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Why the UN system is not working

Jul 31,2018 - Last updated at Jul 31,2018

The United Nations organisation turns 73-years old in October. As such and with its membership reaching 193 member states, it is a focal point in the global political system. Over the years, the UN and its many specialised agencies have accumulated volumes of significant accomplishments, including resolving some international crises. Acknowledging this reality is just fair.

The problem though is that the ability of the same UN has been declining. One of the main objectives of the international body, that is the resolution of political disputes among member states peacefully, hardly functions these days. Not because the UN does not have full mandate to prevent conflicts, or because it does not have the political power to apply the provisions of the Charter by imposing fair, reasonable and peaceful settlements, but simply because UN actions of this kind are mostly obstructed by influential member states, usually at the Security Council.

The UN Security Council is made up of 15 member states. The permanent five of them (5P) are privileged with an extraordinary right, the veto, to just block any resolution that all the other 14 Council members may approve without having to offer any explanation for rejecting the resolution in question, regardless of how significant or how conducive such a resolution can be. The 5P had cut this unique right for themselves since the UN was founded in 1945. Since then, they have been strongly opposed to any UN reform ideas that required change in the veto entitlement. They equally opposed any limitations on the veto usage or even defining which resolutions should be excluded, particularly those related to stopping or preventing peace-threatening military conflicts.

Being, practically, the principal UN executive body, whose resolutions are obligatory, while the 193- member UN General Assembly is believed to only pass unbinding recommendations, the Security Council ends up under the authority of five member states out of 193; meaning only five members hold the sole power to determine the fate of the whole world. That is if and when they agree. In the many other cases where they do not, the UN becomes totally paralysed.

This may shed some light on why the UN has failed miserably in preventing many of the raging conflicts in our region in particular, as well as many other stable, but potentially dangerous, conflicts in many other parts of the world.

During the cold war era, the bi-polar system, the two major powers; the US and the Soviet Union, were in most cases opposed to each other with respect to issues that landed on the Security Council’s floor. Only when their interests coincided, which was rare, they passed constructive resolutions in favour of world peace and security.

Thus, the UN role has been reduced to a mere endorser of the major powers’ agreements being in favour of peace or war. The UN has lost the initiative and for long has been unable to introduce its own peace plans, its own settlement proposals or compromises, simply because such initiatives would have no effect if not approved beforehand by the influential powers.

The advantage of having a collective multi-member organisation, international, regional or otherwise, is to reach decisions by a majority vote. That is the best formula so far for fair, or call it democratic representation. Majority decisions may not be always right. But they are always democratic and they are always better than individual interest-driven, biased, self-serving or whimsical rulings.

The majority vote, therefore, is not a UN asset as it was originally meant to be. It works well in the General Assembly but Assembly decisions are generally, though not exactly legally, accepted as nonbinding.

In the Security Council, even when a sweeping majority approves decisions, the veto annuls such majority.

This may help explain why the UN does not function adequately when needed to deal with matters of peace and security. The UN is not free, it is not democratic and it has no will power of its own.

This may explain why the UN has failed miserably in dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although a constant serious threat to world peace and security since the UN organisation was created; it failed to resolve wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and many others because veto Security Council powers are parties in most of these conflicts. They cannot agree on ending wars they contributed to making; and they cannot adopt peace formulas when different permanent Security Council members support different fighting sides.

The Russian interests in Syria, as in fact in Libya and in Yemen, are not the same as the American. Conflicting interests cannot produce agreement as what is good for one side is bad for the other.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is taking so long because Israel is fully protected at the UN from any accountability for its constant violations of international law, its wars of aggression, its daily raids on its neighbours, its continued illegal occupation of Arab lands and its massive atrocities against the Palestinians; protected of course by the US government. 

So far and as the UN decision remains in the hands of the influential few, the UN will remain mostly ineffective.

Only radical UN system reform would end the stagnation. That was tried many times before but was abandoned every time because the privileged powers never wanted to surrender any of their distinctive privileges, particularly the veto.

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