It is no secret that the UN has become powerless, like a desert island battered by a storm, as evidenced by the lack of confidence of many parties who deal with it. The more the UN fails, the more voices are raised in protest. With every failed attempt to address the matters before the Security Council, calls are renewed for the necessity of change within an organization that is more than 70 years old.
Reform is an old-new demand which has been voiced ever since the Cold War. This demand notwithstanding, the UN played a prominent role in two global issues at the time, namely: ending colonialism and pursuing development. However, its working-framework crisis persists. Circumstances, events and the delicacy of the phase the world is currently undergoing have given momentum to the calls for deep reform of the core of its mode of operation and heightened interest in these calls.
António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, is the former Prime Minister of Portugal, before becoming head of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, from 2005 to 2015. Former Portuguese President Silva said that Mr. Guterres’s work at the refugee agency means “today he is a respected voice and all the world listens to him.” Although his knowledge and experience serve him well in his work, he is unable to find solutions to the world’s most pressing issues and problems. This is because the UN is driven by nothing other than the desires and interests of certain states.
To be fair, the UN Secretary-General is ultimately an employee and as such, he cannot be expected to go beyond his capabilities and powers; he is not able to change the way the wind blows. He does not have the means to put pressure on influential major countries, but he can present initiatives and proposals, create a climate and atmosphere for dialogue, negotiations, prioritize and focus on the most important issues that the world suffers from, such as poverty, human rights violations and the plight of refugees.
Everyone was hoping for the UN to be restored to its previous status when it expressed its positions clearly, credibly and independently, standing with the truth and not yielding to dictates. Its failures are consecutive, especially on hot topic issues such as the North Korea crisis, Iran’s nuclear program, India’s disputes with Pakistan, China’s friction with Taiwan, the Palestinian and Sudanese questions, the South American crises, and finally the events in Syria, Yemen and Libya.
It should have taken the criticism seriously, and fostered discussion to address them based on the restructuring of the administrative and organizational framework of UN agencies, especially the power of veto that goes against the stipulations of the UN Charter itself ensuring equality between members, not to mention using the veto to cancel of some of the decisions of the Security Council.
We know that the secretary-general’s role in this regard is striking a balance between agencies. Today’s tangible reality is that the Security Council’s role is growing at the expense of the General Assembly and the International Court of Justice. The outdated institution also suffers from financial, organizational and administrative hindrances preventing it from keeping up with the changing global order, due to a top-heavy administrative apparatus and a lack of financial resources.
The UN’s ability to ensure collective security hinges on the whims of the Security Council’s permanent members, who have been using it as a tool for conflict, as demonstrated by the massacres and destruction in Syria, overseen and perpetrated by Council members. This means that the Security Council’s foundational framework governing its actions lacks clarity, leaving it subject to differing interpretations according to the interest of each state.
The atmosphere of attacks, accusations and quarrels between Moscow and Washington undoubtedly undermines international cooperation, and China’s emergence on the scene only makes matters worse. This state of affairs has been pushing us in the direction of the tragic situation we find ourselves in, one which threatens to undermine states, generate chaos, and shatter the international-system contract.
The events in Yemen, Syria, and Libya have exposed the glaring deficiency and incompetence that the UN suffers from. Despite the issuance of clear decisions consistent with international covenants and principles of international law, the UN’s handling of the region’s crises, especially through its envoys, calls for a review of its operational framework.
There are no hopeful signs of change on the horizon, especially after the US hegemony of the past four decades, during which it entrenched realpolitik and the idea that might is right.
Still, there are signs of attempts at rebalancing international policies and relations, though they have yet to mature. Circumstances, events and the sensitivity of the global situation have generated a certain momentum that must be harnessed towards understandings and arrangements between the superpowers that aim at reframing the international organization, reforming it, and restoring its status, in hopes that it can once again be up to the tasks and responsibilities entrusted to it.
The secretary-general is not expected to pressure UN member states to solve all crises; after all, he does not have a magic wand. But he can save the UN’s reputation in alignment with the new global reality, free from the pressure of interests and strong-arming, and upholding its core principles of neutrality, professionalism, credibility.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.