The United Nations is ripe for reforms as the Security Council 'Veto' and US funding hold it back

While it has delivered humanitarian aid all over the world, UN’s failure to rein in its own members has been glaring. As the UNGA meets, Myanmar does not even figure in its agenda. Afghanistan does

Image from the Myanmar Revolution
Image from the Myanmar Revolution

Abhijit Shanker

The United Nations (UN), formed in 1945, is divided into four broad areas: the political, which comprises the security council and the general assembly; humanitarian agencies like UNICEF and World Food Programme which provide assistance and aid to those ravaged by war or misgovernance; specialized agencies like the WHO, ILO and the World Bank and the Peacekeeping forces which is dependent on member nations to function.

While all four are considered equally important in achieving the UN’s mandate, its criticism is mostly limited to the political side. There are 36 UN agencies in all but some like the World Bank, ILO, WHO and UNESCO remain more popular with the media than others. Every September in New York, its 193 member states gather to discuss items on the agenda. Since the UN in New York is located on international land, even leaders at loggerheads with the United States are allowed to attend the UNGA.

The 175 agenda items for the 76th session include the situation in Afghanistan and the need for United Nations reform, though the current crisis in Myanmar or the Rohingyas do not find a mention. There is an ongoing controversy plaguing the rightful representation of Myanmar to the largest diplomatic meeting in the world. Myanmar’s current Ambassador to the UN has been denounced by the Military Junta, and the one suggested by them has not yet been formalized by the UN.

The imbroglio over Afghanistan’s representation also soldiers on, considering those on the wanted list of the FBI have made it to the new Taliban cabinet.

While UN’s goals include ‘developing friendly relations among nations and achieve international cooperation, some contest that there are few examples in recent world history where the world body has been effective in either stopping a carnage or in mediating between the warring nations.

On 26 March 2015, on Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen, the UN Secretary-General reminded “all parties involved of their obligations under international humanitarian law to ensure the protection of civilians and of all humanitarian and United Nations and associated personnel, as well as of the rules and principles of international human rights law and refugee law.” In 2014, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) had imposed a limited arms embargo and other sanctions in relation to Yemen. There are no sanctions against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In case of Myanmar, on 31 January 2021, the Secretary-General expressed “his grave concern” at the transfer of all legislative, executive and judicial powers to the military.” The SG reaffirmed the unwavering support of the United Nations to the people of Myanmar in their pursuit of democracy, peace, human rights, and the rule of law. Four months after Myanmar military overthrew the country’s elected leaders, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that called upon member states to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar. No other restrictions were either proposed or effected.

A similar tone was adopted for the Syrian civil war, which has entered its tenth year, and the recent genocide in Ethiopia, though no sanctions have yet been imposed on either of the countries.

In what may seem reminiscent of the United Nations’ forced inaction in Myanmar, Colin Powell, then the Secretary of State under George W Bush, had made a long speech in the General Assembly on February 05, 2003. His speech asserted that Iraq had a cache of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), the rationale for America’s war on Iraq, ending with the public hanging of its one-time ally, Saddam Hussein. The UN was unable to stop America from invading the country, based on the flimsy charge of harboring the Al-Qaeda and possessing WMDs. When asked if he thought Iraq had rebuilt its nuclear arsenal, Powell had said he had “no doubt in his mind”.

We now know that on the day he made the speech at the UN, Colin Powell knew that Iraq did not possess WMDs. As he accepted in an interview in 2016, he had received the speech only four days before he delivered it. He had made the case for America’s war on Iraq even as its own Central Intelligence Agency had raised quite a few red flags. Some of the more doubtworthy allegations he made that day had included “Iraq’s possession of biological weapons” and that “Hussein possessed mobile labs capable of producing anthrax and other toxins.”

The US pays 22% of the UN’s general budget and 28% of the peacekeeping budget (China comes with 12%, and Japan with 8%). This responsibility of UN’s total budget also allows it to assert itself in ways more than one. The most obvious one being its veto power, which it shares with the four other permanent members of the Security Council – China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom (also known as Permanent 5, Big 5 or P5). This is the same veto power which is now used by China and Russia to abate any possible sanction against the Myanmar Junta. The successive predicaments also raise the need for reforms in the United Nations, called for since the early 1990s.

The Military Junta in Myanmar took power in a coup on 01 February 2021. Since that date, 1062 people have been killed, 8013 have been arrested, and 1984 warrants have been issued (as of 10 September 2021). Over the past seven months, the coup has been condemned in the strongest possible words by the Secretary-General, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Special Envoy, and the Special Rapporteur.

