Established in 1945 to prevent future world wars, the United Nations (UN) currently has 193 member-states. It works to develop and enforce international laws and policies to achieve peace, social progress and economic development worldwide. But is the UN a well-functioning contributor to international development, or is it ridden by bureaucracy and political bias, which limit its ability to help nations and minorities – including women – with ongoing conflicts?
Here are three reasons why the UN is effective and three more why it’s failing.
Three reasons the UN is a failure
Human rights continue to be violated
The UN promotes and fights for human rights globally, yet these rights continue to be violated by many countries. It’s not the UN’s fault that international human rights are trampled on, but the organization seems powerless to stop it. Take the genocide in Rwanda, where the UN had an “Assistance Mission” established in 1994. Its members were aware of the impending genocide, but UN peacekeepers failed to stop the majority Hutus from murdering almost a million minority Tutsis. Another example is the 2005 rape and sexual abuse against Congolese children, perpetuated by UN peacekeepers themselves. Subsequent reports found similar allegations in other countries. Most recently, the UN and its UN Women organization have been called out for ignoring and/or denying Hamas members’ brutal and systemic rape of Israeli women on Oct. 7, 2023. If the UN doesn’t speak out against such human rights violations, what’s its purpose for existing?
Peacekeepers’ good intentions have led to fatal consequences
Despite its noble mission, the deployment of 125,000 peacekeepers in troubled nations has sometimes caused unintended negative side effects on host societies. Take peacekeepers fathering and abandoning babies: There is no exact number of abandoned children known, (a dozen paternity claims were received in 2014), but the phenomenon motivated the United Nations to initiate a DNA collection protocol. Additionally, a 2013 report also discussed the danger of corruption in peacekeepers’ missions.
Also, the world’s most recent outbreak of cholera in 2010, after an earthquake rocked Haiti, points to the UN. Genome testing demonstrated that the source of the plague, which infected over one million people and killed 10,000, was most likely a Nepali UN peacekeeping force. A UN-appointed panel of experts found that the cholera strain diagnosed in Haiti was “a perfect match” for a strain found in Nepal. Nepalese peacekeepers were staying at the UN camp in Haiti during the earthquake, and poor sanitation flooded local waterways with sewage from the camp. Such unintended consequences show that the UN has done more harm than good in parts of the world it has tried to help.
Lots of committees, little change
The UN’s bodies and their committees and sub-committees, such as the General Assembly, Security Council and Human Rights Council, are plagued with bloated bureaucracy and an imbalance of power. These can cause important UN resolutions with widespread support and impact to be stymied by a single veto from one of the Security Council’s permanent five-member states. The Human Rights Council has also faced repeated criticism over allowing member countries who themselves have a history of human rights abuses (such as Russia and China) – a fact which prompted the US to temporarily withdraw from the committee in 2018, not for the first time. Or, take the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament, which had appointed Syria – a country well-known for using chemical weapons against its civilians – as its temporary president. The hypocrisy of such committees has led to little change regarding key human rights issues and general ineffectiveness overall.
Three reasons why the UN is effective
It has the greatest international authority of any organization
The UN is currently the only active and respected international forum with such widespread clout among the world’s nations. One of its six bodies, the Security Council, is charged with maintaining global peace and security. World leaders, even extremely disliked ones, are welcome to speak at the UN, making it a beacon of democracy. Countries who belittle the UN must still respond to its resolutions.
Its peacekeepers are deployed to sensitive regions to keep enemy armies apart and can impose sanctions against hostile countries. Its International Court of Justice, (“World Court”), is the main forum that helps resolve international conflicts, such as the trial of Liberian war criminal Charles Taylor, in accordance with international law. The UN also created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the standard the world is supposed to follow. No other organization holds this much global authority.
It has succeeded in strides to eradicate world hunger
Intervention by the UN’s World Food Programme, the Food and Agricultural Organization and UN-sponsored emergency aid management are credited with reducing the number of people dying from malnutrition annually. Continuing its success of mitigating worldwide hunger, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set a further challenge of ending extreme poverty by 2030. Despite the fact that are 828 million hungry people in the world, including 349 million people facing severe hunger, the UN has worked toward creating strategic solutions for an ambitious “zero hunger” world – and it has the clout and ability to achieve this goal. With its international resources and influence, the UN will continue to establish new targets that encourage sustainable development to end world hunger.
It has been instrumental in ridding some countries of ‘The Bomb’
Thanks to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a number of countries, including South Africa and Kazakhstan, have willingly ended their nuclear weapons research programs and have submitted to regular IAEA inspections. In 2017 more than 120 countries adopted a UN treaty to ban nuclear weapons, requiring non-nuclear signatory nations to avoid pursuing atomic weapons in exchange for a commitment by the five powers to move toward nuclear disarmament. The treaty further seeks to guarantee non-nuclear states’ access to peaceful, energy-producing nuclear technology.
The Bottom Line:The UN provides a great basis for international relationships and progress, but it is also a complex body that has experienced many failures. As former President Obama said, the UN is imperfect, but it is also indispensable. How do you feel about the UN’s purpose and effectiveness?