Is UN still Relevant after 75 Years of Existence?

By Zhang Dan

When the United Nations (“the UN”) was founded in 1945upon the ruins of World War II, it ushers in a defining new era in human history in the quest for peace and progress. For the first time, an international organization can take action on issues confronting humanity as a whole, and global governance begins to take shape. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN. As the most representative and authoritative intergovernmental organization in the world, the UN has played an indispensable and irreplaceable role in maintaining world peace and security, promoting economic and social development, and strengthening the rule of law.

Since its establishment, the UN has witnessed unprecedented changes in the global political landscape. Competition between big powers, contention of unilateral vs. multilateral order, clashes between hegemony and dominance vs. independence and autonomy, have played out in the UN. Bipolar political tension eased since the end of the Cold War. But the exhilaration best shown in the book“The End of History and the Last Man” by Francis Fukuyama was soon subdued by more diverse and complex challenges, and non-traditional threats like terrorism, religious, sect or tribal conflicts, were reignited and became more rampant, topping the agenda of the UN. As Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “When old order melted away, history came back with a vengeance.” Ever since then, non-traditional threats have compounded traditional threats and made global challenges more formidable, with the latest example being COVID-19 pandemic.

Ⅰ. Has the United Nations Been Effective and Useful in the Past 75 Years?

Amid doubt and suspicion, is the UN declining or malfunctioning? The reality is that there hasn’t been a single international organization that is more democratic, useful and universally accepted than the UN. 

For 75 years, the UN has enabled continuous dialogue and deliberation on topics such as peace and security, and provided a platform for norm-setting to cope with global challenges. It offers solutions to global problems and paves the groundwork for global order based on rules including the UN Charter, international conventions, declarations, and other binding or non-binding instruments and documents. It has become more representative and authoritative as more developing countries achieved independence since 1960s and joined the organization, culminating in 193 member countries as of today. The subsidiary bodies of the UN and related organizations have expanded and covered all aspects of human activities, making irreplaceable contribution to global peace and development.

For 75 years, the UN has been the champion in the quest for peace and security. Potential world wars have been avoided, and many regional conflicts have been brought under control. The UN Security Council, bearing the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, has adopted more than 2,500 resolutions to try to settle disputes and promote peace. As of today, more than 71 UN peacekeeping operations have been deployed in 48 countries to practice the concept of collective security, which has cost US$141 billion. Currently, more than 95,000 blue helmets are still serving in 13 missions. Many conflicts have been successfully prevented, including in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burundi, Sudan and Nepal, and blue helmets have become a symbol of the UN and an emblem for peace. The UN has worked to promote the political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Korean nuclear issue, Iranian nuclear issue, Syrian crisis, Afghanistan and many other hot-spot issues. According to research results, the UN has reduced conflicts around the world by 40% since 1990.

For 75 years, UN has led the global fight to end poverty and disparity. With the formation of groups like G77 and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) by developing countries, developmental issues have acquired more importance in the UN. Driven by their compelling needs, a series of global conferences were held in the 1990s on subjects including environment, social development, gender equality, demographic issues, financing for development, etc. These summits have generated an unprecedented global consensus on key issues related to development. In the year 2000, the UN held Millennium Summit and adopted the Millennium Development Goals (“the MDGs”), which are much broader in scope and take cross-cutting and long-term approach across a vast array of interlinked issues. The MDGs are quite successful in galvanizing global effort and broad-based consensus in the fight against poverty, and improving nutrition, education, health and ending gender and other inequalities and discrimination.

In 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (“the SDGs”) was adopted as the latest milestone designed by the UN. It covers 17 time-bound goals and 169 targets, and sets sustainability as the fundamental underpin and core value in pursuing development. Compared to MDGs, the SDGs are more ambitious and inspiring, putting the planet at equal footing with humanity, with three Ps as the center, namely prosperity, planet and peace. In the same year, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, another landmark document reached by all 197 parties, was adopted which provides new impetus to combat global climate change by strengthening the global response and mobilizing all stakeholders.

