On the 26th June 1945, a draft was signed in San Francisco, the City by the Bay. On the 24th October of that year, the United Nations officially came into force.
Founded on the back of World War 2, the United Nations was meant to be a replacement for the failed League of Nations, an organisation which failed on numerous counts and did not manage to prevent the global war. The world was desperate for peace after millions were wiped out in the years of war and came together on the Pacific Coast to come together. 51 states came together to be founding states, a pretty impressive figure considering what had just occurred only month before. Together, they pledged to be peace keepers in the new world by intervening in existing conflicts and using its powers to encourage the co-operation of member states.
Yet, the UN is not the revolutionary peaceful organisation the 51 country set it out to be. Over the years, the UN has failed in its goal, from the failure to intervene in Rwanda to its failure to stabilise baby state South Sudan (fun fact: when I went to the UN building in New York, the peacekeeper we spoke to flat out said that it was their biggest failure). The world failure may be overused here, but it is intrinsic with the current and past actions of the UN. Conflicts rage on but no longer do countries depend on the UN for help, as it often does not work well. Its tendency to drag its feet when asked for help is a significant problem and they can never seem to do exactly the right thing. That is not to say that the UN is completely useless- its work in Sierra Leone and Burundi after the civil and ethnic wars respectively has been lauded as praiseworthy- but they aren’t exactly the most competent.
So why is the UN so terrible and what have they done that is so awful?
- Moral Relativism
Moral relativism is the biggest problem faced by the United Nations and that is because it is not something that will ever, ever go away. In 1948, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights was produced for signage and ratification, yet not all original members of the UN in that year were signatories. Out of all those who signed, all bar one was part of the Soviet Bloc, including the Ukraine and Poland. The other? Saudi Arabia, as apparently the document conflated with Sharia Law (chew on that once for a while).
Moral relativism affects the UN as a whole and the countries in it, so with 193 total members, it is wrong to think that it something that can be sorted easily. In its smallest form, moral relativism occurs between people and regions but on a bigger scale, it can be used in international relations to explain regional discrepancies. On a non-regional basis, it can be simple. Murder is universally seen as wrong and is illegal in most ways in every country, but there is still a difference- for example, honour killings are either legal or ignored in many countries in the Middle East. Homosexuals may marry in the UK, but are murdered in Saudi Arabia. Both are members of the United Nations. Regionally, we see it everywhere but in this case, the Middle East is best (it’s always great for case studies and examples). In terms of recognition of Israel in the Middle East, it is moral relativism because many of those who do not recognise it do it from a supposedly moral standpoint. In these cases, they believe that their fellow kin (Muslims, which means Palestinians by extension) should have rights above Jewish settlers. Morality and religion are interlinked in this example. Certain sections of society see it from a truly moral standpoint- many on the left (mainly on the left) believe Palestine should gain more recognition due to a perceived history of oppression and historical claims over Israelis. The UN is often accused of an anti-Israeli bias, something which former UN Secretary-General Ban ki-moon admitted. When an organisation contains 193 countries, with a population of billions and shifting agendas, it is hard to preside over. When County X is thoroughly invested in resolving the Syrian crisis but Country Y is ambivalent at best, there isn’t going to be common ground. No wonder the UN hasn’t done anything meaningful when there is a vote on Syria- it can’t. If anything does happen, one of the members of the Permanent Council (Russia) will veto it.
Moral relativism also exists within the UN itself, as complicated as that sounds, as they tend to handle two cases differently even if they are similar based on the country in which the complaint is coming from. When the Israelis went in to Uganda to rescue hostages in the famous Operation Entebbe, the UN condemned the Israelis and their ‘violation of Ugandan sovereignty.’ Yes, the UN criticised a country for wanting to protect its people and for going against terrorists and the dictator that was Idi Amin. Yet in 1975, by a vote of 72 to 35 (with many abstentions), the UN voted to declare Zionism a ‘form of racism and racial discrimination.’ Zionism is a contentious issue, of course, but it is a form of sovereignty- sovereignty and self-determination for a Jewish people who have known nothing but hatred and discrimination for thousands of years. So it’s wrong for Israelis to want to help innocent civilians but wanting safety for themselves is ‘racism.’ Thank God the UK voted against Resolution 3379 and that it was rescinded in 1991 with 111 in favour. Well, it’s hardly a surprise that it’s Israel being biased against. Here, the moral relativism comes from recognising a generally acknowledged sovereign state (Uganda) against one that is steeped in controversy (Israel).
