The United Nations Organization at Seventy-Five

Beginning with the decade of the 1980s, there was a discernible process of general global integration, a process widely regarded as that of globalization. It was principally the forces of economics that drove this process and rendered it essential for sociocultural and political forces to adapt accordingly. But it was merely three-and-a-half decades prior that a similar yet comparatively less efficacious process may be said to have commenced. Thus far having been embroiled in an egregious war of prodigious proportions, world leaders evidently decided to transcend that ‘period of infamy’; a spatiotemporal macrocosm of the term ‘day of infamy’ coined by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The aforesaid less efficacious process commenced with the establishment in 1945 of the organization we know as the United Nations Organization (U.N.O. or U.N.). Having witnessed seventy-five history-changing years, it is apt to revisit the centrality this august organization has thus far assumed.

The cliches of presumption do not escape the noble ideals enshrined in the Preamble of the United Nations Charter; the foundational treaty of the U.N. But insofar as it seeks to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” (United Nations Charter), the U.N. has assumed great relevance. It suffices to say that the U.N. has certainly provided countries with a truly global platform for the articulation of national concerns and generation of a consensus on challenges of long-term, global proportions.

The System of the United Nations consists of five organs: the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) which is a deliberative assembly of all member states; the United Nations Secretariat which is the administrative organ; the International Court of Justice (ICJ) which is a universal court of international law; the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) which deals with issues of international security; and the United Nations Economic and Social Council which deals with global economic and social affairs. The sixth organ named the United Nations Trusteeship Council was originally designed to manage colonial possessions until the attainment of their independence. It has been inactive since 1994 when Palau, the last ‘trust territory’, attained independence.

So as to formulate a cogent analysis of its efficacy, it is expedient to assess its role in specific fields. The fields ought to be such as to necessitate global collaboration. Indeed, there are myriad such fields, but these may well be categorized into three large spheres, on which this assessment lays special emphasis, namely, global security, climate change and international law. The spheres are quite expansive, but a few instances would suffice to illustrate a general pattern in the efficacy of the role essayed by the United Nations.

Prior to delineating the results of the research undertaken for this assessment, it is felicitous to elaborate on the methodology adhered to herein. Owing to the somewhat nebulous nature of the topic itself, it appeared prima facie that a rather commonplace evaluation of successes and failures would best serve the purposes of this assessment. However, the lack of a desirable degree of incisiveness in such research articles as could be accessed keeping into account the paucity of time culminated in the adoption of a different approach consisting of three stages: examination of a specific role, empirical research as to the attributability of the result to organizational structure, and conclusion.

Global Security

The preservation of international peace and security is the foremost function of the United Nations, overseen by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in accordance with Chapter V of the U.N. Charter. So eclectic has the record of the Council thus far been that a final word is not with ease afforded. Needless to say, no organization could epitomize perfection, but it could be an unwarranted overstatement to insinuate consummate ineptitude. We may, nonetheless, make an attempt to form a broader view of its efficacy.

The United Nations discharges its responsibility of global security primarily by what we may regard as a matter of expediency, the two “approaches”: the specific and the generic. The “specific approach” refers to its active involvement in particular countries, the volatility within which may justifiably be a cause for concern. We may cite as an instance its role in the Korean war, or say in Rwanda. These are specific countries with a specific set of circumstances. The “generic approach” refers to its broader perspective on global security; when it is not so much the country that is its emphasis but a larger picture in regard to policy. We may examine, for instance, the manner in which it fosters cooperation amongst countries in that regard. It is helpful to form an epigrammatic view on both approaches.

We deal foremost with the “specific approach”. The process of nation-building has been an invariable concomitant with the United Nations’ efforts at mitigating conflict within, between or amongst nations. A study by non-profit research organization named The RAND Corporation made observations of particular interest. It noted that while U.N. forces had earlier tended to exit en masse posterior to the first national election in a troubled country — an election supposedly significative of the said nation’s progress to stability — the operations thereafter witnessed a more gradual withdrawal of forces, having realized that a national election alone could not be evidence of long-term stability. It is thereafter that its successes became more pronounced. The reasons were as follows:

The United Nations has an ability to compensate, to some degree at least, for its “hard” power deficit with “soft” power attributes of international legitimacy and local impartiality. To the extent that the United Nations’ influence depends more on moral than physical power, more on its legitimacy than its combat prowess, military rebuffs do not fatally undermine its credibility (Dobbins, James et al)

Following are a few figures from the same report:

