U.N.: reform or stagnation?

The origins of the United Nations

This year, 2015, marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. On June 26, 1945 the United Nations Charter was adopted and signed as a result of the United Nations Conference on International Organization that was held in San Francisco, in the city’s opera house. The representatives of the 50 countries, whose population amounted to 80% of the planet’s population at that time, signed the Charter (later it was also signed by Poland, which became the 51st of the original Member States). The total number of participants, among whom were the delegates, their advisers and staff, and the secretariat of the Conference, amounted to 3,500. Moreover, there were up to 2,500 representatives of the press, radio and news-reels as well as observers from various associations and organizations. In all probability, it was more numerous than any other international meeting that ever took place. No less remarkable was also the historical meaning of this event, which is incontestable nowadays. The conference laid out a structure for a new international organization “committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights.”

The predecessor of the UN was the League of Nations. There are a lot of debates regarding the link between these two organizations, but a certain continuity between them is an incontestable fact. The ideas of the League of Nations must be considered as an ideological background for the UN, which is why it is important to pay some attention to the League. This universal intergovernmental organization was founded in 1919 on the initiative of US President Woodrow Wilson to regulate the relationships between sovereign States with regards to international cooperation and security. A number of structural and procedural elements of the League of Nations were subsequently incorporated into the UN. The structural elements, reproduced in the UN calque of the League of Nations were: the Assembly (UN General Assembly), the Council (the Security Council), and the Secretariat (the Secretariat). However, there is a fundamental difference between the League of Nations and the United Nations. Firstly, these organizations were created in different historic epochs, which featured different systems of international relationships. The League of Nations was a product of the Versailles-Washington order, and relied on traditional European multi-polarity, but in fact excluded three important actors: Germany, Soviet Russia and the USA. Secondly, the League of Nations did not provide a mechanism for ensuring collective security. Although the League managed to settle - with varying degrees of success - more than 40 political conflicts, it was unable to take effective measures to ensure the protection of the people of Manchuria, Ethiopia and later Europe from belligerent powers in the run-up to World War Two.

Initially the idea to develop a new international organization to take the League of Nations’ place was formulated during the Second World War when 26 countries (including the UK, the USA, the Soviet Union and China, which formed a “Big Four”) came to the conclusion that they should join forces in order to fight against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Two years later, in 1944, specific proposals for a charter for the new organization were drafted by the “Big Four” at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference. As a result of the conference, a document entitled “Proposals for the Establishment of a General International Organization” was issued. It consisted of twelve chapters devoted to such issues as purposes and principles of the Organization, principal organs (with specifications for each of them), and arrangements for the maintenance of international peace and security, as well as international economic and social cooperation. The discussion continued at the Yalta Conference, where such important questions as the voting procedure of the proposed Security Council and the membership provisions for the constituent republics of the Soviet Union were resolved. Later the final proposals made up by the “Big Four” in the course of their preceding discussions served as a basis for the negotiations at the San Francisco Conference in 1945 and were incorporated into the United Nations Charter.

The UN Charter signed in June 1945 was ratified by the required number of states on October 24, 1945 – what is now officially known as United Nations Day. The first meeting of the General Assembly was held on January 10, 1946 in London, where it was decided that the UN headquarters would be located in the United States. According to the Fact sheet of the UN devoted to the history of its headquarters, “the Congress of the United States unanimously resolved to invite the United Nations to establish its permanent home in that country.” Money for this costly project was obtained from John D. Rockefeller Jr. The ‘philanthropic businessman’ offered a US $8.5 million dollar donation to buy a tract of land along the East River in New York City for the UN headquarters. By doing so, he secured New York as the settlement site over other potential locations. The commercial value of constructing the UN Complex in NY was undeniable, which is why “the Rockefellers and other city and state boosters wanted more than anything to keep the UN in New York.” During the session in London, other possibilities for the location of the headquarters were also discussed, but since four of the potential candidates – the United Kingdom, the Republic of France, the Soviet Union and China, had been subject to incalculable suffering during WWII, the USA was singled out. Additionally, the United States had a more advantageous position, as it played a prominent role in “assembling the nations and pushing for this form of international collaboration” .

The United Nations’ activity through the Cold War

So, initially the United Nations was designed as a an organization of “peace-loving” nations, which agreed to combine their efforts in order to prevent future aggression and to jointly solve international problems of a economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character. It was envisaged that members would act in accordance with each other in order to achieve common goals, but reality soon demonstrated that such plans were untenable. The lion’s share of the responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security was laid on the Security Council, which turned out to be ineffective after the world had split into two rival blocs. The situation was the same as for the League of Nations: the individual interests of member states outweighed the idea of collective security. The crisis of the UN was compounded by the fact that “the 'peace-loving major powers', who, according to the statutes, carried the main responsibility for peace, soon became the catalyst for the most dangerous breakdown in peace in their fight to achieve influence in the Third World” .

