What will it take to liberate the UN from the yoke of geopolitics?

by Hans-Christof von Sponeck, Germany*

There is much to be said about liberating the UN from the yoke of its geopolitical oppression. It is all about liberation. But first, let me put down a few brief notes on the origin of this yoke.

That origin includes the historic meeting of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta in Crimea, February 1945. In preparation for the founding of the United Nations as the successor to the failed League of Nations, three old men – one communist and two capitalists – wanted to create an institution that would ensure peace and global welfare.
  Their individual power interests, they agreed, had to be guaranteed by the right of veto in the Security Council. Each of them needed the others for individual power. This was a Faustian bargain, a Machiavellian conspiracy! It was probably the weightiest part of the emerging UN yoke.

Western claim to leadership in the UN

This did not bode well! It meant a clash of ideologies and national self-interest, greatly exacerbated by the awakening of the world of colonies. Just two years after the creation of the UN, the harsh faces of the Cold War, which still accompanies our world today, became apparent.
  In this Cold War, the West was politically much more powerful, economically and financially much stronger, and also well prepared to claim leadership in the new organisation.
  To this day, the entire UN system is firmly anchored in the West:

  • The UN political headquarters is in New York;
  • UN entities, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have their offices in Washington;
  • the International Court of Justice is in The Hague;
  • the specialised agencies are mainly located in Western Europe and North America;
  • three of the permanent members of the Security Council are Western countries.

A conclusion: The dream of the possible of the UN has remained the nightmare of the impossible for over 77 years! The geopolitical yoke has largely deprived the UN of the freedom of action assigned to it by the UN Charter and which it also needs to fulfil its mandate for global human progress.

The yoke

Let us take a closer look at this yoke and then try to answer the following question: What will it take to liberate the UN from this yoke, and what would such a yoke-liberation entail?
  First of all, the world of the 21st century is now more deeply divided than ever. The main responsibility for this lies with the world powers, especially the United States and the unilateralism it has enforced, but of course also with the other four members of the Security Council.
  All five powers of the Security Council (P5) are frightened; they are frightened of the majority of nations in the General Assembly, who no longer want to accept “the yoke of the five”.
  This angst explains the yoke:

  • The P5 behaviour has prevented nuclear and general disarmament, which has long been demanded by the vast majority of the General Assembly.
  • As the UNCTAD Doha trade round has shown, the creation of a new and fairer world economic order, a so-called New International Economic Order (NIEO), has been blocked time and again by the permanent members and other OECD countries.
  • Decolonisation remains an important UN issue because independence for territories in Asia, Latin America, the Pacific and Africa is not granted by the owners of the colonies.
  • World powers such as China and the USA are among the biggest polluters, but have been slow and hesitant in pledging their support in the fight against global warming in Paris, Copenhagen and Glasgow (2021).
  • Cooperation between the political UN (General Assembly and Security Council) and civil society and NGOs has been slow, despite progress in recent years. Powerful countries, not only the P5 countries, but also countries like India and Brazil, have put the brakes on such cooperation for fear of restricting the sovereignty of governments.
  • International law has so far mainly applied only to the weak. The powerful of this world continue to claim impunity for their actions in violation of international law. Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Ukraine are just a few but serious examples. The UN's International Court of Justice can issue judgments, but these do not include any obligation to comply. It has thus remained powerless. It remains a staggering fact that the International Criminal Court (which is not a UN institution) has largely remained a court for Africa.
  • The yoke of the UN system's financial dependence on donor countries has become heavier over the years, although the compulsory contributions are embarrassingly few. The budget of the Secretary General of the world organisation is less than the budget of the Chief of Police in New York! Compared to the per capita contributions of the USA and Germany, the small Kingdom of Bhutan pays a higher contribution. In addition, there is an increasing politicisation of voluntary contributions through conditions imposed by donor countries on how these contributions are to be used. This deprives the UN system of the freedom to carry out its own priorities.
  • Attempts by member states to abolish a permanent international foreign service of the UN, as all nation states have, have so far failed, but have left a climate of uncertainty among UN staff and those interested in a career in the UN.

These eight examples are indicative of the weighty yoke that has so significantly hampered the work of the UN to date.

Liberation from the yoke

It would be naïve to believe that the understanding of the normative, structural and substantive obstacles in the UN system and the call for appropriate reforms by the majority of UN member states will be enough to liberate the UN from the yoke of oppression.
  As mentioned, there have been attempts at reform at all times. They have all been unsuccessful and will remain unsuccessful as long as – and this is crucial for the future of the UN – the great powers are not prepared to recognise that the world of the 21st century has not remained the same as the world of 1945, and to accept that the change from a non-community to a genuine community of nations, as referred to in the preamble of the Charter, is inevitable. This will not be possible without the P5 countries turning from Might makes right to the power of Right!
  This includes replacing geopolitical egoism, unilateralism and impunity with a willingness to compromise and converge as well as accountability for all.
  The conflict and crisis map of the world today makes it clear that the time for fundamental rethinking and the liberation of the UN from its yoke is truly not just around the corner. But the time will come. Without rethinking, the world has no future.

“There is more potential in all of us than we think”

As thoughtful citizens, we must feel obliged, especially in these days of renewed war in Europe, to continue to strengthen our commitment to a peaceful world with the courage of conviction.
  It means keeping our feet on the ground, but always looking to the stars. There is more to all of us than we think!  •

(Translation Current Concerns)

* Presentation at the annual conference of the working group “Mut zur Ethik” (“Europe – what future do we want?”) from 2–4 September 2022

Hans-Christof von Sponeck served at the UN for 32 years. During this time, he worked in New York, Ghana, Pakistan, Botswana, India. He was Director of the European Office of the UNDP Development Programme 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-Christof von Sponeck has received 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, which will be published in 2022.

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