The figure shows peak military presence per capita
The figure illustrates the duration of operations

Such figures appear to make an encouraging portfolio of the United Nations as an organization so far as adeptness at conflict management is concerned. The report also cites a few examples to add further effect:

In the closing months of 1999, the United Nations found itself charged with governing both Kosovo and East Timor. The latter operation proved an ideal showcase for UN capabilities. Like Eastern Slavonia, East Timor was small in both territory and population. International resources, in terms of military manpower and economic assistance, were unusually abundant. Major power influence secured the cooperation of neighbouring states. A multinational coalition, in this case led by Australia, secured initial control of the territory and then quickly turned the operation over to U.N. management. Remaining combatants were disarmed, new security forces established, a local administration created, elections held, and a democratically elected government inaugurated in less than three years.

Amongst the myriad criticisms of the role that the United Nations has essayed in regard to security that have been proffered, one that commands our attention is the marked failure thereof to implement peace in the Middle East, which is well viewed as the messiest conflict-ridden region. In an article for the Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, Srinivas and Upendra note:

The major issues that draw international attention towards the Middle East are: (a) the Arab-Israel conflict; (b) The Gulf War; (c) The Struggle of PLO for self-determination; and (d) the Iran-Iraq War. In all the aforementioned cases, the United Nations played a negligible role in resolving the disputes. Many disputes yet persist…The interests of the major powers, specifically those of the United States, are always protected and the conflicts are dealt with on the basis of advantages derived either in resolution or intervention (Srinivas and Upendra).

What interests could the United States possibly have? One which is often mentioned is its desire to gain control over Middle Eastern oil. Noam Chomsky has further insight on the matter, for he notes, “every year the White House presents to Congress a statement describing reasons for having a huge military budget. For fifty years, it used the pretext of a Soviet threat. However, after the end of the Cold War, that pretext was gone. Therefore, Huntington constructed the Islamic threat as a pretext to justify the need for maintaining and enhancing the defence-industrial base” (Shahi, Deepshikha, 2017).

That the United States has long dominated the United Nations in terms of structure and policy is well known. But it is often also proffered that the United States itself has been dominated by large-scale industries — the arms industry specifically. Thus, there can be little doubt of the ability of the arms industry to influence U.S. foreign policy. A question thus may be raised as to whether on account of these facts the arms industry could by extension have often influenced decisions in the United Nations. Indeed, Srinivas and Upendra have wondered whether the oil companies of the Middle East influenced the growth of many such foreign policies.

But a much more concerning fact appears to have emerged after meticulous cause-and-effect examination. No research thus far appears to have proved beyond doubt that such successes as the U.N. witnessed were attributable to its organizational structure. This appears particularly true in regard to its “generic approach”, particularly insofar as countering terrorism is concerned. The following has broadly been the plan of action adopted by the United Nations (cited from a report of the Center on Global Counter-Terrorism Cooperation):

We, the States Members of the United Nations, resolve:

1. To consistently, unequivocally and strongly condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes, as it constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security;

2. To take urgent action to prevent and combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and, in particular:

(a) To consider becoming parties without delay to the existing international conventions and protocols against terrorism, and implementing them, and to make every effort to reach an agreement on and conclude a comprehensive convention on international terrorism;

(b) To implement all General Assembly resolutions on measures to eliminate international terrorism and relevant General Assembly resolutions on the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism;

(c) To implement all Security Council resolutions related to international terrorism and to cooperate fully with the counter-terrorism subsidiary bodies of the Security Council in the fulfilment of their tasks, recognizing that many States continue to require assistance in implementing these resolutions;

3. To recognize that international cooperation and any measures that we undertake to prevent and combat terrorism must comply with our obligations under international law, including the Charter of the United Nations and relevant international conventions and protocols, in particular human rights law, refugee law and international humanitarian law.

The comprehensive plan of action having been delineated; it is now apt to examine such measures as would address conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism

We resolve to undertake the following measures aimed at addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, including but not limited to prolonged unresolved conflicts, dehumanization of victims of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, lack of the rule of law and violations of human rights, ethnic, national and religious discrimination, political exclusion, socio-economic marginalization and lack of good governance, while recognizing that none of these conditions can excuse or justify acts of terrorism:

1. To continue to strengthen and make best possible use of the capacities of the United Nations in areas such as conflict prevention, negotiation, mediation, conciliation, judicial settlement, rule of law, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, in order to contribute to the successful prevention and peaceful resolution of prolonged unresolved conflicts. We recognize that the peaceful resolution of such conflicts would contribute to strengthening the global fight against terrorism;

