On Saturday, 14th of July, the United Nations Association of the UK (UNA-UK) held the UN Forum 2012, a conference that brought together around 1,000 professionals either work work in the UN or aspire to.
The theme of this year’s conference was global change and speakers from the UN and other representatives of the third sector, governments and the media discussed topics such as the validity of universal human rights, challenges of the global population and the Olympic Truce.
This conference faced the difficulty of engaging with a diverse audience, which meant the choice of topics and speakers was slightly questionable. it became clear that the very core of this conference was to reflect on the shifting role of the UN itself, which was highlighted by the keynote speech given by Lord Malloch-Brown, former UN Deputy Secretary General, under Kofi Annan.
The formation of the UN made sense, when it was conceived in 1945, after the Second World War, because then the key players in international affairs were the United States, The UK, France, China and Russia, which until today have been the only five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
It also made sense that it was created because no other multinational organisation existed and there was a need of a slightly stateless figure – with its own troops often referred to as the “blue helmets” – to make sure that yet another world war would not occur.
But now, do those five permanent member states truly represent the most influential powers in the world? Do they have the authority to stop countries from committing mass-scale atrocities and most importantly, have they proven themselves to take decisions that are not in their own self-interest?
Currently, the 10 non-permanent member states who have a one-year term at the Security Council are; Azerbaijan, Colombia, Germany, Guatemala, India, Morocco, Pakistan, Portugal, South Africa and Togo. South Africa actively contested UN decisions especially during the NATO military strikes in Libya, which is evidence that the voice of the African Union is being heard at the UN level.
That said, Malloch Brown did confirm that reforming the security council’s structure, in order to embrace a more balanced representation of the countries, is certainly on the agenda.
Secondly, one should not be delusional about the budget the UN possesses. The scope of the UN is to serve all 192 member nations by providing humanitarian assistance and to support further development in all imaginable aspects, ranging from health to governance.
However, compared to other multilateral entities we can see that, while the UN has an approximate annual budget of $3 billion, the World Bank has about $20 billion and the budget of the European Union mounts to an equivalent of $170 billion.
Malloch Brown noted that the UN certainly made this money go a long way, but that it is not the right size for its global scope, which brings us back to the question of the actual role of the UN.
Dame Margaret, former Head of Mission in Angola, for example, reminisced on a negotiation she was involved with a local government, where no agreement was made, because the local authority had asked for 1,000 UN troops to be deployed in an area of conflict before calling a truce, but the UN did not have sufficient resources to mobilise sufficient troops fast enough. If the UN is expected to take an active role in resolving conflicts and emergencies, not only through diplomacy, but with means, then the budget does not match the scope.
Lastly, there has recently been a significant surge of civil society movement, especially when one considers the downfall of some authoritarian governments in North Africa and the Middle East.
Perhaps because these people have not been well represented in international arenas, they took their situation into their own hands, used modern effective tools, such as social media, and revolted against their own governments.
In a situation, like the current one in Syria where Kofi Annan’s peace plan has been broken, Malloch Brown commented that the role of the UN is seen as passive and moribund and that we had better be realistic about the influence the UN can have, and accept that, at best, they can function as facilitators for these societies. In fact, Malloch Brown continued to say that the power of the UN, beyond humanitarian work in situations of poor governance, such as Somalia for example, is limited.
In all, the UN operates within a structure that is perhaps is outdated, has a limited budget and power over current international affairs and there are now also other multilateral organisations and civil societies that play an active role in fulfilling many of the objectives of the UN.
But, when someone asked the question at the forum about whether the UN is no longer indispensable, I felt that it was exaggerating the scenario. It may be true that the EU has become one of the biggest aid agencies in the world, and that civil societies are gaining momentum, but the UN remains unique in its commitment to be representative of a lone voice, – whether it be a community, country or a region – and to have an holistic overview that does not focus just on economic development.
At a time of various crises; financial, environmental or international governance, there is no prospect for the UN to get an increased budget and it is very likely that its role will increasingly become that of advocacy.
That said, I believe crises are the ultimate test of competence and if the UN manages to stick through and provide as much support as possible to the areas most in need of international backing, then it will succeed in growing even more credibility around their role within the world of diplomacy.