Since each of the five Great Powers (the US, the UK, the USSR, France and China) that constituted the Security Council at the time was given veto power, all the attempts of SC to make any decision on the emerging conflicts ended in a standstill. Thus, in 1956 the Soviet Union stopped the US-sponsored draft resolution calling for a Soviet withdrawal from Hungary, which was suggested after the USSR’s military intervention in the country. Arkady Sobolev, who was the Soviet ambassador to the UN, explained the actions of his country “in terms of defense of the Soviet Union’s strategic zone” . Later, in 1965, when the Soviet Union complained of the US armed intervention in the Dominican Republic and introduced its own draft resolution demanding that the USA withdraw, the United States withheld its usage of its veto. Such a decision was based on the confidence that Western support in the UNSC would be strong enough to outweigh the Soviet initiative. It should be mentioned that veto power was used more than once during that period: for example, in 1956 Great Britain and France blocked the Security Council’s actions during Suez crisis; in 1979 China blocked Vietnam’s plea to the UN during the Sino-Vietnamese conflict using its veto power; in 1979 the Soviet Union vetoed a draft resolution that called for “the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all foreign troops” from Afghanistan. The last case seems to be the most important since it was the first time when the USSR had sent its troops beyond the zone it controlled following the end of WWII. That provoked not only Western censure but anxiety among the non-aligned states as well, thus showing “the fine line between intra-bloc conflicts in which the other superpower will be content with rhetorical confrontation, and inter-bloc conflicts which may escalate into a global military confrontation” .

Setting aside cases when veto power was used in order to paralyse the Security Council, its failure to act on the basis of the collective goal of peace became apparent during the Korean conflict in 1950. Then the USA made use of the Soviet Union’s boycott of the Security Council and in order to legitimize its military actions on the Korean peninsula at the international level. As American military support for South Korea was not mandated and the key strategic and tactical plans were all decided upon in Washington, “in this case it may be argued that the UN was mainly used by the US as a means to achieve an end through an international legal framework” . A similar situation took place in 1960 in what was to become the Democratic Republic of the Congo when the UN peacekeepers present, through Western support, were used as an enforcement army in order to prevent Soviet counter-involvement . Significantly, this operation was considered the most controversial deployment of UN forces .

Meanwhile, not all UN actions during the Cold War should be seen as total failures. The resolution of the Cuba crisis may serve as an example of the successful mediation of a potentially deadly conflict. At the high point of the confrontation, just as Soviet ships were on their way to Cuba, UN Secretary-General U Thant, suggested ‘a voluntary postponement’ for both Khrushchev and Kennedy as a possible solution. As a result, direct confrontation was avoided while U Thant himself, according to Kennedy, “put the world deeply in his debt.” Nevertheless even in this case, the UN did not perform on an entirely unprejudiced basis. It was Kennedy’s idea to submit a request to Khrushchev to keep his ships away to allow for negotiations. The request, including the exact wording of the message, was secretly passed to Thant, who used it as his own proposal, “so it would not appear as an American ultimatum.” So once again, it could be claimed that the United Nations failed to be an unbiased arbitrator in a conflict between the superpowers.

To sum up, the Cold War years demonstrated the limited potential of the United Nations for maintaining international peace and security. In situations where regional conflicts, to an increasing degree, turned into proxy wars for the more powerful nations, the United Nations’ role was reduced to “a platform for exchanging polemic blows.” The UN peacekeeping operations in that period had shown that the Organization had lost its neutrality and impartiality in resolving international crises . The USA was the most successful in attempts to further its national interests due to the fact that the UN was primarily controlled, politically and financially, by the US and its allies . Because of this polarization of interests, the United Nations Organization was not as successful in resolving international issues related to peacekeeping as has been planned initially. Later the crisis in securing peace developed into a general existential crisis for the United Nations: alongside its decrease in importance in international relations, the UN had been loosing its financial support. There already were precedents when countries had refused to pay their dues to the Organization, for example, the Soviet Union and some other countries withheld payment for the peacekeeping operations in Congo. By the end of the 1970s, the UN underwent even more substantial financial pressure when the United States successfully pushed for a reduction of its assessment to 25% of the UN budget, instead of one third or more. Trying to claw back its influence on a world scene, the UN was increasingly involved in peacekeeping efforts but this had made the financial matters even worse.

