Diminishing relevance of the U.N.

Apart from the local dynamics underpinning any conflict, macro structural variables of the U.N. impinge on its ability to make a difference, particularly in the peace and security areas.

Published : Oct 21, 2019 07:00 IST

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 24.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 24.

Every year, around the third week of September, New York’s first avenue of Midtown East, from 42nd Street to 48th Street, where the United Nations Headquarters (UNHQ) is located, comes under the global spotlight as it marks the opening of another session of the U.N. General Assembly. The main attraction of the event is the high-level debate that brings together heads of delegations (HoD), including heads of state, governments and Foreign Ministers, from the 193 member states.

Outside the U.N., some distance away from the security blanket that seals off the area around the UNHQ for civilian movement, protesters of all hues aim to draw the attention of world leaders to their causes. This lends the UNHQ a different atmosphere from the protocol-ridden and mostly formal developments inside the UNHQ premises.

The heightened interest in the annual diplomatic pageantry and the events around it underlines the faith in the U.N. as a pre-eminent tool of multilateralism for the international community to address issues of global concern. It continues to be invoked by people globally in various conflict areas, with the expectation that the organisation can address the problems. However, as the experience of over seven decades has shown, this is easier said than done. Apart from the local dynamics underpinning any conflict, macro structural variables of the organisation impinge on its ability to make a difference, particularly in the peace and security areas.

A paper titled “Competitive Multilateralism”, released by the Brookings Institution, a research group in Washington, D.C., on the eve of the just-concluded debate of the General Assembly, is revelatory. It points out that “the countries hosting U.N. deployments have accounted for only seven per cent of total global conflict deaths between 2013 and 2017, meaning that the vast bulk of conflict was not being met with a multilateral response”. In this connection, it is important to underline that the U.N. is first and foremost an intergovernmental body with two main legislative bodies, the Security Council and the General Assembly. Under Article 24, Chapter 5 of the U.N. Charter, the Security Council is responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security. At best, under Article 99, the Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which, in her/his opinion, may threaten international peace and security. This provision has rarely been used by the Secretary-General, except in the 1989 Lebanon crisis, where he called for an urgent Security Council meeting “in order to contribute to a peaceful solution of the [Lebanese crisis]”.

At a more practical level, the work and the agenda of the U.N. in the peace and security domains remain predicated on the prevailing power dynamics of the international system and, more importantly, the permanent members of the Security Council (P-5). For multilateral action on an issue, apart from regional and local specificities, equity, or the interest of each P-5 member in the particular context, is still the main guiding framework to understand the Council’s take on the particular issue.


Another key variable is the financing of the U.N. It provides direct or indirect leverage to some member states. Since the founding of the U.N., the United States wielded unquestionable influence in various mandates of the organisation because of its status as the single largest financial contributor to the organisation. To put it in perspective, out of the $6.5 billion approved budget for U.N. peacekeeping operations for the fiscal year July 2019 to June 2020, the contribution of the U.S. is 27.89 per cent.

Within the U.S., a strand of opinion has existed, particularly within the conservative sections of the Republican Party, that this should change, and there is a call for curtailing the resources given to the U.N. by the U.S. On February 3, 1994, speaking at an event in New York, John Bolton, who went on to become the Ambassador to the United Nations during George W. Bush’s tenure and who recently resigned as President Trump’s National Security Adviser, said: “There is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that’s the United States, when it suits our interest, and when we can get others to go along. And I think it would be a real mistake to count on the United Nations as if it is some disembodied entity out there that can function on its own.” He went on to add infamously that “the Secretariat building [of the U.N.] in New York has 38 stories. If it lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

In the same vein, President Donald Trump minced no words when he said that cost cutting was a priority for his administration and reiterated that the unfair burden of financing the U.N. was imposed on his country. The U.S.’ stance is that “no one member state should pay more than one quarter of the organisation’s budget”.

On the other hand, China, one of the permanent members of the Security Council, has stepped up its contribution to the U.N., which is in consonance with its stupendous economic rise in the last few decades.

Assessed contributions, which are mandatory for member states, is as per a formula that takes into account a member state’s gross national income, population and other variables such as debt burden. China has emerged as the second largest contributor to the peacekeeping budget, with 15.2197 per cent assessed contribution for 2019, up from 10.2377 per cent in 2018. The same trend is visible in the regular budget of the U.N., which funds 24 special political missions across the world and the staffing costs in its headquarters in New York and regional headquarters in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. China’s contribution will be 12.01 per cent in the next three years, up from 7.92 per cent for the 2016-18 period, whereas the U.S. contribution in this category is nearly 22 per cent. Parallel to this, China’s assertion in the formulation of some of the critical mandates, which were earlier shaped primarily by the U.S. and its allies, is noteworthy. A case in point is the recent showdown between the U.S. and China on extending the Security Council’s mandate of the special political mission (SPM) in Afghanistan. SPMs are distinct from peacekeeping missions, which involve troops from member states. SPMs are centred around diplomatic engagement and have a political good offices component, with emphasis on engaging with local and external stakeholders in the pursuit of the objectives of the respective mandate.

