This year marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. Its survival as the apex international body across three eras - the Cold War period, the post-Cold War age, and the current 'post-post-Cold War' epoch - is a testament to the unique blend of power and morality which underpinned the UN's creation.
Unlike the League of Nations, the UN has successfully retained membership of the nations that mattered in might and capabilities. The design of the UN Security Council in 1945 enshrined higher status for the most powerful countries of that time so that none of them stayed outside the fold and became a systemic threat. Whatever foul play the big powers would commit was thus constrained by virtue of their presence within the UN's confines.
Dismissing the UN as a handmaiden of major powers is an oversimplification. The General Assembly has been a democratic arena where poor and aggressed countries found a voice and a platform to espouse their causes. Once Asia and Africa decolonised by the 1960s, their blocs and coalitions in the UN such as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the G-77 kept naked power games under some check.
Over time, the UN has expanded its core mandate beyond maintaining international peace and justice with a litany of additional purposes like promoting economic development, human rights and environmental protection, all of which mitigate international power hierarchies.
The UN has been a useful tool as well as a stymieing hurdle to the haves. It has been in parts frustrating and uplifting for the have-nots. At 70 though, it is not enough to simply celebrate the UN's continuous existence as an overarching supplier of global public goods. Is this institution, hailed by Columbia University's Jeffrey Sachs as "the most important political innovation of the twentieth century", fit for the challenges of the 21st century?
The answer is a resounding 'No' unless there are reforms in the UN's structure and modalities. The UN Security Council (UNSC) has been redesigned slightly only once, in 1965, and its much-sought overhaul has been stuck in a political and bureaucratic maze with several false starts and setbacks.
The latest development in the UN General Assembly, where a negotiating text has been adopted as the basis for UNSC reforms, is a welcome move that will boost chances of deserving candidates like India finally entering the elite precincts as a permanent member.
However, myriad other lacunae haunt the UN and cry out for urgent attention. A civil society movement labelled '1 for 7 billion' is demanding less opaque and more bottom-up election methods for picking the next UN secretary general.
A campaign for a directly elected 'UN Parliament' through worldwide voting is trying to redress the State-centric bias of the UN. Critics also want a rollback of over-bureaucratisation and desensitisation of UN employees and peacekeepers, who are rarely accountable to victims of their malfeasances.
Keeping its dialectic of power and morality intact, the UN has to undertake revamping and external attitude alternation. The agency for transforming it lies not just with responsible rising powers but also in the hands of the more conscious and engaged people of the world in whose name the UN was founded.
(Sreeram Chaulia is professor and dean, Jindal School of International Affairs. The views expressed are personal)