How useful is the United Nations in keeping peace and does the world need it?
If the UN cannot agree on what constitutes terrorism and cannot stop even its permanent Security Council members from waging war and violating the UN charter, how useful can it be?
Enough is enough,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on February 28, addressing the UN General Assembly (UNGA) which was hearing a resolution to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine. He was seeking an immediate end to the violence and a withdrawal of Russia’s military from Ukrainian territory. “We are facing a tragedy for Ukraine, but also a major regional crisis with potentially disastrous implications for us all,” Guterres said.
In the nearly eight decades of its existence, the United Nations organisation’s raison d’etre has frequently been questioned. It has been criticised as a white elephant and an organisation that is out of sync with global reality, as it refuses to amend and adapt itself to the 21st century.
The UN celebrated the 75th anniversary of its founding on October 24, 2020, while the global Coronavirus pandemic was raging and the concept of holding things together fell on the UN’s World Health Organisation. Speaking at the UNGA then, on September 22, 2020, Guterres had called COVID-19 a “fifth horseman”, a potential global apocalypse.
The UN then, too, faced an existential crisis, in which some of its biggest former advocates, like the United States under Donald Trump, were challenging the very premises of multilateralism upon which the organization was founded. The COVID-19 pandemic seemed to mark an era of de-globalization which saw countries increasingly practice isolationism and protectionism and many governments loudly emphasizing sovereignty, nationalism, and self-reliance.
However, even as individual nations struggled to cope and largely fended for themselves, the WHO somehow managed to spearhead a global response and appeared the most coherent way of moving forward, particularly with the COVAX initiative, once vaccines against the disease started becoming available. In a similar vein, the UNO has frequently come together as one to accept and attempt to jointly confront the horrors of terrorism and the disastrous consequences of rapid climate change.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine from February 24 has embroiled Europe in that continent’s largest military conflict since World War II and has again confronted the global organisation with a new existential dilemma. This military conflict appears so unnecessary, particularly with the continent and the rest of the world still struggling to emerge from the throes of the deadly Covid pandemic. It has already taken on the dimensions of a global conflict as people from countries around the world are getting badly hit and even killed, and economies ravaged, with rising energy and food costs and a rash of as yet unknown consequences.
Referring to the more chilling threat from the Russian President Vladimir Putin, to place nuclear forces on “high alert,” Guterres on Monday said the “mere idea of a nuclear conflict is simply inconceivable,” adding that, “Nothing can justify the use of nuclear weapons.”
Whatever the perceived provocation for such an assault, for Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to breach the sovereignty of another UN member state undermines the efficacy of the organisation created at the end of WWII by the victorious allied powers, to ensure global peace and security and does not bode well for its future.
The impunity with which Russia has chosen to ignore multiple requests for restraint and blocked efforts to censure its act of aggression within the UN has highlighted the UN’s ineffectiveness in upholding its own laws and protecting interests of its less powerful members.
In fact, Russia has been in breach of the charter since 1991. Russia assumed the chair of the erstwhile Soviet Union as a P-5 member of the UNSC in 1991, without any sanction from the world body.
Sadly, while Guterres sincerely meant what he said and despite a myriad laws being in place, there is little the UN Secretary General or, indeed, the UN can do to enforce its resolution. And therein lies the problem for international organisations.
It has been effective only when member states have chosen to voluntarily comply with international law and the general consensus. If not, punitive sanctions are possible, but often, openly bypassed. And when a P-5 member decides to veto any sanctions, then they cannot be imposed. Only individual nations can then sanction any perceived rogue states.
Moving away from the collective norm to the individual perception is the greatest danger to not only the organisation, but also to the notion of global multi-polarity and democratization. What Russia has done and its refusal to consider the opinion of the majority, as outlined in the vote at the end of the rare special session of the UNGA, not only highlights the organisation’s fault lines but also outlines just how some countries can pursue individual interests to the detriment of others.
The grant of a veto to the five permanent members of the security council, when bestowed on them, was intended to prevent misuse of international laws by member states. Unfortunately, over the decades, it has served only to uphold the interests of the P-5 veto-wielding members.
The 15-nation UNSC met on February 27 to vote on calling an emergency special session of the 193-member General Assembly on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is only the 11th time such an emergency session has been called, the last time in 2014, when Russian annexed Crimea. Under the resolution “Uniting for Peace,” an emergency special session can be convened within 24 hours of such a meeting being requested.
Russia which, ironically, was the UNSC chair through February, had earlier vetoed a UNSC resolution on its “aggression” against Ukraine, thereby blocking its adoption. A UNSC resolution would have been legally binding, UNGA motions are not. A vote in the 193-member UN body is merely symbolic of world opinion. The special UNGA session, with 100 countries scheduled to speak, began February 28 and would, at best, be a rap or a tap on the knuckles.
While India is facing considerable criticism for not openly censuring Russia’s act of aggression against another sovereign state, its Explanation of Vote (explaining why it abstained) outlines the organisation’s common dilemma.
“The contemporary global order has been built on the UN Charter, international law, and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states,” India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, T.S. Tirumurti said, adding, “All member states need to honour these principles in finding a constructive way forward.” That is easier said than done at the UN which, in 26 years, has not managed to jointly agree upon a comprehensive definition of the term terrorism!
(The writer is a senior journalist and foreign policy observer. Views are personal)