There is strong and compelling evidence that the United Nations, as an organization, has run its course. After sixty years. it is no longer effective either in preventing humanitarian disaster, mitigating conflict, intervening in states that are failing or focusing governments on environmental issues or issues associated with energy and water. Its time to close the UN and start again.
Some say that the UN can be reformed. Indeed, it could. But there comes a time in the life of an organization when reform is akin to moving the deck-chairs on the titanic in the hope that doing so will stave off disaster. Reforms will be tried – Koffi Anand, himself mired in scandal, is seeking to try them now. They are not likely to make effective an organization which, for decades, has been ineffective.
Four cases point to the major problems. First, humanitarian aid. Niger has been desperately seeking aid for some time and the UN called for this aid in a timely fashion. Almost nothing happened. It takes sustained journalism, especially television journalism, to make a difference. This usually occurs when it is too late. Niger is today’s example. One can work back in history and look at many others. The UN exalts others to act. They rarely do so. Even when they act, they often now do not do so through the UN. There are also questions about the extent to which UN aid actually reaches the people who need it most.
Second, failing states. Zimbabwe is a failing state. Its corrupt government has pursued policies which have destroyed the economy, persecuted its political opposition, denied access to power on ethnic lines and destabilized the region. No serious UN action has been taken. There are other failing states, Zimbabwe is the most obvious. Worse, the UN is largely silent on Zimbabwe – and silence can be seen as a form of complicity.
Third, preventing conflict. Despite the best efforts of the UN, several of its major contributors (Britain, US, Australia, Spain, Italy included) invaded Iraq and pursued the doctrine of pre-emptive strike. Both the action and the doctrine challenge the UN’s role. While many, especially the French, opposed the war in Iraq, the UN’s failure to support the war did nothing to prevent it. While the extent of conflict is in decline, most commentators suggest that this is more about trade and nationhood than about the work of the UN.
Fourth, anticipating the future. The UN was a significant player in the Kyoto accord, but it is itself an example of failure. Rather than making a substantial difference to climate change and to pollution, the accord is a set of compromise arrangements which permit governments to speak of climate while using carbon trading credits to avoid having to take action. Even if it were fully implemented, Kyoto would have a very marginal impact on the problem – delaying the full impact of global warming by just six years. There are no agreements on other major issues of supply – water, energy and food – which will increasingly challenge us in the coming decades, with water being the most critical of these issues. For half of the same cost as the Kyoto implementation, every person in the world could have guaranteed access to clean drinking water.
There are other issues. The UN is unwieldy and slow. It has as member States which should be outlawed rather than encouraged – Zimbabwe (which, ironically, is co-chair with Libya of the human rights council of the UN) is one example. It is said to be corrupt, and the “food for oil from Iraq” inquiry will probably demonstrate that it is. It has poor leadership and very poor middle management. It is expensive. One could go on.
If the UN ceased operations, would the world need something in its place? The world would benefit from several structures - specialized global agencies for humanitarian aid (possibly a non governmental agencies global council), conflict resolution (a G21 with the aim of fostering peace and managing peacekeeping), foresight and challenge about the future. Many of the structures needed to do the actual work of the UN are already in place and funds which would have gone to the UN would be better used by these more focused agencies.
If the UN ceased operations, would the world be a safer place? It would be no more or less safe than it is now, since the UN is largely ineffective in preventing conflict. Assuming that the G21 could be created and manage peacekeeping activities, supported by regional alliances, it may actually be safer since action could be taken much more quickly.
What would we miss if the UN ceased operations? It is an interesting question. We would miss the spectacle of an ineffective debating chamber in which promises are made and are not kept. We have enough of these already.