Rumors of the UN’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Workers tend to an oil spill resulting from bombing in Raouche Harbor in Beirut, Lebanon, 2006. (Cedarrick)

Every year, the United Nations system—the ensemble of its many missions, agencies, and departments—delivers food to over 90 million people in 80 countries; assists over 38 million refugees and mobilizes over 22 billion USD for humanitarian emergencies; vaccinates 58 percent of the world’s children; protects and promotes human rights in countries and through 80 treaties and declarations; and assists some 60 countries with their elections. Its core budget (not including different agencies which receive voluntary funding) for 2013-2014 runs a bit over 5.5 billion USD, money that also funds 10 political and peacebuilding field missions staffed with over 3,400 personnel.

This is pretty cheap, if one considers that the annual budget of the New York police and fire departments is approximately 1 billion USD higher (4.678 billion USD and 1.715 billion USD, respectively). Peacekeeping also comes relatively cheap, with its 16 missions, deploying over 104,000 uniformed personnel and approximately 17,000 civilians, with an annual budget of 8.5 billion USD— about the annual budget of the state of Rhode Island. In the fiscal year 2013, the Pentagon’s budget for one operation, Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, totaled 77 billion USD.

Of course, many point to UN failures—and there are plenty. The recent crises in Syria and Ukraine, the health emergency of Ebola, the persistence of extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, the lack of any agreement on climate change, and old unresolved conflicts such as the situations in Cyprus, in Israel and the Palestinian territories, in Jammu-Kashmir, and in Western Sahara—these all remind us of the impotence of the United Nations, especially when major powers’ national interests are at stake.

At the same time, there has hardly been a time when peacekeeping was not in some sort of crisis and the Security Council was on the brink of irrelevancy. To some extent, it is true that the UN is always under stress. It suffers from chronic lack of financial and human resources; it is weighed down by inefficiencies and a bureaucracy of Byzantine proportion; it is torn apart daily by the conflicting interests of 193 member states. Still, rumors of the UN’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

The UN system “suffers from serious problems of overlap, duplication of effort, weak coordination, [and] proliferating mandates and programs.” This was the outcome of a study commissioned by the US Senate Expenditures Committee in 1947, two years after the UN charter came into force. Similar complaints have been voiced countless times since. Reform has been a fact life at the UN since its earliest days.

Still, while reform comes at glacial speed, the UN has arguably demonstrated itself to be a very adaptable organization, surviving different geopolitical contexts and multiple crises and scandals. It has just delivered a new approach called “Rights Up Front” to improve the UN’s collective response to future risks of serious violations of human rights, in reaction to the failure to address these violations during the latest stages of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009. It is in the process of producing new broad and universal development goals that include the environment in 2015.

It is in the area of international peace and security that the UN needs a new framework, as I have argued in the past, which would require a level of consensus among member states missing in the UN today. In fact, at the end of the day, much of the reform debate in the UN is a struggle over political turf, over who gains and loses influence within the system if the proposed changes are approved.

Friday was UN Day, which marks the anniversary of the entry into force of its charter, and while we celebrate the achievements of the 69-year-old world body in perennial crisis, we indeed need to keep an eye on long-term political trends. I wish to mention three of them.

First is the question of what emerging powers—China in particular—will do vis-à-vis the United Nations. As China becomes the main political and economic power of the 21st century, will it embrace this global system, or will try to re-write the rules? If so, how? The jury is still out, but if we have to judge from the behavior in the contested waters of the South China Sea, the perspective is not encouraging. The UN’s founders had one main goal in mind—to ensure that the major power at that time (the US) was integrated enough into the UN’s structure and operations so that the weaknesses and ultimate failure of the League of Nations would not be repeated. Will the world body be able to integrate the new powers of the 21st century?

Second, will the UN be able to secure resources, both financial and human, to face the tremendously complex and intertwined crises of our times? It will need to become a more results-oriented organization, ditch the obsession with internal procedures, and overcome the organizational silos in which the founders have straight-jacketed the UN system. But, it will also need to convince emerging powers to contribute more money and more talent to its work. Those who claim to weigh more will need to give more.

And, finally, will the UN succeed in connecting with the citizens of the world? Last week, I participated in a timely online debate, hosted by The Guardian, on UN relevancy. Over and over again, it was apparent that the UN needs to engage people all over the world with its work. The UN is a member state organization, but in a time when the gap between citizens and governments is widening globally and economic growth (as currently modeled) is creating political alienation and societal instability, it becomes urgent to go beyond government institutions. The future of the UN lies in multi-stakeholder partnerships, being it with other multilateral bodies, governments, corporate, or civil society. In this regard, a crash course in media communication is urgent at all levels. Use of new communication and information technology should be mainstreamed. More transparency and openness are necessary. Initiatives like and are steps in the right direction, but much more is needed.

The United Nations, together with the Bretton Woods institutions (International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and GATT/WTO), were all conceived in the mid-1940s by World War II winning powers whose main preoccupation was saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war on the one hand while looking to reconstruct and revive the global economy on the other. It cannot be said that the overarching mission has not been accomplished so far. We can use UN Day to celebrate the UN’s achievements, but we should be prepared to continue the struggle for the UN relevance during the rest of the year.