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Is the United Nations still relevant and effective?

The 78th UN General Assembly takes place under similar conditions to the previous year.
The 78th UN General Assembly takes place under similar conditions to the previous year. Copyright Fotograma AP
Copyright Fotograma AP
By Amaranta Zermeno Jimenez
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This article was originally published in Spanish

In the context of global destabilisation exacerbated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the 78th UN General Assembly is rethinking the relevance and effectiveness of the international institution.

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The 78th UN General Assembly (UNGA 78) is taking place under similar conditions to last year: Ukraine continues to defend itself against the Russian invasion, which in turn has provoked or exacerbated other problems around the rest of the world.

In the midst of this crisis, people are looking to their leaders to get out of the current global "mess", United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said ahead of the annual meeting of presidents and prime ministers, ministers and monarchs at the General Assembly.

He said the world needs to take action now to address the worsening climate emergency, escalating conflicts, "dramatic technological disruptions" and a global cost-of-living crisis that is increasing hunger and poverty.

Hypocrisy and lack of understanding

But not everyone believes that the UN, as an international institution, is capable of dealing with these conflicts, especially when one of its priorities is to balance its neutrality in the face of differences between member states.

"I think where we see a lot of people losing faith is when they see these moments of hypocrisy or when there is a lack of understanding of how the UN is able to continue to operate on one track, while the global community seems to be clashing," says Maya Ungar of the independent International Crisis Group.

The best example of this hypocrisy is the powerful role Russia still plays as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, even as it threatens international peace and security.

But Ungar does not forget to point out the case of the US, which, while it is able to use its powerful veto power to block resolutions on Palestine because of its bilateral relations, turns around and tries to pass resolutions on territorial integrity in the case of Ukraine.

"The UN currently does not respond to the interests of the UN itself, but rather to the interests of states," says Raquel Barras Tejudo, a PhD in International Security and International Relations at the Complutense University of Madrid.

Idealism vs. realism

Kim Jong-un's visit to Russia to deepen military ties has the West worrying about the possibility of North Korean military support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine, once again questioning the relevance and effectiveness of the role of the United Nations.

"The UN is going to use a lot of rhetoric, but on an effective level it is not going to be able to carry out any kind of instrument to stop this agreement between Russia and North Korea (...) So it also affects its own credibility. Because if you don't have an actor that is able to impose all the legislation, then you have a problem," Barras says.

For Ungar, one of the main changes the UN should focus on is "allowing itself to be more fully aware of the options it has."

A good example is the reform of the veto initiative adopted in April last year by Liechtenstein. 

When the veto is used in the Security Council, a meeting is convened in the General Assembly where the veto-wielding member attends to discuss and justify it. It's "a very important way to increase accountability," says Ungar.

"I think focusing on these measures that may not be as meaningful to member states - like, for example, adding a permanent seat to the Council - and that can have a real impact in the short term, is where the UN should focus on making its changes right now because it's important to maintain a balance between idealism and realism of what the UN can actually achieve."

Necessary reform

Against a backdrop of geopolitical tensions unprecedented in decades, harmonisation among countries seems to be the UN's priority, but experts think reform is more urgent.

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"The UN should probably cooperate more with regional partners to succeed. How can the UN make this visible? That is obviously a question, but the UN is an old organisation. It's going through big changes, the world is going through big changes. So it's obvious that organisations, international organisations, also have to change and their priorities might not change," Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a foreign policy specialist at the Central European University, tells Euronews.

Although the perception of the UN needs to be updated given the current context, Szelényi insists on its importance, given that it is the only global political institution where often "regional rivals or enemies can sit down and talk to each other."

Despite considering the UN "a broken institution that sometimes works," Ungar acknowledges the efficiency of its humanitarian aid efforts. 

In the last six months, she says, it was able to provide aid to about one-fifth of Ukraine's entire population. And in Sudan, even though the agency has been marginalised from playing a significant political role, it has still been able to play an important role in providing humanitarian aid. Similarly, in Afghanistan, millions of Afghans depend on UN aid operations.

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"I think that while there is frustration with UN systems in the way that politics can often work, at the end of the day, there are still elements, such as their aid operations, that do what they are intended to do and therefore are still necessary to receive the funding that the EU, in particular, is so critical in providing," Ungar says.

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