The Relevance and Reform of the United Nations in The Contemporary World


Disclaimer: This article solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors

States have engaged in armed conflict even before the inception of the United Nations in October 1945. Despite the failure of the League of Nations, the UN was established as a successor organisation immediately following the end of the Second World War. In the 1900s, UN mediators negotiated conflict resolution agreements that resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, ended the civil war in El Salvador, and even put a stop to fighting between Iran and Iraq. This stint of successful mediation has been followed by the realisation that the organisation is increasingly losing relevance in the present day. It is important to recall the primary objective of the United Nations; to prevent the breakout of global and interstate conflict, preserve peace by facilitating international cooperation, and in case of disputes limit the extent of hostilities. In other words, the UN was established to address, “conflict at the negotiating table rather than on the battlefield.” 

Changing Responsibilities of the UN

Over the years, the organisation has expanded its role from a peacemaker and arbiter between countries to taking an evolving interest in the overall development (especially economic development) of its member states. Its venture into the issues of social reconstruction and political freedom has directed away attention from its original purpose of conflict resolution, and peacebuilding. Currently, the UN by itself has little political leverage, is disproportionately dominated by a few states, and lacks any real political authority; all of which are critical prerequisites for a supranational mediator. Further, its inability to pursue a dynamic, unanimous mediation strategy is a manifestation of the vested interests of different states in various interstate conflicts. For instance, the proxy war in Syria between two permanent members; Russia and the United States hinders any possibility of peace in the region. In 2019, Russia vetoed its 14th UNSC resolution blocking cross-border  humanitarian aid to Syria, while the USA voted in favour. Similarly, any resolution initiating action against President Assad is a bone of contention between the two states with similar veto powers. The failure of the UN is also attributed to the veto power at the disposal of the five permanent members. This is evident in conflicts across the world like the Israeli occupation of Palestine, or the dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan. The geopolitical rivalries  between permanent  members influence  their exercise of the veto. This nullifies the effectiveness of any resolution aimed at achieving security and peacebuilding objectives since states use their veto power to preserve their interests and those of their allies or to antagonise rival states. These issues coupled with the interference of external bureaucratic actors, and underfunding undermine the relevance of the UN. 

The Need for UN Reform 

During its inception, the global order was dominated by a select few states. However, the structure of the UN Security Council with five permanent members (USA, UK Russia, France, and China) does not represent the political realities of the modern-day world. Besides the lack of equitable representation, its decisions are driven by the motive to preserve western interests. 

It is now evident that the UN is inherently incapable of acting as an effective mediator amidst a developing multilateral world order. The “self-perpetuating bureaucracies” with vested interests further complicate the process. Reform is, thus, critical. In recent years, there have been increasing calls to reform the structures and processes of the organisation. The UN Security Council is the main body responsible for international security, peace, and prevention of conflict. It is, therefore, not surprising that the UNSC has been criticised for not being representative enough. The President of the UN 76th General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid also stressed the importance of the Security Council reflecting “21st-century  realities.”

Making the UNSC more Representative 

UN reform has been on the formal agenda ever since its formation in 1945. The incompatibility and competition for hegemony between the permanent members in the UNSC can be construed as the most grievous challenge. The UNSC currently is formed with five permanent and ten non-permanent members elected for a period of two years. While there has been a move to modify or even abolish the veto, the permanent members are highly unlikely to support such a measure. It is increasingly apparent that they have no self-interest in pursuing internal reform. But states have been pushing for it to make the council more representative and accountable in different ways. One major reform calls for increasing the number of both permanent and non-permanent members of the UNSC. According to the African Union, this UNSC reform should be in accordance with the Ezulwini Consensus. This proposes increasing the number of members in the Council by additional two permanent and two elected seats for Africa. India has long been lobbying for a permanent seat in a reformed UNSC. The success of the actions of the UNSC and the organisation as a whole is contingent on the support of the international community. Following decolonisation and the emergence of several independent states, it is important that they have a role in shaping the resolutions within the Council that would affect them. 

While UN intervention and action has furthered humanitarian goals and somewhat limited  casualties it has rarely been successful in preventing and solving conflict. Across the world, armed conflict continues to destroy life and property and exacerbate the refugee crisis for  decades. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a very recent example of the failure of international organisations in mitigating conflict. Despite these challenges facing the UN, it enjoys the privilege of being the only forum that brings together all the states to work towards collective goals. Transforming the UN to make it more relevant to contemporary society would thus, require a litany of reforms starting with the organisation’s  structure and the Security Council.

By Antara Basu,

Antara is a first-year BSc Politics and International Relations student at UCL. She enjoys exploring identity politics and international conflict and security.

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