Monday, October 10, 2005

The United Nations: UNsuccessful, UNethical, UNeeded?

The UN will celebrate its 60th birthday on October 24th. But as Meg L., suggests below, not many will be celebrating. Chris B, goes a step further, and suggests, quoting Justin Darr, that the UN is UNsucessful, UNethnical and UNeeded. Was the UN destined to fail because of the Treaty of Westphalia and the promotion of sovereignty above individual human rights? Or, is it more simply that not one country or political leader want the UN to succeed for fear of losing its own power? What would make the UN successful? Should we just get rid of an outdated organization or rework it? Two or our guest bloggers suggest different strategies below:

“Differences between men, and between nations, will always remain. In fact, if held within reasonable limits, such disagreements are actually wholesome. All progress begins with differences of opinion and more onward as the differences are adjusted through reason and mutual understanding.”
-Harry S. Truman to the UN Assembly, April 25, 1945.

“UNsuccessful, UNethical, UNneeded”
This was one of the general guiding ideas that the United Nations was founded on in June 1945. The post World War II era was a tumultuous time in which nations fretted over national security and feared that another Hitler could rise to power. Since the UN’s creation it has been involved in nearly every conflict on the planet in one way or another. The UN has 64 different departments/offices that oversee different operations under the UN umbrella.

To state that the UN is a useless organization implies that the UN does not serve any beneficial purpose. While however great the UN was intended to be as a powerful international organization, it has not fully lived up to its potential in the last fifty years. The UN is responsible for coordinating humanitarian work around the world and striving to better the world; but the problem is no one listens to the organization and has not even lived up to the first paragraph in the entire charter. The UN has been involved in 88+ events around the world since its creation – and the UN has not maintained international peace and security. Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Darfur, Columbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, and Korea are just a few of the places where the UN has been involved and executed peace-keeping or humanitarian missions and has not helped bring peace and understanding to the warring groups.

The UN Convention on the Prevention & Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ratified 1951 was designed to prevent genocide and mass killing from ever happening again after WWII. It was intended to be strict and tough on nations and groups that perpetrated such heinous crimes. Yet, what has happened in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, and what is happening in Darfur – genocide and mass killings. Everyone in the world knows that this is happening but not enough is being done to stop it; and the UN can only point a finger and say “bad” because it does not have the actual capability to stop what is going on – member nations are not getting involved in the problem. Since the end of WWII over 81million people have died as a result of political, religious, and racial conflicts

British writer Clair Short succinctly states: “But it is hardly surprising that, in a bitterly divided world where the world's hegemonic power has set aside international law and declared that it will act unilaterally whenever its interests are suited, it has been difficult to agree on a reform package for strengthening the UN.” The United States is arguably the most powerful member nation in the UN and it is true that the U.S. has acted unilaterally in self-interest. The fact that this is happening does not help the UN in any manner. The UN has had to weather the Iraq Oil-For-Food scandal and corruption charges. Kojo Annan (Kofi Annan’s son) used his fathers name and UN diplomatic privileges to purchase a Mercedes Benz. Because he cited diplomatic privileges and stated that the car would be used by his father in a trip to Ghana, he saved roughly $20,000 – a clear abuse of power and the system. With events like this occurring and corruption charges implicating the highest officials in the organization, the UN cannot function in the manner in which it was intended.

Some have presented the idea that he UN should be dismantled; yet even this option would not be beneficial to the international political system. Nader Mousavizadeh states in his New York Times article: “Nor is a breakup a guarantee of success, given the sheer magnitude of the task facing any organization seeking to reduce poverty, end war and alleviate suffering. At this stage, however, the burden surely falls on the proponents of the status quo -- those who cannot imagine a world without a Security Council, a General Assembly or Secretariat -- to explain what value these structures add that outweighs the profound damage they have done to the very idea of multilateral action.” To break up the UN would disrupt even further delicate political balance held by the member nations.

For the sake of intellectual argument I feel compelled to say that the UN has in fact done some good in the world. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime does a good job in addressing one of the worlds greatest WMD’s – narcotics. With over 100,000 people dying every year from drug related issues, the UNODC has worked hard to prevent the spread of narcotics worldwide. The UN has also done good work in helping to stop the spread of human smuggling and trafficking, a form of modern slavery which is ravaging the African continent and Eastern Europe. Their work in this field has initiated the work of many NGO’s and has helped thousands of young men and women become free. The UN also helps to bring food to the worlds poorest and neediest citizens, this is a noble cause, yet not nearly enough food is being delivered to the nations that need it the most and most of the time when delivered, the food sits in warehouses because the dictators will not distribute it. The UN has the correct idea about what is should do, but it is not doing it to the level that it should.

Over the last fifty years the United Nations has had numerous opportunities to prove its worthiness and fulfill its intended mission. Yet the UN has not even proven that it is capable of sound internal management. An international organization intended to benefit the less fortunate and needy citizens of the world should not have corruption charges and scandal lingering around. The amount of money that Kofi Annan’s son saved on his Mercedes could have purchased much needed medicine for sick children in Rwanda. It is time that the UN undergoes severe reform.
Chris B.