- Incompetence has cost lives (seriously)
Peacekeeping is the mandate in which the UN runs on and through that, we expect the UN to protect human life. In a non-combat setting, this is through diplomacy and humanitarian aid in hard to reach area. In the rarer combat setting, it pushes the ‘enemy’ (in air quotes here as the enemy, especially in a civil war, is a hugely subjective word) away from innocents and non-combatants. One would imagine whilst not an easy task, they have the resources and manpower to protect.
You’d be wrong.
In January 1994, Roméo Dallaire discovered something was amiss. Dallaire, a UN commander, discovered evidence of a plan for the extermination of the Tutsi ethnic group as well as a cache of weapons. He brought this evidence forward but was ignored. After genocide, Dallaire continued to push for a ceasefire, but was not listened to. The UN had no power to intervene and many of its workers were slaughtered. The biggest backers started pulling their troops and the UN was forced to call in reinforcements, by that time nearly one million Tutsis had been slaughtered and it was reduced to dealing with the aftermath. For those who have seen it, the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide has been described as what you imagined hell would be like, a purely retched situation. Had they listened to Dallaire- who is still active in human rights work- at least something could have been done. Of course, it is unfair to say that the UN is entirely to blame but when you read about what happened in that God-forsaken time, you just hope that maybe something could have been done better. When they ignored the strong, credible evidence that one of their own had, they ignored it (a recurring theme of UN policy it seems).
Srebrenica is probably one of the saddest cases.
In April 1993, Srebrenica was designated a safe area under UN protection. In July 1995, the Serbs, refusing to back down and forced its way into the zone. Many people- mainly women and children, sought shelter in a UN compound, with many managing to enter safely- though the compound was unequipped to handle it. The forces, Dutch, even threw out some refugees despite knowing full well that they would be killed. Sadly, they probably were. In the coming days, these forces WATCHED women get raped after their babies were murdered in front of their own eyes. A day or so later, they took the men and boys and separated those of military age and any others. The forces heard shots fired rapidly every hour and by the time the dust settled, over 8,000 men and boys had been slaughtered. The Bosnian War was one of the most tragic in recent memory, and the Srebrenica massacre will never be forgotten.
Other major mishaps include the covering up of killings in the Sri Lankan Civil War and recognising the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia until 1994. In conflict zones, the UN does not have the greatest track record but there is one indirect one that interests me most.
In January 2010, an earthquake hit the Hispaniola nation of Haiti, killing around 100,000 people and displacing many more. With such a tragedy in mind, the UN joined the world in rushing to help a very vulnerable people. Then something unbelievable happened…the negligence of Nepalese UN workers left thousands of people dead and many more ill, with 6% of Haitians ill with it. What had happened? They’d caused a cholera outbreak. These peacekeepers brought the bacteria with them and due to inappropriate sanitation methods; it had spread from the barracks into the river it was based on. This river was a source for water for many poor Haitians (before the outbreak, 37% lacked proper drinking water and 83% improved sanitation, something that probably got worse) and it then spread like wildfire, helped by a lack of infrastructure. What did the UN do? Nothing- they denied it and refused compensation, something that would have helped the very poor people. Only in 2016-6 years after it had happened- did the UN admit responsibility and apologise.
- Scale of corruption and hush-ups
In 2007, a UN field office worker named James Wasserstrom was forced out of his job and continually harassed after reporting on kickbacks occurring on the UN Mission in Kosovo. When he reported this, he was not listened to and a cover up ensued. Five years later, in 2012, Wasserstrom was finally compensated $65,000 after his lawsuit came up trumps.
