In the period between September 17 and September 30, most of the 193 U.N. member state countries convened in a General Assembly of the United Nations. At the Assembly, they engaged in discussion, dialogue and debate on a wide range of topics such as development, peace and security, and international law.
Since it was established, the U.N. has achieved major success on a number of fronts but the results in peace-keeping and conflict resolution have been mixed. Given this, it is useful to review the mission and purpose of the U.N., where it has made progress, where it has major improvements to make, and what should be realistic expectations for this august international body in the area of peacekeeping and conflict resolution going forward.
The United Nations was created as an intergovernmental organization at the end of World War II by 50 countries who signed its Charter in San Francisco on 26 June 1945. The Charter is a lengthy and detailed document laying out specific agreements.
The Charter’s Preamble states that its founding members were determined to: “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…”; “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights..”; “establishing conditions under which justice and respect for obligations arising from treaties and other sources can be maintained;” and “promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”
The Preamble identifies the ends to be achieved as to: “practice tolerance and live together in peace…”; “unite our strength to maintain international security and peace,” ensure…that armed force should not be used, save in the common interest;” and, “employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all people”.
UN Progress and Successes
These are compelling and unifying sentiments. And, through the years the U.N. has grown in numbers to its present 193 members and demonstrated a capacity to make a difference in a number of areas on the international stage and around the world.
The U.N. has proven quite effective in sectors like health, food security, social development, culture, and environment protection. On the health front, it contained diseases like smallpox and controlled numerous diseases through comprehensive immune vaccination campaigns. With the help of the World Food Program (WFP) and its partners, the U.N. takes care of food needs of approximately 104 million people from 80 nations annually. Ending famine is a major U.N. initiative that has been undertaken to save lives of millions across the world.
In the 1990’s the U.N. held a series of global conferences that promoted and produced progress in a range of areas including human rights, population policies and the status of women. This culminated in 2000 with adaption of the Millennium Development Goals.
An analysis of more than 65 years of voting records from 1946through 2011 conducted by Dartmouth College and The Ohio State University indicates that the U.N. has also been effective at suppressing conflicts throughout its history.
Scott Paul, of Dartmouth College, states that “Our analysis provides evidence that the UN is more than just a witness of changing policy.” Skyler Cranmer, of Ohio State, adds, “The evidence demonstrates that the UN is more effective in achieving its mandate of avoiding wars than many experts think.”
In sum, the U.N.’s track record in conflict prevention within crisis affected countries is solid and impressive. The outcomes in this decade in countries such as Ghana, Tunisia, and Fiji attest to this.
UN Performance Improvement Needs
The U.N. has many other achievements to its credit similar to those mentioned here. But, a review of some recent commentary suggests it also has several areas in need of improvement.
One of these is the U.N.’s structure, management and mode of operations which has been characterized as antiquated and more responsive to the needs of the old guard than the newer and less influential members and their cultures. Related to this, there is a need for more modern technology, innovation and transparency in communications and decision-making.
Commentators also observe that the U.N.’s capabilities in the area of human rights has diminished. They stress that strengthening the capacity here is essential to enabling the UN to fulfil its Charter.
Finally, and most critically there is the area of peacekeeping and conflict prevention. Pomona College in California notes that “Tragically, there have been more than 250 armed conflicts since the Charter was signed in 1946.”
In a 2015 article for the U.N. Chronicle, Edward Mortimer, former chief speechwriter and director of Communications at the Executive office of the Secretary-General at the U.N. (1998-2006) declares, “It is in the peace and security field that the need to strengthen the Organization is most glaring.”
He goes on to argue that reforms in the Security Council of the U.N. are more important than any other reforms stating.
“The agony of Syria especially, continuing year after year, makes a mockery of the founders’ determination “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”; and the role of the five permanent members seems increasingly anachronistic to the vast majority of other Member States, and indeed of the world’s people.”
The Context and Expectations for U.N. in Peace-Keeping Conflict Resolution
Based upon Mortimer’s assessment, is a major reform of the U.N. Security Council in the cards? I seriously doubt it. And, even if it were the U.N. would have major factors that would inhibit or restrain its peacekeeping and conflict resolution efforts.
First, is the national sovereignty of the countries that belong to the U.N. While they have committed to work together in the best interests of the world, their own interests will always come first.
Second, is that the U.N. has no absolute authority to act to restrict any conflict. What authority does exist becomes even more constrained when it comes to conflicts within a powerful state or between powerful nation states. Third, even if the U.N. were to initiate peacekeeping efforts, they would not likely be effective when conflicting parties are determined to engage in armed combat.
Fourth, if parties are using social and economic sanctions or propaganda to gain the support of allies, it would be difficult for the U.N. to launch and sustain any meaningful intervention.
This is not a pessimistic perspective but a realistic one. It leads me to realistic expectations for the U.N.’s involvement in future peace keeping and conflict resolution.
Those expectations are: that the U.N. will work to continuously expand its scope and capacity in this regard; and, that while the Security Council may not reform itself that it will refine its approach and the ability of Council members to collaborate with one another to take affirmative steps that will prevent or reduce the potential for conflict within and between countries. Meeting those expectations will ensure that our not so united nations today will become more so in this 21st century. The U.N. started us on this journey in the 20th century.
It is a journey that we must continue to pursue. In so doing, we must remember the significant progress that has been made since 1946 and commit to making the progress that must be made to ensure a peaceful future for the world and the citizens of all its countries.