Letters & Opinion

The Unreformed Septuagenarian

U.N. General Assembly in session
U.N. General Assembly in session
U.N. General Assembly in session.

By Clement Wulf-SoulageSINCE succeeding Kofi Annan as Secretary General of the United Nations at the start of 2007, Ban Ki-moon has had to deal with some of the world’s most intractable problems ranging from civil wars and refugee crises to genocide threats and epidemics. At various junctures in the last eight years, critics have pondered whether the verecund and soft-spoken South Korean – who is just as old as the institution he governs (the UN will turn 70 on October 24) – was the right person to lead a world body facing Sisyphean and unprecedented global challenges, and also struggling to assuage the concerns of a sceptical membership about its ability to tackle issues involving institutional working methods, efficiency, legitimacy, the increasing demands on limited resources and the naked political horse trading for top jobs.

The institution itself is labyrinthian and unwieldy, ballooning over the years with a staff of 85,000 bureaucrats spread across six principal organs and fifteen specialized agencies, on an annual budget of about $40bn.

I’m sure the ubiquitous calls for reform as well as the continuous accusations of waste and corruption at the UN are not all lost in translation. Some critics have attributed these internal inefficiencies to the intransparent manner in which resources are allocated and projects funded. In 1967, Richard Nixon, while running for President of the United States, criticized the mechanisms of the UN as “obsolete and inadequate”. Above all, the trenchant criticism levelled at the venerable institution has to do with the fact that the world has changed dramatically since its establishment after World War II, yet the 193-member organization has not adapted to reflect the 21st century; and hence may no longer represent the prevailing political reality.

There is little doubt our world needs a platform (not an irrelevant debating society) where collective decisions and actions can be taken to advance the cause of global peace and to protect the vulnerable and the poor. Our present world demands action and effective leadership in so many areas; and admittedly without the UN, the planet would likely be a more dangerous and unstable place. However, the world body, owing to an outdated structure and inadequate governance, seems unable to act in a clear and decisive way when confronted with a crisis (as Syria and Sudan have shown) and lacks the resources necessary to avert humanitarian and other emergencies before they spill over and metastasize into regional and international disasters.

Mostly at issue is the need to reform the UN’s governance, starting with the Security Council, the composition of which no longer reflects both global geopolitical realities and the shift in the distribution of world power. For an organization that regularly trumpets the need for good governance and democracy, some of its most pivotal structures and organs aren’t entirely amenable to democracy and equal participation at the macro level.

Much to the chagrin of the general membership, any one of the five permanent members of the Security Council (The United States, China, Russia, France, and Britain) can paralyse democratic governance by simply choosing to exercise its veto right – in most cases blocking important decisions and actions already supported by a majority.

Besides, Europe and Asia are too heavily represented on the Security Council at the expense of South America and Africa. Of further disquiet is Germany’s quest to become a permanent member – a move that will likely further solidify Europe’s influence in global affairs. But what about the BRICS? Shouldn’t the composition of a powerful UN organ like the Security Council reflect the balance of power which will eventually be in favour of these emerging economies?

It’s high time that the continents of South America and Africa are given a greater voice in world affairs. According to the Global Policy Forum (GPF): “For many years, some member-states have been advocating expansion of the Security Council, arguing that adding new members will remedy the democratic and representative deficit from which the Council suffers. Disagreement on whether new members should be permanent or have veto power has become a major obstacle to Security Council reform. Brazil, India, Japan and Germany want a permanent seat in the Council, and have threatened to reduce their financial or military troop contributions to the UN if they are not rewarded with permanent member status. African countries have also expressed the need for permanent African representation in the Council to bring an end to the hegemony of northern industrialized nations in the powerful UN organ. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for roughly 55% of the world’s population and 44% of its annual income but has just 20% (three out of 15) of the seats on the Security Council.”

It has now become clear to most of the UN’s membership that the veto right accorded to a few powerful nations is untenable and should be scrapped. The question, however, is whether Russia and China are prepared to endorse any plans to reform the Security Council? Any time Russia votes against crucial UN resolutions and China abstains, deep disappointment and incredulity is expressed. In the past, both China and Russia have been accused of using intimidation tactics to silence their critics in the UN.

