U.N. Has the Potential to Overcome Challenges

Environmental activists hold their banner "E.U. pay your climate debt!" to protest in Copenhagen on Dec. 11 in front of the U.N. Climate Change Conference. (Photo: Attila Kisbenedek/ AFP-Getty Images)

As the United Nations approaches the 65th anniversary of its founding, the age of mandatory retirement for many, serious questions have been raised as to whether the U.N. might not also have reached the end of its useful working life.

The U.N. has been charged with becoming little better than an irrelevance in a rapidly changing world, an exorbitant anachronism unable to keep pace with the demands of an increasingly globalized world. The organization’s apparent powerlessness to uphold major Charter provisions, such as the peaceful resolution of conflict as demonstrated most notably by the 2003 Iraq war, has received widespread media coverage.

High-profile peacekeeping disasters in Rwanda, Bosnia, Angola and Somalia; allegations of financial irregularities during the Iraq "oil-for-food" program; alleged bureaucratic inflexibility and resistance to institutional reform have irretrievably damaged the reputation of the U.N. for many observers. 

Hostile critics argue that the opportune moment has come for the U.N. to gracefully bid adieu to the world stage so that the way might be cleared for the emergence of new organizations and structures capable of tackling current global concerns.

In short, the U.N. is widely regarded as being in a serious state of crisis, potentially even a terminal one.

However, does an unbiased look at the U.N.’s recent history really justify such a uniformly negative depiction of its current state?

While it is true that the international environment has been radically transformed over the past 20 years, it is unfair to claim an inability or unwillingness on the part of the U.N. to try and adapt accordingly.

In fact, the U.N. has greatly expanded its participation globally by developing and implementing an array of innovative international support mechanisms.

The U.N. has transformed itself into the preeminent global expert in staging and observing elections in post-crisis countries, administering unstable territories, and establishing international courts to bring to justice individuals accused of egregious human rights abuses and war crimes.

Furthermore, in spite of the calamitous failures of the 1990s, the U.N. has greatly increased its peacekeeping role with a fourfold increase to 116,000 personnel since 1999. These peacekeeping efforts, backed by personnel from 118 countries and funding from all 192 member states, have led to the successful disarmament of over 400,000 ex-combatants.

A serious additional concern lies in the onerous financial and resource limitations to which the U.N. is subject. For the 2008-2009 biennium, the U.N. budget minus peacekeeping is $4.2 billion, a figure that pales in comparison to the U.S. Defense Department budget of $651.2 billion for 2009 alone. Similarly, while the U.N. has some 39,500 staff worldwide, McDonalds and its franchisees employ 1.5 million people.

Given its structural limitations, the U.N. has been obliged to forge partnerships with other international bodies and organizations to ensure the successful implementation of its programs and activities.

One such partnership, which has assumed an ever greater importance over the past decade, is with the European Union, a regional organization that, like the U.N., was created to eradicate "the scourge of war."

As a contributor of 39 percent of the total U.N. budget, the E.U. has been keen to stress its firm commitment to a policy of international multilateralism with the U.N. functioning as its mainstay. The U.N. therefore serves as an essential component of the E.U.’s external policy efforts to develop an international framework based on universal rules and values that will enable a rapid response to any global challenge, crisis or threat that might arise.

E.U. reports explicitly state the Union’s intention to forge better structured relations with the U.N. This policy of cooperation can be clearly evidenced in peacekeeping, where the E.U., in addition to its individual member states providing personnel for U.N. peacekeeping missions, provided a bridging operation in Chad until the U.N. was able to establish its own mission in the region. Similarly, the U.N. Interim Administration in Kosovo paved the way for the European Union Role of Law Mission.

The partnership between the U.N. and E.U. is not limited to peacekeeping, spanning as it does a wide range of issues and concerns including, inter alia, climate change, health, development, humanitarian assistance, crime prevention, labor issues and culture.

The E.U. has entered into a number of strategic partnerships with specialised U.N. agencies including the United Nations Development Program, the World Health Organization, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation. At a more general level, the Financial and Administrative Framework Agreement between the E.U. and U.N. has facilitated the incorporation of E.U. funds into U.N. implemented programs and operations.

Though an enthusiastic supporter of the U.N., the E.U. is not an uncritical partner and has candidly expressed its concerns regarding the U.N. budget and management reform. 

For the U.N., the creation of such a strong partnership with the E.U., while unquestionably important for its future, does not come without risk.

Regional organizations, such as the E.U., naturally prioritize the interests of their member countries, whereas the U.N. is supposed to represent the interests of virtually the entire global community, or 192 of the world’s 195 independent states. It is therefore hardly surprising that conflicts of interest can arise between the two bodies.

Furthermore, given the relative lack of financing enjoyed by the U.N., many fear that the economic strength of the E.U., which is able to allocate $8 billion for external aid in 2010 alone, places the U.N. in a weak negotiating position should disagreements over policy or program implementation occur.

There is also a worry that the UN might see its global role being increasingly usurped by better-resourced regional organizations, such as the E.U., with the attendant consequence that their goals and objectives will be given precedence over those of the international community. It is therefore crucial that the U.N. maintains its independent status and ensures that the wishes of all its members are taken into account when engaging in joint operations with regional bodies.

Despite such risks, it appears certain that the partnership between the U.N. and the E.U. will continue to grow. Moreover, managed correctly, this relationship could well prove crucial to the U.N. in overcoming its present challenges.

However, while there is unquestionably a need for the U.N. to evolve in order to optimally service its membership and successfully deliver on its mandate, it is imperative that any proposed changes facilitate multilateral consensus via U.N. mechanisms and modalities. Every state should receive the same access, with their views being accorded equal respect, as is their due as members of the U.N. The superior resources available to the E.U. and other regional organizations should not result in their positions being privileged over those of less wealthy nations or groupings.

Justin Frewen has worked for the United Nations on development and humanitarian programs and projects in Asia, Africa and the Middle East since 1997. He is currently undertaking a PhD in political science at the University of Galway, Ireland.

This article was originally published by the Irish Times: www.irishtimes.com.