[i] Justin Darr, November 22, 2004

Sources Consulted
-The New York Times.
-The Independent. London, England.
-The Evening Standard.
-The Truman Library.

According to the U.N. website,/, United Nations Day is October 24th. However, I do not think anyone will be planning a picnic or having a celebration. Since its establishment in 1945, the United Nations has been a useless organization. It has been a symbol of goodwill in a realpolitik world. Despite its inability to function as an enforcer, it does have a theoretically "good" concept. States have the tendency to violate basic norms of human rights; the U.N. believes that this should not happen. Currently the U.N. has not figured out how to prevent this, at least not effectively. The recent summit meeting held in early September proved this claim. Leaders walked away reinforcing the need for a stronger U.N., and a more "updated" version to deal with the problems facing today's world[i].

Perhaps the place to start is to show how the U.N. has become a "useless organization. When the U.N. was created, it was during an era of "global power". The new world order that was supposed to come about was "a world of peaceful national societies enjoying liberal and even certain socialist rights."[ii] Ultimately the effectiveness of the U.N. is dependent upon the individual nations. In the words of the U.N. "It is not an international police force" ( This is where "sovereignty" comes into play. Sovereignty: established through the Peace of Westphalia, and is perhaps one of the biggest reasons for the United Nations uselessness. Sovereignty argues that no power is greater than the state, that is, there can be no international law states must abide by. Sovereignty restrains the effectiveness of the U.N. The U.N. must comply to it and is essentially at the mercy of each nation's sovereignty. . But where does sovereignty end and the respect of human rights begin? It seems, looking at the situation in Darfur, that the U.N. has not resolved that problem. Clearly a genocide is taking place, but some countries believe it to be a civil war, in which case sovereignty wins.

Another issue with the U.N. is the problem of self-interest. Self-interest will always weigh more during situations where countries are asked to perform an action such as as ratifying a treaty or implementing a peace process. Countries such as the United States do not see themselves as having to answer to the U.N., especially where treaties are involved. One good example of this is the situation in Iraq. The United States completely ignored the U.N.'s denial of a second resolution to proceed with "armed response", and went head on into Iraq. Claiming that their self-interest was at stake, they believed their actions were, and still are, justifiable.

The final problem I will point out is lack of enforcement. The six "main" human rights treaties are as follows: The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965): The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) & First Optional Protocol: The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979): The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984): The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).

Christof Heyns and Frans Viljoen did a study on the impact of the treaties on individual states[iii]. Their results? These treaties have no way of being protected or enforced on a domestic level. "International enforcement mechanisms" have proven to be inefficient. They did note that countries that were most successful in incorporating the treaties did so through constitutional reform, etc. But all that depends on the individual country and its willingness to abide by ratification. The problem arises from the countries that are unwillingly to either ratify, or have ratified but cannot be forced to implement. While it is nice to think that most countries have ratified these treaties, in reality it means nothing. The treaty system is a system that is established on consent. All a country may get for not complying with ratification or implementing a policy is a trade embargo or some other menial punishment. In its current form the U.N. is useless. How do you resolve this problem?

It is not practical to have "World Government". But how then do you reconcile the need for each state to remain autonomous, yet abide by basic civil rules and regulations? How do you get countries "engaged" in establishing human rights? Many political theorists, scholars, and law people alike have pondered this question. There have been suggestions for remedies.

One interesting suggestion, offered by Nader Mousavizadeh, a United Nations political officer in Bosnia and served in office of Secretary General, is to dissolve the three "governing structures" of the U.N. (General Assembly, Security Council, and Secretariat). The responsibilities would then be shifted to other U.N. agencies that have delivered results more in line to the "founding ideals" of the U.N., such as the UNDP. Mousavizadeh's premise rests on that fact that U.N. programs which are in his words "financed by voluntary contributions, governed by a board composed of shareholders with an interest in results…and staffed by men and women, hired on the basis of merit, who are given the resources to make a difference" will have more of a chance of seeing success. Mousavizadeh's suggestions are not given without reservations, however, he puts the burden of proof on the people who believe the status quo is acceptable. I believe that in order for any of the goals of the U.N. to be reached Mousavizadeh's final words must be taken to heart.

"Working in dynamic partnership with the nongovernmental organizations, foundations and 'coalitions of the willing' that increasingly are the real agents of progress in areas like global development, health, security and human rights, free-standing United Nations agencies offer the best hope of bringing the organization's founding ideals to life"[iv]

Meg L.


[i] Gamel, Kim. "A Stronger World Depends On A Stronger U.N., Officials Say." Philadelphia Inquirer 22 September 2005: A8.

[ii] Ishay, Micheline. The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
[iii] Heyns, Christof and Frans Viljoen. "The Impact of the United Nations Human Rights Treaties on the Domestic Level." Human Rights Quarterly 23 (2001): 483-535.
[iv] Mousavizadeh, Nader. "A Million Little Pieces." New York Times. 24 September 2005. (6 October 2005).