How to Make the Most Important Innovation of the 20th Century Fit For the 21st Century

United Nations does not currently enjoy the best reputation. In fact, it has become an object of dislike across the political spectrum. Only recently Melanie Phillips has called it ‘morally bankrupt’ in her belief that it kowtows to dictators and despots.

Founded in 1945 as a way of both preserving and enforcing peace, the United Nations was designed by the future permanent Security Council members – the five policemen of the UK, USA, Russia, France and China - to fix problems where its predecessor the League of Nations failed. It was the league’s inability to check the ambitions of Italy, Germany and Japan that led it to be seen as a byword for impotence in terms of international peacekeeping.

The UN is now being characterised in much the same way, seen as toothless, impotent and even irrelevant. However, like the league before it, the UN record is not one of unmitigated failure. The UN Food Programme feeds 104 million people in 80 countries’. It gives a huge amount of help to refugees, helps fight disease, protects important heritage sites, and has spearheaded the successful prosecutions war criminals. Above all it has promoted peace.

Despite the current wars around the world, there is far less death from conflict now than at almost any point in human history, it has been instrumental in encouraging countries to give up weapons and maintains international peacekeeping missions all over the world. The UN remains a supremely important organisation and a step forward for humanity in general.

There are legitimate criticisms: the UN was too slow to respond to events in Rwanda and Bosnia. This is why many see Jeremy Corbyn’s stated belief in the UN, particularly his recent words involving Syria as hopelessly naive. Corbyn maintains a belief that only a UNSC resolution can give legality for armed intervention, as seen with his support for the peacekeeping measures in East Timor. In an ideal world this is demonstrably true and something many would support.

what reforms can be done to strengthen the hand of the UN and the cause of international cooperation?

The problem is largely procedural. The veto system remains a continuing problem; Russia has exercised this right 6 times over Syria. The Americans similarly use this power as a permanent member of the Security Council all the time over Israel, even when there is plenty of legitimate criticism. The UK and France have not used their veto since 1989 - the UK has not used it on its own since 1972, over Rhodesia.

There is a way around the veto: by invoking Resolution 377 or ‘Uniting for Peace’. If the five permanent members fail to reach a unanimous decision and are seen as not serving the cause of international peace, the General Assembly can take the decision instead on a two thirds majority. This has only been used 10 times, successfully in the case of Suez and rather less successfully in the case of Afghanistan. This is due to the fact that the resolution does not give the General Assembly any powers over enforcement.

The question then is, what reforms can be done to strengthen the hand of the UN and the cause of international cooperation in an era of greater nationalism and isolationism?

Firstly, the Security Council must have its powers curtailed, with more decision-making being given to the General Assembly, such as the right to enforce and commit peacekeeping forces. It seems unlikely that the veto system will go but by making the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution a norm rather than the exception, more resolutions that have majority backing could be passed, forcing the security council to agree to a reform of its own powers.

Other ideas such as a massive increase in funding suggested by the World Economic Forum would serve as value for money, giving the UN $75bn to strengthen its programmes, which have been particularly effective already in combating, disease, famine and poverty.

A reform of the Security composition needs to reflects the realities of current world power, adding new permanent seats to underrepresented parts of the world, such as South America, Africa and Asia.

It would also be a good idea to make sure that any nation that sits on a body that is involved with Human Rights has to meet a required standard of political and civil rights first. This should hopefully solve the problem of countries like Saudi Arabia being allowed to sit on the Human Rights Council.

These are possible and not altogether unrealistic reforms. There are options for even more radical long-term ideas. As we do not know how the UN and the world will develop over the next century, this goes into the realms of fanciful speculation.

an organisation with many problems but also immense possibilities

One idea continually floated is the creation of a UN Parliamentary Assembly, with the possibilities of direct election or national appointment and a new relevant treaty that would strengthen the hand of international peace resolution. This is not entirely fanciful, like the International Criminal Court and many other bodies, all it takes is a new treaty set-up by a small nexus of countries, which can then slowly expand as new members are admitted.

Another interesting reform could be to dust off an unused part of the UN machinery, namely the Trusteeship Council. This is now the largely defunct body that was supposed to administer territories that were not ready for government, a successor of the widely criticised League of Nations Mandate.

There are a number of failed states, or ones that have gone through civil war or revolution, that could have done with a mechanism by which a temporary trusteeship could have been set-up. Through a constitutional convention or referendum a country should be able to give up temporarily some of its sovereignty to the UN in exchange for expert administration and development. This would be different to the current way the UN administers states or regions/zones temporarily, often in an ad-hoc way.

The new system would be an official body with rules and procedures. It would hire the necessary experts when needed, which would be paid for out of the proposed increase in funding. The purpose would be gradual and structural development of the rule of law, human rights and parliamentary democracy. It would have UN peacekeeping troops to back it up and to maintain law and order.

This sort of system might have avoided some of the issues in Libya and Egypt, where the vacuum was filled by the only groups with any sort of organisation, namely islamists, which in Egypt led to the return to power of a military junta.

It is impossible to know how the UN will develop and what its direction will be in the coming decades. It remains an organisation with many problems but also immense possibilities. In terms of its place in history though, it can proudly retain its title as ‘the most important political innovation of the 20th century’.

More about the author

About the author

Stewart holds a PhD in eighteenth century political history from UCL, having previously studied for a BA and MA in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

He is currently working as a Part-Time Tutor for Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department as well as helping to create and launch an online historical archive of magazine-style feature articles written by history graduates called The Past.

Follow Stewart on Twitter.

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