The United Nations at 75: Fit for purpose?


For the United Nations, this is more than just a birthday celebration. For us, a 75th birthday would consist of a nostalgic look back at our past, contentment when faced with the present, and hopes for a quiet future. Not for the UN. At 75, this intergovernmental organisation plans to keep fighting the battle of maintaining global peace and security – and they don’t plan to slow down. With their centenary anniversary 25 years away, the UN are already squinting ahead, setting more goals, extending past and present aims, and stressing the importance of conversation now.

With its 5 permanent Security Council members having held a veto power since 1945, we now marvel at what is realistically a binding clash of culture and governance, coupled with questionable treatment of human rights and relationships tainted with tension. At face-value, this doesn’t seem to work – and yet, it still survives. However, the UN has failed. It’s failed in its efforts to maintain international peace and protect human rights. Despite these failures, this admirable body has positioned itself as the frontrunner for many successes, mostly ongoing; and as it has been chipped away at by a rather large hammer of criticism – for 75 years – this institution seems almost invincible in its efforts to uphold its core values.

One of the UN’s most tragic failures is, without a doubt, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, where peacekeepers failed to stop the majority of Hutus from murdering nearly 1 million Tutsi members. A clash of interests and morality illustrated the limits of the conceptual approach of fusing human rights with security. Although the UN is mostly to blame here, we cannot ignore how the West’s abysmal lack of interest contributed to catastrophic devastation, illustrating the weakness of the UN’s alleged responsibility to protect those in need. The Oil for Food Programme involving Iraq is a financial scandal stuck in the UN’s history. In an attempt to provide healthcare supplies for Iraqis, financed by profits from supervised oil sales, Saddam Hussein was somehow one step ahead of the UN as he successfully diverted profits to fund his regime. Even worse, France and Russia’s political establishments were involved in a scam to divert profits of the UN’s initiative into private funds. This blatant betrayal of trust from Security Council members and former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, dropped the UN under a microscope of scrutiny post-2004.

And yet despite these failures the UN still stands, and is perhaps painted in a more critical light than it deserves. We fail to recognise the extent to which the UN’s success affects us today. Fewer people died in conflict in the first decade of the 21st century than in any decade in the 20th century; in 2018 alone, the UN coordinated international assistance worth $15 billion for 133 million people in need. They are continuing to work towards the goal of ending famine; the World Health Organisation eradicated smallpox in 1980, and conflicts have ended in Cambodia, El Salvador, Guatemala and more. This year, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has initiated the UN75 Dialogue encouraging global conversation, especially amongst younger generations, on how the UN can work harder to create a greater future. Guterres has discovered ‘a wave of optimism’ amongst youth leaders regarding future global affairs, and this, above all successes and failures, is what makes the UN still fit for purpose. The UN has held down a fort of interconnectedness in the face of global tensions, despite its past failures.

Looking forward, we must accept and learn from previous failings, in order to sustain the UN’s worldwide respect which will be tested – and more importantly, needed – in the future. We must not now devalue the UN, with such unknown territories ahead of us.

Image - Unsplash

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