To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

“In Flander Fields” ; Lieut-Col Dr John McCrae (1915)

As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, does the United Nations or more commonly referred to as the UN, still hold any relevance to us, the ordinary folks of the streets of planet Earth today? Furthermore, does the UN still have any influence in shaping the world as it was envisioned by the ideals that was the UN’s when it was established in the aftermath of World War II (WWII)?

Or has the production entitled ”The United Nations : Dignity, Peace & Equality On A Healthy Planet’ reached a crossroad where the producers and investors of the play has to decide whether to bring the curtains down on the current production, and replace it with a new but yet-to-be-titled production?

It is an accepted fact that seventy five years for a production, by any standards whether be it West End’s or Broadway’s, never mind Timbuktu’s, is definitely a long run. In that time, numerous changes to the main cast have been made to the main cast of characters and naturally, to keep up with the times, with modifications to the script, albeit minor. Minor that is, in the overall scheme of things.

To come to a decision of such magnitude and importance, it would necessitate a review, with such a review naturally focusing on the ideals the august body was founded on and whether the world has become a better place for the different peoples and nations of the world to live in peace and harmony, secure in the friendly cooperation between nations.

In a nutshell, the answer to that all important question : is the UN and its presence on the world stage still relevant? Or has it gone the way of its predecessor, the League of Nations?

Comparing the two ie the League of Nations and the United Nations, the UN can already be considered an unqualified success, just for the length of time the two organizations existed. It is on record (in today’s parlance, that would be Wikipedia), the League of Nations began life at the conclusion of World War I (WWI) in 1918 and died the day WWII began in 1939. A mere twenty one years, whereas the UN is still, to borrow a phrase from the once-upon-a-time gentlemen’s game of cricket, still at bat, seventy five not out. Yet.

Until, again to borrow a phrase from the game of cricket, somebody delivers a spin ball that turned ever so viciously ultimately fooling everybody and before you realize it, the wicket is struck and you are on the way back to the pavilion, to be replaced by the next batsman.

The idealist and the optimist in me says YES. The UN is still as relevant as it was first established in the aftermath of WWII. There is still lots that can and needs to be done ; to borrow a phrase, more deliveries to faced and lots more runs to be added to the scoreboard.

But the cynic and the pessimist in me, however, says NO. The UN has, over the years, fallen short of the expectations of the ideals upon which the UN was founded. It is perceived and seen as having struggled and failed to bring the world’s nations to subscribe to that cliche of cliches : world peace.

For the record, the UN comprises of six main bodies namely the General Assembly (UNGA), Security Council (UNSC), the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the UN Secretariat. Contrary to what many believed (as did I), UNICEF, UNESCO, The World Bank and WHO are not main bodies of the UN but are rather categorized as specialized agencies. funds and programs.

Over the years, ever since its inception, it has been demonstrated on numerous occasions, that of all the principal organs of the UN, the one with the most clout and authority is the United Nations’ Security Council (UNSC). In layman’s terms, the Security Council is the one the matters, akin to being an exclusive club. What it decides goes and the other main bodies will follow suit.

Under the United Nations Charter, the functions and powers of the Security Council are:-

  • to maintain international peace and security in accordance with the principles and purposes of the United Nations;
  • to investigate any dispute or situation which might lead to international friction;
  • to recommend methods of adjusting such disputes or the terms of settlement;
  • to formulate plans for the establishment of a system to regulate armaments;
  • to determine the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression and to recommend what action should be taken;
  • to call on Members to apply economic sanctions and other measures not involving the use of force to prevent or stop aggression;
  • to take military action against an aggressor;
  • to recommend the admission of new Members;
  • to exercise the trusteeship functions of the United Nations in “strategic areas”; and
  • to recommend to the General Assembly the appointment of the Secretary-General and, together with the Assembly, to elect the Judges of the International Court of Justice.

That exclusive club, UNSC is made up of fifteen members, five of whom are recognized as permanent members of the Council. These five are China, The United Kingdom, France, Russia and the United States of America (USA), the so-called superpowers. An exclusive club within the exclusive club, where membership is permanent and non-negotiable.

The other members of the club, numbering ten in all, are elected from the rest of the United Nations, with each country sitting in the Council for a two-year term and after that two-year term is over, membership is then passed on to whoever next elected to be admitted to that exclusive club, the UNSC.

The chairmanship, or rather the presidency, of the Council is rotated amongst the members of the Council with each member assuming the role of chairman or president for a month-long stint, after which the baton of chairmanship (or presidency) is then handed over to the next-in-line, based on the first alphabet of the members’ names spelt in English.

In line with its functions and powers, the chairman or the president of the Council can convene a meeting of the Council to deliberate over issues of concern. Should the discussions be in need of a resolution, then by Article 27 of the United Nations Charter :-

  1. Each member of the Security Council shall have one vote.
  2. Decisions of the Security Council on procedural matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members.
  3. Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members; provided that, in decisions under Chapter VI, and under paragraph 3 of Article 52, a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting.

