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GCN Security Brief: Can the UN address Today’s Security Challenges?


GCN Security Brief: Can the UN address Today’s Security Challenges?

unThis week, Heads of State from around the world gathered in New York for the 71st General Assembly of the United Nations. Obviously, any event on this scale would be substantial but this year was significant because it marked the end of term of Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and President Obama. The main points of the daunting agenda include a brewing war between India and Pakistan, the failure of the ceasefire in Syria, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the migration crisis in Europe. Phew!

This week instead of providing a report of the proceedings, I thought I would take a step back to ask the question if the UN is capable of effectively addressing these significant global challenges. One of the UNs primary goals at the time of its formation was “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Can the UN achieve this goal in a different economic and political climate; 70 years after if its formation? My answer is a very simple ‘No’. Allow me to explain.

Firstly, let us evaluate the Security Council which is made up of 15 member states – 5 permanent members and 10 rotating members. These five permanent members (US, UK, France, China and Russia) have a veto power over any resolution. Without the approval of all five permanent members no resolutions can be passed by the Security Council.  It is no accident that I chose to name the permanent members in the above order. It represents the level of amiability among the members. On numerous fronts, schisms exist between Russia and the US, and China and the US. The UK and France which most often echo similar western liberal values, often side with the US. A newly assertive (and seemingly unresponsive) Russia and China will lead to further stalemates. This more or less renders the Security Council impotent in the face of major crises and dependent on the whims and fancies of major powers.

Secondly, member states (including major powers) have increasingly subverted the UN system to take unilateral action. The most significant example of this is the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. If major powers do not follow the rules of the United Nations how should we expect other states within and outside of the system to start believing in the strength of the system. Most troubling is North Korea who is now a nuclear power. Read more about this.

Thirdly, with several committees, entrenched bureaucracy, and nebulous definitions, the UN is unable to act as swiftly and decisively as is required sometimes. The disastrous failure of not terming the events in Rwanda as genocide prevented much-needed relief to the victims and prolonged the mass slaughter. Read more about this.

Finally, the UN was conceived at a time where inter-state wars were the most frequent form of conflict and was designed to address these conflicts. The world has changed drastically since then. Today, we are confronted with challenges which are not states. Terrorist organizations, displaced peoples, spread of disease and climate change all serve as examples.

This is a time for reform in the UN to be more effective in meeting the challenges of today’s world with a structure and procedures to facilitate rapid and effective action. We need a UN that has teeth and is respected enough to carry out its mission. We deserve a United Nations that does not get monopolized by the great powers but is genuinely an organization espousing equality of all members.

Anniversaries and birthdays allow for a time of introspection and reflection. On the 70th anniversary of the UN and with the coming of a new Secretary General, an opportunity for reform beckons. It is not a broken organization by any means but its strength and relevance is being challenged. And with a fading of a lynchpin of the liberal world order, we may see a serious blow to the liberal world order itself.

M. Sudhir Selvaraj

M. Sudhir Selvaraj writes the Weekly Security Brief for GCN. He is a fellow with the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. His interests lie in security of religious minorities, secularism, U.S. foreign policy and politics of South Asia. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at King’s College London. He has a master’s (with distinction) in International Relations from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and graduated cum laude (with honors) from Concordia College, Minnesota with majors in Political Science and Global Studies and a minor in Business.

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