UN must go back to its original mandate
Its handling of the pandemic shows its diminished role in multilateral processesUpdated: Sep 28, 2020, 19:55 IST
The United Nations (UN) is observing the 75th anniversary of its founding amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Heads of States/governments marked the occasion with speeches delivered through the digital medium. They applauded the UN and the role it has played in the maintenance of international peace and security and in addressing major social and economic challenges.
The reality is that the original and uplifting vision, which underlay the establishment of the UN, has lost its focus. The UN faces a crisis of credibility at the root of which is the enfeeblement of the spirit of internationalism and related to that, the diminishing role of multilateral processes in addressing cross-cutting and global challenges. This is evident in the marginal role that the UN is playing in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and the doubts expressed over the credibility and effectiveness of the World Health Organization (WHO) in mobilising the international community in the fight against the virus. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of the concerns of countries like India and the need for reform in his address to the UN.
Despite the pandemic being a global crisis, it is being tackled as a public health emergency mostly at the national level. The results are suboptimal as is to be expected. The pandemic has spawned a major economic crisis, but countries are held in thrall by the growing confrontation between the largest and the second-largest economies of the world: The United States (US) and China. Without a minimal agreement between them on supporting the recovery of the global economy and trade, it is impossible to recreate the G-20 collaboration which dealt successfully with the global financial and economic crisis of 2007-08.
The World Trade Organization has been rendered irrelevant by the growing salience of large multi-nation regional trade and investment arrangements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the increasing recourse to bilateral deals. Both global economy and trade flows are becoming fragmented and the international economic environment is less conducive to the development of countries like India.
Multilateralism is more important to emerging countries whose bargaining clout is still limited. But India, too, appears to have adopted the current preference among major countries to deal with issues through a narrower and more self-centred nationalism prism. The UN today is a depleted version of its founding ideals and there are several reasons for this. Its original democratic impulse, limited though it was by the institution of the UN Security Council with five permanent members with veto power, is now weak. Resolutions of the UN General Assembly are rarely taken seriously. Its agenda is limited by the narrow sensitivities of its most powerful members.
A major problem relates to finance. The assessed contributions to the UN, based on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of its members, is barely enough to support the UN establishment leaving virtually nothing for its wide range of activities, including peace-keeping. The UN and its specialised agencies are able to engage in their mandated activities only through project funding from major donor countries. They determine where and how these funds will be spent. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the activities of the UN are heavily oriented towards the preferences of the donors and not the priorities of its larger membership.
Developing countries who are in the category of middle powers, such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico, for example, could prevent the capture of the UN by a small cluster of richer countries, China now among them, through larger contributions to the general budget. However, even among these countries the tendency is to mimic the behaviour of the affluent countries. They, too, would rather seek to influence the activities of the UN to pursue their own foreign policy aims rather than serve the larger purpose of a relatively more autonomous UN.
It is now apparent that in key areas of technology and public health, large multinational corporations are playing an increasingly influential role. The turnover of five big tech companies, Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook together exceeds the GDP of some of the largest economies of the world at over $5 trillion. They run large philanthropic foundations and agencies but it would be naïve to think that their activities are de-linked from their business interests. When the UN becomes a partner of these foundations and receives funds from them, then it is unlikely to encourage any questioning of their activities. The credibility of the UN is further undermined through these associations.
The major powers and more affluent nations have no interest in leading the UN back to its original vision and mandate. They are comfortable with its current role as their handmaiden and its collaboration with big business. It is the large constituency of developing countries, including middle powers like India, whose interests would be served by a UN which in its role and activities, truly reflects the interests of its larger membership. I recall my experience as India’s Alternate Representative to the Committee on Disarmament (CD) in the early 1980s. The Disarmament Secretariat led by Ambassador Rikhi Jaipal, played the role of adviser and counsellor to the Non-aligned and Neutral Countries in the CD, helping them set the agenda, marshall their arguments and acquaint them with procedural issues. If such secretarial positions are financed by project funds, independence of action by UN functionaries is impossible. It is these fundamental issues which need to be addressed by the UN at 75 if it is to regain its credibility and effectiveness.
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and senior fellow, CPR
The views expressed are personal