The 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly is underway in New York.
The UN was founded in 1945 after World War II,
to serve cooperation in international law and security, and to help humanity develop in peace.
World War I spawned the League of Nations, which had similar ambitions but fell sadly short.
Important efforts continue to be invested into upholding the ideals of the UN. But at the same time there are increasing calls to modernise it, in a world vastly different from when the organisation began.
It has been a more inclusive platform for dialogue than the League before it, and armed UN peacekeepers have effectively helped resolve conflicts around the world.
But UN intervention must be consensual. Here, the Security Council is the decisive executive body.
It has five permanent members, the nations which emerged the victors of World War II and became nuclear powers – the USA, the USSR (that seat today held by Russia), China, the United Kingdom and France. They each wield a right of veto over common decisions. Ten additional members rotate.
A binding resolution for action can be adopted by this organ, such as happened last year after mounting concern over Libya. The Council authorised “all measures necessary” to protect civilians in fighting there.
France and Britain took this to mean airstrikes, and they was significant in rebel efforts bringing about the downfall of the old Gaddafi regime in Tripoli.
Yet Council members Russia and China had not meant the resolution to be interpreted to the extent of such military intervention.
When the question later arose for Syria, Beijing and Moscow vetoed multilateral UN action.
This sort of paralysis of multilateralism has increasingly brought calls for a reform of the Security Council, most notably from Germany, Japan, Brazil and India – known as the G4 in this context.
They propose to include themselves plus two African countries as permanent members, and others as non-permanent.
They also suggest ditching the veto right that blocks procedures, replacing the system which requires unanimous agreement with one of a more flexible two-thirds majority.
The veto has prevented numerous resolutions from ever being implemented, and this has served various interests over time. Iran’s president, at odds with the West, has criticised as discriminatory and illegitimate the veto right of certain members. In his opinion, this is why the Council has not managed to ensure worldwide peace. Mainstream reformers take that idea with a pinch of salt.
The General Assembly, the main deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the United Nations, comprising all 193 Members, meets in regular session intensively from September to December each year, and thereafter as required, says the UN website.
For an informed view of the criticism over the organisation’s relevance, we spoke to an expert about some of its workings. He is one of those proponents who insist that if the UN did not exist we would have to invent it.
Adrian Lancashire, euronews: Professor of International Affairs Dr. Charles Kupchan thank you for joining us. The United Nations original charter talks about fostering justice and saving the world from war. Is it still doing that?
Dr. Charles Kupchan: I think it is important to keep in mind that the UN does a lot on a daily basis that is out of the limelight that is enormously important: peacekeeping missions around the world, refugee resettlement and care, health issues, food issues, water issues. So, sort of off to the side of what goes on in New York this week, the UN does a great deal. When it comes to the ‘big ticket’ issues [such as] the war in Syria, Palestine-Israel relations, Iran… the United Nations is in some ways a great place, because everyone is there, it is a world forum. But the size of it, the breadth of it is also a liability.
euronews: The countries that want the Security Council expanded are major global players; it has been a long time since Germany and Japan were excluded from participating in the UN: how would you measure their reach – and India and Brazil’s reach – for permanent status in the Security Council?
Kupchan: I think the problem is not the lack of consensus about the need for enlargement; the problem is reaching a political agreement on who gets in. Because there is a lot of jealousy, a lot of infighting. And I guess that we will see enlargement over the course of the next five, six, seven, eight years. But it really is going to be a ‘food fight’ because of jealousies within the UN over who would get those coveted permanent seats.
euronews: The General Assembly is seen as having a democratic basis, but not the Security Council – is the exclusivity of the Big Five sustainable for long?
Kupchan: Well, here you have tension between legitimacy and efficacy. The UN Security Council is to some extent not legitimate because it gives extra power to those countries that have seats there, and it gives extra-extra power to those countries that have the veto. The problem is that you are not going to get the big powers to go along with membership and to cede their power to small powers, and that is why they are there and that is why they have the veto. And I think this tension will remain at the heart of the UN, and the way that people are trying to resolve it – that is to say to increase legitimacy without completely degrading efficacy – is to limit the expansion: to not have so many seats at the table that you can not get consensus.
euronews: Important resolutions with a bearing on Israel have never been applied – and others; how about international consensus to stop anybody bombing Iran just in case fears about a nuclear weapon programme are founded – is today’s UN impotent?
Kupchan: The UN is very unlikely to reach a consensus that would permit military operations against Iran. And that’s because there is a deep division within the Security Council and within the General Assembly about the wisdom, as well as the necessity, of using military force to stop Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. Does that mean that the UN is ‘broken’? No, because this has always been a problem. We had the same problem over Kosovo; we have had the same over the intervention in Iraq… in some ways these are intrinsic flaws to the United Nations.