Time to Reengineer the United Nations

Has the world’s bastion of hope, forgotten its purpose?

Do we need the United Nations?  Where would the contemporary world be without its largest intergovernmental organization? For 75 years the UN has existed as a bastion of hope. It has survived wars, a Cold War, famines, natural disasters and pandemics. Through it all its central mission to restore international peace, ensure security, and advance human development and social progress have been a guiding light for many in times of darkness.

But has the UN failed member states in recent times. The Security Council couldn’t even call for a ceasefire in conflict zones due to the prevailing pandemic. Has the UN failed in its mission?

These fundamental questions have been explored by the leading analyst of UN history and politics, Thomas G. Weiss, in this hard-hitting, authoritative book. While counterfactuals are often dismissed as academic contrivances, they can serve to focus the mind; and here, Weiss uses them to ably demonstrate the pluses and minuses of multilateral cooperation.

Dr Weiss argues that the inward-looking and populist movements in electoral politics worldwide make robust multilateralism more, not less compelling. Dr. Thomas G. Weiss, a Presidential Professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies spoke to Rukshana Rizwie of Lanka Courier on UN and member Asian nations.

Q. In your book ‘Would the world be better without the UN,’ you have very convincingly made a case for a better world if the UN was more creative and effective. Do you think the UN as a system understands this or is receptive of its failures? Do you see them changing?

A. I was conceived during the San Francisco conference and born during the first meetings in London. And I have been analyzing the UN for my entire professional career—including ten years in the secretariat. I have not given up, as yet. So, yes, the UN and the UN system are capable of changing. Whether change—let alone “transformation,” which is what is required—will come before the world organization becomes a relic, that is the question.

Q. When we look at current affairs of the world as it is, there is a shopping list of unresolved conflicts, climate crisis, trade wars and breakdown in international cooperation. While many are quick to blame the UN. Do you think, when states fail to agree the UN becomes powerless to act?

A. States get the international organizations and the UN that they deserve. When they want such organizations to act, they can and often do. There is, nonetheless, more room for initiatives by senior and junior officials than many observers think. The excuse by too many UN officials is that they are powerless. That reflects laziness and a lack of initiative.

Q. Many member states particularly those so-called developing countries have a difficult relationship with the UN, particularly the UN Human Rights Council. Many argue that their reports are biased and politically motivated. What is your take?

A. The US and Israel complain that the HRC is biased. The more countries that complain, the greater the chances that any human rights body is actually doing its job. In fact, if there were not complaints, the HRC would be doing what the UN too often does, namely genuflect at the altar of state sovereignty.

Q. Many member states prefer to have a homegrown mechanism for truth-seeking, transparency and accountability as opposed to some of the resolutions passed by the UNHRC calling for interfering domestic affairs questioning the sovereignty of those nations. In your understanding, what is the best way that the UN and its treaty bodies can help?

A. Whether it is the SDGs or human rights norms, the UN should be an open, honest, hard-hitting monitor. Pulling punches and being quiet only helps the rule breakers.

Q. The current UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, also acknowledges the inherent weakness of the UN. International media quoted him as saying that “when we look at multilateral institutions, we have to recognise they have no teeth. Or, when they do, they don’t want to bite.”  What is your take on this?

A. He is correct, but he has not even bared his teeth let alone bite. The SG’s only tool is the bully pulpit. And Guterres has fallen into the diplomat’s and politician’s trap of hoping to keep 193 member states happy all of the time. That is a fool’s errand

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