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Is there space for the United Nations in our modern world?

By Kiran Kaur

The United Nations (UN) is a household name, known as a staple of international law since its foundation in 1945. The organisation helps maintain stability and control within our changing world order, becoming synonymous with upholding human rights within the international community. When faced with breaches of human rights and humanitarian crises, as individuals we often tend to think – either consciously or subconsciously – of the United Nations as the organisation that will “fix” international law breaches per se, maintaining peace and security, and providing support and aid. However, throughout the 21st century, the role of the United Nations has often blurred the boundaries between useful or redundant, being seen as unable to uphold the same level of effectiveness and enforceability previously witnessed throughout the organisation.

The United Nations holds the slogan of “Peace, dignity, and equality”, being created in the midst of a fragmented world order at the end of World War II. Within the setting of an international community that had undergone two world wars within the span of 30 years, the UN at the time of its creation held immense importance and was vital in reshaping the world order from an anarchical, uncertain community to one of stability and security. Bringing together nation states, the UN enabled for a controlled cooperative organisation in which concerns and points of interest were able to be brought up and resolved without the constant escalation or threat of intense conflict. As encapsulated by Sam Cavallaro – a NSW High School Legal Studies teacher –, when interviewed for comment, the United Nations provides “an international framework to address global problems, mechanisms to provide aid and support to nations, and a forum for inter-state dialogue and debate is vital in supporting healthy relations between states”. Further, the roles of the UN can be summarised as “to maintain international peace and security” through the Security Council, to solve “international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character”, and finally, to “promote and protect human rights”. The role of the UN in the international community seems clear cut: an organisation that allows for the collaboration and discussions between nation states as a means of maintaining peace.

However, outside of the desperation and turmoil that followed WWII, the United Nations has become a contentious organisation in the 21st century. Varying factors behind this contention include the prevalence and impact of veto powers, the differential treatment of nation states, and the overall effectiveness of the organisation in maintaining a peaceful world order through their motions. The UN is seen to possess extremely limited agency, outside that given to it by its membership, and consequently holds the same flaws as its predecessor, the League of Nations.

In the past, the UN has held major successes in striving towards an equal and sustainable world order. Such achievements include the implementation of sustainable development goals, providing humanitarian aid in conflicts, various peacekeeping operations implemented during these conflicts, and assisting state cooperation as expanded upon earlier. The Cold War effectively demonstrated the value of the Security Council within the UN as a diplomatic instrument, allowing for moments of cooperation and ensuring a continuation of discussions. The UN can be given credit for contributing to a more stable post-war environment and for successfully dealing with rising tensions within superpower states, tying the great and small powers into systems of interdependence to reduce the likelihood of conflict. Further, when focusing on the humanitarian aid provided by the UN, there is little space for argument on the positive value and impacts of the UN’s flagship work through UNICEF, UNHCR, and the World Food Programme.

The peacekeeping missions and work undertaken by the UN to address the South African Apartheid is another example of UN efficacy. The implementation of Resolution 134 was due to member state complaints criticising the South African government, imploring them to initiate measures that brought forward racial harmony. In doing so, the UN allowed for moral condemnation on an international scale. Further, there were multiple trade and economic sanctions pushed by the UN against South Africa, with a mandatory arms embargo in 1977, pressuring the government to end Apartheid and transition towards democracy. It is widely discussed and respected that the work of the UN during the Apartheid crisis was a significant and influential factor that contributed to the end of Apartheid, thus highlighting the once important role of the organisation within the world order.

However, the limitations and failures of the UN continue to overshadow these successes, questioning the importance and need for the UN within our modern world. The first and major point of contention comes from the notion of veto states within the Security Council and the power imbalances and abuses that this creates amongst the international community. There is a constantly widening ideological dissonance between the permanent members of the Security Council, which in turn limits the capacity to address growing crises. The permanent members of the UN Security Council - the P5 known as the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and France - hold ‘veto power’. Veto power has been justified through the basis of maintaining the interests of the permanent members, seen as the most powerful in the international community, and embodies the idea that global peace and security is only possible if the great powers are all working together.

Critics have noted that the veto is the most undemocratic element of the UN and the main cause of an inaction on war crimes and crimes against humanity, limiting the effectiveness and need for the UN, as it essentially undermines UN action against the P5 and their allies. This can be seen recently manifested in the 34 uses of veto power by the US to block UN Security Council resolutions that were critical of Israel’s treatment of civilians within Gaza, backing the actions and motivations for their ally, Israel. The use of a veto power by the US halts any and all action by the UN and the countries within the Security Council to strive towards protecting civilians in times of conflict, immensely limiting the effectiveness and enforceability of the UN and brings the organisation’s relevance into question. The Guardian highlights the opinions and thoughts of China and Russia regarding the US’s current use of the veto powers, with China describing it as “nothing short of unbelievable” and Russia stating that it was an example of US double standards. As observed by Cavallaro, when the foreign policy of the US and UN diverge, the dissonance “can undermine the effectiveness of the UN in its role of ensuring international consensus and cooperation”. If the UN is able to be halted in its ambitions by one country’s votes, we must question if the UN is a desired organisation in our current global climate, or if power and influence have taken over as the main principles and manipulated the original foundations of the organisation.

Despite the failures of the UN, many individuals still believe that there is a space for the UN within the future of our global world order. According to Cavallaro, the means provided by the UN to promote consensus and provide a forum for international dialogue remains invaluable. 

“Giving a voice to nations, no matter their size, is vital and that the continuation of the UN is essential in ensuring that this occurs.”

However, despite the need for an organisation such as the UN in order to maintain a sense of stability and inter-state communication, the entire organisation - especially the Security Council - is in desperate need of reform. In order to effectively and efficiently tackle the multitude of crises that it faces, the organisation must shift its focus away from protecting the political agendas of its member states and back towards the charter and initial motivations that underpinned the UN’s creation. Despite the convening power which allows the UN to pressure and condemn nation states  – something a new organisation, or lack thereof, would not hold – , it does not reflect the multifaceted nature and complex realities of today’s multipolar world.

The UN needs to reconsider the importance that it places on certain nation states and limit the extent to which veto powers are able to be utilised. Such reforms restore the focus of civilian rights and humanitarian aid at the forefront of the organisation, as opposed to the political agendas of specific nations. Within our current world order, the capacity to bring together multiple world leaders and convene forums on global issues is a strength that the UN will continue to hold, and is one that simply needs to be moulded and reassessed for internal conflicts or contentions. If the UN did not exist in our world, we as a society would simply look to create some iteration of the organisation in a new form, in order to make any strides towards progress. There will always be a space for the United Nations in our modern world, we simply have to constantly be reforming and realigning the organisation to fit our changing world order and fix the flaws that will continue to arise within it as we go. 



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