United Nations is a global forum of nations Image Credit: Gulf News

One year has passed since the war in Ukraine broke out and yet there is no sign that it is coming to close anytime soon. In fact as the winter snows thaw, both sides are gearing up for a military escalation in a bid to change the current tide.

Tens of thousands have perished, cities destroyed, millions displaced and global supply chains disrupted. The war is turning into a jaw-breaking confrontation between east and west. But where is the United Nations from all this?

The crisis in Ukraine has become a geopolitical challenge in all possible aspects with fallout affecting all nations. A political settlement is, for now, out of question.

It is ironic that the 78-year-old international body, which was formed to prevent such global calamity, is fast becoming a casualty of this war. The UN Security Council has found itself paralysed, and not for the first time, is stepping in to resolve a crisis at such magnitude.

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A girdlock at the top

The 15-member council, with the five permanent members, is gridlocked. With Russia seeing the West colluding to force a defeat, it is no wonder that both sides have been raising the ante.

While the global organisation has been able to negotiate, sometimes through third parties, prisoner exchange and free commercial maritime passage to and from Ukrainian Black Sea ports, it has not been able to engage both sides in a political process.

Thus the question that keeps popping up every time a crisis threatens regional or global security is this: Does the UN still matter? And as always there are those who are quick to eulogise the UN and those who are ready to defend it.

Major military confrontation?

The war in Ukraine is serious enough. Not even during the Cold War had the old enemies, then the Soviet Union and the United States, come close to a major military confrontation.

Throughout their troubled history, it was direct diplomacy, and not the UN that found a breakthrough; from the Cuban Missile Crisis, to Soviet military interventions in Eastern European countries and to limiting nuclear ICBMs, or non-proliferation agreements.

Specialised UN agencies, such as the IAEA, would get involved after the superpowers of the day had reached an agreement.

Superpower struggle sometimes eclipses UN’s success track record in conflict resolution. The UN had succeeded in mediating and resolving some conflicts such as in Cambodia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mozambique, Namibia and Tajikistan.

Its peacekeeping troops, the blue helmets, are active in more than a dozen countries today in 3 different regions: seven in Africa, three in the Middle East, two in Europe, and one in Asia.

But along such notable successes, there are failures as well and the Middle East today has more than its fair share of hotspots where the UN has failed or is yet to succeed. These include the Palestine/Israel conflict, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and to some extent Iran and Afghanistan.

UN not entirely to blame 

Putting the blame entirely on the UN is unfair. The way the UN, especially the Security Council, was structured, following the end of the Second World War, underlines some serious shortcomings.

Those who argue that the UN structure is outdated have a strong case. India, for example, has overtaken both Britain and France in terms of GDP.

India is a nuclear power and a regional behemoth. The fastest growing continent, Africa, deserves to sit at the Security Council and so does Japan.

One must not forget about the tens of UN organisations that provide essential services in the fields of refugee care, health, food security, regional development, culture, education, child welfare and others.

While the UN’s track record is dismal, at times, in the field of conflict resolution, it has a brilliant record in humanitarian, environmental, developmental and other areas. Certainly, in these areas the UN remains irreplaceable and necessary.

One thing seems to be inevitable and that is the current confrontation in Eastern Europe will prove to be a game changer for the existing and precarious world order. The UN, whose reform is long overdue, will be affected by the outcome of the war in Ukraine.

This could be both good and bad. While no one really knows how the war would end, the hope is that cool heads will eventually prevail and that at some stage the policy of brinkmanship will be abandoned in search of a political settlement.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.