The diplomatic poker played over Syria by Presidents Obama and Putin is yet another indication of the lack of will and the frequent bouts of impotence in the UN. In 2011 and 2012 China and Russia altogether vetoed three resolutions in the UN Security Council that called upon the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to desist from military actions against its own people. For selfish reasons, Russia and China have consistently frustrated the efforts of both the Security Council and the General Assembly at nipping specific problems in the bud or in taking action against regimes that violate the rights of their people or the territorial integrity of other nations. The failure to act effectively in Syria, Libya and Ukraine is probably further attributed to the skewed accountability and democracy practised at the UN.

How does an important global body with an underfunded mandate adequately perform its increasingly demanding role (including peacekeeping and fulfilling the Millennium Development Goals now dubbed Sustainable Development Goals) in delivering assistance to troubled spots around the world? Jeffrey Sachs, an American economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, agrees that the economic and political challenges are huge and will require greater resources. He beleives the MDGs have engendered impressive progress in poverty reduction, public health, school enrolment, gender equality in education, and other areas, despite the tremendous funding challenges in the future: “Spending on all UN bodies and activities – from the Secretariat and the Security Council to peacekeeping operations, emergency responses to epidemics, and humanitarian operations for natural disasters, famines, and refugees – totalled roughly $45 billion in 2013, roughly $6 per person on the planet. That is not just a bargain; it is a significant underinvestment. Given the rapidly growing need for global cooperation, the UN simply cannot get by on its current budget,” he wrote.

Yet, despite some of the more glaring failures of the UN including the inability to prevent the Rwandan genocide, the slow response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the poor management of personnel which contributed to the spread of cholera in Haiti, several important triumphs have probably convinced us of the irreplaceability of certain agencies and programmes and the credit the institution deserves for some of humanity’s advances. Without the UN, the nuclear deal with Iran as well as the prosecution of Charles Taylor and Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes would have been difficult, if not altogether impossible. Furthermore, the general pursuit of global peace would have been more elusive without UN proactivity (the record is not so bad as we sometimes make out). Without its own standing army and offensive military capabilities at its disposal, it was always expected that the UN would fall short in its ambition to effectively protect civilian populations, safeguard relief efforts and police the world.

Of course, there were moments when the actions of the institution defied its commitment to human rights such as when the General Assembly decided to hold a moment of silence in “honour” of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il following his death in 2011 (perhaps a moment of levity in an otherwise orderly and decorous chamber). The reclusive dictator had violated every article of the UN Declaration of Human Rights from Article Thirteen.

Notwithstanding the frequent espousal of moral relativism and governance shortcomings, the UN has been a force for good in a world where the primacy of social responsibility has been replaced by the primacy of economic efficiency. To be sure, the global institution has helped avert potentially grave humanitarian and political disasters. Certainly, it’s not yet the political elixir, but it’s the best bargain we’ve got. Going on the declaration of a former US ambassador, “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”

For comments, write to [email protected] – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.

1 Comment

  1. In summary: MONEY $TALKs$ louder and more vociferously than open democratic critiques.
    You promote a political convention akin to FACEBOOK’s ‘Like” “friend”tag lines.
    Frankly, the laboo slinging days of Giraudy et al were closer to real political dialogue and enfranchisement than this western – capitalist fascination with charismatic tycoons.
    We erroneously fantasize that we can rise to be like them. We lust after their decadent, loveless, soulless, lifestyles.
    I recall when during the shock & awe war of Iraq- while common folks, soldiers were dying on both sides of the divide- the mass media’s front pages were packed with the day to day hedonism/decadence of Paris Hilton- Britney Spears-and other leading female FLOOSIES.
    ST. LUCIA is going through a major national challenge and all those with a megaphone can spew is BOVINE MANURE.
    Only the farmers know how to convert bovine crap- they deserve the accolades & serious discussion about intercepting our economic plight with real bipartisan intervention- for they were the heroes who gave us GREEN GOLD and the audacious gonads to break with the colonial yoke.

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