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Failing to reform the UN

An expert workshop on ‘The Essential World Organisation: Reinvigorating the UN at 75’ in which I participated, had representation from European think tanks, American academia and members of civil society, engaged in campaigning for support for the United Nations. There were only two participants from the Global South:  a Chinese academic and myself.

The hosts, the Development and Peace Foundation (SEF) and Institute for Development and Peace (INEF), University of Duisburg-Essen in Duisburg, Germany, were set up in 1986 and 1990 respectively in the context of former German foreign minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Willy Brandt’s policy of Ostpolitik (Eastern politics). Brandt’s vision had laid the foundation for a hinge moment in global affairs, consisting of the reintegration of East and West Germany, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and an end to the Cold War.

The 1942 Declaration of the United Nations, establishing the organisation at the end of the Second World War, reflected a peak in the commitment to multilateralism, giving impetus to the evolution of international law and practice, as Prof. Thomas Weiss, Presidential Professor, City University, New York, rightly noted in his keynote address. He also said that the next major commitment to multilateralism was the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which came into force 60 years later – adopted unanimously at the World Summit in 2005.

The western scholars and former UN officials who spoke conveyed loudly their angst at U.S. president Trump hastening the shredding of the post-Second World War global system – or “rule of law”, as they prefer to characterise it. Perhaps because the system gave the Europeans a central position in global affairs, the Europeans are perfectly willing to overlook the fact that the United States has not acceded to numerous international conventions. More importantly, the U.S.  ignored the UN Security Council (UNSC) when it undertook armed interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, often with the participation of European armies.

The UN itself and the R2P were both born following carnage – 50 million killed in the Second World War, and around 1 million in Rwanda, mostly by machete. All countries agree that the act of saving people – including by armed intervention – is justified when their own government may be complicit in the killings, as in Rwanda. But the selective application of the doctrine and the manipulation of the UN’s endorsement of R2P in, for example,  the overt intervention by NATO in Libya – with its continuing terrible fallout eight years later –  raises questions of morality and the taint of big power politics.

The dilemmas that the UN system has failed to resolve from its very inception are also starkly brought out by the covert actions of big and regional powers in Syria where too killings are taking place on a massive scale. Surprisingly, the Western participants seemed to support the double standards their governments have practised by positing them as the alternative to “no standards”.

I said that India as one of the original 49 signatories to the UN Charter, even before it became independent, strongly supports the UN.  India had actively sought to mediate in the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, but its efforts were ignored in the context of big power rivalries. It has expressed its commitment to multilateralism through participation in 43 UN peacekeeping missions, starting with Korea in 1950.

India believes that the UN can be made fit for purpose in the 21st century through a three-pronged reform approach, beginning with an expansion of the UNSC to include India, Germany, Japan, Brazil and an African country.

Secondly, the process of selection of the secretary general and heads of other multilateral organisations, who are today chosen through bargaining among the Permanent Five (P5) members of the Security Council, must be revisited.

The third and vitally important reform is to amend the veto powers of the P5, which have paralysed the UN every time great power interests conflict, as they are doing today in Syria or the South China Sea.

The old existential threat of war is ever present, and new ones have emerged, with little agreement on how the global community can address them. For example, although terrorism is recognised as a global threat the UN has failed to approve an International Convention on Terrorism, which India has been proposing since 1996. Nuclear issues, where the big powers focussed on proliferation to prevent a dilution of their dominance, resulted in a Non-Proliferation Treaty in1970, even as all disarmament agreements between the U.S. and Russia are lapsing. Climate change, pandemics, militarisation of space, cybercrime and the melting of the polar ice caps, are among the new existential threats without adequate global governance.

Despite its evident weaknesses India continues to regard the UN as the most important source of legitimacy in international politics, a forum where every country, big or small, seeks endorsement for its actions. If that endorsement is not forthcoming powerful countries disregard the UN system altogether by setting up coalitions of the willing in pursuit of their self-defined national security interests. `

Among the various interventions at the conference, the most interesting and unnerving of all came from the Chinese scholar. He explained how elite opinion in China subscribes to the inevitability of the country’s historically unprecedented economic expansion and expects to be given commensurate space in international affairs. He drew an interesting analogy to describe Chinese frustration by asking the world, ‘why this muscular adult is asked to remain in baby clothes’.

He said China’s view of the UN is pragmatic: it is happy that UN senior officials participate in conferences, endorsing its Belt and Road Initiative and that UN documents have begun to incorporate Chinese phraseology, such as “shared future of humanity” and “mutual benefit for win-win solutions”. But he also challenged these empty slogans by noting that there is no content in such concepts – and implementability, even less.

Further, China, as the second largest funder of the UN today, has thereby  obtained important positions across  UN bodies. These representatives of the Chinese government are not interested in  liberal ideas of human rights, etc; so the significance of these issues, and bodies, such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission, will  decline in the future.

Importantly, the scholar made it clear that China does not support reform of the UN in terms of expanding the composition of the UNSC to include countries, such as India (or Germany), or the dilution/abolition of veto powers, significantly dashing India’s hopes in that regard.

My assessment is that the fundamental reforms that the UN needs will not be undertaken because of Chinese opposition, but also because of the deepening distrust among the great powers. The European Union has described China as a systemic rival while America sees it as a strategic competitor and a revisionist power, challenging the U.S.-dominated global order. At the same time, the West remains antagonistic to Russia; naturally, China and Russia have come together. The rest of the world can only look on helplessly.

Neelam Deo is C0-Founder and Director, Gateway House.

This blog was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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