LOS ANGELES — In an address to global representatives in San Francisco on April 25, 1945, then-U.S. President Harry S. Truman said, “The essence of our problem here is to provide sensible machinery for the settlement of disputes among nations. Without this, peace cannot exist.” Six months later, after ratification by 50 countries, the first meeting of the United Nations began on Oct. 24.
Today, the United Nations has a complex identity and role in global politics — marked by a long history of disastrous failures, extreme successes and several outcomes resting somewhere in between. Since 1945, the UN has been credited with helping 34 million refugees, providing clean drinking water to more than 1 billion people, eradicating polio and smallpox, negotiating 172 peace settlements, passing 80 declarations on human rights and much more. These feats have undoubtedly improved access to human rights for billions of people across the globe.
Yet, there are glaring faults built into the foundation of the UN that hinder its potential. Current mismanagement and abuse of the process by member-states has further exacerbated these issues, placing the UN in danger of causing more harm than good. In order to understand the full impact of the world’s largest multilateral organization, its current and historic flaws must be examined.
The Built-In Flaws of the Security Council
The primary actor that controls the UN’s actions is the Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC, comprised of 15 members, is the most powerful body among the five UN organizations. Out of 15 members, five are permanent: the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China and France. The other ten members are elected to serve temporary two-year terms by the UN General Assembly. While all members each have an equal vote when deciding on resolutions, the five permanent members also have the power to veto.
The imbalance in power that the veto provides has been manipulated in inarguably political ways by the permanent member-states, especially the United States and Russia. Since 2001, the United States has been the sole member to veto resolutions 14 times; 12 of these instances were to defend Israel concerning the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Russia has used its veto 26 times in the same period, primarily to protect national interests in Syria.
Russia’s abuse of power, aided by China’s joint veto in several cases, had disastrous effects on the Syrian people. The Syrian civil war, which began in 2011 due to the violent crackdown on protesters of the Bashar al-Assad regime, has resulted in approximately 6.8 million Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers and 6.7 million internally displaced Syrians to date. Over the last 11 years, the proposed resolutions would have imposed sanctions on Syria, condemned ongoing human rights violations, taken countless measures to ensure accountability for Syria, and delivered humanitarian aid to civilians. Instead, the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that these vetoes contributed to the deaths of 250,000 civilians and the unjust arrest of 150,000 others.
In addition to the veto system, the UNSC’s revolving door of temporary members provides another opportunity for pushing political interests. According to recent research, temporary members who are allies to the United States experience an increase of 40% in U.S. aid when voting in favor of U.S.-supported resolutions. These countries also receive more loans from international institutions that the United States informally controls, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
This use of power by the United States has openly existed for years. Since the 1980s, the U.S. State Department has been required to track the UN voting records of all nations and report it to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which in turn determines the amount of foreign aid disbursed based on alignment with U.S. interests.
When countries in the UNSC vote against U.S. interests, their punishment is swift. In 1990, Yemen voted no on a resolution pushed by the United States to place a deadline on the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait. The following year, $70 million in foreign aid to Yemen was cut, with the then Secretary of State James Baker remarking that it was “the most expensive vote they ever cast.”
The Less Powerful Arm: The UN General Assembly
The United States has also employed monetary persuasion to influence the UN General Assembly (UNGA). The aforementioned use of votes by the United States to determine aid has led to a startling trend. According to research from the University of Cambridge, poor democratic nations dependent on the United States for aid are more likely to cast votes within the UNGA in favor of U.S. interests.
Exploitation of influence amongst powerful UN members during the convening of the UNGA is common. In 2014, UN diplomat whistleblowers reported that Russia threatened retaliation against several countries, including Moldova and Tajikistan, if they voted yes on a resolution that threatened Russia’s interests in Ukraine. In 2019, the United Kingdom produced a joint statement signed by 22 countries condemning China’s human rights violations and demanding UN access to Uighur internment camps. Chinese officials retaliated against signatories of the statement, canceling a bilateral meeting with Albania and allegedly threatening Austria with the cancellation of a proposed embassy in Beijing.
Despite the aggressive approach by members to influence votes within the UNGA, critics have long stated that the resolutions passed have little to no power. Not only are they not legally binding, but the strength of the resolutions are also impacted by a so-called “lowest common denominator” effect. This describes the dilution of the initial ambitious proposal into a weakened final resolution due to the involvement and input of all member-states in the creation process. Other scholars disagree with this pessimistic viewpoint and instead argue that the “world opinion” that these voted resolutions create is necessary. According to them, this provides a supporting structure by which individual nations can condemn human rights violations.
Peacekeepers: Keeping It, Creating It or Destroying It?
While debates about the ethics of member-state actions rage on amongst civil society and scholars, another arm of the UN has also garnered controversy: peacekeeping missions. These operations are approved by the UNSC and directed by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (UNDPO) and the Department of Field Support (DFS). Peacekeepers are unarmed or slightly armed military personnel provided by member-states. In principle, they are sent to regions of conflict with the intention of supporting an established peace agreement.
In recent years, the UNSC, facing criticism and pressure to solve crises, has implemented more and more ambitious plans involving peacekeepers. Several recent missions have sent personnel into ongoing and unresolved crises with the intention of protecting civilians and facilitating agreements between hostile parties. Peacekeeping has transformed into peacebuilding.