But though the Security Council has the power to impose a mandatory embargo on arms trade, non-recognition of the top brass of the military junta and referral of the offenders to the International Tribunal Court, it is unable to impose any of these sanctions on Myanmar’s ruling Junta, any resolution for sanctions against the Junta vetoed by Russia and China.

What had started with Facebook posts by fake accounts operated by Military officials against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, reached its zenith in a very short time in 2017. The New York Times says it has confirmed with senior Military officials that their colleagues orchestrated the genocide using the social network, which a majority of Myanmar’s citizens confuse with all of the internet.

The newspaper further reported that Myanmar’s military’s intelligence arm used Facebook to incite both the Buddhists as well as the Muslims about an “imminent attack from the other side”. It used Facebook to spread warnings via the Messenger app that “jihad attacks” were going to be carried out.

Over 700,000 Rohingyas escaped the ethnic cleansing by sea and land to whichever country would shelter them. Thousands resettled in Bangladesh, which had sheltered them in the 1970s as well. Over the next couple years, this forced tragedy was used by the Military to unseat the leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, put her under arrest and take control of the country.

During all of this, the UN raised its concern and called for abatement of the genocide. It did not take any other measure against what has continued since 2017 and should have been observed by its network of agencies present in the country. For the world’s largest network of diplomats, the outcome is not something the world expected.

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the Rohingyas as “one of, if not the most discriminated people in the world.” Mr. Guterres appointed former Guatemalan Foreign Minister and UN Ambassador Gert Rosenthal in 2018, to carry out a “comprehensive, independent inquiry into the involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018, as well as to the way different parts of the UN system responded to events that took place during that time.

The report, delivered to Mr. Guterres on 17 May 2019, does not name any individual or agency, but focuses on how the UN works in Myanmar, and how can it learn from what happened in 2017 and later. The biggest challenge for the UN, it said, was to engage the Government while also taking it to task for violation of international laws.

One month ago, the UN was pulling out almost all its staff from Afghanistan in the advent of the Taliban surge. Today, under pressure from four of its permanent members of the Security council, the US, UK, Russia and Japan, it is sending its staff back into the country for what is envisaged to be one of the biggest humanitarian aid programs the world has ever seen.

Foreign Policy recently reported that “a series of internal U.N. documents obtained by Foreign Policy detail just how tenuous the security situation is for U.N. officials operating in a new, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, with memos warning officials not to make any “sudden movements” if Taliban militants raid their homes and instructing them on how to destroy sensitive U.N. documents in a rush.” About 18 million Afghans, approximately half its population, depend on humanitarian aid.

What could the UN have done differently through the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan? Could it have used its network to gauge the Taliban’s march to the palace? Some say it might have advised the superpowers not to legitimise the Taliban by engaging them in Doha talks.

The UN presence in Afghanistan is so substantial that even the deposed former President, Najibullah, often termed the ‘Butcher of Kabul’, had taken refuge in the UN compound after realizing that he could not enter the Kabul International Airport.

He had been granted asylum by the Indian government but could not board the plane. He was abducted from the UN compound by the Taliban who tortured and killed him. His castrated body was then dragged behind a truck on the streets of Kabul and finally hung on a traffic light pole to signify the change of guard.

The UN had not been able to stop the Taliban then, with all its diplomacy and strength on the ground. Even now, as confirmed by the Security Council, it does not plan on having a peacekeeping force in the country. Its role, therefore, will be limited to implementing a large humanitarian mission.

UN Reform has been a contested issue since the organization was formed, in 1945.

One of the things that has been talked about is the reform of the way the Security Council allows its permanent members to veto any resolution.

The veto power allows different political aspirations to be stoked and not allow the UN to reach its potential, some would say. The solution might be to extend the voting rights to all members of the Security Council, permanent and non-permanent. This arrangement would effectively skew the number of sanctions the Security Council goes ahead with.

There are many possibilities for a better world. Despite having several groups working on climate change, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) being one of them, the UN is not top of mind recall when we discuss Climate Change.

Leading a global consortium could be one option. The initiatives like the more recent Green Fund by the US government could all perhaps be led by the UN. A similar leadership could be shown for a global vaccination effort, reducing the gaps between the countries with excess vaccines and those who only have a handful for their entire population.

The impending cold war between the US and China is another area the UN could play a part, from letting the world be divided into competing camps, like during the US-USSR one-upmanship.

With all its faults, however, the UN still remains the only global and non-governmental organization that allows for all countries to come together, to raise their concerns and their voices in a world that increasingly seems to favour the richer and more developed countries. It is time for the UN to embrace reforms and assert itself.

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