U.N.'s 70th Anniversary A Time to Consider Legacy and Reform

Author: 420 Times
Created: 30 October, 2015
Updated: 18 October, 2022
8 min read

This month, the United Nations celebrated its 70th anniversary. To commemorate the document that birthed it, the 193 members of the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution declaring, "We firmly believe that the Charter enshrines our common values as human beings, which unite us in diversity beyond our differences of language, culture or religion, today as 70 years ago."

A Mixed Record

Reflecting on the achievements of the U.N., Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon declared that the international body had "brought freedom to millions, dismantling colonialism, defeating apartheid and defending human rights for all, regardless of race, religion, nationality, gender or sexual orientation.”

Supporters point to other successes of the U.N., including the normalization of human rights values around the world and progress in the Millennium Development Goals, which, after 15 years, have drastically reduced poverty, hunger, and infant mortality and raised access to education, health care, and drinking water.

Yet the secretary-general remarked that there is more for the U.N. to do. He stated that "iolence, poverty, ill-health and abuse plague far too many people," adding, "onflict, oppression and despair has forced more people to flee their homes than at any time since the Second World War.”

With protracted conflicts all around the globe – such as those in Ukraine, Myanmar, and Syria – the secretary-general acknowledged the primary criticism of the United Nations; namely, its failures to "maintain international peace and security," the organization's primary purpose according to Article I of the U.N. Charter.

U.N. Failures

This criticism is not a novel one. For decades, critics have charged that the institutional design of the U.N. Security Council – dominated by five permanent members each with veto power over any resolutions and authorizations of force – has fostered a culture of self-preservation and inaction and has prevented the U.N. from responding adequately to mass atrocities and civil wars.


In early 1994, for example, the U.N. did not heed the warnings of an impending Hutu extermination of the Tutsis as detailed in the now infamous "genocide fax" sent by Romeo Dallaire – the head of the U.N.'s assistance mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), to Kofi Annan – the head of peacekeeping operations.

In April, the month the genocide began, the U.N. temporarily reduced the number of UNAMIR peacekeepers to 270: not until May did it increase the number of troops to 5,500, and only in June did it authorize the use of force under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter in the form of a multi-national humanitarian operation. Yet by the time the approved troops were eventually deployed, many of the estimated 800,000 people killed in the genocide had already died.

Later, in 1999, the U.N. commissioned an independent inquiry to investigate its handling of the tragedy. The inquiry's final report concluded, "The failure by the United Nations to prevent, and subsequently, to stop the genocide in Rwanda was a failure by the United Nations system as a whole."

It cited a "persistent lack of political will by Member States to act" and "serious mistakes...with those resources which were at the disposal of the United Nations."

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Critics also assigned some blame to Boutros Boutrous-Ghali, who not only as Egypt's foreign minister had lifted the ban on selling arms to the Rwandan government, but who as Secretary-General seemed to devote more attention and energy to his diplomatic tour through Europe than to stopping the massacre.

As Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. put it, "The global nine-one-one was always either busy or nobody was there."

Sudan and Iraq

While the world swore "never again" to allow such a genocide to happen, the U.N. was similarly ineffective during ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region of Sudan. When Kofi Annan, then serving as secretary-general, was asked in 2005 how history would judge the international response to the crisis in Darfur, he responded, "Quite likely that we were slow, hesitant, uncaring, and that we have learned nothing from Rwanda."

Annan also presided over the U.N. during the majority of the duration of the Oil-for-Food Program, which was meant to alleviate the effects of U.N. sanctions that had led to the deaths of an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children after the Gulf War. The mismanagement of this program, including corruption and a lack of oversight, allowed Saddam Hussein to game and circumvent the system and to enrich his regime and preserve his power.

A subsequent investigation into the program by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker uncovered systemic flaws with the U.N. as a whole. Volcker allotted blame not only to Mr. Annan, but also to members of the Security Council, many of which looked the other way as companies and individuals from these countries benefited from the program.

The report also singled out the director of the program, Benon Sevan, who was later indicted on charges of conspiracy and fraud in connection with $160 million in bribes.

Sri Lanka

Under the tenure of Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, the U.N. has been largely ineffective in resolving major disputes or holding violators of international law accountable. His tenure is notably marked by an inversion of two principles laid out by the second secretary-general, Sweden’s Dag Hammarskjöld, who affirmed that "integrity in the sense of respect for law and respect for truth" must override concerns of diplomatic neutrality or political expediency.