For 75 years, the UN is the beacon to end discrimination and inequalities. In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and since then, more than 40 conventions have been signed and come into force under the auspices of the UN, with the last one being the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, thus creating a network of legal instruments on promotion and protection of human rights.

The connotation of UN human rights has been constantly enriched, from civil, political rights to economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development. It is worth mentioning that after years of hard work by developing countries to promote UN human rights causes in a fair, objective, non-selective and non-politicized manner, the 60th UN General Assembly, on March 16, 2006, decided to establish the UN Human Rights Council and to create Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”) to assess human rights situation of all 193 member states.

For 75 years, the UN has made profound progress in promoting international law. Many treaties formulated by the UN constitute the legal basis of regulating relations between states. Over the years, more than 500 multilateral treaties have been deposited with the UN Secretary-General. Their contents range from the maintenance of world peace to the promotion of development, from the protection of children’s rights to the fight against HIV/AIDS, from the protection of seabed resources to the peaceful use of outer space. In 1994, after seven months of deliberation, the International Court of Justice ruled that the disputed Aozou area between Libya and Chad belonged to Chad, thus ending the 22-year-long border dispute in law.

For 75 years, the UN has made enormous efforts in arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. During the Cold War, arms race between the two major military groups escalated rapidly. Nuclear weapons, like the Sword of Damocles, threatened the survival of mankind. Under the constant appeal of the UN, the US and the Soviet Union finally signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987 to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. The treaty has significantly eased the relationship between the East and the West. After the Cold War, international arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation also entered an important period. Marked by the UN Security Council’s adoption of Resolution No.1540, the consensus on international non-proliferation has beenfurtherstrengthened. Such treaties asthe Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, and the Chemical Weapons Convention, have been playing an indispensable role in maintaining global strategic stability, enhancing mutual trust among major powers, and easing regional tension. Another remarkable practice is the successful signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Iranian Nuclear Issue in July 2015, which safeguards the international nuclear non-proliferation system.

Ⅱ. China’s Contribution to the UN

As one of the founding members, China is the first country to sign the UN Charter. In 1971, after the adoption of resolution 2758 by the 26th UN General Assembly, New China’s legitimate seat in the UN was finally restored.

Ever since then, China has become an active participant in multilateral affairs. On peace and security issues, China prioritizes political settlement of issues like the Middle East, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Syria, South Sudan, etc. As early as in 1963, the Chinese government issued a statement advocating for the complete, thorough, clean and resolute prohibition and destruction of nuclear weapons. China always insists on realizing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through diplomatic dialogue, maintaining stability on the peninsula, and taking into account the legitimate concerns of all parties. China’s mediation is critical to reaching the Comprehensive Agreement on the Iranian Nuclear Issue. Since 1984, China has repeatedly submitted draft resolutions on the prevention of an arms race in the outer space to the General Assembly, and insisted that the outer space be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.

Since 1990, more than 40,000 Chinese blue helmets have served in nearly 30UN peacekeeping operations. Now, ranked the largest peacekeeper contributor among the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the second largest financial contributor to peacekeeping operations, China still has more than 2,500 peacekeepers in 9 missions. The outstanding quality and performance of Chinese peacekeepers have been highly praised by the UN and the local people. In 2015, President Xi Jinping announced the establishment of the China-UN Peace and Development Fund, and the formation of a peacekeeping standby force of 8,000 people, which laid the foundation for long-term support for UN-led peace process.

By lifting more than 700 million people out of poverty, China is a good example of achieving most of the MDGs. As the largest developing country, China has integrated SDGs into national strategies and programs, and is on track to eliminate extreme poverty by 2020, 10 years ahead of the scheduled timeline of the SDGs. China’s contribution to global development efforts has multiplied in recent year, ranging from technical assistance to capacity building, from agriculture to infrastructure, from water treatment to biodiversity preservation. By engaging in multi-faceted development assistance, China has become a natural leader in South-South cooperation.

