“The United Nations is dead,” said the Catholic Herald in 1947, two years after the UN was founded. Reports of its demise are perennial, but they seem to have reached a crescendo this year, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine considered a litmus test for the 77-year-old organization.
Russia’s wanton act of aggression is not the first time one of the five permanent members, or P5, of the Security Council has invaded a country. But it’s hard not to see the UN as failing to constrain this permanent-member-gone-rogue from threatening nuclear war to deploying rape as a “military strategy.”
Could it have done better? Some commentators think it has exceeded expectations. They rightly note that the lack of mechanisms to constrain the P5 — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — was part of the UN’s founding bargain and argue that the organization has nonetheless mounted a response to the invasion that would be inconceivable in most other situations.
With Russia’s veto neutralizing the Security Council, the General Assembly has adopted four strong resolutions condemning Russia’s actions. The Human Rights Council created a Commission of Inquiry and Special Rapporteur for Russia — the first for a P5 state. Secretary-General António Guterres has been unusually outspoken about the war and played a key role in brokering the Black Sea grain deal. The wider system sounded the alarm on the impacts of the invasion on global food, energy and financial security.
Other writers and pundits, mainly from the P5 countries, have adopted a reductionist view of the UN that is almost as anachronistic as the Security Council. They say that it was never meant to do more than avoid big-power confrontation, ignoring the evolution of the system over the past seven decades as well as the glaring question marks — impossible to ignore in Britain right now — as to who exactly is a big power today.
Ukrainians fighting and living on the front lines are unlikely to find solace in these arguments. Neither are Tigrayans, failed again by the Council last week, Palestinians who have suffered the veto for decades or groups like Sri Lanka’s Tamils, who don’t even make it to the agenda.
A moribund UN can do little for all of these people, especially as there is little chance of a successor organization rising from the current geopolitical ashes. We need to keep pegging away on making the system work better — for Ukrainians and everyone whose plight is being ignored.
Unfortunately, the recent spike of interest in UN reform is unlikely to deliver, unless we can change the Venn diagram of what’s desirable and feasible. So far, we are stuck in familiar territory: debunked ruses to remove Russia’s permanent seat; rehashed procedural fixes; proposals that seem to exist in a political vacuum; and warm words on the need for reform, à la President Biden’s September speech at the UN General Assembly.
We need to channel this energy into building the political coalitions necessary for change and thinking more creatively about the system as a whole.
At present, we play into the UN’s power imbalance by focusing on the Council and the P5, in particular. Instead, we should look at how to better leverage the collective power of the remaining 188 members, especially as the US and Europeans, to a lesser extent, are seeking to demonstrate global solidarity.
Could smaller and medium-size countries coalesce around achievable reforms that chip away at P5 privilege? Changing the “penholder” system that allows the P5 to dominate drafting resolutions in the Council, for instance? Or finding a stronger role for the African Union in crafting peacekeeping mandates, including by ensuring AU missions are funded through the UN budget?
Similarly, what would happen if these countries refused to stand for Council seats, so the P5 must own their own failures? Could they effectively go on strike by not taking part in other elections or fielding candidates for positions until their demands for progress are met?
The biggest prize would be agreement on which states are candidates for future permanent or longer-term Council seats. Currently, the P5 can afford to be vocal champions of reform, knowing that such agreement is unlikely.
But there is broad consensus on issues such as increasing General Assembly action on peace and security. In the past, the Assembly has strengthened the mandate of peacekeeping missions; endorsed sweeping sanctions (against apartheid South Africa); and, more recently, created a mechanism to support accountability in Syria. Earlier this year, it agreed to convene automatically when a veto is cast in the Security Council.
What more could be done if the president’s office of the Assembly was reinforced? Could the Assembly take more concrete action when the Human Rights Council and other Geneva-based rights mechanisms sound the alarms?
Finally, we need to look beyond the traditional peace and security actors. The so-called return of geopolitics has downgraded much-needed debates on the UN’s development and humanitarian functions, which are crucial to prevention and peace-building. Overstretched and underfunded, these tasks continue to absorb the bulk of the UN’s resources.
How much more could the UN achieve if it played to its unique strengths — mediation, norm-setting convening — and launched a concerted drive to divest other tasks to entities that could handle them effectively and with more legitimacy? And how much stronger would implementation of global decisions be if actors such as parliaments, local governments and civil society were integrated into UN decision-making and delivery?
Too many UN debates call for an end to business as usual, while proposing exactly that strategy. Without fresh political and creative energy, those of us working on reform risk falling into the same trap. The world’s people deserve better.
Natalie Samarasinghe is the global director of advocacy for the Open Society Foundations. Previously, she was the executive director of the United Nations Association-UK, the first woman to have this role, and a co-founder of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign. She has degrees in human rights and modern history from Oxford University and the London School of Economics.