Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A new UN?

Reform of the UN may be more difficult than many assume, given how far global realities have changed since the post-World War II period that gave birth to the organisation, writes Hassan Nafaa

Al-Ahram Weekly

Around this time in 1946, the UN went to work after the required number of member states ratified its charter. Today, 70 years later, the organisation looks like an ageing body, stooped and trembling beneath the weight of all the heavy burdens that have built up over the years.

Most member states are convinced that the international organisation is in dire need of radical reform if it is to perform the functions required by an international order that is globalising at an increasingly rapid pace, But its ability to make reforms is virtually non-existent.

Perhaps the time has come to seriously contemplate creating a new organisation, instead of wasting time and effort on proposing limited reforms that would take years to implement and then have little effect.

The UN has had to try to keep pace with an international order that refuses to stop changing. In this regard, we can identify diverse phases in the evolution of the UN and observe how its ability to perform its required functions has changed.

ESTABLISHMENT OF THE UN (1943-1949): Beginning before the end of World War II, this phase lasted until the emergence of the bipolar international order at the end of the 1940s. At this time, the UN seemed more like a coalition, consisting of the countries that emerged victorious from the war against the Axis powers, than an international organisation.

The period brought a series of steps that were crowned by the ratification of the UN Charter at a convention held in San Francisco in 1945. Lasting until just before the formation of NATO in 1949, the period triggered hopes for an era of peace and a new international order based on justice, law and respect for peoples’ right to self-determination. The UN would play a major role by enforcing security and punishing violators of the law.

This is why the charter includes a comprehensive and precise concept of a “collective security” system. It was based on the core idea that security is an indivisible whole, that any aggression against a member state constitutes an aggression against all states and, accordingly, that the responsibility for responding to aggression or deterring it falls upon the international community as a whole.

However, the mechanisms of that system were contingent on an essential condition; namely, the unanimous approval of the permanent members of the Security Council. In other words, it was founded on the premise that the coalition that had been forged between the victors of World War II would last. The premise would prove incorrect.

INTERNATIONAL POLARISATION AND THE COLD WAR (1949-1985):  This phase ended the coalition that had emerged victorious in World War II and saw he division of the world into two rival camps. These would be formally embodied through the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), led by the US, in 1949 and the creation of the Warsaw Pact, led by the USSR, in 1955.

It was a period noted for the excessive use of veto rights, especially on the part of the Soviet Union. It was also characterised by the failure to complete and put into place the collective security mechanisms stipulated by the UN Charter, and by the emergence of “spheres of influence” as an alternative to the system of collective security. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 was the first serious test of the efficacy of the collective security system. The US took advantage of a Soviet boycott of the Security Council, in protest against the presence of the representative of the government of Formosa in China’s seat in that body, to obtain international cover allowing it to intervene militarily in the Korean crisis.

However, the USSR’s return to Security Council meetings led the US to introduce the “Uniting for Peace” resolution that sought to hand the tasks related to the preservation of international peace and security to the General Assembly in the event that the Security Council’s ability to perform its functions in this regard was paralysed by the veto.

The efficacy of this resolution was tested in 1956 by the Hungarian crisis and Soviet invasion of Budapest, and by the Suez crisis, caused by the Israeli, French and British invasion of Egypt. Although the “Uniting for Peace” resolution failed in the first crisis, it succeeded in its response to the second. An international emergency force created by a resolution passed by the General Assembly oversaw the implementation of a ceasefire resolution and the withdrawal of the invading forces.

At that time it became clear that the collective security order was no longer applicable in crises that erupted in either of the superpowers’ immediate spheres of influence or in crises in which either of these powers were an immediate party. As for other crises, the ability of the UN to play a role and the nature of that role were contingent on what the balance of powers in the world order could permit.

It should be mentioned here that the impact of the bipolar international order on the practices of the UN was not always negative. That order made it possible for the General Assembly, which has been dominated by a numerical majority of Third World nations, to play roles that exceeded those outlined in the UN Charter, especially when it came to the question of colonialism, as well as issues related to development, the environment and other matters.

Nevertheless, such positive effects were short-lived and were never given the scope to effect radical change in the existing structure of the international order so as to create a more balanced one.

TRANSITION (1985-1991): This phase began with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in the USSR and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Gorbachev’s attempts to introduce fundamental changes in the USSR’s domestic and foreign policies stimulated the beginnings of rapprochement between the two superpowers which, in turn, had a positive impact on the UN in terms of its efforts to promote peaceful solutions to international crises.

Because the two powers were drawing closer, the UN, during this period, was able to resolve the Afghan crisis, leading to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Iraq-Iran war that had dragged on for eight years. It also forged solutions to a number of other crises that were still flaring at the time in Cambodia, Namibia and some Latin American countries. At the same time, there was a very marked increase in peacekeeping processes that were created to put such settlements into effect.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 it was clear that the Cold War was approaching an end, if it had not ended already. Many believed that the world was on the threshold of a new international order in which the UN would play a crucial and central role. This belief reached it height at the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, amid which crisis the UN Security Council played an unprecedented role.

US UNILATERAL HEGEMONY (1991-2008): The Kuwait crisis gave the UN a unique opportunity to revive the collective security system and complete its mechanisms, a process interrupted by the Cold War. However, the US, which had no interest in creating a collective security system at a time when its most formidable rival was about to collapse, managed the crisis in a way that enabled it to accelerate the fall of the Soviet Union.

As a result, the Kuwait crisis ended up as a lost opportunity for the UN, which emerged weaker than it had been before. This is when it gradually began to move into the realm of unilateral US influence, with NATO becoming the military arm that the US would depend on to intervene in crises, with or without a Security Council mandate.

American disdain for the UN reached its peak when the administration of George W Bush launched the invasion of Iraq in 2003, despite the Security Council’s refusal to grant Washington a mandate to use military force.

Today, everyone realises that the era of the US’s unilateral global hegemony is over and that a new international order, closer to a multi-polar one, is about to emerge. Nevertheless, the UN’s current institutional structures and decision-making methods in its various agencies are far from commensurate with the structural changes that have taken place in the international order over the past 70 years.

When the UN was founded, there were only 51 member states. Today, membership has reached almost 200 countries, representing almost all the inhabitants of the world. Therefore, there is no longer any justification for the World War II victors to monopolise the permanent seats in the Security Council.
Other world powers have regained their status, most notably Germany and Japan. New international and regional powers have emerged, such as India and Brazil. There is nothing that warrants excluding these countries from permanent membership in the Security Council.

Nor is there any political, legal or moral justification for giving a single country, regardless of its weight in the international order, the right of veto, thereby paralysing the will of the entire international community. Clearly, the rules regarding the majority needed to pass a resolution in the Security Council should be changed. However, the question of reforming the UN is much broader than just reforming the Security Council, whether by expanding its membership or amending its decision-making rules. It is connected to how to manage an international order that is globalising at increasing speeds in all fields, no longer just the financial and communication sectors. In other words, the question of UN reform is a question of governance of an international order that is still being managed in a very unwise manner.

With shrinking barriers and distances between nations and peoples who have already begun to live in “one global village”, there is an increasingly urgent need for sound global governance, not just an international police force represented by the Security Council.

The world would therefore be wise to begin a serious discussion on how to establish a new international organisation, as reform of the current one is not only impossible but also no longer worthwhile.


The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.

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