Do we still need the UN?

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Ximena Sampson (go to author's page)

Gone are the days when the UN made Mafalda dream. The little heroine of Quino wanted to become an interpreter at the United Nations in order to work for peace in the world. But as this organization celebrates its 75th anniversary, for several years it has faced many criticisms which reproach it for its inability to stop conflicts.

1. Is the UN still relevant?

If the UN did not exist, it would have to be invented, believes Alistair Edgar, assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo.

What would we do without the UN? The problems facing the world cannot be solved by individual states.

Alistair Edgar, Assistant Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University

To face global threats such as terrorism, wars or a pandemic, we must act multilaterally, says the man who was director of the Academic Council for the United Nations System (ACUNS).

There are many other organizations bringing together several states, such as the G7, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), but only the United Nations, which brings together 193 States, or almost all the States in the world, is truly universal.

General view of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, the United States, October 1, 2018.

Each September, Member States meet at United Nations Headquarters in New York for the opening of the new session and the annual general debate. This year, because of the pandemic, they had to do it virtually.

Photo: Reuters / Brendan McDermid

It has two other fundamental attributes: its legally binding charter and its preeminence over the use of force, underlines Stewart Patrick, senior researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

All these qualities make the United Nations even today, after 75 years, the bedrock of international order and cooperation.

Stewart Patrick, Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations

The Charter of the United Nations was drawn up in San Francisco in the spring of 1945. Signed on June 26, 1945 by the representatives of 50 states, it entered into force on October 24 after its ratification by the five great powers and the majority of the other signatory countries. .

2. Is she still able to resolve conflicts?

The primary objective of the United Nations is to maintain international peace and security. Yet in recent years, major conflicts have bloodied the planet without the United Nations being able to stop them.

One need only think of the wars in Syria and Yemen, or the annexation of Crimea by Russia, situations in which the Security Council has been powerless.

Syrians walk through the ruins of a building.

The war in Syria has left at least 500,000 dead and more than 10 million displaced.

Photo: Getty Images / Omar Haj Kadour

The problem, very often, is the disagreement between the five permanent members, stresses Stewart Patrick. For an intervention to be possible, as was the case in Libya in 2011, the Security Council must take the decision unanimously. But in the current state of tension, that is difficult to achieve.

The Security Council is the executive arm of the United Nations. It is made up of five permanent members, the winners of World War II, namely the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China, who have a right of veto, and ten temporary members. , elected for two years. Security Council resolutions are binding, unlike those passed by the General Assembly.

There are many structural realities that make the United Nations extremely frustrating for member states, stresses Stewart Patrick. One of those frustrations is that whenever one of the permanent members of the Security Council feels that their fundamental interests are at stake, it becomes almost impossible to act.

This was particularly the case for Syria, because of the dissensions between Russia and the West, or for North Korea, because of China.

Mr. Churkin raises his hand.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin speaks out against a Security Council resolution to condemn the Syrian regime for the crackdown on opponents on February 4, 2012. The Russian veto blocked the resolution.

Photo: Getty Images / DON EMMERT

Mr. Patrick is worried that the degree of deadlock in the Security Council has increased sharply in recent years, to the point that there is now a risk that it will be completely paralyzed. Inaction related to the pandemic is, he said, a glaring example.

Due to acrimony between the United States and China, the Security Council has done nothing to deal with the non-health aspects of the pandemic, deplores the researcher.

3. Is it possible to reform the Security Council?

It is necessary, but unfortunately impossible, believes Stewart Patrick.

The composition of the Security Council no longer reflects today's world, it is criticized. The five permanent members are the only ones with an appointed seat and a right of veto. Giving that power to the victors of World War II made sense in 1945, but much less today. In addition, the West is over-represented, while the Middle East and Africa have no headquarters.

Black and white archive photo of the meeting.

The first meeting of the UN Security Council was held on January 17, 1946 at Church House, the headquarters of the Church of England, in London.

