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January 1, 2017

The UN and global governance


January 1, 2017

There has been a growing frustration with the abject impotence of the UN for lacking authority and control over matters pertaining to international peace and stability. While Donald Trump may have his own peculiar motives for taking a jab at the world’s largest organisation, it should nonetheless offer an opportunity for the UN to reassess its role – or the lack of it for that matter – in shaping the new world order.

Global organisations led by the UN operate worldwide on a wide array of issues – from peacekeeping to technical standard setting, from promoting health care and education to providing life saving aid. Yet, at the end of it all, the progress they achieve is often perceived as marginal and unsustainable – all along, new jargons from MDGs to SDGs are tossed around or euphemism like TDPs in place of IDPs are adopted.  

As a consequence, international organisations frequently encounter fierce criticism. While not all of it qualifies as legitimate, some form of disillusionment is not entirely unfounded. Apparently, the UN does well in feeding, sheltering and treating war-hit populations but does little to stop aggressions. It preaches democracy while allowing permanent dictatorship in the Security Council. It forces action on smaller members but is always appeasing the larger ones.

Even in the absence of any obvious political pressure, the system’s administrative and strategic shortcomings have been repeatedly exposed in the form of excessive bureaucratic hurdles, slow response (in some cases no response at all), humanitarian aid reigniting war, failure to protect refugees and dependency as a by-product of development cooperation. Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia have come to symbolise the greatest humanitarian failures in the postwar period as Middle East continues to find itself trapped in a brutal war of extinction.     

As hinted earlier, it’s hard to separate organisations from the political context in which they operate. As a matter of fact, politics and policy go hand in hand.  The problem with the UN, however, has been that its political structure – one that was modeled on postwar balance of power – failed to evolve by not accommodating new political dynamics of a changing world.

The political and economic clout of the US has not been as assertive as it used to be which means the slogan, ‘make America great again’ continues to haunt all the top diplomatic offices around the world. The hope that an expanded size of the UN Security Council could somehow diminish the hegemonic influence of the ‘big boys’ in the camp and thereby contain future warfare is ultimately subject to the current political disposition (read allegiance) of the prospective members which they are likely to carry into the UN Security Council. The question as to how their inclusion will impact the regional balance of power also remains. Perhaps the dilemma can be best addressed by considering potential members who have in the past demonstrated neutrality with regard to maintaining peace, have had no track record of human rights violations at home or abroad and have contributed to humanitarian causes whenever called upon to do so.

Apart from promoting the principle of democratic representation within the organisation, there is a dire need to develop an uncompromising mechanism of accountability that penalises unilateral action to avert catastrophes like the Iraq war from reoccurring in the future. This can be achieved through a process of judgement that does not wilt in the face of propaganda and a system of justice that does not discriminate against war criminals. Indefensibly, instead of questioning and thoroughly deliberating on the mindless narrative surrounding the US-led ‘War on terror’, the UN jumped on the bandwagon and provided an enterprise for it – thanks to relentless hounding from Nato and the neocons.

And last but not the least, organisations are made up of people. The strength of their individual character and their imagination and knowledge of the world are ultimately reflected in the leadership at the top. Development professionals are often criticised for their obsession with method and technique, transforming otherwise thinking individuals into mechanical devices piling up data and running projections devoid of context – all in a bid to attract politically motivated donations that serve to perpetuate careers instead of making any substantial difference into the lives of people. As a former UN staff and humanitarian worker, at times, I found such criticism hard to refute. 

The UN system can therefore benefit greatly by investing more in educating its staff, raising political awareness, expanding its global outlook and drawing its team out of its comfort zones of largely imported ‘specialied’ knowledge. An anthropologist friend of mine once remarked, “International organisations create a class of educated citizenry which espouses their agendas, talks democracy, uses their terms and forms of knowledge and is highly indebted to them for the ‘generous aid’ and helping hand. Perhaps this is actually the ultimate goal they want to achieve. The end line is still there – it is not possible to export or perhaps even create the conditions for western or any other form of modernity anywhere”.

Antonio Guterres, soon to take charge as the 9th UN secretary general, had some good common sense advice to offer – he said the international community spends much more time and resources managing crises than preventing them. There you have it, prevention is better than cure.

In the end, with all its flaws and blemishes, the UN remains a legitimate global structure, uniquely suited to serve as a representative forum for mitigating conflict and promoting socio-economic development.            


The writer is a postgrad student of economics at the University of Bonn. Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Asadkhan316Khan



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