“The International Community must ask if the UN is still relevant 75 years after its founding”, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the General Assembly in a virtual conference in its 75th session. He demanded that a UN reform is the need of the hour and questioned whether the Organization has been effective in tackling Covid-19. Some commentators even went further to say that India should get out of the UN, and it no longer serves any purpose.
Sir Brian Urquart, a former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations with special responsibility for peacekeeping operations, once quoted as saying, “to be called irrelevant is, I suppose, the most biting insult you can possibly give to anything, a person or an institution, and it’s been used quite a bit about the UN. But it is still here. And for better or worse, I think that its demise is somewhat unlikely, certainly in the near future”.
It again shows the United Nations’ predicament, where it is a challenging job to get everybody to agree on any single issue. If we look back at history, the United Nations was founded in 1945 to save the succeeding generations from the scourge of another war just as the world was emerging out of World war II. It is also important to remember that the UN Charter and the UN’s whole concept was the brainchild of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The assumption then was that the Allies who were on the way to victory then would continue to observe the peace and, if necessary, enforce it.
The World war has led to the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, resulting in proxies fighting all over the globe. However, the United Nations may still take consolation because it has succeeded in thwarting a large-scale war between nuclear-armed superpowers. Moreover, in the Cold war era, peacekeeping became a strategic tool in the UN’s hands in containing regional conflicts in places like the Middle East, Kashmir, Cyprus, Congo, Sudan, and so forth.
The critics are often eager to paint a negative view of the UN primarily because of its failures on the political front. However, if one closely examines the structure of the Security Council, the most important organ of the United Nations, it still reflects the status quo in the immediate aftermath of World War II. It is almost as if it was built to fail. All permanent members of the Security Council have one time, or another misused their right to veto in preventing a potential solution to a crisis and often leaving the UN remain largely paralyzed with expanding rifts and mounting tensions. Although the challenge is to shake up the Council’s structure, most governments continue to pay lip service to the need for reform, and the public seems to direct their fire and fury at the Organization.
There is great merit to the argument that Security Council is woefully ill-prepared to deal with the contemporary challenges, and the chamber should accommodate countries like India, Germany, Japan, and Brazil with or without veto powers. However, it is a tall order that would require two-thirds of the votes in the General Assembly and the endorsement of all five permanent members. The growing ideological division among council members in dealing with sanction regimes or protracted regional conflicts may not give any ray of hope that the status-quo may change anytime soon. Nevertheless, it provides an excellent forum for the global community to air their grievances and let off steam.
Apart from the political front, the United Nations and its Specialized Agencies have done a phenomenal job, especially in the Social and Economic arena. Having worked for the Organization on two different continents, I have had the opportunity to view the UN activities from a front-row seat. UN personnel have been directly involved as advisors and technical experts in many projects in many developing countries, especially in Africa. I have witnessed some of those valuable contributions from dedicated civil servants around the world, often under very trying conditions, working with the local officials, whether in the areas of food security, land use planning, deforestation, water, sanitation, or preventive medicine. Of course, these efforts may not make headlines anywhere but have made an incredible difference in the daily lives of those ordinary folks who live in some of the remotest parts of the world.
India played a seminal role in the early history of the United Nations. Although not part of the Security Council, India focused its attention on the General Assembly and worked with the newly independent nations in Asia and Africa on decolonization and socio-economic development. India may have a lot to do with the Organization’s evolution from a security-driven one to a developmental and promotional body.
India was also one of the leaders that led the campaign against Apartheid resulting in the General Assembly adopting a resolution against racial discrimination in South Africa. Sanctions were also imposed on South Africa and Rhodesia (now, Zimbabwe) as part of the continuing opposition to Apartheid, and India played a significant role in that effort. India was also at the forefront in advocating reforms for the global economic order and was instrumental in setting up the UNCTAD to provide developmental assistance to developing countries.
India is a major contributor to the UN’s peacekeeping efforts across the globe. As per the 2019 data, it has provided about 240,000 personnel in 49 of the 71 peacekeeping operations. Currently, Indian Military personnel is participating in 9 out of 14 peacekeeping missions. More than 160 Indian peacekeepers have paid the ultimate price in service to peace, losing lives serving under the UN flag.
UN is also known for its work on behalf of democracy and human rights. With so much pride, India can remember that it has contributed significantly to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights content. Indian leadership – represented by Indian National Congress – articulated its concern for human rights and called upon the world body to learn from the coalescing of ideas and vision learned from India’s freedom struggle and urged for peoples’ self-determination everywhere.
India truly deserves to be in the Security Council, given the demographics and its rising economic might. However, it is worth remembering that India has influenced and changed the UN’s trajectory from a security organ to a developmental body and has been a trailblazer for emerging nations towards a path forward in freedom and self-sufficiency. It was all done without having a seat at the Security Council.
Today, thousands of Indian citizens are employed by the United Nations around the world. The Asian Headquarters for the World Health Organization is located in New Delhi. UNICEF is highly active in India, helping Children in responding to emergencies and providing them essentials to survive. India’s own contribution to the regular budget assessment is less than half of what the Netherlands pays. Therefore, all the casual talk about getting out of the UN from certain circles are not only ludicrous but a disservice to the people of India. “The UN: if it doesn’t exist, we would have to invent it.”
(Writer is a former Chief Technology Officer of the United Nations)