Success and failure of UN, and its system

By Vivek Pattanayak*

After more than seventy-five years of its existence, the question comes naturally to the mind of thinking people, has UN and its system served the purpose? The Charter established UN soon after devasting World War II while other public international organizations like ILO, ICAO (which existed before UN), IMO, WMO, WHO, ITU, UPU, WIPO, FAO, and UNSECO etc. called specialized agencies have their own constitutions based on international multilateral legal instruments. These institutions are part of the UN system because they are bound by agreements with UN as part of international legal arrangement.

First, an assessment of success and failure of UN as a peace keeping body is necessary in the background of the war in Ukraine which is dominating the media and drawing attention of general public globally. More than anything the Organization was primarily established for preservation of peace and prevention of war.

Has UN been able to prevent war ? When we talk of war it also includes civil war. In this context, it would be relevant to examine what role has been played by permanent members of the Security Council, a major organ of UN for peace and security. The reason permanent members as a group have been identified in this piece of writing is because they enjoy veto power and in terms of financial contributions to the budget of UN, they have substantial share and further, they were treated as victors of the war.

The will of the United Nations is reflected through the General Assembly consisting of all its members,  and in security matters it is subject to modification, assent, and final approval of the Security Council as long as there is unanimity among the permanent members.

In the Korean war, the major permanent member involved was the United States. The Communist China who played a decisive role in assisting North Korea was not even a member of UN then as official China was Taiwan. In Vietnam war, it is the United States who imposed the war on North Vietnam.

In war in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union another veto enjoying permanent member participated in major hostilities.

In Iraq war of 1991, the United Nations supported it in order to free Kuwait from the illegal and aggressive Iraqi occupation. USA took the leadership with active support of UK and France, both permanent members, while Soviet Union and China did not participate in the war although a numerous UN resolutions endorsed sanctions and intervention.

In the war in Kosovo, NATO’s intervention and war in Afghanistan following the terrorist attack of  9/11 had the tacit support of UN. Major players were US, UK, and France under the NATO umbrella. Russia and China were not in picture. War on Iraq in 2003 was an act of unilateral invasion of US and UK, both permanent members with support of Australia and other minor countries on the fictious and unsubstantiated charge that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction although the Inspectors of IAEA, the relevant legal body reported to the contrary. Even after the end of the war, US forces could not find any trace of them. Even NATO was divided on the war. France, Canada and Germany — members of NATO — stayed away.

Needless to mention the breach of peace in contravention of the UN Charter involving attack on  sovereignty of member States has been occasioned by permanent members on many occasions even with loss of lives and property.

The US made military intervention in Cuba then under Fidel Castro known as Bay of Pigs operation. Armed action in Granada and Panama, and air attack on Tunisia on PLO establishment by US, NATO air attack, consisting of three permanent members, USA, UK, and France on Libya in recent times to dislodge Gaddafi from power, involvement of UK and France during the Suez Crisis, and the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland will come under this category.

With this elucidation, it becomes clear how difficult for UN to prevent war when permanent members themselves actively take unilateral hostile action based on their perception of global security, legality, and ethics. It is stated that veto has paralysed the Security Council and in the process UN. More so, one theory is propounded very eloquently in the West is that Cold War made UN ineffective in keeping peace. As the events have shown even with the end of Cold War with demise of USSR, UN has remained ineffective in preventing war. Of course, veto is the main culprit. The present war in Ukraine speaks for itself.

In Sino-Indian war of 1962, the role played by UN was marginal. On the contrary a group of countries known to be part of Non-Alignment Movement played a major role  in peace effort.

In Indo-Pak war of 1947 -1948, UN intervened only at the instance of India. Peace-keeping force was deployed in J&K after the ceasefire was mutually agreed upon by hostile member States. In 1965 war, it was Soviet Union whose good office brought peace at Tashkent. In 1971, India’s victory brought peace through bilateral Shimla Agreement although it is well known that US had heavily tilted in favour of Pakistan even sending seventh fleet to Bay of Bengal to intimidate India. Soviet Union had also deployed its navy to counterbalance the threat from US. In UN because of Soviet veto, no resolution could be passed against India.

Notable peace keeping role by UN became known in exchange of prisoners of war after the ceasefire came due to the stalemate of  hostilities across the 38th parallel in Korea with heavy losses on either side in the war.

UN made effort to bring peace during the civil war in Congo under the then Secretary General Doug Hammarskjold who died in a mysterious air crash in erstwhile newly independent Belgian Congocaught in internecine war.

One significant achievement by UN peace keeping force led by the Indian contingent was to subdue secessionist forces of Katanga under Moise Tshombe. During the crisis in Congo USA and Soviet Union both permanent members supported the rival groups. Lumumba, the Prime Minister was supported by Soviet Union while US and the West supported President Kasavubu. Role of CIA in assassination of   Lumumba has become known with passage of time.

From the above narration one can see how veto wielding permanent powers have defied the Charter of UN and have been guilty in breach of peace.

Deployment of peace keeping force of UN has been significant achievement after the hostilities have ceased. It must be noted that major defaulter in meeting expenses of peacekeeping has been US as a result India which has contributed invariably large peace-keeping force had not been paid huge sums of money for a long time. In addition, US, a permanent member of the Security Council does not pay its assessment on time. It withholds payment in order to have leverage over the Secretary General. Since US makes 25% of  contribution to the budget its withholding or delaying payment forces Secretary-General to yield to pressure in matters relating to appointment of international civil servants and awarding of contracts. What is worse is US makes extra-budgetary voluntary contribution, hailed in the Western media as benevolent and humanitarian, and at the same time it insists on management of these programmes must be done by US nominated staff compromising the neutrality of international civil service.

The most spectacular failure of UN was when it could not prevent catastrophic mass murders in Rwanda when Hutus and Tutsis resorted to genocide. This human tragedy was never graphically brought to the global audience as media then was not as globalized in absence of all pervasive internet aided by latest information technology as it is now during the present war in Ukraine. Due to indifference and intransigence of US, a major permanent member of UN, even after the end of Cold War, UN could not intervene although the Commander of Peacekeeping Force led by a Canadian Brigadier made repeated appeals which fell in deaf ears of major powers.

Although UN  has been paralysed by veto in taking punitive action against recalcitrant States it has made salutary work in the codification of international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights paved way for international legal regime on human rights, rights of women and minorities etc.

Activities of UNICEF have been commendable. In the area of environmental protection UNEP’s activities are laudatory. Similarly, it has made tremendous development effort in poor countries through UNDP.

Work of the specialized agencies under the UN system have been spectacular. International air transport which propelled growth of  commerce, trade, business, and more particularly tourism having world-wide manifestation would not have been possible without the rules and regulations, technically called Standards and Recommended Practices (SARP) of ICAO. In the maritime field, IMO has made lasting contribution in bringing international legal instruments for safety and prevention of sea piracy. Notwithstanding abrupt withdrawal of US  from WHO during height of pandemic at the initiative of the mercurial President Donald Trump, WHO’s role in global public health programme has been universally  well-acknowledged. ITU’s work bringing integration and growth of global communication system is immeasurable. So has been the work of WIPO to regulate intellectual property. Paucity of space in this column comes on the way to adumbrate multiple achievements of the Specialized Agencies in UN system.



*The author is a former bureaucrat and held important positions in aviation and power regulatory body. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.

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