After 70 Years: The UN Falls Short, and Yet..

8 Oct

(Prefatory Note: A shorter somewhat modified version of this post was published in Al Jazeera Turka, but only in Turkish translation. The thesis set forth is that the UN has disappointed the expectations of those who took seriously its original promise of war prevention, but that it has over its lifetime done many things that need doing in the world. It also provided a meeting place for all governments, and has developed the best networking sites for all those concerned with the state of the world and what can be done by way of improvement. The UN System faces an important test in the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris at the end of November. The event is billed as the make or break session for the governments of the world to agree finally to serve the human interest by establishing a strong enough framework of constraint governing the release of greenhouse gasses that will satisfy the scientific consensus that global warming will not eventuate in human disaster. If Paris is generally regarded as successful, the UN stock will rise steeply, but if it should fail, then its stature and role of the Organization could become even more marginalized. Either way, it is important to appreciate that the UN as of 2015 is a very different kind of political actor than when it was founded in 1945, disappointing to those who hoped for permanent peace and some justice, while pleasing to those who sought from the outset a wider global agenda for the Organization and felt that its best contributions would likely be in a wide range of practical concerns where the interests of major political actors more or less overlap.]



After 70 Years: The UN Falls Short, and Yet..

When the UN was established in the aftermath of the Second World War hopes were high that this new world organization would be a major force in world politics, and fulfill its Preamble pledge to prevent future wars. Seventy years later the UN disappoints many, and bores even more, appearing to be nothing more that a gathering place for the politically powerful. I think such a negative image has taken hold because the UN these days seems more than ever like a spectator than a political actor in the several crises that dominate the current agenda of global politics. This impression of paralysis and impotence has risen to new heights in recent years.


When we consider the waves of migrants fleeing war torn countries in the Middle East and Africa or four years of devastating civil war in Syria or 68 years of failure to find a solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict or the inability to shape a treaty to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and on and on, it becomes clear that the UN is not living up to the expectations created by its own Charter and the fervent hopes of people around the world yearning for peace and justice.


The UN itself seems unreformable, unable to adapt its structures and operations to changes in the global setting. The Security Council’s five permanent members are still the five winners in World War II, taking no account of the rise of India, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria or even the European Union. Despite globalization and the transnational rise of civil society, states and only states are eligible for UN membership and meaningful participation in the multifold operations of the Organization.


How can we explain this disappointment? We must at the outset acknowledge that the high hopes attached to the UN early on were never realistic. After all, the Charter itself acknowledged the geopolitical major premise, which is the radical inequality of sovereign states when it comes to power and wealth. Five permanent seats in the Security Council were set aside for these actors that seemed dominant in 1945. More importantly, they were given an unrestricted right to veto any decision that went against their interests or values, or those of its allies and friends. In effect, the constitution of the Organization endowed the potentially most dangerous states in the world, at least as measured by war making capabilities, with the option of being exempt from UN authority and international law.


Such an architectural feature of the UN was not a quixotic oversight of the founders. It was a deliberate step taken to overcome what perceived to be a weakness of the League of Nations established after World War I, which did look upon the equality of sovereign states as the unchallengeable constitutional foundation of an organization dedicated to preserving international peace. The experience of the League was interpreted as discouraging the most powerful states from meaningful participation (and in the case of the United States, from any participation at all) precisely because their geopolitical role was not taken into account.


In practice over the life of the UN, the veto has had a crippling political effect as it has meant that the UN cannot make any strong response unless the permanent five (P5) agree, which as we have learned during the Cold War and even since, is not very often. There is little doubt that without the veto possessed by Russia the UN would have been far more assertive in relation to the Syrian catastrophe, and not found itself confined to offering its good offices to a regime in Damascus that never seemed sincere about ending the violence or finding a political solution except on its own harsh terms of all out defeat of its adversaries.