2. To continue to arrange under the auspices of the United Nations initiatives and programmes to promote dialogue, tolerance and understanding among civilizations, cultures, peoples and religions, and to promote mutual respect for and prevent the defamation of religions, religious values, beliefs and cultures. In this regard, we welcome the launching by the Secretary-General of the initiative on the Alliance of Civilizations. We also welcome similar initiatives that have been taken in other parts of the world;

3. To promote a culture of peace, justice and human development, ethnic, national and religious tolerance and respect for all religions, religious values, beliefs or cultures by establishing and encouraging, as appropriate, education and public awareness programmes involving all sectors of society. In this regard, we encourage the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to play a key role, including through inter-faith and intra-faith dialogue and dialogue among civilizations;

4. To continue to work to adopt such measures as may be necessary and appropriate and in accordance with our respective obligations under international law to prohibit by law incitement to commit a terrorist act or acts and prevent such conduct;

5. To reiterate our determination to ensure the timely and full realization of the development goals and objectives agreed at the major United Nations conferences and summits, including the Millennium Development Goals. We reaffirm our commitment to eradicate poverty and promote sustained economic growth, sustainable development and global prosperity for all;

6. To pursue and reinforce development and social inclusion agendas at every level as goals in themselves, recognizing that success in this area, especially on youth unemployment, could reduce marginalization and the subsequent sense of victimization that propels extremism and the recruitment of terrorists;

7. To encourage the United Nations system as a whole to scale up the cooperation and assistance it is already conducting in the fields of rule of law, human rights and good governance to support sustained economic and social development;

8. To consider putting in place, on a voluntary basis, national systems of assistance that would promote the needs of victims of terrorism and their families and facilitate the normalization of their lives. In this regard, we encourage States to request the relevant United Nations entities to help them to develop such national systems. We will also strive to promote international solidarity in support of victims and foster the involvement of civil society in a global campaign against terrorism and for its condemnation. This could include exploring at the General Assembly the possibility of developing practical mechanisms to provide assistance to victims.

Finally, we pay heed to such measures as it has planned to adopt so as to prevent and combat terrorism:

We resolve to undertake the following measures to prevent and combat terrorism, in particular by denying terrorists access to the means to carry out their attacks, to their targets and to the desired impact of their attacks:

1. To refrain from organizing, instigating, facilitating, participating in, financing, encouraging or tolerating terrorist activities and to take appropriate practical measures to ensure that our respective territories are not used for terrorist installations or training camps, or for the preparation or organization of terrorist acts intended to be committed against other States or their citizens;

2. To cooperate fully in the fight against terrorism, in accordance with our obligations under international law, in order to find, deny safe haven and bring to justice, on the basis of the principle of extradite or prosecute, any person who supports, facilitates, participates or attempts to participate in the financing, planning, preparation or perpetration of terrorist acts or provides safe havens;

3. To ensure the apprehension and prosecution or extradition of perpetrators of terrorist acts, in accordance with the relevant provisions of national and international law, in particular human rights law, refugee law and international humanitarian law. We will endeavour to conclude and implement to that effect mutual judicial assistance and extradition agreements and to strengthen cooperation between law enforcement agencies;

4. To intensify cooperation, as appropriate, in exchanging timely and accurate information concerning the prevention and combating of terrorism;

5. To strengthen coordination and cooperation among States in combating crimes that might be connected with terrorism, including drug trafficking in all its aspects, illicit arms trade, in particular of small arms and light weapons, including man-portable air defence systems, money-laundering and smuggling of nuclear, chemical, biological, radiological and other potentially deadly materials;

6. To consider becoming parties without delay to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and to the three protocols supplementing it, and implementing them;

7. To take appropriate measures, before granting asylum, for the purpose of ensuring that the asylum-seeker has not engaged in terrorist activities and, after granting asylum, for the purpose of ensuring that the refugee status is not used in a manner contrary to the provisions set out in section II, paragraph 1, above;

8. To encourage relevant regional and subregional organizations to create or strengthen counter-terrorism mechanisms or centres. Should they require cooperation and assistance to this end, we encourage the Counter-Terrorism Committee and its Executive Directorate and, where consistent with their existing mandates, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Criminal Police Organization, to facilitate its provision;

9. To acknowledge that the question of creating an international centre to fight terrorism could be considered, as part of international efforts to enhance the fight against terrorism;

