Today, the United Nations is an organization in a period of transition. It was an organization born from fear of the future, with lofty goals and soaring aspirations. However, from the beginning, the United Nations faced many logistical problems with fulfilling its goals and central philosophies. The United Nations (UN) was designed to replace the League of Nations, the international organizational body that was formed in the post-World-War-I era (Annan, 2000). After the League of Nations failed to stop World War II, the organization was dissolved in 1945 and the United Nations was formed (Annan, 2000).
The founding philosophy of the United Nations was a reactionary one. Primarily, leaders around the world-- but particularly European leaders-- felt that the world could not handle a third world war. Many scientists, politicians, and leading thinkers of the day saw the damage done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and realized that humanity would be finished if nuclear war were to occur. The UN was formed out of this fear, in the hopes that an open forum, communication, and international governing body would lessen the likelihood of international nuclear war (Bercovitch, Kremenyuk and Zartman, 2009).
The organization of the United Nations body is more complex today than it was when it was formed, but the basic skeleton remains the same. There are different groups that make up the UN assembly; these are known as “organs” (Chesterman, 2004). Today, the five organs that make up the United Nations are called the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Secretariat, the Economic and Social Council, and the International Court of Justice (Chesterman, 2004). Each organ provides a different service to the United Nations; however, for the purpose of discussing United-Nations relevancy and challenges, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and the International Court of Justice are the most important to understand and analyze.
The Security Council: Playing Favorites
The Security Council is, perhaps, one of the most important organs in the UN. It is concerned with international sanctions, military action, and peacekeeping missions; essentially, this council is concerned with the very issues that worried world leaders enough to form the United Nations in the first place (Chesterman, 2004). The Security Council is made up of fifteen representatives from fifteen different nations, but five of these nations have permanent seats on the Security Council. Those five permanent members-- China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States-- have a special power to veto any action that the Security Council is considering. This means that if the ten other rotating members of the Security Council agree on an action to be taken, and Russia disagrees, the action cannot be taken (Bercovitch, Kremenyuk and Zartman, 2009).
The five permanent members of the Security Council were chosen in 1945 when World War II ended. These were the “great powers” that emerged victorious after the war. It does not, however, logically follow to have those same five powers as the most powerful members of the Security Council in today’s world. Since 1945, the world has faced a Cold War, genocide in South America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa, nuclear proliferation, and nearly-non-stop war. The face of the world has changed, but the most powerful members of the Security Council have not (Weisman, 1993).
If the Security Council’s job is to promote peace and international cooperation throughout the world, it has done a poor job indeed. One of the reasons that the UN is seen as a farce by many nations is this apparent favoritism. The permanent seats on the Security Council were designed to keep nations from behaving rashly, but in recent years, assembly members have come under fire from detractors who suggest that they are using the permanent seats in the Security Council to further their country’s interests, not to promote peace and cooperation (Gwertzman, 2010).
In addition to being controlled by the five permanent members, the Security Council has repeatedly come under fire for being unwilling to act in times of crises. The United Nations has a history of non-action in certain circumstances, and a convoluted and confusing definition of genocide.
The International Court of Justice: All Bark, Little Bite
The International Court of Justice has prosecuted some important cases over the years. The purpose of this section is not to detract from the victories this organ has achieved over the years. It has successfully put away many war criminals, and solved many disputes between nations. However, the fact remains that there is no real precedent for having an international judicial body-- and unlike judicial bodies that exist within a nation’s justice system, the International Court has very few resources for carrying out its decisions (Annan, 2000).
In the United States, when a court issues a decision, there exists a specific legal and judicial framework for carrying out the decision. If a criminal is to be incarcerated, police and prison personnel are employed to ensure that the sentence is carried out. In the United Nations charter, the only method for ensuring that a decision made by the International Court of Justice is followed is to take the issue before the Security Council (Doyle and Sambanis, 2006). This creates an obvious conflict of interest for members of the Security Council, particularly if the issue concerns one of the five permanent members of the Security Council or one of their close allies. This is a clear conflict of interest, and creates an unfair balance of power within the different organs of the United Nations.
One of the other problems facing the International Court of Justice is one that is becoming more and more important in today’s world. The International Court of Justice has no jurisdiction over corporations, individuals, or private enterprises of any kind (Doyle and Sambanis, 2006). With international corporations becoming more and more powerful, there is very little that the world as a whole can do to enforce any international standard of behavior on these entities in a court of law. When a corporation behaves badly on a global or international scale, the international community has no method for punishment or recourse.
The Economic and Social Council: Too Big to Fail
The problems caused by the World Bank and the IMF are too many to explore in depth, but there are a few glaring issues that face the Economic and Social Council. This committee is responsible for the UN commissions concerning everything from controlling deforestation to the status of women (Pietilä and Vickers, 1990). There are some logistical problems with this: the scope of the Council has grown so large in the time since the United Nations was founded that all the commissions, agencies and hearings that it is responsible for are numerous and somewhat unwieldy.
In addition, to this, the Economic and Social Council faces the same problem as the International Court of Justice: their power is limited entirely to what the five permanent members deem in their best interest. If the Economic and Social Council (or one of its many commissions or agencies) makes a decision that requires action of some sort, that often needs to pass before the Security Council for enactment. Thus, the existence of veto power detracts from the power that this council has.
There is also a very real sense of entitlement from the “big five” on the Security Council. These nations provide the bulk of the funding to the United Nations, which once again leads to a conflict of interest. The United Nations were founded to improve communication between nations and form a forum where all nations could meet on equal grounds, but the economic reality is that if these nations removed their funding from the organization, the United Nations would cease to function.
The United Nations, as a concept, is not a bad one. It is important to have an overarching authority where nations can take their grievances to be heard, particularly in today’s globalized world, where isolationism is less feasible than ever before. However, the existence of the five permanent positions on the United Nations’ Security Council and the veto power that they wield are some of the biggest problems facing the United Nations today. Over and over again the world has seen the UN fail to act as a result of this: in Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq, Cambodia; the list goes on. Without changes, there is a very real possibility that the United Nations will steadily continue to lose power and relevancy in the international community.
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