Of course, the General Assembly, which brings all 194 member states together, supposedly has the authority to make recommendations, and act when the Security Council is blocked. It has not worked out that way. After the General Assembly flexed its muscles in the early 1970s emboldened by the outcome of the main colonial wars geopolitics took over. The GA became a venue controlled by the non-aligned movement, and in 1974 when it found backing for the Declaration of a New International Economic Order the writing was on the wall. The larger capitalist states fought back, and were able to pull enough strings to ensure that almost all authority to take action became concentrated in the Security Council. The Soviet Union went along, worried about political majorities against its interests, and comfortable with the availability of the veto as needed. The General Assembly has been since mainly relegated to serving the world as a talk shop, and is hardly noticed when it comes to crisis management or lawmaking. Despite this development the GA is still relevant to the formation of world public opinion. Its Autumn session provides the leaders of the world with the most influential lectern at which to express their worldview and recommendations for the future. Even Pope Francis took advantage of such an influential platform on which to articulate his concerns, hopes, and prescriptions.


There is an additional fundamental explanation of why the UN cannot do more in response to the global crises that are bringing such widespread human suffering to many peoples in the world. The UN was constructed on the basis of mutual and legally unconditional respect for the territorial sovereignty of its members. The Charter itself in Article 2(7) prohibits the UN from intervening in matters that are essentially internal to a state, such as strife, insurgency, abridgement of human rights, and even civil war. Such an insulation of domestic strife runs counter to the practice of intervention by geopolitical actors, and in this respect gives the UN framework a legalistic character that is not descriptive of the manner in which world politics operates.  


True, when the political winds blow strongly in certain threatening directions as was the case in relation to Serbian behavior in Kosovo that seemed to be on the verge of repeating the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, NATO effectively intervened but without the blessings of the UN, and hence in violation of international law. Then again in Libya the Security Council actually gave its approval for a limited intervention in the form of a no-fly-zone to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe befalling the besieged inhabitants of Benghazi. In that setting, the SC relying on the new norm of ‘responsibility-to-protect’ or R2P to justify its use of force. When NATO immediately converted this limited UN mandate into a regime-changing intervention that led to the execution of Qaddafi and the replacement of the Libyan government it was clear that the R2P argument acted as little more than a pretext to pursue a more ambitious, yet legally dubious and politically unacceptable, Western agenda in the country. R2P diplomacy has been further discredited by the failure to offer UN protection in the extreme circumstances of Palestine, Syria, and now Yemen.


Not surprisingly, Russia and China that had been persuaded by Western powers in 2011 to go along with the establishment of a no-fly-zone to protect Benghazi felt deceived and manipulated. These governments lost their trust in the capacity of the Security Council to set limits that would be respected once a decision was reached. This is part of the story of why the UN has been gridlocked when it came to Syria, and why R2P has been kept on the diplomatic shelf. The Security Council to be able to overcome the veto depends upon trust among the P5 sufficient to achieve a consensus, which was badly betrayed by what NATO did in Libya. Human rights advocates have long put forward the idea that the P5 agree informally or by formal resolution to forego the use of the veto in devising responses to mass atrocities, but so far, there has been little resonance. Similarly, sensible proposals to establish an UN Peace Force that could respond quickly to natural and humanitarian catastrophes on the originating initiative of the UN Secretary General have also not found much political resonance over the years. It would seem that the P5 are unwilling to relax their grip on the geopolitical reins on UN authority established in the very different world situation that existed in 1945.


Kosovo showed that, at times, humanitarian pressures (when reinforcing dominant geopolitical interests) induce states to act outside the UN framework, while Libya illustrates the long term weakening of UN capacity and legitimacy by manipulating the debate to gain support of skeptical states for intervention in an immediate war/peace and human rights situation. The hypocrisy of the R2P diplomacy by the failure to make a protective response of any kind to the acute vulnerability of such abused minorities as the Uighurs in Xinjiang Province of China, the Rohingya in Rankhine State of Myanmar, and of course the Palestinians of Palestine. There are, of course, many other victimized groups whose rights are trampled upon by the state apparatus of control that for UN purposes is treated as their sole and unreviewable legal protector.


In the end, what this pattern adds up to is a clear demonstration of the persisting primacy of geopolitics within the UN. When the P5 agree, the UN can generally do whatever the consensus mandates, although it technically requires additional support from non-permanent members of the SC. If there is no agreement, then the UN is paralyzed when it comes to action, and geopolitical actors have a political option of acting unlawfully, that is, without obtaining prior authority from the Security Council and in contravention of international law. This happened in 2003 when the U.S. Government failed to gain support from the SC for its proposed military attack upon Iraq, and went ahead anyway, with disastrous results for itself, and even more so for the Iraqi people.