10. To encourage States to implement the comprehensive international standards embodied in the Forty Recommendations on Money-Laundering and Nine Special Recommendations on Terrorist Financing of the Financial Action Task Force, recognizing that States may require assistance in implementing them;

11. To invite the United Nations system to develop, together with Member States, a single comprehensive database on biological incidents, ensuring that it is complementary to the biocrimes database contemplated by the International Criminal Police Organization. We also encourage the Secretary-General to update the roster of experts and laboratories, as well as the technical guidelines and procedures, available to him for the timely and efficient investigation of alleged use. In addition, we note the importance of the proposal of the Secretary-General to bring together, within the framework of the United Nations, the major biotechnology stakeholders, including industry, the scientific community, civil society and Governments, into a common programme aimed at ensuring that biotechnology advances are not used for terrorist or other criminal purposes but for the public good, with due respect for the basic international norms on intellectual property rights;

12. To work with the United Nations with due regard to confidentiality, respecting human rights and in compliance with other obligations under international law, to explore ways and means to:

(a) Coordinate efforts at the international and regional levels to counter terrorism in all its forms and manifestations on the Internet;

(b) Use the Internet as a tool for countering the spread of terrorism, while recognizing that States may require assistance in this regard;

13. To step up national efforts and bilateral, subregional, regional and international cooperation, as appropriate, to improve border and customs controls in order to prevent and detect the movement of terrorists and prevent and detect the illicit traffic in, inter alia, small arms and light weapons, conventional ammunition and explosives, and nuclear, chemical, biological or radiological weapons and materials, while recognizing that States may require assistance to that effect;

14. To encourage the Counter-Terrorism Committee and its Executive Directorate to continue to work with States, at their request, to facilitate the adoption of legislation and administrative measures to implement the terrorist travel-related obligations and to identify best practices in this area, drawing whenever possible on those developed by technical international organizations, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization, the World Customs Organization and the International Criminal Police Organization;

15. To encourage the Committee established pursuant to Security Council resolution 1267 (1999) to continue to work to strengthen the effectiveness of the travel ban under the United Nations sanctions regime against Al-Qaida and the Taliban and associated individuals and entities, as well as to ensure, as a matter of priority, that fair and transparent procedures exist for placing individuals and entities on its lists, for removing them and for granting humanitarian exceptions. In this regard, we encourage States to share information, including by widely distributing the International Criminal Police Organization/United Nations special notices concerning people subject to this sanctions regime;

16. To step up efforts and cooperation at every level, as appropriate, to improve the security of manufacturing and issuing identity and travel documents and to prevent and detect their alteration or fraudulent use, while recognizing that States may require assistance in doing so. In this regard, we invite the International Criminal Police Organization to enhance its database on stolen and lost travel documents, and we will endeavour to make full use of this tool, as appropriate, in particular by sharing relevant information;

17. To invite the United Nations to improve coordination in planning a response to a terrorist attack using nuclear, chemical, biological or radiological weapons or materials, in particular by reviewing and improving the effectiveness of the existing inter-agency coordination mechanisms for assistance delivery, relief operations and victim support, so that all States can receive adequate assistance. In this regard, we invite the General Assembly and the Security Council to develop guidelines for the necessary cooperation and assistance in the event of a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction;

18. To step up all efforts to improve the security and protection of particularly vulnerable targets, such as infrastructure and public places, as well as the response to terrorist attacks and other disasters, in particular in the area of civil protection, while recognizing that States may require assistance to this effect.

From so comprehensive an examination, the only conclusions that can prima facie be arrived at are: (a) that the U.N. insofar as security is concerned is little more than a deliberative body, with much of the implementation indeed contingent on the nations in their sovereign capacity; and (b) that the U.N. may actuate a degree of cooperation, even in the realm of intelligence sharing which would in its absence be a difficult endeavour, by virtue of its legal authority.

Climate Change
Much impassioned clamour is tendered globally in regard to this phenomenon. Defined rudimentarily, it refers to significant changes in global temperature, precipitation, wind patterns and other measures of climate that occur over several decades or longer. The United Nations has an interesting observation in this regard. It states, “Climate Change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment. From shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and unprecedented in scale. Without drastic action today, adapting to these impacts in the future will be more difficult and costly.”

