By Kristina Kulik and Andriana Loukanari
Critics call it too bureaucratic and inefficient. The complaints levied against its logistical limitations are valid; however, the United Nations remains the most prominent international body, particularly within the arena of human rights enforcement. It serves not only as the foremost international forum for the discussion and resolution of global issues, but is also the most legitimate provider of humanitarian intervention. The impact of the United Nations in the twenty-first century is apparent: much of the present day work of the United Nations, providing resources and multilateral solutions, stems from its unique capabilities and status on the world stage. The United Nations compensates for the lags in a national government’s regulations when no other political formation has an incentive to interfere. The food drop during the South Sudan civil conflict is only one of many examples of the UN acting beyond national interests to supply nutrition for people starving to death during the civil war.
Originally formed after World War II to prevent and protect against crimes against humanity, the UN remains the focal point in global security solutions. Coordinating the international community in accordance with established international principles in a spirit of democracy, the annual General Assembly sessions are a unique political forum in which every state expresses its needs and opinions on the most crucial international issues. The Security Council plays a vital role in the formation of political opinion of the most influential world governments. It establishes an official political position on the major security issues, as was the case for Ukraine.
Furthermore, the UN remains the most legitimate institution authorizing military intervention. Unlike state-actors, it presents an impartial opinion and intervenes in international conflicts even when nothing is to be gained for the organization. With fifteen active missions ongoing today, UN peacekeepers are the world’s main source of peace enforcement and crisis prevention. Their first official mission, the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), authorized in 1948, is still ongoing, and seeks to monitor the Arab-Israeli cease- fire. This mission has set a precedent both in its goals and its practice, a precedent that has informed successes in over 60 nations, like Lebanon, Cyprus, Egypt, Yemen, and Liberia. Arab-Israeli tensions remain high even seven decades later, yet without UNTSO, fewer cease-fires would have occurred, and many more lives would have undoubtedly been lost.
Because it is an impartial international actor, the UN can supervise the genesis of new states without pursuing strategic national interests. In the modern world, it has done so with a number of territories, such as Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia. Efficient regulation of the territorial conflict prevents civil war and genocide from happening, saving thousands of lives. Having attracted international attention after the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, when the Indonesian government shot over two hundred demonstrators advocating for the separation of the region, the East Timor independence operation is one of the most significant UN successes in this area. UN involvement began in 1999 with an initial referendum and subsequent military intervention. It also launched a temporary administration, facilitating emergency rehabilitation of physical infrastructure, creating systems of sustainable governance, and maintaining security and order. In order to grant the territory sovereign status, the UN used the same legal means as Russia did in granting sovereignty to Crimea. However, since the political will was expressed from the international community as a whole, the measures received international approval. There were no political debates about the legal status of the newly formed state, which was an issue that plagued the formations of both Kosovo and Abkhazia.
Aside from its role as an international police force, the UN tackles the most critical humanitarian issues. The High Commissioner for Human Rights has succored refugees from extreme violence in northern Iraq, Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia. The World Health Organization (WHO), works on eradicating smallpox, eliminating polio and tuberculosis. In the modern world, with its extremely high infection rate, especially in developing countries, the WHO is a central element in the fight against fatal contagious diseases, such as HIV, and a guarantee of medical help for people in the developing countries, where health systems are practically non- existent. Another agency, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), provides vaccines for forty percent of the world’s children, supplies schoolchildren with food, and arranges educational opportunities for girls in countries where women are deprived of education.
But its role is not solely reactive; it also takes preemptive actions. It has created an independent legislative system starting with the Genocide Convention and the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and even today, international conventions led by the UN draft implement international law in almost every aspect of global affairs. The UN synthesizes local cultural moralities into a comprehensive universal system of values: quite a complex task when governments justify human rights abuses through local cultural values, such as the mandating of 125 million women who undergo genital mutilation in 27 African countries.
Furthermore, the UN has its own court system, the International Court of Justice. It has a legal authority to resolve political disputes by demanding compulsory actions and expressing advisory opinions. In one of the litigations, for example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo accused Uganda of illegitimate intervention and armed aggression. With the onset of a globalization, international litigation is increasingly evoked to solve interstate problems, as it does not threaten the lives of citizens or incur extremely high military expenditures. As such, it is an indispensible international legal system for the twenty-first century. The International Criminal Court that was established with the help of the United Nations, in order to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, is a realization of one of the most ambitious ideas to investigate the most horrendous crimes. It uses international resources, instead of letting cases go to the national, and often corrupt, judiciary system.
From economic and social revision plans to resolutions pertaining to national security, protection of sovereignty and human rights advocacy, the United Nations does what no country can do alone. Through its various committees, it has a complex system of humanitarian programs that fulfill the basic needs of citizens of developing countries and contribute to decreasing the gap between the global North and South. The UN also provides internationally approved peacekeeping, prevents aggressive military intervention, and protects civilians from being killed by abusive authoritarian governments. It balances the world and pushes it in a direction of preventive diplomacy and the rule of law.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of PPR.
Image (Attribution License) courtesy of Ashitaka San on Flickr.