It is helpful to appreciate that disappointment with the role of the UN is usually less the fault of the Organization than of the behavior of the geopolitical heavyweights. If we want a stronger UN then it will be necessary to constrain geopolitics, and make all states, including the P5 subject to the restraints of international law and sensitive to moral imperatives.


Another kind of UN reform that should have been achieved decades ago is to make the P5 into the P8 or P9 by enlarging permanent membership to include a member from Asia (additional to China), Africa, and Latin America. This would give the Security Council and the UN more legitimacy in a post-colonial world where shifts in the global balance are still suppressed.


Along with the above explanation of public disappointment, there are also many reasons to be grateful for the existence of the UN and to be thankful that despite the many conflicts in the world during its lifetime every state in the world has wanted to become a member, and none have exhibited their displeasure with UN policies to leave the Organization. Given the intensity of conflict in the world, sustaining this universality is itself a remarkable achievement. It perhaps expresses the unanticipated significance of the UN as the most influential and versatile hub for global communications.


There are other major UN contributions to human wellbeing. The UN has been principally responsible for the rise of human rights and environmental protection, and has done much to improve global health, preserve cultural heritage, protect children, and inform us about the hazards of ignoring climate change.


We could live better with a stronger UN, but we would be far worse off if the UN didn’t exist or collapsed. The only constructive approach is to do our best in the years ahead to make the UN more effective, less victimized by geopolitical maneuvering, and more attuned to achieving humane global governance.

22 Responses to “After 70 Years: The UN Falls Short, and Yet..”

  1. Alfred Giannantonio October 8, 2015 at 6:16 am #

    This is excellent analysis, thank you Professor Falk!

  2. Kata Fisher October 8, 2015 at 8:31 pm #

    UN is a bad org. I can not believe it how bad it isn’t just because it just exist? What exactly it is? This is somewhat interesting article:

  3. Beau Oolayforos October 8, 2015 at 8:42 pm #

    The first order of business, it seems to me, would be to move the Headquarters to more neutral territory. As long as things stay the way they are, they feed New Yorkers’, and Americans’, weird fantasies about being The Capitol of the World.

    It would be hard to countenance Indonesia on the Security Council – firing squads for drug dealers? They’re still in the Stone Age.

    Your comment on the Damascus regime – “…harsh terms…all-out defeat of adversaries…” sounds also like the Likud agenda.

  4. Kata Fisher October 8, 2015 at 10:16 pm #

    Do stolen/illegally taken passports from seasonal immigrants that are made slaves (within Arab countries) end up on black market? Is there a black market for stolen passports in Arab countries, else where? If so, where all?

  5. Kata Fisher October 9, 2015 at 5:39 pm #

    As I recall, Professor Falk was something like jailed in Israel.

  6. Kata Fisher October 9, 2015 at 6:50 pm #

    I think that UN headquarters building is a huge place, and there would be no use for it because it is like useless hunted empty place. Perhaps, New Yorkers and immigrant Americans who like to bomb and massacre folks in their country of orgins can throw themselves annual Hallow Eve party there – or they could UN-Watch headquarters have it. There they can entertain college kids, as well there. I really do think that UN-Watch is valuable org, perhaps even more then UN could ever be? Who knows? Time will tell.

    Certainly, there is such need for exorcism in that UN headquarters place, regardless what they do with it.

  7. Kata Fisher October 10, 2015 at 9:17 am #

    Further, this would be and it is very important article.

    • Kata Fisher October 10, 2015 at 9:18 am #

      in reference to domestic killing.

  8. Kata Fisher October 10, 2015 at 9:59 am #

    This article gives reference to unmanageable problems. It would be difficult not to charge Arab League and the US with some form of solidarity taxes. There was a German official (woman and she is not referenced specifically in this article), and she was asking for damages to the refugees done to be paid to the German government by the US (and else who can be added on). She is not asking for irrational and not doable things. Germany has people to integrate/ immigrate successfully.

    This all is seemingly a bit difficult, but I am sure that can be sorted out as well as translated for a valid use.

