UN? Which UN?

Multilateralism in the 21st Century*

by Dr h. c. Hans-C. von Sponeck, former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations

The major theme of the moment on “what is common in the relations of people, nations and states” includes references to the UN as the largest relationship community in the world. Which UN is meant? The UN has many “faces”!
  There is the political face in New York as the legislative, with the Security Council and its five permanent members – China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States – and the General Assembly with 193 member states. Then there is the legal face in The Hague as the judiciary, with a court and its 15 judges. And finally, there is the worldwide operational face as the executive branch with a Secretary General and 55,000 staff distributed among the many specialised agencies, funds and programmes such as UNICEF, the Development Programme (UNDP), WHO, UNESCO, FAO, the World Food Programme, the World Bank, the Refugee Programme (UNHCR) and others. After 75 years, this important UN framework unfortunately still stands on three shaky legs.

75 years of a political UN: Disappointed expectations …

"Peace", "security" and "progress" for people, for all people, was the expectant promise of three statesmen, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, at Yalta in 1945 after a devastating Second World War. The UN with its political face, the Security Council, was to ensure this. In the same year, 51 states signed a corresponding peace charter in San Francisco. It did not take long for the world to sense that this commitment was nothing more than a painful illusion. The three great powers succumbed to their geopolitical self-interest. The UN, which was supposed to build a community of states, quickly became the theatre of the Cold War. Many people in East and West became victims of the cold. The Security Council was unable to fulfil its mandate even in the first years of the UN.
  In the following decades, many colonies had become sovereign states. They joined the UN with pride and expectation, in the firm belief that they would be accepted as equal members of the UN General Assembly. This too was a fallacy.
  The unexpected reunification of the two German states, 45 years later, and the signing of the so-called Charter of Paris of 1990, also called the Freedom Charter, by Western and Eastern European states as well as the USA, Canada and the USSR, made the world breathe a sigh of relief. This “Paris ray of hope” with its return to the fundamentals of human relations and the creation of new common ground between the people of the socialist and capitalist worlds was a valuable signal for the world and also for the multilateralism of the United Nations. “Never again war” was the promise. New wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Rwanda/Burundi and elsewhere in the 1990s turned the dream of peace among people, nations and states into a nightmare. It became colder again in the political UN.

… but also great successes

Looking back over the 75 years of the UN shows that despite all the hot and cold wars of that time, the UN succeeded in creating vital international law, including the comprehensive human rights covenants for political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. The General Assembly gave its approval to sustainable development goals, and in a star moment, it signified that there is a shared moral obligation of people, nations and states to work for an international Responsibility to Protect (R2P) for countries that are unable to manage themselves. This should prevent genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and aggression.
  These are unquestionably great successes of the political UN. Once again it is the five permanent members of the Security Council who have decisively ignored, violated or broken the established law. Current examples of ruthless power politics can be found in Chechnya, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Libya, Xinijang and Afghanistan, among others. They occupy the world’s conscience and demand fundamental reforms of the political UN.

Fundamental reforms of the political UN are required

The West, with its 8% of the world’s population, does not want any fundamental reform of the UN Charter and is defending the status quo in the Security Council, where it claims three of the five permanent seats. Africa and Latin America, with 19% of the world’s population, have no permanent seat at all, and Asia, with 60% of the world’s population, only have one such seat on the Security Council. The “rest” of the world, the other 92%, no longer want to accept Western domination and especially American unilateralism. The geopolitical dynamics and the great power competition between China and the USA will lead to considerable global unrest in the near future. The bandaged political mainstay of the UN must be healed. The call for a new international security structure is therefore getting louder because an institution is needed that is capable of preventing crises, wars and the human suffering that goes with them.
  The UN’s second pillar, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), has not played the role that is needed to decisively improve relations between people, nations and states over the course of 75 years of the UN. The upcoming reforms of the ICJ include replacing the limited “advisory” function in such a way that the court can make legally binding decisions and is accessible not only to states and the political UN, but also to civil society.