Most notably, in 2013, China proposed the Belt and Road Initiative which has synergistic effect with the SDGs. According to a World Bank research report, the BRI transport projects, if fully implemented, can help 7.6 million people out of extreme poverty and 32 million people out of moderate poverty. They will increase trade in participating countries by 2.8 to 9.7 percent, global trade by 1.7 to 6.2 percent and global income by 0.7 to 2.9 percent.

China has always engaged in human rights cooperation in an objective, fair and non-selective manner. Gender equality is one of the priority areas. In 1995, China successfully hosted the 4th World Conference on Women, committing China’s leadership in women empowerment. So far, China has ratified and acceded to 26 international human rights conventions. Combat against COVID-19 once again testifies China’s people-centered approach to the promotion of human rights for all. In this regard, free testing is provided to anyone in need from the very beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, in disregard of differences of income, ethnicity, or sex. China opposes using human rights as a tool for political purposes targeting developing countries.

China’s multilateral diplomacy has following general and distinct features:

Equal say for all countries, big or small;
Prioritizing political mediation and negotiation for conflicts resolution based on respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity;
Merit-based judgment and solutions on disputed issues;
Join consultation for win-win result, catering to different needs and specialties;
Shared responsibilities for shared visions of peace and development;
Network of partnership for coping with global challenges, irrespective of ideological, religious or cultural differences;
Promoting human rights through development and constructive dialogue.

These components capture the essence of China’s multilateral diplomacy and have made China a responsible player and constructive contributor in global affairs. With the overarching goal to build a community with a shared future for mankind, which reflects the quintessence of multilateralism, China will remain committed to multilateralism with UN as the core.

Ⅲ. Is UN Sufficient to Deal with Global Problems?

In retrospect, has UN done enough and met the hope of “We the peoples of the United Nations”? The answer is not completely affirmative because of some structural barriers and insurmountable political obstacles.

The UN always has to face the rivalry between multilateralism and unilateralism. UN Charter grants countries, big or small, equality. But equal sovereignty on paper does not mean equal power in reality. Certain big power has always tried to sway the equilibrium of the UN agenda. Refraining from the threat or use of force and non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states enshrined in the Charter, have often been hijacked by geopolitical interests of the big power or political grouping, which led to tension and even wars.

The Iraq War, based on an unfounded allegation that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), has resulted in the death of more than 200 thousand innocent civilians and no perpetrators have been held accountable for war crime. Similarly, the UN was not able to prevent the unwarranted bombardment of Libya which caused tens of thousands of civilians death, women and children included. Besides, so many situations remain unresolved, from Yemen to Libya, Afghanistan and beyond.

Syria is an another example of failure to prevent war crime although the UN report pinpointed that the indiscriminate bombardment and missile launch killed civilians and severely violated human right and humanitarian laws. With so many political missions and peacekeeping operations in place, peace is unattainable in some hot spots and peacekeepers are sometimes caught in between warring parties and cannot even freeze conflict and protect civilians and themselves.

The UN has not responded to global challenges in a timely, cohesive, coordinated and effective manner. Norms like verification protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention, convention on digital governance under UN auspices, are not in place. Treaty on the prevention of outer space arms race is still elusive, just to name a few.

The UN has not done enough to break the conceptual and structural impediments to sustainable development, especially for the 47 Least Developed Countries (“LDCs”). 27 in 1971, LDCs has currently grown to 47. With glacial rate of progress in graduation, their high vulnerability remains unaddressed. And most unfortunately, the international aid regime, led by the longstanding commitment by developed countries to provide the equivalent of 0.15 to 0.2 percent of their gross national income (GNI) in the form of ODA to LDCs, in parallel to a commitment to provide 0.7 percent of GNI in ODA to developing countries, is not demand-driven, need-based and has not been fulfilled.