  9. rehmat1 October 11, 2015 at 10:01 am #

    The United Nations have not failed in its imperialistic agenda for which it was created in the first place 70 years ago to replace the outdated League of Nations. It purpose was and is to serve the interests of the ‘Victors of WWII’. Its biggest crime was giving 54% of historic Palestine to European Jewry to solve Europe’s centuries-old “Jewish Problem”.

    On September 16, 2014, Janet C. Phelan, an investigative journalist and author wrote: “To understand the dysfunctional US-Israel relationship which has been plagued with self-deception, betrayal and false intent from its inception. To begin with, one must understand that the state of Israel was in large part created by those who despised Jews.”

    • rehmat1 October 11, 2015 at 12:23 pm #

      There is no so-called ‘Holy Land’. It’s Christian Zionist myth created to lure Jews around the world to hasten the second-coming of Christ. The anti-Jews supports the Zionist entity for their belief that when Christ arrives, he will force Jews to convert to Christianity.

      Israel, Jordan and Lebanon are artificial states created by the British and French colonialists to destabilize the Muslim heartland.

      Lebanon is the “bone” got stuck in World Zionist Congress dream of Eretzel Israel.

  10. ray032 October 15, 2015 at 8:37 am #

    Good Day Richard et al! I saw this video for the 1st time Today and there is a brief interview with you, Richard.

    I shared it on my Public Face Book page with this intro:
    This is only 1 report out of tens of thousands available now that the Internet exists, describing the consequences of the brutal, 47 year Israeli Military Dictatorship ruling the lives of Palestinians in the occupation, so the settlers can live in their expanding Cantons of Jewish only Democracy, displacing more Palestinians along the way.

    A Democracy predicated on maintaining Military rule over a weaker, conquered people facing an army of tanks, planes & artillery, in addition to having to endure daily psychological humiliations as a subjugated people, and having only stones and household utensils to resist, is no Democracy at all, but a fraud and illusion-delusion.

    Like the Star of David itself, the stone and the story of David and Goliath has been inversed in the struggle between Jew and Palestinian.

    Most of you most probably will not know about Rachel Corrie who was deliberately run over by an Israeli bulldozer in the process of demolishing a Palestinian home to make way for even more Jewish settlers 15 years ago. She was 23.

    This brief video arrived in my News Feed for the 1st Time Today, and I am impressed seeing the young child Rachel Corrie, delivering a 5th grade speech calling for the defense of children everywhere, the Future of Humankind.

    I have gained a new appreciation and respect for Rachel as an Inspiration, from having just the superficial knowledge of her death at the hand of the Israelis so long ago most people forgot.

    That 10 or 11 year old girl in this video, kept those common human values all her life, and died a Martyr to that cause of Justice much like the early Christian Martyrs.

    • Kata Fisher October 15, 2015 at 10:37 pm #

      Ray, hi:

      This is important testimony (of the Church):

      I do not think (or believe that this woman is or would be in any relevant danger), but just to be on safe side you all should know that she was under treat and harassed.

      She however, feels that she is under real, actual threat (here in US).

      Because she is not ordained, I would really need to make sure that she will be safe, and not feel threatened. Can Church Nuncios make sure that she will be just fine. Can you write another letter to the Nuncio (in any Land – or all lands?)

      A Note: I just started to watch this – just by a random chance because I was watching some videos about Human Rights Activist Fr. Roy Bourgeois (protesting against Assassins school a while back).

      I just started research on that part, as well. I almost feel as God has directed me to do this, Myself beside myself.

      Ray, you must write a letter and send it to all Nuncios. I really have reflection about that. That Nuncio that you were writing to was most likely in no valid ordination and was actually a dead-end hypocrat.

      • Richard Falk October 16, 2015 at 11:50 pm #

        Too many comments of marginal or no relevance. Please try to focus on themes under discussion.

      • Gene Schulman October 19, 2015 at 8:19 am #

        Hear, hear!

      • Kata Fisher October 19, 2015 at 9:16 pm #

        Howdy, Howdy, look who is here!

        I hope you are doing fine Gene.

        We all hear and have ears. I think you will love this article, Gene.

        When someone has said, “I want a mess!” it also means – go out and “make a mess.” Making a Mess” = “Be Messy.”
        Adios to the mess is hard to believe – this would not be human condition. I never understood Papi Francisco; he wants to change everything. It looks like we are trough a tornado that has hit the ground.


