UN is 69, going on 70!
An AIR Talk
In human lives, 70 is the age at which one senses the approaching dusk and begins to evaluate the accomplishments and disappointments. But for the UN, which is meant to survive many generations, being on 69, going on 70 is youth as yet, ready to fulfill expectations and explore new horizons. As the UN prepares for its 70th birthday next year, the world rejoices over its achievements, assigns new responsibilities to it and sets its new goals. New challenges, like the Ebola virus stare the UN in the face, while the festering issues of the past continue to defy solutions.
Leaders, who addressed the 69th session of the UN General Assembly made their appraisals of the UN from their own respective perspectives and outlined its future course. Much needs to be done, much needs to be corrected, and much needs to be innovated, they said. Each added at least a new agenda item; each proposed a new initiative, a new Year, a Month or a Day to be designated for one cause or another. Although the UN is not considered effective enough, it still remains the only universal body with a global agenda.
The UN has much to be proud of. The historic challenge of decolonization was met and the exponential growth in its membership itself is testimony to the birth of many nations with the least possible pain. Without the UN, disarmament and non-proliferation will not have registered even modest success. Equity and justice in global economy have been defined, if not achieved. The standards set for the promotion and protection of human rights serve as models of national behavior even if many nations deviate from them. The new challenges like the environment, cyber threats, management of outer space and various pandemics have also been tackled. The Specialized Agencies work in their areas effectively. There is no human activity, which the UN has not touched.
Admittedly, the UN has, however, not fulfilled its primary purpose, which is to rid the world of the scourge of war. More than 800 wars have been waged in the last 70 years and many others are in the offing. Peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace building have made an impact in conflict areas, but lack of authority and effective machinery have rendered several such missions unable to fulfill their mandate. Powerful countries manipulate the UN to suit their purposes and defy the UN even when it reflects the international will. The millennium goals remain more as benchmarks, rather than accomplished missions.
The UN has shown remarkable resilience in dealing with global issues to the extent that the members, particularly the permanent members have the will to let it act. The UN can be only as effective the members want it to be. While it has been successful in expanding the agenda over the years, it has not been able to get rid of the old baggage. Closing an agenda item is much harder than adding one. Much time is spent, therefore, in reiterating positions and repeating old arguments. The UN is the most conservative of organizations, with very little room for innovation in its methodology and practices. There are too many sleeping dogs allowed to lie around, with the threat that one side or another will wake them up and create havoc.
Leaders, including our Prime Minister expressed the hope that the long awaited reform of the Security Council will be accomplished on the occasion of the 70th birthday of the UN. But this was said, as far as I know, on the 50th and 60th birthdays also. As of now, there is no formula for the expansion of the Security Council, which can command the support of two-thirds of the membership of the General Assembly, including the permanent members of the Security Council. Everyone understands the logic for change. They know that the realities of global power have changed beyond recognition. They know that the ratio of General Assembly members and the Security Council members is extremely low. But those who have enjoyed privileged positions for 69 years are not going to give them up in the 70th year. India’s claim for permanent membership of the Security Council is well established, but there is no chance for it to be recognized in the 70th year. No wonder that our Prime Minister spoke on the subject in general terms, without making any claim. Our ambition in this regard has been tempered by experience.
The environment, particularly climate change, has been established as the one issue on which a global consensus is imperative in 2015. The Secretary General has already hosted a summit to focus attention on climate change. The consensus of Rio collapsed in Copenhagen and today, there is not even a basis for a new global agreement. Polluters are yet to pay and the international community is yet to fulfill their common, but differentiated responsibilities. In the meantime, anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases continue to accumulate beyond permissible levels, threatening the very existence of mankind.
Terrorism is the other issue on which the UN needs to develop a consensus. In the wake of 9/11, there was a renewed desire to approve a Comprehensive Convention on Terrorism, but that has been lost, once again, in the terrorist vs freedom fighter debate. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist and vice versa. If countries have adopted terrorism as their national policy, they will not condemn terrorism in all its manifestations. Al Qaeda has made new threats against India and the stirrings of fundamentalism in Iraq and Syria threaten to engulf West Asia. Scenes of abominable executions have added a new dimension to human depravity and cruelty.
Can nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation become a reality in the 70th year of the UN? Nuclear security has become a priority and safety has become a matter of of paramount importance after Fukushima. But on the fundamental issue of elimination of nuclear weapons, which had gained momentum a few years ago, has become dormant again. When countries, which have signed the NPT engage in surreptitious nuclear weapons activities, elimination of nuclear weapons cannot take place. As long as nuclear weapons remain at the centre of defense strategies, there is little hope of a world without nuclear weapons. The use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes has also suffered a setback after Fukushima.
Much effort was made to turn the Human Rights Commission into the Human Rights Council, but it has changed only in name. Politicization of human rights continues. Political opponents are suppressed or eliminated in the name of human rights.
The fight against the Ebola virus will be the most urgent issue for the UN to tackle in its 70th year. It has already reached the shores of the United States and no nation can remain immune to it in a globalized world. Even the modest success accomplished in the case of HIV/AIDS may elude the UN and rapid action is necessary. Such pandemics do not recognize national boundaries or distinctions of race and ideology. The UN has the responsibility to meet the threat on a war footing.
Another tendency, which will jeopardize the UN in the 70th year is the propensity of powerful countries to act as coalitions of the willing when the Security Council is unwilling or unable to act. Today, most of the concerns of the US are outside the UN, whether it is the power struggle in the Asia Pacific, the dispute over the South China Sea or the change in Afghanistan. The absence of a UN framework leaves the field to the powerful nations.
India today has gained enough experience to know that it is unrealistic to expect to gain anything by taking up issues to the UN. Instead, we focus on the global commons and contribute ideas and efforts to build the capacity of the UN to deal with the new challenges. We do not ask what we can get from the UN, but we do what we can to advance the common good. India has abiding faith in the UN, despite its weaknesses and setbacks.
What can we expect the UN to accomplish in the 70th year? Not much, I am afraid. It will continue to be a forum for international discourse, it will be seen as the conscience of humanity, it will set new targets and new standards, which may not be met. It will remain a beacon of hope for humanity, as it embodies the aspirations of all nations, big and small, the powerful and the weak. In the ultimate analysis, at 70, the UN as a symbol of hope is more valuable than the sum total of its achievements.