This preference for the latter over the former was notable in the comments of Moon's special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Francis Deng, who assured Sri Lanka's U.N. ambassador that he would not raise in public the Sri Lankan government's mass killing of civilians in its conflict with the separatist Tamil Tigers.

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A leaked cable shows that Deng preferred to rely on behind-the-scenes diplomacy to resolve the conflict and alleviate the humanitarian crisis, since he believed pressing the Security Council to take action in Sri Lanka would have met stiff resistance from China and Russia.

An internal probe revealed in November 2012 that, as with previous investigations, the U.N.'s handling of the civil war in Sri Lanka exposed "systemic failure" by the entire organization, ranging from offices in Sri Lanka to the Security Council to the secretary-general himself.

The report especially condemned the lack of public pressure on the Sri Lankan government, stating that U.N. officials – contrary to Hammarskjöld's message to civil servants about respecting the law and the truth – failed to "stand up for the rights of people they were mandated to assist."

The U.N. has also proven to be incapable of maintaining peace and security in recent conflicts, including the fighting in Ukraine and the civil war in Syria.

Syria and Ukraine

On Syria, opposition to Security Council resolutions has come from Russia. Since 2011, it has used its veto power four times, including on a measure proposing a peace plan (February 2012), a measure threatening sanctions on the Syrian government (July 2012), and a measure to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (May 2014).

Despite good faith efforts, the U.N. has failed to help broker a peace or transition in Syria. The Geneva I and Geneva II conventions both faltered as a result of fundamental disagreements over the legitimacy of the Syrian opposition and the fate of President Assad. The latest peace talks, led by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, likewise appear stillborn.

On Ukraine, Russia vetoed a resolution last year to declare the referendum on secession by Crimea illegal, and in July 2015 it killed a resolution that would have established a tribunal to identify and punish those who brought down flight MH17.

In response to Russia's defiance, Ukraine joined a multi-national effort to limit the use of the veto.

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Reform Efforts

Limiting the veto has become one of many proposals recommended by the so-called ACT group of 27 member nations seeking to bring accountability, coherence, and transparency to the operation of the Security Council. A successor to the abandoned S-5 group, the ACT group seeks to improve the working relationships among regional organizations and to foster greater consultation among troop-contributing countries.

Nevertheless, the use of the veto has been an issue of concern for decades, as the permanent five members have used it to defend their own interests, activities, and allies during and after the Cold War period. France, for instance, has used the veto to defend its claim over the African island of Mayotte, and the U.K. used it to defend its colonial interests in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

The U.S. has regularly exercised its veto to protect Israel from censure: in 2002, then-American ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, codified the "Negroponte doctrine," which established that the U.S. will not approve of a Security Council resolution that admonishes Israel unless it also condemns specific Palestinian organizations by name and lays out specific steps that will promote Israel's security.

The effort to limit the use of the veto coincides with another reform movement inside the United Nations: the Responsibility to Protect or R2P – a doctrine promoted by Francis Deng that asserts that the international community has a moral and legal duty to intervene to stop the perpetration of mass atrocities when civilians are being targeted, or not adequately protected, by their governments.

In 2001, the French foreign ministry first proposed the idea of having the permanent five members of the Security Council agree not to use a veto in matters relating to mass atrocities through a voluntary "code of conduct." France again touted this idea in 2012 and 2013, and today, more than 70 countries in the 193-member U.N General Assembly have expressed support for this proposal.

In addition to the ACT group's reform agenda concerning the functioning of the Security Council, there are also intergovernmental negotiations (IGN) occurring regarding reform of the composition of the Security Council.

African countries have long endorsed the Ezulwini Consensus, which demands including two permanent seats on the Security Council with veto power. Other regional powers, including Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan argue that they too should have a permanent seat on the Security Council, which currently has, in addition to the permanent five, 10 rotating seats.

A major impediment to these reforms, however, is the fact that the current permanent five members have the ability to veto these measures. However, given the gridlock at the Security Council, the U.N.'s failure to prevent or resolve atrocities and civil wars, and the growing discontent among less powerful members in the U.N. General Assembly, it is arguable that some reform is necessary to save the institution if it is to remain relevant for another 70 years.

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Photo Credit: Andrea Izzotti / Shutterstock.com

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