Global Policy Forum

UN Has the Potential to Overcome Challenges


By Justin Frewen

August 17, 2009


As the United Nations approaches the 65th anniversary of its founding in October 1945, the age of mandatory retirement for many, serious questions have been raised as to whether the organisation might not also have reached the end of its useful working life. The UN has been charged with becoming little better than an irrelevance in a rapidly changing world, an exorbitant anachronism unable to keep pace with the demands of an increasingly, globalised world. The organisation's apparent powerlessness to uphold major Charter provisions, such as the peaceful resolution of conflict as demonstrated most notably by the 2003 Iraq war, has received widespread media coverage.

High profile peacekeeping disasters in Rwanda, Bosnia, Angola and Somalia, allegations of financial irregularities during the Iraq "oil-for-food" programme, alleged bureaucratic inflexibility and resistance to institutional reform have irretrievably damaged the reputation of the UN for many observers.

Hostile critics argue that the opportune moment has come for the UN to gracefully bid adieu to the world stage so that the way might be cleared for the emergence of new organisations and structures capable of tackling current global concerns.

In short, the UN is widely regarded as being in a serious state of crisis, potentially even a terminal one.

However, does an unbiased look at the UN's recent history really justify such a uniformly negative depiction of its current state? While it is true the international environment has been radically transformed over the past 20 years, in ways even Nostradamus might have had trouble predicting, it is unfair to claim an inability or unwillingness on the part of the UN to try and adapt accordingly.

In fact, the UN has greatly expanded its participation globally by developing and implementing an array of innovative international support mechanisms.

The UN has transformed itself into the preeminent global expert in staging and observing elections in post-crisis countries, administering unstable territories, and establishing international courts to bring to justice individuals accused of egregious human rights abuses and war crimes.

Furthermore, in spite of the calamitous failures of the 1990s, the UN has greatly increased its peacekeeping role with a fourfold increase to 116,000 in personnel since 1999. These peacekeeping efforts, backed by personnel from 118 countries and funding from all 192 member states, have led to the successful disarmament of over 400,000 ex-combatants.

A serious additional concern lies in the onerous financial and resource limitations to which the UN is subject. For the 2008-2009 biennium, the UN budget minus peacekeeping is $4.171 billion (€2.922 billion), a figure that pales into insignificance when compared to the US Defense Department budget of $651.2 billion for 2009 alone. Similarly, while the UN has some 39,500 staff worldwide, McDonalds and its franchises employ 1.5 million people to satisfy the burgers and fries cravings of its devotees.

Given its structural limitations, the UN has been obliged to forge partnerships with other international bodies and organisations to ensure the successful implementation of its programmes and activities.

One such partnership, which has assumed an ever greater importance over the past decade, is with the EU, a regional organisation which, like the UN, was created to eradicate the scourge of war.

As a contributor of 39 per cent of the total UN budget, the EU has been keen to stress its firm commitment to a policy of international multilateralism with the UN functioning as its mainstay. The UN therefore serves as an essential component of the EU's external policy efforts to develop an international framework based on universal rules and values that will enable a rapid response to any global challenge, crisis or threat that might arise.

EU reports such as the 2001 Building an effective partnership with the UN in the fields of development and humanitarian affairs and the 2003 The European Union and the United Nations: The choice for multilateralism explicitly state the Union's intention to forge better structured relations with the UN.

This policy of co-operation can be clearly evidenced in peacekeeping, where the EU, in addition to its individual member states providing personnel for UN peacekeeping missions, provided a bridging operation in Chad until the UN was able to establish its own mission in the region. Similarly, the UN Interim Administration in Kosovo paved the way for the European Union Role of Law Mission.

The partnership between the UN and EU is not limited to peacekeeping, spanning as it does a wide range of issues and concerns including, inter alia, climate change, health, development, humanitarian assistance, crime prevention, labour issues and culture.

The EU has entered into a number of strategic partnerships with specialised UN agencies including the United Nations Development Program, the World Health Organization, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Food and Agriculture Organisation. At a more general level, the Financial and Administrative Framework Agreement between the EU and UN has facilitated the incorporation of EU funds into UN implemented programmes and operations.

Though an enthusiastic supporter of the UN, the EU is not an uncritical partner and has candidly expressed its concerns regarding the UN budget and management reform.

For the UN, the creation of such a strong partnership with the EU, while unquestionably important for its future, does not come without risk.

Regional organisations such as the EU naturally prioritise the interests of their member countries whereas the UN is supposed to represent the interests of virtually the entire global community or 192 of the world's 195 independent states. It is therefore hardly surprising that conflicts of interest can arise between the two bodies.

Furthermore, given the relative lack of financing enjoyed by the UN, many fear that the economic strength of the EU, which is able to allocate $8 billion for external aid in 2010 alone, places the UN in a weak negotiating position should disagreements over policy or programme implementation occur.

There is also a worry that the UN might see its global role being increasingly usurped by better resourced regional organisations such as the EU. It is therefore crucial that the UN maintains its independent status and ensures that the wishes of all its members are taken into account when engaging in joint operations with regional bodies. Despite such risks it appears certain that the partnership between the UN and the EU will continue to grow. Moreover, managed correctly, this relationship could well prove crucial to the UN in overcoming its present challenges.

However, while there is unquestionably a need for the UN to evolve in order to optimally service its membership and successfully deliver on its mandate, it is imperative that any proposed changes facilitate multilateral consensus via UN mechanisms and modalities. Every state should receive the same access with their views being accorded equal respect as is their due as members of the UN. The superior resources available to the EU and other regional organisations should not result in their positions being privileged over those of less wealthy nations or groupings.

Justin Frewen has worked with the United Office for Project Services (UNOPS) since 1997 and is pursuing a PhD in Political Science at the University of Galway


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