Event ReportsPublished on Dec 17, 2015
Is the UN fit for purpose at 70?

The United Nations, often regarded as the 'heart' of the multilateral system, is fading towards obscurity being described as more of a NGO rather than a governing multilateral institution, according to Mr Hardeep Puri, former Indian Representative to the world body.

Delivering a talk titled 'Is the UN Fit for Its Purpose at 70?' at Observer Research Foundation on December 5, Mr Puri said with policy decisions on international security issues increasingly being made outside the purview or jurisdiction of the UN, the relevance of this body is being questioned.

It is ironic considering that former US President Truman had even foreshadowed UN reform during its creation when he said that 'the charter will be expanded and improved as time goes on?as it is not fixed into a mould', he noted.

Mr Puri said the popularity of the UN has plummeted as many believe that the United Nations is still stuck on the principles it was founded on, unreflective of the changed paradigms. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, 2011 Libya war and the ongoing Syrian crisis without the Security Council's authorisation has raised some important questions on the effectiveness of the UN. Such emerging challenges require readjustments to the Charter, especially with regards to contemporary security issues. Since the nature of armed conflict has drastically changed since 1945, the UN charter needs continuing reforms to reflect these changed ideologies and realities. The complex nature of conflict today consists of a series of asymmetric threats, from terrorist groups, ideological groups, thereby making them difficult to resolve using tools and methodologies stuck in decades past, he said.

Discussing the organizational structure of the UN, Mr. Puri said it is evident that the UN is made up of three different layers. The first is the 193 member states that constitutes the general assembly; the second includes the secretariat of the UN with all its different agencies and the third consists of civil society actors that contribute towards the functioning of the organization. In the last 70 years, the role of civil society, which includes academia, think tanks, the private and non-profit sectors, has grown exponentially. The United Nations was formed immediately post the Second World War when the allied powers in their collective longing for peach drafted the UN charter to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war". The steps taken during the Atlantic Charter, Moscow, Tehran, Dumbarton Oaks, Yalta and San Francisco Conferences enhanced the ideology behind the creation of the United Nations. Arguments on reasons why the United Nations has not reformed range from the absence of a third World War or from the presence of a nuclear deterrent. It remains cognizant of a time when the world was at war but is not reflective of a time where the nature of war and conflict has changed.

Mr Puri said there are constant and increasing threats to the multilateral world order, especially with regard to the governance and social cohesion spheres. The demographic challenges such as growing refugee crisis, humanitarian disasters, and economic and climate threats have had a strong negative impact on the social cohesion of countries. There is increased pressure on government to address these issues, when it is unable to provide solutions to immediate challenges such as climate change, food insecurity and water shortages. This struggle is further exacerbated by the demand of citizens for peace and stability not only in their own countries but in their region as well. The rising demands of citizens on their respective governments is deepening the gap in state-society relations, the subsequent consequence is the worsening of inter-state relations.

Mr Puri said for the UN to remain fit for purpose, it must reform immediately. One of the many organizations working towards these reforms is the Independent Commission on Multilateralism, which seeks to present a range of options which will help in this process. The ICM has identified sixteen thematic areas which will be required for such reforms. These areas are: new threats, challenges and opportunities for the multilateral system; social inclusion, political participation and effective governance; terrorism, including issues related to ideology, identity politics and organized crime; fragile states and fragile cities; women, peace and security; forced displacement, refugees and migration; the impact of new technologies on peace, security and development; relationship between UN, regional organizations, civil society, private sector and NGOs; engaging, supporting and empowering global youth; humanitarian engagements; justice, human rights and the international legal system; weapons of mass destruction, non-proliferation and disarmament; global pandemics and global public health; sustainable development, climate change and the post-2015 development agenda; armed conflict: mediation, conciliation and peacekeeping and communication strategy for the UN multilateral system.

This is not to say, he said, that the United Nations has remained stagnant since its inception but having said that, requires immediate reforms to remain relevant. While complete reformation of the UN system will not be achieved anytime in the short run, certain measures can be taken to make the UN reflective of modern times. Past achievements such as the expansion of the Security Council, the establishment of the IAEA, UN women and other organizations reflect a certain degree of progress. The UN is still a very powerful organization given its convening power and its universal legitimacy. However, recent trends in ignoring the jurisdiction of the UN and the new incapacities to respond to emerging threats and crisis, reignites the reform debate. The advantage of multilateral solutions must be refreshed in the strategies of nation states, moving away from unilateral action to solve issues in the global security environment.

Mr Puri said an unreformed UN will lose the interest and membership of its stakeholders if it does not become relevant again. For example, India's involvement with the UN is still very limited and will only decrease if the UN remains steadfast on old ideologies and structures. UN reforms are not only important but necessary at this time and the response of both traditional powers and emerging countries in trying to refresh the validity of the system will be both mutually beneficial and globally responsible, he said.

(This report is prepared by Kriti Shah, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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