In fact, the UN's 70th birthday that falls this year is celebrated with depressing discretion, yet the UN tries hard to work up enthusiasm on a dedicated website (here):
In spite of the flowery language - "A Strong UN, A Better World", "The UN Charter is our compass" - it would seem the UN no longer counts in world politics.
Two terrible mistakes were made at the birth of the United Nations (as I've already suggested in a previous post (see here):
1. Granting veto power at the UN Security Council to the winners of World War II: France, the UK, the US, Russia and China - this makes it impossible for the Security Council to function in a democratic manner, giving every member a right to vote;
2. Not setting up an independent "core army" for UN peace interventions: as a result, UN peacekeeping must necessarily depend on the "good will" of member nations, a good will that often turns into outright reticence and denial of the forces needed.But some things were done right:
1. An independent bureaucracy was set up and given a clear mandate to sustain the UN Charter and its values; hiring at operational levels (up to P-5, the highest of the five professional levels) is substantially free from political pressure;
2. UN technical agencies were established with clear missions and vision statements within the UN Charter and monitored by ECOSOC, the UN Economic and Social Council - and ECOSOC itself has been strengthened overtime; this has ensured continuity in the Organization's mandate and functions and, with the support of the UN staff who saw this as their duty, the continuing expansion of agency mandates and activities.Yet problems persisted:
1. UN higher management was subject to political pressure from the start: there was a game of political division that began as soon as the UN was created, with certain agencies reserved to particular countries, with the US getting the lion's share (e.g. control of the World Bank, the World Food Programme etc);
2. Member countries did not pay their dues or paid them late as a way to exercise political pressure or manifest discontent with the UN's action; historically, countries in arrears of payment are renegade countries that have tended to be poor and autocratic with one major exception, the United States, that has often wielded its power in this way, for example exiting UNESCO in 1984 in protest to its activities or delaying payments and diminishing contributions in a systematic way, year after year (e.g. at FAO starting in the late 1980s supporting so-called "zero-growth budgets" and pursuing this policy for decades; at WHO, making it impossible for that organization to maintain enough staff to monitor epidemics worldwide, and as a result, as we recently saw, WHO was late to call out on the Ebola emergency);
3. The scramble for extra-budgetary funds caused by problem (2) has weakened the independence of the UN and limited its range of action: many agencies have fallen prey to interest groups; civil society's presence at the UN has risen considerably and some, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wields a larger power, both economic and social, than many UN agencies.
Does the rise of civil society spell the end of the UN?
Over the past two decades, since the Earth Summit held in 1992 in Rio, thousands of NGOs have risen along with countless charitable organizations and even entirely new movements have sprung up like people's organizations and minorities. Take a look at UNPO that was constituted in 1994:
The question now arises: Is civil society strong enough to displace the UN and its member governments - is it changing the face of the UN?
Note here the beginning of an answer: UNPO, like so many similar entities, is organized with the aim of helping members to be "heard" at the UN (see their brochure and events organized at the UN, like this one last year).
More about that in my next post.
Source of photos: screenshots of websites.