After the Taliban was dislodged from power in Kabul, the U.N.’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) was established in 2002 to “support the people and the government of Afghanistan in achieving peace and stability, in line with the rights and obligations enshrined in the Afghan Constitution”. Interestingly, in 2017 and 2018, in the context of its support to various regional initiatives, the mandate mentioned the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road (also known as the Belt and Road Initiative, or the BRI), a flagship national initiative of China along with other transnational development projects such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project, the Central Asia South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project (CASA-1000) and other bilateral transit trade agreements.

In August-September this year, at the time of negotiations for the renewal of UNAMA’s mandate, the U.S. and its allies opposed the inclusion of the BRI trade initiative. After a long stalemate and several round of negotiations among diplomats, various drafts were shared, including the section on climate change that apparently Russia and China opposed. Ultimately, a compromise draft did not mention the BRI or any other specific initiative and, instead, focussed on the key operative paragraphs relating to UNAMA’s mandate, including a broad mention of “regional cooperation and promoting connectivity”. The situation did not have a happy ending as China registered its protest during the concluding remarks at the adoption of the resolution of the mandate. China regretted that “several countries refused to keep the consensus text previously agreed and to address other parties’ core concerns”. It took strong objection to the point made by the U.S. and its allies that promoting Afghanistan’s regional cooperation and connectivity had nothing to do with the UNAMA mandate.


In the same vein, within the realm of peacekeeping, Troops Contributing Countries (TCCs) are becoming progressively impatient over the present state of affairs that has both financial and operational dimensions. There are currently 14 U.N. peacekeeping operations, deployed on four continents, with seven in Africa. Two African countries (Ethiopia and Rwanda) and four South Asian countries (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal) contribute over 5,000 troops each. On paper, the bulk of the funding comes from countries with high per capita income as per the agreed formula, though, in practice, as the Secretary-General said: “The United Nations is now effectively borrowing for prolonged periods from troop- and police-contributing countries. Many of them are low-income countries for which that imposes a significant financial burden…. Reimbursement by the U.N. for their contributions is key to supporting those efforts. The delays in reimbursing the contributing countries expose them to financial challenges in pursuit of their efforts and consequently have an adverse impact on the operations and the delivery of their mandates.”

In this connection, some of the TCCs, such as Ethiopia, have argued that the present situation is not sustainable as “the troop- and police-contributing countries are de-facto forced to shoulder heavy and difficult responsibility in implementing the mandates of peacekeeping operations, paying both the price of human sacrifices and financial burdens of the operations”.

India has also argued for more operational inclusivity in peacekeeping; as troops from different countries serve on the same missions, they are mostly kept in separate units and often limited by the caveats placed by their countries on how they can be used. Over the years, the TCCs have consistently argued for more cooperation between the Security Council, which provides the mandate for the peacekeeping missions, and the TCCs.

Pertinent in this connection are the various studies that have underlined the importance of the role of U.N. peacekeeping in the reduction of conflicts. In a 2017 paper, “Peacekeeping Works”, written for the Peace Research Institute Oslo, the authors, two academics and a researcher, concluded: “If the U.N. and the international community were willing to issue peacekeeping operations (PKOs) with strong mandates and with substantial budgets—$800 million per year—the risk of armed conflict in the world over the next 25 years would be reduced by up to 70 per cent, relative to a hypothetical scenario where the U.N. reduces its PKO activities to the Cold War level.”

Apart from direct engagement on peace and security issues, there are several relevant mandates entrusted to the U.N. by the Security Council or the General Assembly. One of the issues that had a topical resonance and interest globally was counterterrorism. At the U.N., a lack of consensus has prevailed among member states on defining terrorism. Since its 31st session, that is, 1976-77, the General Assembly had been debating the issue under various modalities and procedures. Beyond the diplomatic niceties, there are serious conceptual differences among member states about the definition of terrorism.

A working group established by the Sixth Committee, which is the primary forum for the consideration of legal questions in the General Assembly, will again resume its work on the “draft comprehensive convention on international terrorism” from October 7 to November 14. The conceptual differences are far from resolved. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a broadly religious grouping that includes 53 Muslim-majority countries, has taken a stand that it is “vital to distinguish betweenterrorism and the legitimate rights of people to resist foreign occupation, a distinction duly observed in international law”. Many countries, including the U.S., objected to this position.

In spite of this conceptual difference, because of the momentum gathered on the issue after 9/11, the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), mandated by the Security Council, was created. In 2017, the General Assembly established the Office of Counter Terrorism (OCT). In the absence of a definition of terrorism, the two offices are guided by the four broad pillars of the Global Counter Terrorism Strategy initiated by the General Assembly—which is renewed every two years through a resolution—and several resolutions on various CT-related specific and relevant themes, passed by the Security Council.

In September next year, the UNHQ will play host to the opening of the 75th session of the General Assembly and, going by the trends, peace and security challenges will become more complex and unpredictable. One of the more recent examples is the drone attack on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq refinery, the world’s largest oil refinery. It took place only three days before this year’s opening session of the General Assembly. The recent recovery of arms and ammunition dropped by drones in the border areas of Punjab in India is another example.

While member states of the U.N. will continue to strengthen and calibrate their own defences on the basis of new threats and their available capacities, the relevance of multilateralism and its scope have come under renewed debate and challenge. The challenge for the organisation, and its international civil servant workforce, will be the creative and effective use of the mandates entrusted to it by a thin consensus.

Luv Puri has worked with the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs at the United Nations.

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