Role of the UN

Shahid M Amin

THE United Nations Organisation, known as UN, was set up in 1945. Unlike the League of Nations, the UN is a relative success and has survived for 71 years already. Despite its shortcomings, the UN remains the top world forum. This is shown by the fact that when the UN General Assembly session begins in September, it is attended by many world leaders and receives worldwide media coverage.
The origin of the UN is traced to the Atlantic Charter, issued by US and Britain on August 14, 1941 which set out the goals for post-War world. One of its clauses envisaged the “establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security.” After several preparatory conferences, the UN Charter was signed in San Francisco by 50 nations on June 25, 1945. The Charter is a beautifully written document which starts with the words: “We the people of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in dignity of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, have resolved to combine our efforts and have agreed to establish the UN.”
On ratification by the majority of founding nations, the UN came into existence on October 24, 1945. It consists of five organs: General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, International Court of Justice and the Secretariat. In addition, it has several specialized agencies, notably, UNESCO, UNICEF, UNIDO, ILO, FAO, WHO, UPU, ITU, ICAO, IMF and the World Bank group. These specialized agencies are playing a vital role in economic and other fields. World communication could break down if there were no UPU, ITU and ICAO. ILO is responsible for so much improvement in conditions of labour all over the world. UNESCO is helping in the preservation of world heritage sites in Pakistan: Mohenjo-Daro, Taxila, Lahore Fort and Shalimar. WHO has helped eradicate smallpox and polio. There are many critics of the UN all over the world who seem unaware of the vitally important roles being played by these UN bodies.
The UN sought to learn from the failings of League of Nations, which was slow to react to crises and in taking effective action to preserve peace. Critical issues of war and tension are mostly taken to the UN Security Council (UNSC) whose members can meet at shortest notice and are required to keep missions in New York. UNSC consists of 15 members, including five winners of Second World War (US, Russia, UK, France and China), which are permanent members with the right of veto. The ten non-permanent members are elected by UNGA for a two-year term. To pass a Resolution in UNSC, a majority of nine affirmative votes is needed and no negative vote by a permanent member.
It is noteworthy that Chapter VI of UN Charter entitled “Pacific Settlement of Disputes” lays down that UNSC may investigate any dispute that might lead to international friction and may recommend appropriate procedures. But these recommendations are generally considered to be not binding, as they lack any enforcement mechanism. Kashmir dispute was taken up by UNSC under Chapter VI and its resolutions on Kashmir, therefore, lack an enforcement mechanism. This is a major disappointment for Pakistan, and has been the main reason for criticism of the UN.
Under Chapter VII, the UNSC has broader power to decide what measures are to be taken in situations involving threats to peace. Decisions under Chapter VII are binding on UN members. The problem all along has been that the founders had visualized that the five permanent members would act in unison. But the Cold War started in 1945, which meant that such unanimity was rarely achieved. When such a consensus was achieved, e.g. during the Pakistan-India War of 1965, the UNSC passed Resolution 211 on September 20, which demanded a ceasefire by September 22 and withdrawal of all armed personnel to previous positions. Pakistan and India complied with the UN directive. The only occasion that the UNSC ordered the use of force to oppose external aggression was in June 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea. This was possible because the Soviet delegate was boycotting UNSC and no veto was used against the Resolution.
The main criticism of the UN is its inability to resolve such festering issues as Palestine and Kashmir. The American veto has enabled Israel to defy world opinion and International Law. After 1957, the Soviet veto paralyzed UNSC on tackling the Kashmir dispute. Later on, India’s economic and political clout has prevented any kind of consensus to secure a Resolution on Kashmir. There have been other glaring failures as well. Many observers hold the veto as the main obstacle to an effective role by the UNSC. But there is a counter argument viz. that the veto merely recognises the hard reality that there are some Great Powers, by virtue of their military and other capability, who cannot be forced to accept a decision against their wishes, otherwise there could be a global war.
There has been a lot of discussion about reforming the UN. There were 51 states at the founding of UN in 1945 but now there are 193 member states. Most of them are Third World countries. It is logical that the UNSC should reflect the realities of today. Among the five veto powers, three are from Europe, and one each from Asia and North America. Africa and Latin America are totally unrepresented. Asia has 60% of the world’s population but has only one seat among permanent members. However, the two main candidates are India and Japan, and their inclusion will probably be opposed by China. The Islamic world has more than fifty states and can claim one permanent seat. There is lack of consensus in Africa as well as Latin America as to who should be their candidate. There are other suggested reforms as well. Any change in the Charter would be possible only if there is no veto used by the existing five members. Thus, there is little possibility of any imminent change in the UN structure.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.
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