December 2023

Time to regain relevance

Amid a raft of bloody global conflicts, Tanya Vatsa critiques the inefficacy of the UN and addresses the urgent need to expand membership and revive unity within the organisation

The humanitarian aftermath of the Second World War prompted major world powers to create a supranational organisation to mitigate the suffering of mankind and ensure that such lethal devastation was not repeated. The United Nations was envisaged as the flag-bearer of global unity, peace and security and the embodiment of global cooperation by way of dialogue. With its diverse organs, the UN was set be a diplomatic beacon, striking a delicate balance between national interests and international harmony. The Security Council was tasked with maintaining and upholding peace and security, with the permanent five members charting the way forward.

While the major powers may have developed nuclear deterrents, the world is currently ravaged by over 30 active armed conflicts, covertly aided by the very guardians of peace sitting at the powerful Council table wielding a veto. As most disputes escalate into fully fledged armed wars, the relevance of the UN, formulated in 1945, faces severe scrutiny, specifically in its agenda of conflict prevention and peace brokering. The archaic structural issues and procedural inefficiencies have systematically hindered its role as a harbinger of peace and harmony.

With wars and conflicts plaguing Asia, Europe, Africa and South America, the UN has remained a mute spectator, ‘hoping’ for the wars to come to an end and preparing for the delivery of humanitarian aid for the millions impacted. The Syrian war has been raging for over a decade and, with the diversity of background players fuelling the conflict, the Security Council is suspended in silent disagreements as the major parties grapple with promoting their individual interests and pretending to uphold diplomatic order. A decade of devastation has killed more than 300,000 civilians in Syria alone and all efforts at intervention have systematically failed.

fighting raging in Syria
NO CONFLICT RESOLUTION: The Syrian war has been raging for over a decade

The occupation of Afghanistan by the Taliban was a violent endeavour, killing thousands of civilians and brutally curtailing the rights of women, children and ethnic minorities. As Afghanistan descended into helpless silence and misgovernance, the world watched and the high tables within the four walls of the Palais des Nations ‘discussed and deliberated’ the situation –  to no avail. According to reports, 2021 witnessed severe civilian casualties, with women and children accounting for most of the deaths. Ther Taliban’s bloody ascent to power could neither be prevented nor civilised by the UN.

Membership of the Security Council needs to be expanded

However, the most glaring complication came to the fore with the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the subsequent invasion of Ukraine in 2022. All efforts to preserve the territorial integrity of those targeted were conveniently vetoed by Russia in the UN Security Council. Ukraine has witnessed severe casualties and continues to fight for the rights of its citizens. While this conflict is still raging, the Gaza Strip witnessed severe bombing by Israel after an armed attack by Hamas on October 7. The continuous bombing of residential areas, hospitals, schools and refugee camps has resulted in enormous loss of life in Gaza. More than 14,000 Palestinians have died. In late November, Qatar brokered a ceasefire for a few days after threatening to manipulate the oil market. Humanitarian corridors were opened to allow aid and scope for civilian evacuation before Israeli ground incursions, as a result of efforts made by Egypt and Qatar.

The duality of the UNSC members was evident in the ideological difference in the US’s stance on the Russo-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine situations. On one hand, America vehemently defended Kyiv’s territorial integrity against Moscow’s ruthless invasion; yet on the other, it stands firmly with Tel Aviv as it transgresses all territorial boundaries within Gaza, while the Palestinians remain defenceless. The disparity within its narrative emanates from the US’s need to preserve its own interests as the will to uphold the UN’s objective of greater humanitarian good recedes into the background and loses priority in a worldorder infested with distrust and insecurity. In its bid to stay relevant and forge alliances, civil order and the value of human life diminish behind a smokescreen of diplomacy and political ploys.

Coordinating with Egypt and Qatar vis-à-vis the Israel-Palestine issue would help to foster quicker solutions

While the United Nations has clearly failed in its efforts to prevent armed conflicts and human suffering, its role has receded to post-conflict ‘damage-control’ and ‘re-establishment’ of peace and order. It would be wrong, therefore, to say that the UN is irrelevant in today’s political front, considering the dependence of millions of people ravaged by war and brutality across the globe, on the humanitarian assistance provided by the UN protectorates. While Germany deliberates over putting Gaza under the control of the UN after the war subsides, the need for an organisational overhaul and a resetting of its national coordination techniques might be just a few necessary amendments required within the UN.

The permanent five were instituted as superior nations in 1945 to oversee the objectives of the Security Council. Today, in most conflicts there is an overt or covert involvement of one of the five members, resulting in an organisational paralysis with the use of the veto card. Moreover, the increasingly multipolar world order calls for a supranational body with representation from a larger global community and hence membership of the Security Council needs to be expanded. A more democratic system of decision-making, with the elimination of the concept of veto power, might enable the global community to make better and more impactful decisions. The United Nations, with its resources, expertise and global reach, remains a powerful instrument which has eventually restricted itself by not being a dynamic institution which should have evolved with time. 

The high tables in the Palais des Nations ‘discussed and deliberated’ the situation in Afghanistan – to no avail

Instead of remaining within the restrictive frameworks of discussion and deliberations strictly within the 15 members, the UNSC should identify countries relevant to a particular conflict and work in tandem with them to mitigate or even stop the conflict. For instance, working with India, Pakistan and China in the case of Afghanistan and coordinating with Egypt and Qatar vis-à-vis  the Israel-Palestine issue would help to foster quicker solutions.

Remaining trapped within its constricted membership and being blocked by the exercise of the veto has severely restricted its ability to act in the interests of its larger humanitarian objective. To regain its relevance and respect, the UN needs to actively work towards prevention of war and suffering, in addition to its post-conflict assistance.

Tanya Vatsa, a law graduate from National Law University, Lucknow and an incoming LLM candidate at the University of Edinburgh, is a former assistant advocate. She is currently a geopolitical analyst with The Synergia Foundation, an India-based think tank. Her writing on international relations has been published by the Diplomatist, International Policy Digest and The Kootneeti