        Maybe, one day I will tell you a story about Apostolic Council in Jerusalem and about Ancient Manuscripts and how writings of Early Church Fathers and Council in Jerusalem in fact have preserved actual authenticity of Early Church writings and Manuscripts. Earliest Rome’s Codex know as Codex Vatican’s is mind boggling. I can not read it.

        A.D. 1 to A.D. 95 was interesting 100 years. Also, last 100 years were almost unbelievable.

      • Kata Fisher October 19, 2015 at 9:19 pm #

        I ment to say, “Codex Vaticanus” (I messspeled it)

      • Gene Schulman October 20, 2015 at 7:02 am #

        Hello Kata. Why don’t you post a photo of yourself here so we can all see where this nonsense is concocted. After all, Ray isn’t shy.

      • Kata Fisher October 20, 2015 at 5:39 pm #

        I am not shy Gene.

        I do not think that my picture is relevant.

        But today, I took a wonderful picture of deers – a small hoard of them. I was visiting local nuns place (a Nursing home and they also have retreated over there), and the deer were out all over the place; it was so many of them. I wish I knew about this place in 2005, omg – a perfect place to park with the car full of kids while wrestling off the evil of wickedly done ordination, lol. And guess then what – they even have a community counseling place there. To find out about this just today; it was so to damn upsetting. But then deers did easy off my bedazzlement, as well as my upset because I just had nice Irish lunch like one hour before that.
        But look, Gene: I can apologise for invading your chilling place. I think that you all seniors will enjoy chillaxing from now on and do just awesome.

  11. Kata Fisher October 16, 2015 at 10:05 am #

    I do not believe that human interest (in next decades) can advance without shutting down former School of Americas/Assasins, completely, in its roots. It is an international blood-rag that does not want to go away, altogether. It seems to be just as that.

    Today, in its new form as the program known under the name WHINSEC (The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). The free world can not benefit from Nazism, except Nazi themselves find value in School of Americas/Assasins: WHINSEC.

    I do not personally like the videos spooks, but I would love to understand the facts because Nazi origin work are a very spooky thing. There is no secret that US in the aftermath of WWII has hoarded onto themselves Nazi-masterminds and the offspring after them on Global scene.

    People that created such things and foreign policies are either racist or cold-blooded Hitler-type-Nazi (Satanic Seals, blasphemy of God’s Spirit in blood lines). Historical Crusading Nazism is long on the World History scene (and as early as Nero’s point in time) and racism go hand in hand – for that reason Satanic international policy and strategic training/s after that?

    Besides, I do not believe that military training of non-US citizen can take place in secret conditions – International Lawers have to be present when there is international training, I believe, to give reports of legal conditions of such environment.

    So, I believe that US with international comunity has to do whatever can to investigate (imminently) and shut down WHINSEC in next two years.

  12. Kata Fisher October 20, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

    Further, this is really interesting article. How can civil humanity accept that? I am not sure that Church can not accept it because we have full understanding of such human conditions.

  13. anan October 28, 2015 at 4:19 pm #

    RICHARD FALK, there have been many, many examples of strong UN action. How have these worked out? Some examples:

    1) Unanimous UN action in South Korea 1950
    2) Unanimous UN action in Afghanistan starting in 2001, including the unanimous creation of UNAMA and ISAF, and the unanimous creation and endorsement of the sovereign Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
    3) many unanimously passed resolutions regarding Haiti and UN peacekeepers in Haiti over many years
    4) many unanimously passed resolutions regarding Congo and UN peacekeepers in Congo
    5) many unanimously passed resolutions regarding Lebanon and a series of UN sanctioned forces that operated in Lebanon, including UNFIL
    6) many unanimously passed resolutions regarding Iraq over many years:
    b) creating the Iraqi Governing Council (May 22, 2003; August 14, 2003)
    c) creating the Multi National Forces in Iraq and encouraged countries to contribute to it (August 14, 2003)
    d) endorsed the Iraqi Government as fully sovereign and legitimate (June 8, 2004)
    7) too many other unanimously passed UNSC actions to mention

    The UN is a reflection of the international community and UN member states. Perhaps the real issue is that the international community appears unable to coordinate to advance shared international interests and shared international values.

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