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United Nations General Assembly 2019

This series decodes deals, political moves, and gossip at the world’s biggest political summit.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
Old school.
DIPLO FEST

Do we still need the United Nations?

Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Geopolitics reporter

The 73rd United Nations General Assembly (UNGA—pronounced /unga/ by those in the know) is back in New York City. From Sept. 18 until Oct.5, world leaders, philanthropists, activists and the occasional celebrity will crowd in and around the United Nations’ Manhattan headquarters to decide the fate of the rest of the world—at least in theory.

Donald Trump has described the United Nations as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.” At UNGA, that is partially true—plenty of the coming weeks’ breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, panels, talks, presentations, debates, galas, and award ceremonies will not produce much tangible, world-improving change. The UN’s dedication to speeches and announcements is deep, but its ability to enforce them is limited.

Founded in 1942, the UN’s objectives are still relevant today: global peace, friendship between member states, development and human rights protection. But it is an old and byzantine global bureaucracy, which politicians, the media, and staff alike have criticized it as expensive and ineffective (global taxpayers fund the UN to the tune of $13 billion annually). Small member states also say the UN depends too much on money from big countries to make fair decisions for all, and this year, nations from Myanmar to the US explicitly rejected UN authority as encroachments on their sovereignty.

With skepticism growing around this costly 76-year old machine, and heads of state including German chancellor Angela Merkel, Chinese president Xi Jinping and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau skipping UNGA, the question is: Do we still need the UN?

The two flawed faces of the United Nations

The first thing you need to know about the UN is that there isn’t just one UN. There are at least two: One is the high diplomatic arena, where world leaders are given a space to discuss and defend their views, and make group decisions about conflict, peacekeeping, and sanctions. The other is the world’s largest development machine, which employs tens of thousands of people working to improve children’s welfare, refugee support, global health and myriad other causes.

On the political side, the biggest limit to the UN’s effectiveness is an imbalance of power between permanent members of the Security Council (UK, US, China, Russia, France), and the rest of the member states. Security Council members can veto decisions on anything from sanctions to peacekeeping missions, protecting themselves and allies from UN oversight.

The Security Council has never imposed sanctions on China, for instance, despite the country’s proven record of serious human rights violations and extra-judiciary detainment of up to a million Muslim citizens. The council could only impose sanctions if China, too, voted to impose them on itself.  Similarly, the UN’s proposal to intervene in Syria in 2014 was vetoed by Russia, which is friendly with the embattled Assad regime.

Wealthy member states also have more bargaining power, since financial contributions to the UN are made according to each member’s GDP, and other measures such as debt. The US is by far the UN’s biggest funder, supporting 22% of the UN’s core budget and 25% of the peacekeeping budget. If implemented, Trump’s recent threats to  cut the US contribution and US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s pledge to defund the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights would make it nearly impossible for the organization to continue its work.

Chart via the Brookings Institution

That means national political interests can sometimes threaten UN field activities and funding in ways that hurt vulnerable populations. For example, the Trump administration recently cut funds from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which runs schools and health clinics among other essential services. Similarly, Italian foreign minister Matteo Salvini has threatened to cut all funds (link in Italian) to the UN after the the organization sent investigators to assess violence against migrants in the country.

Internally, the UN’s own bureaucracy can hamstring its efforts. Multiple agencies can be found working on the same goals; new initiatives must go through frustrating loops of authorizations and paperwork; and hierarchy can get in the way of both achievement and accountability.

As is often the case with bureaucracies, the rules-heavy system was set up to guarantee fairness, fight nepotism and block corruption—but it has ended up protecting and empowering the few who know how to navigate protocol. UN career officials are hard to fire, while the short-term contractors who work for them have little job security. This has contributed to a culture of impunity in which responsibility for mistakes, harassment and abuses of power is passed “from desk to desk, inbox to inbox” without resolution. In 2016 alone, there were over 300 reported episodes of violence by UN peacekeeping staff against minors.

Earlier this year, in the wake of multiple sexual abuse scandals, secretary-general António Guterres and top human rights official Michelle Bachelet announced a reform plan. Their proposed changes to the organization are designed to provide better accountability, and would offer more protection for whistleblowers within the system.

What the UN does well

Of course, endless political maneuvering and bureaucratic mazes aren’t entirely keeping the UN from doing its job. Many UN agencies and programs still manage to accomplish the unglamorous work of promoting and coordinating international development.

In 2000, then-Secretary General Kofi Annan launched the Millennium Development Goals. That program achieved enormous global results, including halving extreme poverty, maternal mortality, and child mortality. It has since been expanded into a new program: the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which address global issues like disease prevention, education and gender equality. These goals have the support of all UN member states, and offer a common vision of how the world should improve by 2030.

John Weiss, a professor of history at University of Cornell, argues that the UN still has the power to get things done through “good old diplomacy.” While the UN may never overcome the veto of China or the other Security Council permanent members on resolutions targeting them or their allies, it can still raise awareness of bad behavior. 

To return to the example of China: While UN sanctions were never imposed, the UN Commission on Human Rights did publicly condemn Beijing’s violent suppression of protests in 1989, drawing international attention. That ultimately prompted individual sanctions from the US and embargoes from European Union states.

Even when it’s unable to enforce human rights resolutions, UN data-collection helps inform the policies of individual member states. ”If we want to see the UN as policeman in chief we are going to be disappointed,” Jacqueline Bhabha, professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, told Quartz. But the UN does do the vital work of collecting reliable information, conducting investigations, and then demand accountability, she says.

Perhaps most importantly, people around the world still seem to want an organization dedicated to global peace and health. Although the UN has its critics, it also has plenty of supporters: Even in the US, which is one of the countries with the lowest approval of the UN, a United Nations Foundation survey found that 55% citizens between 17 and 35 believe in the importance of international cooperation.

Ironically, losing the financial support of the US (as Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened) could bolster the UN’s credibility in the rest of the world. As Weiss points out, though the financial loss would limit the UN’s activities, it would be an opportunity to reform the organization so that it represents member states more democratically.