The United Nations after the Cold War

As mentioned above, the tension between two superpowers – the USSR and the USA – hindered the normal operation of the United Nations. With the end of the East-West conflict, the situation suddenly changed. The first steps towards the greater influence of the UN were made by Gorbachev, who in his speech on December 7, 1988 before the UN General Assembly spoke about the necessity of joint efforts in solving acute international problems and highlighted the exceptional role of the United Nations in this process . There is a view that with the changing political structure of the USSR and the succeeding dissolution of the Union, alongside with ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’ “came an unprecedented co-operation among the five permanent members of the Security Council.” They started with a new willingness to co-operate with each other in order to deal with the crises. Relative success was achieved in dealing with crises in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world – for example, in Angola, Cambodia, Mozambique, etc. There are several reasons for this. First, these weren’t major hotspots for superpower competition unlike Central America or Central Europe. Second, no major UN operation was held outside French or British spheres of interest (namely, their previous colonies). Therefore, in such cases “compromise between the superpowers was more readily obtained here than elsewhere.”

However the general success of such UN missions turned out to be misleading, as they raised expectations for UN Peacekeeping beyond its capacity to deliver . Once again there was an illusion that the UN could be an effective instrument for solving disputes; this was soon dispelled. The UN operations in the Gulf crisis, widely considered as evidence of a stronger UN after the Cold War, had raised a lot of controversy, too. This was due to the disproportional say of America in the decision-making procedures, alongside the lack of influence of such countries as Japan and Germany, which were expected to contribute monetarily when collective action was undertaken. Once again, it became widely believed that USA had been using the UN, and specifically the Security Council, in order to legitimate its self-interested actions.

What is also important about the Gulf crisis is the fact that it marked the beginning of a new era for UN activity: since then, operations have tended to be much more complex and multi-dimensional, as the necessity to deal with the humanitarian aspects of a conflict was realized. The new dimensions also involved such aspects as overseeing elections, and a number of reconstruction operations complicated the decision-making process for the UN members. One more challenge for the United Nations at that time was the changing character of conflicts. The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union gave rise to the resurgence of nationalism and ethnic conflicts, especially in regions which had formerly been governed by authoritarian and communist regimes. A new generation of civil wars had erupted, including those in Yugoslavia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, moreover more African countries were becoming ‘failed states’ (Zaire, Somalia, Rwanda), necessitating international political discourse. In order to react to these new challenges, the United Nations had to increase its military operations enormously. These cases were similar in that the UN force had become a direct party in the conflict, leading to a loss of impartiality. Such situations led to novel concepts such as humanitarian intervention and eroding sovereignty while the United Nations itself had shown its inability to cope effectively with the problems of the so-called ‘new world order’. The reason was that initially the UN Charter was designed to handle interstate conflicts, rather than intrastate or civil wars. Hence, the Organization “was ill equipped to deal with conflicts within internal borders.”

The examples of Yugoslavia, Somalia and Rwanda underscored changing conditions for enforcement and humanitarian intervention: since there was no peace to keep in these countries, the UN had to replace peacekeeping with peace enforcement. By becoming a party to the conflicts, the ‘Blue Helmets’, the troops of the UN missions had to be held accountable for heavy losses (for example, the murder of at least 7,000 Bosnians in the UN protection zone Srebrenica in July 1995). A series of UN failures in civil wars across the world revealed the Organization’s inability to maintain impartiality and adequately respond to the new challenges. The United Nations activity at that period, called the ‘third generation’ of peace-keeping, “symbolised the beginning of the crisis for UN peace-keeping and the securing of peace by the United Nations as a whole.” It became obvious that many countries are not ready to place their soldiers in danger in difficult missions that are doomed to fail.

More UN failures

Let’s examine other facts related to the UN’s dysfunctionality. In 1947, a special committee on Palestine was created. In November 1947, the UN General Assembly issued a report detailing the necessity to create a State of Palestine.

Israel was officially formed a year later. But what about Palestine? What about the occupied Palestinian territories? The UN has issued many reports, including one detailing the bombing of Gaza by Israeli forces in 2014. Unfortunately, no concrete decisions have addressed this problem, and Gaza was hit hard by last year’s humanitarian crisis. Attempts to censure Israel have been unequivocally shut down by the US, which remains its steadfast supporter in any conflict with Arabs or Palestinians, regardless of causality.

