The United Nations at Sixty-Two: Rosemary Banks Questions Whether the United Nations Is Still Relevant or Becoming Redundant

By Banks, Rosemary | New Zealand International Review, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

The United Nations at Sixty-Two: Rosemary Banks Questions Whether the United Nations Is Still Relevant or Becoming Redundant


Banks, Rosemary, New Zealand International Review


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Doubts and scepticism about the United Nations have been commonplace throughout its history, but there are times when this questioning goes deeper. Is the United Nations still relevant or is it becoming redundant? Is it at risk of being overtaken by other regional and international initiatives?

The role of the United Nations has been under scrutiny since the end of the Cold War--but more particularly since the Security Council's refusal to condone intervention in Iraq. Partly in response, the 2005 World Summit put the organisation through a CAT scan and agreed on a long list of recommendations for reforming and renewing the place.

To add to the current mood of introversion, the United Nations is, of course, going through a transition in its leadership--from a well known Secretary-General who had a lifetime long UN career behind him to a relatively unknown figure. Ban Kimoon is still orienting himself to the ways of the United Nations and is not yet battle hardened on the international circuit.

At the same time, member states' expectations of the United Nations are evolving. There is widespread criticism that the United Nations is too slow to respond to the problems now seen as most urgent. Attention is shifting to the interlinked global problems that straddle human security, migration, environmental degradation and climate change. Today's demands are new and multi-faceted, but the machinery is old and creaking. It is organised in silos rather than in flexible teams. There is a need for reform and renewal as an on-going process, if the United Nations is to remain fully relevant. But there is no consensus about where reform effort should be concentrated to make the organisation more effective.

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Ideological divides and regional group rigidities continue to frustrate good intentions. On the positive side, there is a resilience and a persistent optimism about the United Nations that springs from the Charter itself.

The 'we the peoples of the United Nations' commitments--'to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war; ... to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights; to establish the conditions for justice and respect for international law; to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom'--still ring true. These evergreen words on the fundamental purposes of the United Nations have an enduring power to inspire.

The questions I shall explore in this article are how well is today's United Nations delivering on these promises and what does it need to do to stay relevant? What are New Zealand's priority interests? What does the scorecard on UN reform and renewal look like? What are the group dynamics in New York and where does New Zealand fit in? How is the new Secretary-General measuring up?

Five principles

In his valedictory speech last December, Secretary-General Kofi Annan distilled from his 44 years of experience at the United Nations five principles which he saw as essential for the future conduct of international relations:

* collective responsibility

* global solidarity

* the rule of law

* mutual accountability

* a commitment to multilateralism.

The United Nations provides the framework to exercise collective responsibility and to demonstrate global solidarity (remember the strong statements immediately after 9/11). It sets a foundation of human rights obligations and other norms for member states to take up. When there are crimes against humanity which outrage the global community, the United Nations can act through the International Criminal Court and set up tribunals--as for the Rwanda genocide and the Khmer Rouge regime.

We can agree with Kofi Annan that much has been achieved through the United Nations since it was established in 1945, but more remains to be done to put those five principles into practice. …

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