After 67 years, is the UN a success or failure?

In October of 1945, one of the most influential and, perhaps, controversial, organizations in human history came into being. Last Wednesday, this organization— the United Nations—celebrated its 67th anniversary. At such a point, it seems relevant to discuss the performance of this institution over the past seven decades. So, let us all ask ourselves the question: Has the United Nations succeeded as an organization, or is it a failure?

The UN Charter lists the purposes of the organization to be “to maintain international peace and security,” “to develop friendly relations among nations,” “to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems” and “to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations.”

To say that the UN has managed to fulfill its promise in its entirety may well be considered naïve. Indeed, ever since 1945, it has failed to prevent many violent atrocities such as the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, and has been unable to resolve quite a few major international disputes such as the Kashmir and Palestine conflicts.

However, to side with the other extreme and state that the UN is an utter disaster and failure would be unfair. Through the following article, I will argue that the UN, although at times ineffective, is not a failure because the world is much better off than it would have been without it.

Although the United Nations was formed to prevent the “scourge of war,” it would be unrealistic to expect it to resolve all conflicts. Whereas its predecessor, the League of Nations, failed to stop World War II, the UN has diffused many conflicts either after they sparked or even before they got to that stage.

According to the UN website, the list of resolved conflicts includes: El Salvador, Guatemala, Namibia, Cambodia, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Burundi and the north-south conflict in the Sudan. It also states that “research credits UN peacemaking, peacekeeping and conflict prevention activities as a major factor behind a 40 percent decline in conflict around the world.”

Yet another important milestone is that of establishing and implementing international legislation. Before the establishment of the UN, international legislation had little, if any, value and could not be regulated effectively. Since 1945, however, the UN has played an instrumental part in codifying and promoting international law.

As per the UN, “Over 510 multilateral treaties—on human rights, terrorism, global crime, refugees, disarmament, trade, commodities, the oceans and many other matters—have been negotiated and concluded through the efforts of the United Nations.” Alongside, through organs such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, the UN has managed to resolve major international disputes in a judicial setting and prosecute war criminals.

Expanding further upon the various organs and subcommittees of the UN, it is inarguably true that these have been immensely helpful to communities across the globe.

From the help provided to over 50 million refugees by the UN High Commission for Refugees, the annual provision of food by the World Food Program to an average of 90 million hungry people in 80 countries, the efforts of the UN Environmental Program to the assistance provided by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to 137 countries to protect ancient monuments and historic, cultural and natural sites, it is undeniable that the UN has a vast number of achievements in many regards.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the United Nations is inefficient—maybe even ineffective—and that it has been proliferated by corruption and mismanagement. Further, that it is a mere forum for members to lash out at each other and pursue their vested interests and for powerful nations to exercise and reinforce their power.

Critics even go on to say that with the emergence of regional organizations working outside the UN—which the critics claim are more effective tools in international policy—the United Nations has become irrelevant and obsolete.

However, it can easily be argued that despite these regional organizations, the UN remains the sole international institution which is recognized by almost all countries of the world and is respected as the most legitimate global forum. Furthermore, most of these regional organizations collaborate with the UN on various occasions and so, instead of replacing it, they complement the United Nations.

Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly true that the UN has numerous flaws which need to be set right. The international community is concerned about these flaws and is moving towards rectifying them.

The need for reform does in no way whatsoever imply a failure on the part of the United Nations. Instead, that it is a living institution which although requires maintenance, is functioning and serving its purpose.

Indeed, if the United Nations had been a failure, it would have perished much like its predecessor, the League of Nations. Therefore, although it is not always easy to call the United Nations a success, it would be unfair to call it a failure.

As the second Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskj said: “To write [the United Nations] off because of difficulties or failures would mean, among many other things, to write off our hope of developing methods for international coexistence.”