Theoretically, each member of the Council’s voice is heard by the one vote that it has. But as any observer of the world body can tell you, the reality is that any decision reached by the UNSC must have the ‘approval’ of members of the club-within-a club namely the five permanent members comprising of China, The United Kingdom, The USA, France and Russia. Failure to secure their singular or collective nods will end in dismay for those concerned, even if it ultimately means war breaking out somewhere in the world with the displacement of people inevitable and the loss of life a result.

Therein lies the rub, as for all the good the other principal organs of that august body, The United Nations, as well as the specialized programs and funds that bodies like UNICEF, UNESCO, WHO etc may have done or are currently undertaking, what matters are the singular or combined wishes and interests of the Big Five that counts and the presence of the Small Ten is mere window dressing.

In other words, despite its stated ideals, the united resolve of the United Nations General Assembly cannot be expected to overcome the resolve of one or two nations armed a veto vote. never mind its armed arsenal of both conventional and nuclear capabilities.

Hence, the notion that the United Nations is the international platform for the bringing together of different nations collectively working for the common goal of peace and prosperity of all Mankind is altogether not entirely true. Rather, it would be truer to say that the United Nations is the platform where the combined egos and interests of the Big Five are massaged and assuaged. Nothing more and nothing less.

The Cold War. said to have started barely two years after WWII in 1947 and ended in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union, demonstrated to the world how powerful the veto vote was and it still is. Any attempt to cobble a resolution to intervene in hot spots around the world to demonstrate the resolve of the United Nations was, for all purpose and attempts, an exercise in futility. Rather, it was more a case of each superpower getting what they wanted preserved, with the fate of ordinary people caught in the crossfires of a conflict a mere afterthought.

So noble were the ideals but yet, whenever there is a conflict, the sense of despair fills the air, adding to the smell of decaying corpses and the cries of children who have lost their protectors. The words ‘collateral damage’ glorified in many a Hollywood movie sounds so despicable but yet, that’s what the common people are ultimately : collateral damage, nothing more and nothing less.

A lot of reforms are needed if the United Nations is to remain relevant. Top of the list would be the reforms concerning the UNSC, of which the veto vote is a main issue of contention. No one loves a schoolyard bully, what more when having to cope with five, when things do not go their way.

In today’s world of news constantly breaking and easily available at the tip of everybody’s fingertips, thanks to the number of news networks and syndications operating all over the world, hotspots are quickly isolated with interested parties identified and the information unearthed quickly disseminated.

It can be agreed by all and sundry that whatever damage the parties in conflict do to one another is not of importance. What is important is the safety and well being of the ordinary people caught in the crossfires of the conflict. Every second lost in massaging the single and collective egos of the so-called Big Five just to act, never you mind about acting fast, to avert such a conflict, can be better spent on quick action with the aim of averting human tragedies. Surely we have seen and heard enough of that ; the cries of despair and sorrow in the aftermath of conflicts. What is even harrowing is that in most of these cases, the cries are of those who have nothing to begin with, save the clothes on their backs.

It needs to be repeated : the time spent massaging the egos of the superpowers before acting to avert human tragedies is time wasted regardless how the delay may be clothed. International diplomacy, statesmanship etc carries little meaning to the dead resulting from armed conflicts, ethnic cleansing and genocides. It would be very interesting study of all the armed conflicts that has happened since the UN was first founded especially in determining the actual number of human tragedies who suffered and died from these conflicts, especially in relation to the response time to address these conflicts.

It is said that the election of the UN’s Secretary-General is limited to the recommendations of the Big Five of the UNSC, with the UNGA’s role reduced to being a rubberstamp. If that is the case, the position of the UN’s Secretary-General would be a very limited circle indeed. This would make the candidacy of a candidate, no matter how qualified and how deserving, from a country deemed as ‘unfriendly’ or ‘undesirable’ doomed to failure even before his/her name is thrown into the ring.

The reforms required to transform the UN into a body as envisaged by world’s nations when coming together as united nations is not limited to the aforementioned. However, from a layman’s point of view, it would not be wrong, judging by the way the UN and its bureaucracy is seen to be working, to say that it would probably take decades before any reforms of meaning cane take place.

In the meantime, we see a world that is now consumed with the causes leading to the spread of COVID-19 and its effects affecting all the nations of the world, the re-building of the world economies thereafter, the seemingly expansive moves by China in the seas bordering the nations of the ASEAN, amongst others. Consumed with good reason.

Reforms are definitely needed, IF the UN is still to remain relevant. It may be simplistic to even voice it out, what more to expect it to be happen in our lifetime. Truth be told, the world needs a platform like the United Nations for peoples and nations of the world to meet and address issues for its betterment. But truth is also told when it is said that we need a fairer, balanced and a more responsive United Nations, where the interest of all of the world’s nations and peoples are addressed, as espoused when it was first founded.

As an idealist, the candle of hope burns eternal. May it burn still.

This post was first posted on the ‘Politics As I See It‘ blog on July 4, 2021.