Worldwide contagion, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and a warming planet – not to mention rising hunger, growing legions of refugees, xenophobic bombardment by powerful leaders and a new Cold War between the United States and China.
The United Nations is celebrating its birth in 1945 from the ruins of World War II, though “celebrating” may seem like a strange word choice in the midst of the long list of current global problems and the organization’s own challenges.
So the celebration of the anniversary is being muted, and not just because world leaders are unable to gather in person to raise a glass ̵
“The UN is weaker than it should be,” said Mary Robinson, a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the first woman to become President of Ireland.
When the United Nations was founded by the victories of the Allies, the goal was to avert another descent to another global apocalypse. And despite all its shortcomings, the organization that Eleanor Roosevelt called “our greatest hope for future peace” has at least contributed to achieving it.
Looking forward to convening this year’s General Assembly, Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized the long view. The values embedded in the UN Charter, he said, have prevented “the plague of a third world war that many had feared.”
Yet the organization is struggling like maybe never before.
While it is the leading provider of humanitarian aid and the UN peacekeeping force operates in more than a dozen unstable areas, the UN has not been able to put an end to the protracted wars in Syria, Yemen or Libya. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is almost as old as the United Nations itself.
UN statistics show that the number of people forced to be displaced worldwide has doubled over the last decade to 80 million. The number suffering from acute hunger is expected to almost double by the end of the year to more than a quarter billion, with the first famine in the coronavirus era lurking on the doorstep of the world.
Mr. Guterre’s plea for a global ceasefire to help fight the coronavirus is largely unheard of. His plea for contribution to an emergency plan for coronavirus of 10 billion. Dollars to help the most needy had since last week been met with commitments totaling a quarter of the target. This response “hardly justifies the description of the ‘lukewarm’,” said Mark Lowcock, the UN’s top official for relief.
On the Secretary – General’s signature, Climate Change – a magazine about Time magazine last year showed him knee-deep in water – his pleas seem to have done little more than help publicize the issue.
“There have been many ups and downs, but we have been significantly down,” said Thomas G. Weiss, a professor of political science at the City University of New York Graduate Center and a UN expert.
For Mr Weiss, the contrasts between now and then that the Allies fought with the Axis powers are sharp.
“It was not a slam dunk for the West to defeat fascism,” he said. “It created a sense of principle, a working principle that cooperation was as important as tanks. In 2020, we have a pandemic with a global economic meltdown, and the reaction almost everywhere is to circulate the wagons. ”
The United Nations, which has grown from 50 members 75 years ago to 193 members and a global staff of 44,000, had from the outset begun to create a forum in which large and small countries felt they had a meaningful voice.
But its basic structure gives only real power to the main body, the General Assembly and most to the victors of World War II – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – where each vetoes the 15-seat Security Council as permanent members. The Council is empowered to impose financial sanctions and is the only UN entity authorized to deploy military force.
No permanent member seems willing to change the power structure. The result is chronic Security Council blockades on many issues that often set the United States against not only China and Russia, but also against American allies.
It is not just a matter of war and a ceasefire where the UN is fighting for results.
The Sustainable Development Goals, 17 UN goals aimed at eliminating inequalities that include poverty, gender disruption and illiteracy by 2030, are threatened. Barbara Adams, chair of the Global Policy Forum, a UN monitoring group, told a conference in July that the targets were “seriously off track”, even before the pandemic, according to PassBlue, a news site covering the UN.
UN veterans say that multilateralism – solving problems together, a principle of the organization’s charter – increasingly clashes with principles of the same charter that emphasize national sovereignty and non-intervention in a country’s internal affairs.
The result is often delays in helping or denying the UN access to humanitarian crises, whether it is providing supplies to displaced Syrians, investigating evidence of Rohingya massacres in Myanmar or helping sick children in Venezuela.
Mrs Robinson, the former Irish president who now chairs The Elders, a group of venerable leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, pointed out the UN’s fundamental inability to orchestrate an effective battle plan against coronavirus.
“We have just seen what a pandemic has done around the world,” she said. “Some of the richest countries are not doing well. Looking back, the criticism will be pretty sharp. ”
Carrie Booth Walling, a professor of political science at Albion College and an expert on UN humanitarian interventions, said the turnaround in many countries affected by the virus could be bad for the UN and the diplomacy it holds.
“What’s really scary at the moment,” said Dr. Walling, is “the state of multilateralism in general, and whether the governments and peoples of the world will see the value of multilateral cooperation.”
The progress of the autocratic leaders has presented further challenges.
President Trump has been a frequent critic of the United Nations, rejecting notions of global governance and complaining about what he sees as wasted spending on a budget of approx. $ 9.5 billion a year, including $ 6.5 billion for peacekeeping operations.
President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has called the UN Human Rights Council a “communist meeting place.” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has fought against UN refugee policy. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed outrage over a UN human rights inquiry into his war on drugs.
Under Mr. Trump’s “America First” approach is intended by the United States to withdraw from the World Health Organization, in which the US president criticizes his coronavirus response and calls it a mouthpiece for China. Sir. Trump has also given up or cut support for UN agencies, including the United Nations Population Fund, the Human Rights Council and the agency that helps Palestinians classified as refugees.
His top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has described the International Criminal Court, set up through UN diplomacy to prosecute genocide and other atrocities, as a “kangaroo court” because of its war investigation in Afghanistan, including investigating killings in which Americans have been implied. Sir. Pompeo has imposed financial sanctions and travel penalties on the court’s chief prosecutor and her top aide.
While the United States has turned out, China has maneuvered to gain more control over the United Nations, takes leadership positions in agencies that include the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the International Telecommunications Union, and the Human Rights Council.
A May 2019 study, “United Nations People’s Republic”, conducted by the Center for New American Security, a bipartisan research team, suggested that China’s UN actions were part of its efforts to redefine how such institutions operate and shift away from Western concepts of democracy and human rights.
China’s UN reach was expanded deeper this year as Chinese candidates were chosen over US opposition to lead the Food and Agriculture Organization, to join a panel selecting investigators for the Human Rights Council, and to become a judge in a UN affiliate court ruling on maritime disputes.
President Xi Jinping of China has urged subordinates “to take an active part in leading the reform of the global system of government.”
The US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, has insisted that she confront the Chinese – for example, she told a Fox News interviewer last month that she raises human rights issues in China “on every occasion we have in the Security Council.”
Still, current and former UN officials say Trump’s isolationist behavior has damaged US influence over the UN, even though the US remains a crucial host country and largest single contributor. They see an encouraged China asserting itself in the disputed areas of the South China Sea, suppressing disagreement in Hong Kong, interacting with one million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and lending aggressively to the needy countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
“If the United States pulls its cards out of the game, it leaves more room for China,” said Edward Mortimer, chief author of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “Now China is behaving in an incredibly harsh and provocative way and has many countries worried.”
Even Mr Guterres, who is usually careful to avoid offending member states, has described the US-China relationship as dysfunctional, saying their rivalry risks dividing the world into “two blocs”.
Despite its challenges, many ambassadors still see the UN as an even more important forum if it is only a place for members to air complaints.
“Without the UN, you do not have a safety valve,” said Munir Akram, a Pakistani envoy who remains locked in a long-running dispute with India over the Kashmir region, a chronic hotspot for nuclear-armed rivals.
“You know you are not getting a solution, but you can alleviate the domestic pressure being exerted on governments facing unmanageable problems,” Akram said. “Imagine if we could not raise Kashmir in the Security Council. There would be a huge pressure on our government to do something. ”