Yet this was not the biggest, and most disgusting, cover up. In several countries, Cambodia and Bosnia being two such examples, prostitution spiked as the UN left. Children were turned into prostitutes for UN peacekeepers, rewarded with petty money and sweets so that if caught, the peacekeepers would not be charged with rape. 80% of prostituted Kosovo citizens were under 18 and even more horribly, 33% were under the age of 14. In some cases, countries with low levels of STIs- most notably HIV/AIDS- suddenly saw a spike. The biggest case, however, was in Haiti (they seem to have the worst luck). Before the earthquake, in the UN Stabilisation Mission, 12% of Sri Lankan troops were accused of sex crimes. Children as young as seven were targeted, often ‘rewarded’ for their troubles and a brothel was even reportedly set up. The UN sent all of the accused back but they were never arrested, tried or jailed for what they did, and over 400 were sent from the Sri Lankan army. One time payments were made, but nothing more was done. This occurred over 10 years yet nothing seemed to be done. The UN is so obsessed with image yet cannot accept what is happening right under their nose. It went so far as to dismiss worker Kathryn Bolkovac, the woman who broke the scandal, in order to cover its behind and protect lucrative contracts it was doing. She brought it to the BBC and eventually won a wrongful termination suit. Yet, even after the event, the US still did work for the contract company Bolkovac blew the whistle on. Great priorities, right?
The controversial Oil-For-Food programme implemented in Iraq after Gulf War One was reported to have wide scale corruption attached for it. Essentially, in return for humanitarian aid, Iraq was allowed to sell its oil on the markets again. Iraqi and UN officials were believed to have profited from the scheme, food was not of good standard and whilst officials were paid handsome sums, electricity did not work properly. Bribes were rampant (Iraq isn’t exactly known for its transparency) so money did not get to its desired people and even worse, the money was diverted to al-Qaeda, many of whom had operatives hiding out in Iraq. Saddam Hussein received many thousands of oil vouchers which he used as bribes. It was found that many organisations, high profile individuals and political parties benefitted from this voucher scheme. The Russians were the biggest benefactors (the country of Russia was the biggest, along with many organisations in it), but an interesting one to note is a certain former member of Labour and Respect. According to the Beneficiaries of Saddam’s Oil Vouchers: The List of 270, Galloway benefited from one million barrels. I wonder how that will affect the decision to reinstate him to the Labour Party…
- Terrible Organisational Structure
The organisational structure of the UN is not designed to be efficient. Firstly, there is the issue of the five permanent United Nations Security Council members- China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Each of these are huge, powerful nations who have varying agendas. Let’s be honest, do you really think the UK cares one jot about Trinidad and Tobago or Djibouti? Maybe if there was an earthquake or something, but I don’t think they will really listen to them about what to do about the Israel-Palestine crisis. Each of these five will also favour other members over others- the United Kingdom is likely to be friendlier to the United States and France whilst Russia and China, who are more ideologically and geographically inclined, will be stronger. The permanent members were chosen as the victors of World War 2 and all attempts to add other members have ended in failure. The thing that is most obstacle inducing here is the veto power. Whilst the United Kingdom and France have not vetoed anything since 1989, it has been used frequently since by the other three members, as recently as 2017. Whilst the subjectiveness of the veto is important here (one may think a country was correct to veto, whilst another may disagree), it is definitely a huge impediment to the peace process. The veto power can block nearly any piece worked through the UN and can destroy the chance to resolve a major issue. Only in February 2017 did Russia and China vote against sanctions against Syria regarding chemical weapons, with the former vetoing a renewal of a commission on the subject.
The UN employs around 44,000 people (according to the UN careers page), no wonder it requires such a budget. Whilst the humanitarian effort is needed badly, the bureaucracy aspect of the UN is something to question. It seems that there are so many officers that seem to do little. Whilst it is not known for its incredible pay, it offers an excellent pension and a stipend when one works abroad, which means one won’t touch most of their salary- it seems like a wasted expenditure. Workers also receive money based on how many children they have, allowing unscrupulous workers to obtain false certificates claiming they have a large amount of children, therefore taking money that they are not entitled to.
The US pays the most into the UN as it is the world’s biggest economy, but otherwise the formula is a little iffy at best. Japan pays the second most into the pot, even though China (third biggest contributor) is a much bigger economic power. Most controversially, India is the world’s seventh largest economy but ranks #24 in contributors.
The UN also operates on some kind of fairness basis in terms of recruiting. In teams, the nationalities will be changed or certain nationals will be promoted ahead of it- for example, if the UN felt there had been too many Western Europeans or Asians in a group, they may choose some Africans or Latinos the next quarter. This does not always work best, because the best people might be from a certain group of countries and their work will be diminished by those who chose to pursue a different agenda. This also occurs in the selection of the Secretary-General, with nations as diverse as South Korea and Ghana offering up men to serve. Interestingly, the first SG was a Brit; however, he is often not counted as he was the acting Secretary-General until a proper person could be elected. Whilst the UN will never admit it, it’s highly unlikely that it will come from a country like the UK and US anytime soon.