Globally, disparity between the rich and poor has not been reduced after the 2008 financial crisis, but has become more acute in all dimensions, resulting in the upswing in popularity and support for populism, nationalism, inward-looking, and anti-globalization. Climate actions are not adequate to meet climate crisis and commitments for climate funding and common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) are unfulfilled. Globally, the majority of the MDGs are not met and the prescriptions given by international organizations, quite often, are irrelevant and ineffective. On the other hand, successful development patterns and poverty reduction paradigms which are result-oriented and take into account different needs, concerns, particularities of different national circumstances, are not given due recognition, which undercut UN’s leadership in championing poverty reduction and ending disparity.

While underpinning development agenda, human rights mainstreaming has not generated the anticipated conditions for poverty reduction and reducing inequalities. Changes in political system and governance structure, quite often, cannot uproot tribal and religious conflicts or human rights violation. Progress on gender equality is lagging behind economic empowerment of women. The much anticipated and well-cherished collective Right to Development, until today, is not accorded equal status with individual rights, and double standards and politicization remain rampant targeting developing countries.COVID-19 further exacerbates discrimination, xenophobia, hate crimes against Asian.

Ⅳ. Way forward

Amid rising tide of unilateralism and deglobalization, global governance is now at a crucial juncture. It also faces enormous threats from populism, protectionism, and isolationism. Is globalization or deglobalization the way forward? Are we moving together or apart? 

Admitting limits and faults of the UN does not mean that multilateralism with the UN at the center is the wrong direction. Rather, fair and inclusive globalization needs multilateral cooperation, coordination and compromise more than ever. The ongoing UN reform process, championed by SG Mr. Guterres, is another useful attempt to adapt to the changing world and make functions and mechanisms of the UN more coordinated, cohesive, streamlined, efficient, and responsive to global challenges. 

Supporting Multilateralism
The world needs strengthened, equal and regulated multilateralism more than ever in order to protect the interests of all countries. The quintessence of multilateralism lies in its ability to facilitate coordination, compromise, consensus-building and coexistence. It maintains a universal system with a universal respect for international law. It lays the foundation for collective and sustaining peace and development for the whole world. With diverse stakeholders, UN must generate dynamic discourse for dialogue and cooperation, for unity and solidarity, and for the common interest of all nations. Late SG Kofi Annan once said, “Nations need to come together, not at cross purposes but with a common purpose, to shape our common destiny.” This is what the UN was created for and all countries should work toward this end. Given the current financial difficulties faced by the UN, all countries need to pay their dues without delay to ensure stable and predictable financing of UN operations.

Cooperation Instead of Confrontation
Only international cooperation benefits all countries and paves the way for global peace and development. Policies of rivalry or adversary will only drag the world into tension, and even wars, benefiting no one. Big power confrontation, as has been proved by history, is not the right choice and will only bring the world back to the Cold War period. In the current world where a minor miscalculation can potentially lead to a major confrontation, we must do everything possible to push for reason and restraints. Let’s hope for a future of mutual respect and equality and work towards this end.

Respecting Diversity
Diversity is our natural endowment and source for inspiration and creativity. It serves as the incubator for ideas, and technological innovation, and facilitates trade, investment, and movement of people. Division or decoupling can only lead to the opposite. We must avoid the Great Fracture, as SG Guterres has warned. We must ensure that the promotion of human rights serves the interest of all people, and is not being used for political maneuvers of demonizing, labeling and finger-pointing. COVID-19 stigmatization must stop and the barriers of race, color, religion and culture must be broken.

Combating Global Challenges
From the proliferation of hate speech to violent extremism, from climate change and degrading ecosystem to heightened food insecurity, from health emergency to backsliding education, from the misuse of artificial intelligence to cybercrime, we face unprecedented vulnerability and unpredictability. We need to seed and bolster trust and unity, rather than fear and mistrust. We need to increase investments in development and climate action, rather than zero-sum geopolitical interest. Let us work to further the momentum for more unified and strengthened global action tackling common challenges.

Zhang Dan is Vice-President and Director-Generalof the United Nations Association of China.