What’s Wrong With the United Nations?
Sadly, more than you’d think.
The United Nations are a divisive topic. Some see it as the culmination of humanity and progress, while for others it is an all-powerful cabal, out to destroy traditional values or an ineffective talking shop for detached politicians.
The UN is undoubtedly important to international diplomacy. It has mediated countless treaties regulating anything from human rights to the peaceful use of the oceans.
Yet despite its successes, the United Nations Organization suffers from several fundamental design flaws that prevent it from being effective and accountable. Most recently, we have seen this ineffectiveness in the hampered response of the WHO — a UN agency — to the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in 2019.
A lot of this ineffectiveness comes down to structural deficiencies in the organization. Here, I would like to highlight the most critical issues with the way the UN works.
The UNSC (United Nations Security Council) — consisting of five permanent and ten elected member states — is the most powerful body in the UN. It alone has the power to call on other nations to go to war “to maintain or restore international peace and security”, as the UN Charter states.
The UN Charter also specifies that all substantiative UNSC resolutions require the agreement of nine members, including all five permanent members (US, UK, France, China, Russia). This means that any reform, major decision, and even candidacy of the Secretary-General can be vetoed by one of the Big Five.
Clearly, this is a problem. The veto effectively prevents any sort of reform and decisive action in the face of difficult issues. In fact, it has been recognized as a significant problem even before the foundation of the UN, back in 1945. Especially “small” nations considered the veto inherently unfair but had little choice.
At San Francisco, the issue was made crystal clear by the leaders of the Big Five: it was either the Charter with the veto or no Charter at all. Senator Connally [from the U.S. delegation] dramatically tore up a copy of the Charter during one of his speeches and reminded the small states that they would be guilty of that same act if they opposed the unanimity principle. ‘You may, if you wish,’ he said, ‘go home from this Conference and say that you have defeated the veto. But what will be your answer when you are asked: “Where is the Charter”?’
Many reforms of the UNSC have been proposed. Modest proposals aim to include further states, such as Brazil, the EU, or India. More ambitious activists push to get rid of the veto, and some advocate getting rid of the entire UNSC altogether. Either way, something needs to happen. A system, in which an autocratic government of less than 2% of the world population can prevent decisive action on global issues, is outdated and morally objectionable.
The more democratic of the UN bodies is probably the UNGA (United Nations General Assembly). All countries come together to debate international affairs and issue resolutions and recommendations, along with the famous “strongly worded letters”.
While it may appear to be an improvement over the somewhat dictatorial UNSC, the UNGA itself has a serious democratic deficit.
Firstly, the members of the UNGA are governments. This in and of itself excludes the political diversity in each country, e.g. in the form of strong opposition parties. Especially in states with coalition governments and fractured parliaments, it is doing a disservice to citizens to just represent the government in global affairs.
Furthermore, people without a recognized state (e.g. Kurds), or those who are oppressed in their country (e.g. Palestine), are unable to participate in global decision-making through national governments.
Secondly, each government has one vote, regardless of the population size it represents. This leads to the curious case that the voice of a Nauruan citizen counts about 135,000 more than that of a Chinese citizen. Surely this is an insult to our understanding of the democratic principle“one person, one vote”.
Thirdly, the UNGA has no way to issue binding resolutions. It issues resolutions and ultimately has a consultative role. Important proposals to global issues are often presented at the famous green marble lectern but are ultimately of little consequence. Real power lays in the hands of the strongest national governments. If the will of non-P5 countries opposes those of the nuclear-armed members, they can at best put their disapproval in writing, but nothing more.
The Charter prescribes how the UN is run, what bodies exist, and how power is divided between them. Due to the way the UN was set up, any substantiative reform eventually requires a revision of the UN Charter.
The founders were very well aware of what a fundamental problem that poses. Article 109(3) includes a provision to revise the Charter at a fixed, later date. It is one of the few decisions to which the veto does not apply.
If such a conference [for the purpose of reviewing the present Charter] has not been held before the tenth annual session of the General Assembly following the coming into force of the present Charter, the proposal to call such a conference shall be placed on the agenda of that session of the General Assembly, and the conference shall be held if so decided by a majority vote of the members of the General Assembly and by a vote of any seven members of the Security Council.