The funding for these missions is grandiose, with an annual budget of $8.28 billion for 12 operations employing over 100,000 peacekeepers across the globe. In recent years, operations have become more costly, inefficient, and long-lasting. Rather than a temporary solution, peacekeeping missions have become a permanent pillar of UN responses.
These operations are rife with mismanagement and fraud. According to a 2007 investigation by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (UNOIOS), 40% of funds within a group of contracts worth $1.6 billion were tainted by corruption schemes. However, the UNOIOS itself has been plagued with corruption and bias in recent years. Former UNOIOS officials have shed light on a disturbing pattern of political interests, selective investigations, hiding “embarrassing” cases, and retaliation against officials looking into misconduct within the UN.
Peacekeeping operations have experienced the same lack of transparency and accountability, specifically in regard to horrifying reports of sexual misconduct by peacekeepers. Reports over the last several years have surfaced that allege sexual abuse perpetrated during missions in countries such as Haiti, Liberia, South Sudan, Mali and Burundi. These allegations include rape, child molestation, murder, sex trafficking, prostitution and the nonconsensual production of pornography.
In efforts to address this, the UN has instituted Conduct and Discipline Teams on all peacekeeping missions and employed stricter requirements for peacekeepers. While data publicized by the UN suggests that sexual violence by peacekeepers has decreased within the 21st century, a leaked expert report commissioned by the UN in 2013 revealed that the issue persisted due to a culture of silence and underreporting.
According to political scholars Dr. Kate Cronin-Furman and Dr. Nimmi Gowrinathan, the violent nature of these peacekeepers can be linked to the national and militaristic identity of their country of origin. In 2007, several Sri Lankan peacekeepers were removed from their operation in Haiti due to sexual misconduct allegations. These peacekeepers had been part of the Sri Lankan military, which had fought in a violent civil war for decades and had garnered a reputation for human rights violations against civilians. As a result, Dr. Cronin-Furman and Dr. Gowrinathan argue that these peacekeeping forces cannot be treated as neutral members because they absorb and represent the misconduct normalized by their military of origin. “The violence of peacekeepers is, in some senses, the violence of the state,” they write.
Peacekeeping missions also engage in ineptitude in more indirect manners. To create relationships with actors within the region, personnel often establish relationships with abusive leaders and regimes, complicating their intention to improve conditions for civilians in an ethical manner. Moreover, peacekeepers often falter in their primary objective to protect civilians. A study conducted in 2014 found that peacekeepers failed to respond to 80% of the 570 reported cases of violence against civilians across several operations.
Finally, the most publicly recognized mistake on the part of peacekeeping missions is that of the cholera epidemic in Haiti. The infamous outbreak that began after the 2010 earthquake was traced back to a UN peacekeeping camp that contained poor sanitation measures. Over 10,000 Haitians, who had not been exposed to cholera and therefore had no immunity, have died as a result. Leaked internal reports have revealed that irresponsible sanitation amongst UN peacekeepers continued to occur after the start of the outbreak and could have been fixed for $3.15 million. Instead, these failures persisted and the UN has spent $140 million on the efforts to eradicate cholera in Haiti.
Despite the documented failures of the UN, public perception continues to be mainly positive. According to a Pew Research poll of 13 countries in North America, Europe, and Asia, a median of 67% “express a favorable opinion of the UN.” Notably, these countries do not include the subjects of most UN resolutions and peacekeeping missions.
The complete overhaul of the UN is not approaching any time soon. However, lingering mismanagement, misconduct, and unethical politics within the major activities of the UN has made its approach inadequate and even willfully dangerous. Potential solutions include removing the veto power of permanent UNSC members and implementing a more selective and narrow approach when directing peacekeeping missions.
However, these proposals are unlikely to occur given the lack of political and public willpower. While the potential of diminishing veto power by waiving it in the case of mass atrocities has been discussed previously, reactions by member-states have been mixed. Representatives from France state that they are open to the idea, but Russian officials have emphasized their worry that this exception may be abused (a particularly ironic sentiment given Russia’s record of abusing the veto).
Meanwhile, a reduction of peacekeeping missions is proving to be unfavorable amongst the public, potentially due to cover-ups of misconduct. Since 1948, U.S. taxpayers have accounted for between 25% to 33% of total peacekeeping mission expenditures. Still, a recent 2021 survey by Better World Campaign reveals that 68% of U.S. voters agree with continuing to pay UN dues in full for peacekeeping.
Much of the UN’s flaws are hidden in its bureaucracy; the multi-bodied organization is too complex to notice the potential significance behind every leaked report and allegation of misconduct. Even previous UN officials acknowledge this; former assistant secretary-general Anthony Banburg said: “If you locked a team of evil geniuses in a laboratory, they could not design a bureaucracy so maddeningly complex, requiring so much effort but in the end incapable of delivering the intended result.”
In order to force change and enlighten the public, politicians, journalists, and independent human rights organizations must be clear, concise, and educational in their coverage. The continued failures of the UN must be publicized in order to sway public opinion within powerful member-states. Without this change in perception, the UN and key players will be content to hide behind their intricate curtains and pull strings that intentionally or unintentionally harm the state of human rights.