments have to carry out. Note that any one of the 5 permanent members can veto any decision approved by majority vote. We have seen in many cases that the US vetoed the Council’s condemnation of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. On the other hand, China and Russia regularly vetoe US-proposed sanctions against the Arab states.

Despite this tug of war between the 5 permanent members of the Council, the good thing is that they come together and talk it out rather than letting a dangerous situation explode. It all boils down to the fact that it is very difficult to maintain peace in the world without the cooperation of the 5 permanent members who possess overwhelming power and influence but try to restrain each other’s behaviors at the same time.

The General Assembly is the second most powerful within the UN organization. Each member state is entitled to one vote. Major decisions are passed with two-third majority while minor ones only require a simple majority. What are the major decisions? They include the UN budget, admission/expulsion of members, establishment of a special office to deal with a new problem, and election of top officials. Small countries are given an equal say in the Assembly simply because they cast one vote like any big country.

Since the main aim of the UN is to promote peace and security, what do we mean by peace? Besides containing wars and reducing the chances of war, peace is broadened to include many other areas as described on the UN official website:
*Economic/social development, public health
*Human rights, social justice
*Humanitarian projects
*Promote international law
*Environmental protection
*Protect children, women, minorities, and native people from abuse
*Curb human and drug trafficking

Being a big organization, the UN is not without critics, especially US politicians. Their criticism centers around three areas: limited effectiveness, the organization and budget being too big, and too much bureaucracy and corruption. These problems are common to all big organizations including corporations and governments, too. The criticism has plenty of merits. Every big organization should be aware that these are its inherent problems. If it does not tackle them head on, the organization is doomed as it gets increasingly out of touch with the people it is supposed to serve.

On the other hand, do you think the critics really want to see the UN becoming very effective? If it does, they will scream that their country is sacrificing its sovereignty for the UN, because the UN may be able to overrule their national actions. Most US politicians do not like their national power being bound or frustrated by the UN. So their criticism of the UN for being ineffective is self-serving rather than truly honest and constructive.

The effectiveness of the UN should not be judged purely by what we expect it to do, but by what it has done and what it can potentially achieve with more cooperation from its member states, especially the five permanent ones sitting on the Security Council. In my view, the UN has achieved a great deal since its establishment thanks to the generally good cooperation from its members. The most important achievements are listed below:

The UN serves as an important meeting place for the powerful countries to come together and talk about world peace rather than fighting among themselves as in the previous two world wars. The Security Council, despite failing to prevent wars, have at least achieved in containing armed conflicts around the world, and preventing them from otherwise exploding into major wars.

The UN gives the smaller countries a voice to expose the injustices or hostilities levied upon them by some abusive countries. During the period between 1700 and 1945, the major powers mostly from Europe were dividing up the world into their own colonial empires. Where could the powerless countries voice their grievances without an organization like the UN? Since the UN came into existence, strong countries cannot bully the weak openly for fear of being exposed and condemned worldwide.

The UN General Assembly has given every member state, big or small, an equal voice with one vote. This one state, one vote principle mirrors the democratic principle of one man, one vote. This is the first easy step of achieving democracy worldwide. The UN is the natural place to start.

We understand that there can be no real peace if the world is so unevenly divided between the haves and the have-nots. That is why the UN engages in a large set of activities including: economic/social development, education, health, disaster relief, and environmental protection.

Talking about democracy, we must recognize that a country cannot claim to be democratic if it allows the strong to bully the weak, and the powerful to silence the powerless. Democracy basically means equality in the eyes of the law although the inequalities due to realistic conditions remain to be fixed. Therefore the UN extends its tentacles to such areas as human rights violation, child labor, women/minority abuse, human/drug trafficking, and so on, as a way to promote democracy and better the human condition around the world

Do you notice that exposing these problems are equally effective as solving them? The reason is that the national government that is the perpetrator always gets angry and denies their occurrence. No government wants bad publicity for it hurts its image. It always tries to cover up the bad things done, or whatever it has failed to do.

All the social ills we see around the world will never disappear as long as there are people exploiting others. The UN has done a good job of exposing those ills together with other non-government organizations (NGO’s). Fixing those social ills remains the responsibility of the sovereign member states, not the UN. The UN’s job is to constantly remind the sovereign states that such grave problems exist. If the UN has succeeded in solving some of the problems, it has done more than it is required to do.

July 2011

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