Photo: Getty Images / Fox Photos

Making changes, however, is opening up a basket of crabs, researchers believe.

There are major contenders, such as Germany, Japan, India, and Brazil, but their regional rivals, Italy, South Korea, Pakistan, and Argentina, also want their say. African countries are also asking for more space. Why favor one country over another?

Yet if nothing is done, the Security Council will soon face a crisis of legitimacy, fears Stewart Patrick.

Will other countries continue to comply with the resolutions if the composition of the Security Council seems increasingly archaic and outdated?

Stewart Patrick, Senior Researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations

Tackling Security Council reform is an interesting theoretical exercise, but one that leads nowhere, also believes Alistair Edgar.

Moreover, just because it is more representative does not mean it will be more effective, notes the researcher.

A meeting of the United Nations Security Council on January 26, 2019.

Canada's attempt to secure a non-permanent seat on the Security Council in June 2020 ended in failure. Canada's last term dates back to 1999-2000.

Photo: Reuters / Carlo Allegri

It’s not the addition of India, Nigeria or South Africa that will change the game, he says. If states do not want to cooperate outside the UN, why would they do so within this framework?

If states are willing to cooperate, the Security Council can be effective; but if politics are extremely divided, as they are now, then the Council cannot act.

Alistair Edgar, Assistant Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University

4. Is the United Nations too expensive?

Another criticism often leveled at the United Nations concerns its cost. It is a bureaucratic and poorly managed body, argues in particular the President of the United States, Donald Trump, who wants to reduce his country's contribution.

But this criticism does not hold water, argues Alistair Edgar. The bureaucratic part of the UN is very small, he says, and its budget, like its number of staff, matches that of the New York City Police and Fire Department.

Imagine taking that number of people and that budget and saying to them: You don't take care of New York anymore, now you are responsible for security, human rights, development and climate for the whole world. We would laugh at you.

Alistair Edgar, Assistant Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University

Patrick Stewart also thinks the organization does a lot with very little money.

The United States gave him 10 billion in 2018 (all operations combined) which represents only 1.5% of what it spends on the military, he points out.

A man receives a bag of grain as part of a food distribution.

The World Food Program (WFP) received the Nobel Peace Prize on October 9, 2020 for its efforts to fight hunger.


Organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Food Program (WFP), the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are doing essential work day in and day out and you don't hear much talk, however. of them, he maintains. (However, these organizations have an independent budget.)

We have to recognize how modest the amounts we devote to the United Nations and yet how much hope and faith we attach to it. Our expectations are enormous.

Stewart Patrick, Senior Researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations

5. Will COVID-19 spell the end of the UN?

Many are wondering if the organization as we know it will survive the challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, when the response of states to it seems to have called into question the very foundation of the UN, namely the cooperation between nations. To protect themselves from the virus, countries have closed their borders and acted without any consultation.

In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO), one of the UN agencies, has been heavily discredited for its handling of the crisis and the United States has decided to withdraw.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has been the subject of much criticism.

Photo: afp via getty images / Fabrice Coffrini

COVID-19 could, on the contrary, represent an opportunity to make a turning point and improve international cooperation, notes Stewart Patrick. But it will depend on the leadership. Multilateral institutions do not magically come to life, he believes. It is their most important members who must mobilize them.

The role of the United States, the main donor to the UN, is vital in this context, the researcher believes. The outcome of the November 3 elections will therefore be decisive.

We should also, stresses Mr. Stewart, fund the UN and its agencies to meet our expectations. If we want our international institutions to function better, we should give them the right resources rather than criticizing them when they end up underperforming., he notes.

Let's ask her what she can do, Mr. Edgar said, instead of asking her for things that she was not designed to do and does not have the capacity to do. Are we calling an ambulance to put out a fire?

Read also :

  • What is happening at the UN during the crisis?
  • The UN in the era of Donald Trump
  • The UN, guardian of peace, really?

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