Poorer countries are more likely to send armed forces members to be peacekeepers as the UN offers a generous reimbursement. Whilst most countries are fair and pay them well, countries that are not as fair will take the money and not spend it back on their peacekeepers. With a lack of good pay, these peacekeepers will not be motivated and even then, they are not afforded adequate protection as they should be in such a dangerous job. Lack of training and discipline is a massive issue, as the peacekeepers have been embroiled in many sexual assault cases especially in countries that are struggle with lawlessness. Other than sexual assault, there have been cases of murder of civilians by peacekeepers but they are thankfully very rare, especially compared to sexual misconduct.
- Ill thought-out punishment process
The United Nations best method is diplomacy and considering that is one of several options, this is not a good thing. Diplomacy is a hugely important method in international relations as nobody wants war, the least preferable option because of the huge costs of human life and drawbacks. Yet, unfortunately, diplomacy is not always going to be an option. Diplomacy is not helping with Israel and Palestine (let’s be honest, that’s a lost cause) and it will not help when other countries absolutely hate one another (India and Pakistan). It is a preventative measure but it is not always useful when something has already happened. The Rwandan genocide stopped when there was no one left to kill and the Bosnian War ended thanks to the Dayton Agreement, neither of which had anything to do with the UN.
They can intervene militarily but that is through peacekeepers and not actual troops (sending troops would be a massive grey areas anyway) and as discussed earlier, it doesn’t always work.
Most notably, the UN use sanctions. Sanctions are a polarising method and I am personally against them. My logic is that these sanctions tend to be used on countries that are poor already, are run by dictatorships or hugely flawed democracies, or are both, such as North Korea. When sanctions are then implemented, it can go one of several ways. Firstly, the sanctions make the people poorer and punish a populace that is in no way responsible for their government. This in turn can make the people angry and allow the government to use this to their advantage. By using negative nationalism, they will turn the people against the United Nations, seen as a beacon of globalism, by blaming them for what is happening. Therefore, the bad government will have more of a mandate to continue with what they are doing, because there are no repercussions. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein lived like a king whilst the regular Iraqi starved. In North Korea, the people are already conditioned to hate the west and there is no way that the government will be overthrown anytime soon, so they shall continue with what they’re doing.
The effect of the sanctions on Iraq is a reason as to why I’m against them in general, having learned in A Level History about it in a small capacity. In a previously fairly well off country, the following happened: children starved; the per capita income dropped by a large margin; the strong investment in female education dropped sharply; money was diverted improperly during the Oil-For-Food programme and infrastructure took a downturn. In an interview with veteran political correspondent and journalist Lesley Stahl, Madeleine Albright asked if the sanctions in Iraq were worth it (Stahl had just reported that half a million children had died). Albright replied that the ‘we think the price was worth it.’ The then-UN Ambassador (and later first female Secretary of State) was immediately criticised for her inhumanity and flippancy at the death of innocent children, which caused a major scandal. Albright criticised Stahl, but Stahl was in the right to ask this. Intervention in Iraq failed on a monumental scale- sanctions didn’t work and led to a war that destabilised the entire country. It wasn’t worth it.
I’m not one of those people who feel we should detach ourselves from the UN. It is a deeply ineffective and inefficient organisation that is easy to be criticised, but it is not an organisation that will always remain the same. After the savaging I’ve just given, you may be surprised to read that I believe that we should give it a chance. 193 countries are members; it’s not some regional group like the European Union or African Union, but a global body. Sure, we won’t change things overnight and there will always be things wrong with the UN, but we are best served inside of it. Whilst the moral relativism that was discussed first is the main reason as to why it will never be a great union, we can work to reform the UN as a body through its organisation structure and through repeated attempts to end the corruption that lurks. I will never be a UN cheerleader because I understand its flaws and that an organisation that is made up of nearly the entire world’s population will never properly work. NATO is a much better alternative but I believe that we should stay in the UN, even if we should have a diminished role that means we pay less into the pot.