The bombing of Yugoslavia and its results remain very sensitive issues. In fact, the Yugoslavian crisis was connected with the personal interests of UN bureaucrats. For example, Martti Ahtisaari, who acted on behalf of the UN as its special envoy to Kosovo, was involved in a bribery scandal with Albanians.

US-UN relations changed again under the presidency of George W. Bush, when the neoconservative agenda was on the table. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton was very critical of the UN; he said: “The Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. The United Nations is one of the most inefficient inter-governmental organizations going. UNESCO is even worse, and others go downhill from there. The fact of the matter is that the international system that has grown up, and again, I leave out the World Bank and the IMF because I do think that they’re in a separate category, which has been put into a position of hiring ineffective people who do ineffective things that have no real world impact, and we pay 25% of the budget.”

In any event, after the occupation of Iraq and diplomatic squabbling with other members of the Security Council who had supported US before, such as Germany and France, Washington went on to pursue its own military policy with the support of allies such as the UK.

Financial structures of the UN: The World Bank and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development

As was mentioned above, the UN’s activity is not limited to military operations aimed at peace-keeping but also involves dealing with issues of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character. The economic sphere is closely related to the activity of World Bank Group “designed to finance projects that enhance the economic development of member states.” According to the “United Nations Foundations” page , the World Bank pertains to the United Nations’ specialized agencies which are autonomous organizations working with the United Nations and funded by both voluntary and assessed contributions. It was founded in July 1944, before the Charter of the United Nations. The relationship between the two Organizations started after the agreement between them in 1947. Since then, they have been “working together to promote a world free of poverty and a better future for all.”

The United States, being the initiator of the World Bank, is also its largest contributor, and has the most weighted voting power and exceptional veto power. There are several examples when the Organization was indirectly used by the US in order to influence UN activity in other countries. For example, during the Suez Crisis and the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, World Bank offers were used in order to shape the situation in American’s favour. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), an important part of the World Bank group, may also be seen as an efficient tool for the USA to push its interests in the United Nations. Although the official aim of the IBRD is to “reduce poverty in middle-income countries and creditworthy poorer countries by promoting sustainable development,” the real outcomes often differ notably from the declared ones. By acting as a creditor, knowledge broker and leader in the sphere of development financing, the Bank serves the purpose of directing investors’ money to countries and sectors that are of interest to the United States. There is a number of indications of the close link between security and development. For example, the Marshall Plan in 1947, that involved the disbursement of $12.5 billion toward the reconstruction of Western Europe, “was aimed at preventing or containing the appearance in Europe of governments that would threaten the security interest of the United States.” The Marshall Plan represented an important precedent for subsequent security and development initiatives in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. The World Bank System, which is heavily financed and influenced by the United States, still serves as an efficient tool to shape other countries’ economies in a desired manner.

Some analysts have revealed that the number of conditions on an IMF loan depend on a borrowing country’s voting pattern in the UN General Assembly. Closer allies of the United States (and other G7 countries) receive IMF loans with fewer conditions, especially prior to elections. These results contribute to the current public policy debates on the role and process of setting IMF conditions, and provide broader insights into the influence of the United States and other G7 countries in international institutions.

An assessment of over 314 IMF arrangements with 101 countries during 1992 to 2008 revealed that Security Council members receive about 30 percent fewer conditions. It also suggested that the major shareholders of the IMF trade softer conditionality in return for political influence over the Security Council.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) was also deeply connected with the UN and was founded in 1995 to promote global trade in goods, services, and intellectual property. It is the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which was established in 1947 to promote international economic growth through the establishment of legally binding rules governing trade between countries. As of 1998, 132 countries, including the United States, belonged to the WTO.

However, the WTO has come under severe criticism from various US organizations and businesses that feel that it is perpetuating rather than eliminating trade barriers — at the expense of US companies.

The WTO seems to have been hijacked by rich countries’ interests, thus worsening the lot of the poor, and accordingly inviting protest and intense criticism.

Transnational corporations (TNCs) are able to exert enormous influence via the World Trade Organization (WTO). These TNCs are closely linked to the WTO decision-makers themselves.

Additionally, the UN itself is working closely with these multinationals.

The neoliberal agenda is incorporated into the World Health Organization – another arm of the UN.

Even in the rhetoric of the UN, we can find a hidden anti-democratic agenda. Just some days ago in NY, an event called the “Global Citizens” fest occurred; Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was one of the key participants. The attendees who gathered there were labeled the “crowd” , which seemed a bit strange for an organization that promotes human rights initiatives. It was reminiscent of the old “Divide et Impera” formula. However, even without this subconscious message, there are enough facts to prompt a serious reform of the organization.