As the United Nations marked its 75th anniversary this week with a sombre, mainly virtual, celebration due to the coronavirus pandemic, the organisation’s Secretary-General Antonio Guterres summed up the state of the world in short but powerful words: Climate calamity looms, biodiversity is collapsing, poverty is rising, hatred is spreading, geopolitical tensions are escalating, nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert.” This was not an understatement but a sober description of the world we live in today.
When the UN was created following the Second World War in 1945, it was meant to end future conflicts through peaceful means while seeking to build a new world on the ruins of an old one. But conflicts could not be avoided and soon an Iron Curtain descended over Europe heralding a decades-long Cold War in a largely bi-polar world. In between the UN’s Security Council was rendered ineffective as the Soviet Union and the United States each engaged in proxy wars in Indochina, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, West Asia and South America, among others.
The Security Council was designed in a way so that neither the US nor the Soviet Union, the two main powers of the day, could unilaterally enforce a new global regime. Multilateralism was supposed to be the path forward in a polarised world. But after more than seven decades that goal remains elusive. In 2020 alone there are no less than 10 regional conflicts raging on in various parts of the world; including Libya, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia; at least five of which are in the Arab world. Aside from civil and sectarian wars and multilateral conflicts the world faces protracted wars on terrorism, drugs, human trafficking, disease, poverty and racism.
The Security Council’s record in resolving conflicts is dismal. Years of UN-led mediations to settle the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen have led to nowhere. And even when the Security Council adopts a resolution more often than not it hesitates or is divided again when it comes to enforcing them.
When the US emerged as a unipolar power following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s it promised a new world order that was supposed to promote democracy, human rights and free trade. That message resonated for a while but its effect was short lived. The 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC brought forward a neoconservative mantra that was embraced by George W. Bush administration. Replacing communist threat was the revisionist Jihadi dogma manifested in Al Qaida and later on Daesh and other splinter groups.
The UN Security Council was duped by the US into believing that Saddam Hussein was close to possessing and launching weapons of mass destruction. Unlike his father, George H.W. Bush, who led an international campaign backed by the UN to liberate Kuwait, Bush junior waged an illegal invasion of Iraq — one that would prove catastrophic for all parties and would badly dent the credibility of the UN as a whole.
His successor, President Barack Obama, also forced the UN’s hand into sanctioning Nato strikes against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 which led to his killing and to an extended civil war and chaos in that country that continues until today. US behaviour has in large allowed other states to intervene in other conflicts; Russia and Turkey in both Syria and Libya and the former in Crimea and Ukraine. Once more the Security Council resolutions on resolving conflicts remain unimplemented.
But the UN, with 190 members, remains an important symbol and conduit for multilateralism in areas other than conflict resolution. Its organisations such WHO, UNICEF, Unesco and FAO, among others, have done a lot in the fields of fighting pandemics, immunisation of children, preserving cultural heritage and confronting famine. Their contributions go largely unnoticed by politicians.
Under President Donald Trump the UN was depicted as a dysfunctional organisation in dire need of reform. Washington had withdrawn from WHO and Unesco for different reasons. Few would dispute that reform is needed and attempts to carry out a series of reforms have been made in the past with little success. Such calls were echoed again this week including the need to increase the number of permanent members of the Security Council.
But despite all the negatives surrounding the UN, it remains an indispensable organisation in today’s globalised and complex world; the effects of the coronavirus on the entire globe is a case in point. Confronting climate change, human trafficking, famine, desertification and many other global challenges requires such an international body.
Our world has changed dramatically since 1945 and the dynamics that define today’s global powers have also been altered. China is about to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy while a new arms race is ensuing in various parts of the world, and hotspots, like Kashmir, US-China rivalry, US-Iran face off, are boiling once more. In a polarised world there is a need to revisit the UN’s charter and its most shining achievements, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so as to put the organisation back on its true path.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.