Many positive things at the operational UN

There are many positive things to report about the third pillar, the executive, the operational UN. Here the 55,000 UN employees are deployed to help children through UNICEF, to promote the health of all people through the WHO and to fight pandemics such as COVID-19, through the World Food Programme (WFP) to reduce hunger, through UNHCR, the United Nations – Refugee agency to protect people on the move, through the FAO, the agricultural organisation, to improve the food supply, but also in the many other UN agencies that have to do with sustainable development.

Financing the UN – fact check

Some wealthy governments have spoken of their financial contributions to the UN system as victims. This is a malicious false statement. A closer look at the facts has shown that of three selected countries – Germany, the USA and Bhutan – on a per capita basis Bhutan, the small underdeveloped state in the Himalayas, pays more than Germany and that the USA makes by far the smallest contribution!

Successes despite limited finances and political interference

Despite the embarrassingly limited financial possibilities of the OECD countries and the political interference, especially by the United States, in the work of the UN system, this pillar has succeeded in improving its structure and content considerably. In the third decade of the 21st century there are no programmes that do not include sustainability, climate change and human rights, especially women’s rights. Today, cooperation with people on the ground and the importance of local knowledge are taken more and more seriously by the operational UN. The UN field offices of the specialised agencies, programmes and funds have found each other and are integrating more and more – a slow, often frustrating process that has led to UN teams with a leader, a team, a programme and often with a budget in a “UN house”. A valuable multilateral common ground arises here in the sense of a pronounced ethic of peace.

Operational UN works even in crisis and war zones

This UN approach works, even where crises and wars pose significant dangers to staff, e.g., currently in the Tigray province of Ethiopia, in Haiti and in Myanmar. Even in Afghanistan, the operational UN system remains on the ground. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) is negotiating with the Taliban; WHO continues to bring medicines into the country – only trauma medicines are new; national and international UNICEF staff are present in all 34 provinces of the country; WFP, the World Food Programme, is transporting food by land and air to Afghanistan. It was a courageous and important political decision by António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, not to close the UN offices.
  And another thing: cooperation between the political, the legal and the operational UN was practically non-existent until recently. In Iraq under sanctions, eleven different UN units were active, dealing with security, humanitarian and human rights tasks. From the beginning of the sanctions in 1990 until their end in 2003, there was no cooperation at all. Today, this incredible deficit of isolated action is largely replaced by evolving cooperation. UN development programmes, political missions and peacekeeping military operations are increasingly prepared and carried out jointly. To say the least, the walls between the three UN legs are crumbling. This is a good development.

Prerequisite for peace and the common good

In summary: The three-legged UN has achieved a lot in 75 years, but decisive reforms and adjustments have not yet taken place. The political UN has not lived up to its tasks, it has largely failed. Great powers like the USA, China and Russia have a lot of guilt loaded on their shoulders in this respect. They must understand that the great common, peace and the well-being of all people, will only have a chance if:

  • Unilateralism gives way to multilateralism;
  • monologues become dialogues;
  • convergence and compromise take place;
  • civil society is understood and taken seriously;
  • causes, not just symptoms, are recognised and addressed;
  • and when all policymakers are held accountable.

Turning a UN table with edges into a round table, with the conversation as a plane, remains the great challenge for people, nations and states in the 21st century. •



* Lecture “Mut zur Ethik” – Annual Conference: “The bonum commune in relations between people, nations and states: Solving problems and conflicts with dignity – with one another rather than against one another” 3–5 September 2021 in Sirnach (TG).
(Translated from German)

Hans von Sponeck was with the UN for 32 years. During this time, he worked in New York, Ghana, Pakistan, Botswana, India and was the Director of the UNDP European Office in Geneva. From 1998 to 2000, as UN Coordinator and Assistant UN Secretary-General, he was responsible for the humanitarian programme “Oil for Food” in Iraq. In February 2000, he resigned in protest against the sanctions policy against Iraq. Hans von Sponeck is the recipient of several awards, including the Coventry Peace Prize of the Church of England, the Peacemaker Award of the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Bremen Peace Prize. He is currently working with Richard Falk on a book on UN reform “Liberating the UN: Realism Beyond Geopolitics” (provisional title) which will be published in 2022.

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