It has been a few weeks since the conclusion of the General Assembly’s 72nd session. Most years, the event is remembered for its often entertaining absurdities. This year’s memorable absurdity was Donald Trump’s calling, from the UN’s podium, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man,” to which he responded by calling Trump a “dotard.” Later, Trump responded by calling Kim a “madman.” Ordinarily, this would not be much to write home about, but with 60% of the American population believing the UN is doing a “poor job,” such high-profile spats tend to not only divert the world’s gaze from the seriousness of the forum, but they also reinforce negative perceptions of the organization, deepen skepticism about its effectiveness, and contribute to its persistent underappreciation. Perhaps, for a change, we should consider briefly the value of this unique organization.
Before this post is mistaken for an ode to the UN, I will acknowledge the organization’s significant structural, procedural, and operational weaknesses. The most glaring being its inability to restrain its most influential members; the democratic deficits of the Security Council; biases against some states; a bloated budget and an unwieldy bureaucracy; and the inability to effectively enforce international norms. Moreover, self-inflicted wounds like the sexual abuses of UN peacekeepers (the 2015 report can be found here) and the cholera debacle in Haiti and its associated accountability challenges have tarnished the organization’s image as have the ironies of human rights-abusing states being members of the Human Rights Council and the world’s largest arms exporters being permanent members of the Security Council. The UN has also been sidelined in the making of consequential international policy by fora such as the G-7, G-20, and international financial institutions, reinforcing the perception that it is not particularly effective.
Often lost in assessments of the UN’s effectiveness, however, is an appreciation of its politico-legal architecture and its implications for the organization’s operation. The 193-member intergovernmental organization has an independent legal personality, but it remains a voluntary association of sovereign states, doing the bidding of states and, except in few and very carefully prescribed cases, refraining from intervening in matters considered within a state’s domestic jurisdiction. Its founding instrument, the UN Charter, labored to make that point. This arrangement constrains not only what the organization can do, but also how it does it. When states turn a blind eye to refugees and asylum seekers, the UN can only prod them to do more; when states fail to agree to a unified strategy, as continues to happen with the Syrian conflict, the UN is unable to effectively address difficult problems; when states complain that the organization is bloated and ineffective but refuse to enact reforms, the organization remains stagnant and ineffective; when states use finances to pressure the organization into moving in their preferred direction, the organization’s critical independence is damaged, deepening its credibility crisis; when influential states continue to use their “right to veto” to shield allies from arguably justified UN censure, the Security Council’s role of enforcing the organization’s critical security and military decisions is compromised and the UN’s primary purpose is hobbled. States’ failures become the organization’s failures.
With people most dissatisfied with the UN’s peacekeeping efforts, we must ask what kind of peace the organization is expected to maintain. Should the Charter’s Article 1 goal of maintaining international peace and security be interpreted as maintaining complete tranquility in all places, at all times? If not, how much upheaval is permissible before the organization can be legitimately accused of failure? Is it success that since its founding in 1945, there has not been a third world war? Is it sufficient that the organization engages the many ongoing conflicts by providing a forum for parties to address their differences and sending peacekeepers when/if those differences escalate into conflict or must it also guarantee results? Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the UN, famously noted that the organization “was created not to lead mankind to heaven but to save humanity from hell.” If we adjust our expectations and accept that realistic interpretation of the organization’s mandate, we find that the organization enjoys notable success for which it is not given nearly enough credit.
Through its many funds and programs, the UN is on the ground throughout the world, in the most desperate places, delivering humanitarian aid and filling in the gaps where states have failed to fulfil their duties. It is also proactively addressing destabilizing social, economic, and political conditions by promoting human rights, sustainable development, and international law. The International Court of Justice, the UN’s main judicial organ, also continues to hear and resolve contentious cases between states. Notably, this year the UN adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Although nuclear-armed states show no interest in ratifying it, guaranteeing, as the Nobel Committee noted, that the treaty will not “in itself eliminate a single nuclear weapon,” it remains significant because it provides a basis for setting a new and important international legal standard that nuclear weapons are not allowed. This matters because, contrary to popular belief, states do comply with international norms most of the time. With North Korea flagrantly violating the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, from which it withdrew in 2003, it is easy to overlook that many states that are party, are not.
Lastly, with the UN incessantly ridiculed for being “all meetings and talk,” it is worth noting that it is through meetings and talks that it attempts to harmonize the competing interests and priorities of its members (who represent 7 billion people with different languages and cultures). That apparatus makes “talking” a necessity and agreements, whatever form they take, an achievement. If only dotards and madmen could see that.