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Does the United Nations have a future?

Is the UN outdated, an anachronistic bureaucratic beast that fails to reflect today’s geo-political realities? The simple answer is yes, and with this comes the question of its viability in today’s world. Every September the world’s leaders gather for the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. On the 25th of September 2012, at the 67th session of the General Assembly, President Zuma took the opportunity to raise concerns on the fairness of the rules of international law, and in particular the composition of the UN Security Council (SC) and its impact on the promotion of international law. The problem, he noted, is that the lack of representation and the undemocratic nature of the UNSC undermines its legitimacy.


For years the UN has been criticised as representing the world as it was in 1945, with a Security Council dominated by the ‘victors’ of World War II, each wielding the power of the veto. As our Foreign Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane pointed out - not since 1963 has there been any reform of the UNSC when the number of non-permanent members was increased from 6 to 10. And that that is now nearly fifty years ago.

For the UN sceptic, there is sufficient cause for the organisation to be bypassed or even replaced. As an organisation it has faced both crises of action and inaction. The power of the veto effectively blocked action during the Cold War, and continues to impact on decision making, including in the more recent case of Syria. Its cumbersome bureaucracy has seen shortfalls in responses to situations of conflict, particularly in Africa. Indeed, despite South Africa’s own efforts to see greater interaction between the UN and the African Union (Resolution 2033) there is still considerable distance to cover in ensuing effective engagement between the two. This was patently apparent in the bypassing of the AU position on Libya in favour of a NATO led intervention. International geo-politics thus continues to play a significant part in influencing what the secretariat can or cannot achieve as well as impacting on what issues finally make it to the top of the international agenda. For instance, although there have been attempts to get the question of climate change to the level of the Security Council it has been dismissed, despite clear links between climate change, security and conflict. Frustration with the UN has seen both developed and developing countries forming alternative issue orientated groups such as the G8 and the G20, or pursing deeper south-south cooperation through coalitions such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) group on climate change. Nevertheless, although cash strapped and politically battered, the UN continues to occupy a central role in today’s international system.

In the first instance it retains a sense of legitimacy as a ‘universal’ and inclusive organisation. The UN is also the first port of call for any state, following independence, to confirm its ‘statehood’ and membership in the international society of states. As an organisation it goes beyond narrowly defined issue areas, covering a vast array of international concerns from food security to human rights. Despite a lack of funding and competing political expediencies, there are agencies within the UN that support those that might otherwise be overlooked in the geo-political power play, including agencies such as the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). While the bureaucracy of the UN is often a source of great exasperation, it provides an all important institutional memory, something that many groups have yet to achieve. The UN also continues to offer a platform for all states, at least within the General Assembly, to voice their positions and raise issues of international concern. Certainly it can be argued that the move towards ‘mini-multilateralism’ faces similar challenges to that of the UN in terms of their representivity and democracy, while the larger groups such as the G77+China and regional organisations face their own problems of ‘lowest common denominator’ decision making, or even in reaching any decision at all.

While there may currently be some reprieve for the UN, its future will become increasingly uncertain without significant reform. As South Africa’s second term (2011-2012) on the UNSC comes to an end there is still no indication that the question of reform has been taken seriously. This is going to be a difficult political battle, but one that is necessary in securing the future of the UN.

Lesley Masters is a senior researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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