Exactly this clause has been triggered on November 21, 1955, when the UNGA voted to set up a committee to have a close look at the Charter and come up with a proposal on how to change it. Nothing has happened since then. The committee stopped meeting in 1967 due to Cold War tensions and is on ice ever since. There are, however, groups advocating the reactivation of this committee.
The Charter also misses out on a lot of important institutions that we consider essential in any well-functioning country.
I’ll start with the big one. There is no UN Parliament. Unlike the UNGA, a UN Parliament would
- represent world citizens irrespective of their nationality
- be directly elected by citizens
- reflect population size
- have the power to initiate and pass laws
While it might sound like a monumental and largely utopian task to introduce a UN Parliament, this doesn’t have to be so. The EU Parliament shows us how it can be done: starting as an advisory body, it can develop into a democratic body with real powers over time as legitimacy grows. The UN Parliamentary Assembly campaign aims to replicate a very similar path in the UN, starting as a subsidiary body to the UNGA. The initial step cannot be vetoed and would only require the support of over 50% of governments. Over 1700 current and former parliamentarians from 150 countries, along with countless institutions have already voiced their support for the campaign.
Enforcement of resolutions is ultimately up to the individual nations. This immediately raises a fundamental problem: if a country was to ignore a UN resolution, what consequences would it even have?
When there is a conflict, UN Peacekeepers are often sent to, well, keep the peace. Due to the way funding, recruitment, and missions are managed though, the Blue Helmets are ineffective at best.
Rather than a loose conglomerate of national mercenaries, we’d do better having a UN Police under the supervision of a UN Parliament with independent funding. Unlike an army, a police force is bound by laws, the constitution, and can be checked and held accountable. It could be used as a rapid reaction force in times of humanitarian and natural disasters, and as a regular police force to apprehend criminals to bring them before the International Criminal Court. This brings me to my next point.
While there is an International Criminal Court, it only has the authority to act in very limited cases, i.e. the four crimes against humanity. But a court with global jurisdiction could have far greater application:
- it could keep the balance between legislative (UN Parliament) and executive (e.g. a reformed Security Council),
- it could persecute transnational and global crimes, such as drug and human trafficking,
- and it could serve as the highest instance to rule in cases where national supreme courts fail to deliver just rulings, e.g. when genocides are declared legal or are deliberately hidden.
This is a game-changer. When global injustice happens, it would no longer be necessary to put an entire country under sanctions, but the responsible people directly could be persecuted, arrested, and sentenced. Iranian nuclear weapons programs or Belarusian repression could be treated like private or corporate crimes, i.e. by persecuting, arresting, hearing, and sentencing individuals that are directly responsible, rather than leaving citizens alone with their unjust governments.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted another fundamental issue with UN institutions: funding. States and private donors contribute resources to the UN and its sister organizations, a large part of which is earmarked for specific purposes, as decided by the donors. While the original idea was that the prestige of high contributions would spur further donations, it instead created mistrust of a Chinese, American, or Soviet domination of the UN (depending on what angle you view it from).
One way to address this problem would be to make budget contributions nation-independent. Global taxation, for example of carbon emission, land value, or international financial transactions, could provide a source of income for the UN that does not rely on individual countries’ willingness to contribute and would de-politicize funding for projects like global vaccination programs, human rights agencies, and climate research and action.
What Is to Be Done?
It is clear that there are serious problems with the way the UN is set up. In light of global problems — climate change, wars, human rights abuses, pandemics, poverty— we need a global institution that can adequately and fairly address them.
Thinkers and activists have made a great number of reform proposals. I have tried to include links to the most comprehensive suggestions throughout the text.
What is an essential prerequisite to any reform, however, is the realization that change is necessary. Individual national governments are too small to solve global issues and are often the cause of these problems themselves. We should recognize that above the rights of sovereign nations stand the rights of human beings. The right to dignity, life, equal protection, asylum, free speech, education, safety, and health should not be limited by national interest.
We should honor Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
Let us build the world we want and need. ⬢