But perhaps the most ingenious perspective on climate change is offered by Franziska Knur, the author of “Climate Change as a Threat to Peace: Impacts on Cultural Heritage and Cultural Diversity.” The paper notes that Maldives was the first nation to link human rights to climate change. Subsequently, while the Human Rights Council agreed with such an interpretation, there were disagreements as to the proportion of responsibility that nation-states ought to bear. An OHCHR report notes that “the effects of climate change will be felt most acutely by vulnerable groups such as women, children and indigenous peoples and that these groups are entitled to special protection in accordance with the principle of equality and non-discrimination.”

It may thus safely be said that the United Nations is prepared to regard climate change as a human rights issue. However, there does not appear to exist a consensus as to the implementation of such agreements to the reduction of emissions at which the nations may reach as a result of agreements and being signatories to, say, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Accords. This, while not being a criticism given that the formulation of a cogent solution to so intricate a problem would take time, is definitely an aspect on which greater work must be done.

But were one to approach the issue philosophically, one would be deeply concerned. At the heart of contemporary discourse on climate change are two notions: (a) an inexplicable faith in international organizations, particularly the United Nations, in regard to implementation of solutions; and (b) the fundamentally arrogant idea, misinterpreted as altruistic concern for the planet, that it is within the expanse of human ingenuity to “save the Earth”. The former notion may be critiqued with ease. That such officious international bureaucracies can be effective in any measure is nothing short of preposterous. Where there is a bureaucracy, there is inevitably fostered a mechanism that permits its members to serve their own interests and maintain a clever façade of professionalism, efficiency and credibility. But the second idea, as aforesaid, is brazenly arrogant. Man is capable of neither protecting nor destroying the planet.

The concern, therefore, is not climate change itself, which is very much a natural phenomenon. The concern is that anthropogenic activities are aggravating the process. We as humans can at best mitigate that rapid metastasis. We can never secure complete control over the forces of nature. The discourse, perhaps, needs to incorporate epistemic humility as its first principle, lest the debate be too politicized.

International Law

It is perhaps in the field of international law that the record of the United Nations has been deemed a little controversial. An article for The American Journal of International Law notes, “In retrospect, it is not surprising that the major intergovernmental bodies have utilized their recommendatory authority to achieve binding law where that served their aims and enjoyed the requisite political support. Although it has often been emphasized that they are not legislatures, most U.N. organs have acted much like parliamentary bodies in their proceedings.”

However, it is also to be noted that most U.N. bodies do not generally have an adjudicative character to their laws. Their task is mostly restricted to the preparation of a plan of action or to recommend state behaviour to achieve a goal. In some cases, however, controversies have arisen in regard to the competence and powers of the Security Council and the General Assembly. There has thus been a perception, notes the article, that interpretation in U.N. bodies is essentially political in the sense that disputes about interpretation are resolved mainly by what member states desire as a matter of policy.

The best that has been ensured in regard to international law is in the human rights arena, especially under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. They have also been used by the International Labour Organization. A characteristic pattern undergirds the procedures: (a) periodic reports by states in accordance with detailed guidelines; (b) review by a committee, accompanied by questions to the reporting states; © in some cases, detailed inquiry by a subcommittee or individual rapporteur; and (d) a committee report noting discrepancies between the states’ conduct and the requirements of the treaty or applicable law.

Even in this regard, however, there is little the United Nations itself can proactively do, for while in legal terms it exercises adjudicative power by means of the International Court of Justice, it cannot substantively ensure compliance.

CONCLUSION

In view of the foregoing facts, it is perhaps appropriate to conclude that the contemporary discourse hyperbolizes the importance of the United Nations. Insofar as it provides nations with a platform for deliberation, it is vital to global politics. Insofar as substantive action is concerned, there is little that the United Nations can truly effectuate.

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Dobbins, James, et al. Rand Corporation, 2005, www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2005/RAND_MG304.sum.pdf.

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Knur, Franziska. “The United Nations Human Rights-Based Approach to Climate Change — Introducing a Human Dimension to International Climate Law.” Climate Change as a Threat to Peace: Impacts on Cultural Heritage and Cultural Diversity, edited by Sabine Von Schorlemer and Sylvia Maus, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2014, pp. 37–60. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4cvp.7. Accessed 13 Mar. 2021.

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Srinivas, Burra, and Ch. Upendra. “Role of United Nations in Conflict Resolutions: The Case of Middle East.” Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, vol. 13, no. 1/2, 2000, pp. 167–183. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41960894. Accessed 12 Mar. 2021.

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Samved Iyer

Samved Iyer

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Write as I do for contentment alone, it is made more worthwhile still by the patience of readers, and for that virtue, herewith, my sincere appreciation.