The United Nations deserves better world leaders

The United Nations deserves better world leaders

United Nations Secretary-General Antanio Guterres, center leaves a press briefing about his closed-door meeting on Libya with the UN Security Council on April 10, 2019 at UN headquarters in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

At the beginning of the last decade, I was asked by one of my more politically aware students to help her establish a Model United Nations society at our university, something she had done previously as a high-school student. I must admit that the gap between what I knew about the conduct of the United Nations, its strengths and weaknesses, its successes and failures, and what I knew about the annual gathering in New York of thousands of students from around the world to debate the most pressing issues of our times, was rather extensive.

Fifteen years of attending these MUN gatherings in the home city of the global organization, the latest of which took place last week, have taught me that despite the constant, and often justified, criticism that it receives, there is great enthusiasm among young people to engage with it to discuss the issues that matter most to them. They look up to those who occupy the iconic building on the banks of Manhattan’s East River with hope, and probably demands, for global leadership.

They expect world leaders and the 193 member nations to remain true to the spirit of the 1942 declaration, made while World War II was still raging, of the organization’s mission to defeat those who are enemies of life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and of its determination to preserve human rights and justice everywhere and for everyone.

By the end of the war, when the enemies of those values at that time had been defeated, the path was clear for the United Nations to be established, its framework enshrined in its charter. Nearly 75 years later, however, the struggle to preserve those values, which were held so dear by the organization’s founders, is far from over.

For the students who come to New York from the four corners of the world to participate in the MUN and role play representing more than 130 countries, the issues they discuss are a true reflection of the global agenda. With fierce enthusiasm, this young crop of future diplomats and leaders debate issues such as telecommunications and international security, nuclear disarmament, the peaceful use of outer space, refugee resettlement, and harnessing new technologies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Those who take part in MUN conferences, in New York and elsewhere in the world, are goodwill ambassadors for the idea of global cooperation on almost every aspect of life, regardless of where their career paths might take them. At the same time, they are not naive. They question whether the real UN is merely a talking shop, where political points (mainly cheap ones) are earned and political scores are settled without being able to resolve the most pertinent and crucial issues of our time.

Those student delegates lucky enough to be part of the MUN Security Council very quickly experience a sense of great responsibility, mixed with frustration, when they find themselves faced with a situation in which each of the council’s five permanent members — China, France, the US, the UK and the Russian Federation — have more influence than the other 10 put together, thanks to the power of veto they possess.

This power was bestowed on the five nations that were the most powerful at the time of the establishment of the UN, to give it some added bite compared with its predecessor, the toothless League of Nations. Regrettably, a power that was designed to ensure peace, security, stability and prosperity became a powerful tool for the five nations to defend their own partisan interests regardless of how that affects other member states or the UN as a whole.

The thousands of young women and men I met, in all their great diversity, last week in New York are all calling on those world leaders to clean up their act, for the sake of our present and future generations. Someone had better listen to them.

Yossi Mekelberg


When student delegates meet UN officials they press them on tough issues such as how the organization has failed to end the war in Syria and prevent the mass atrocities there, just as it has failed to do so in Myanmar and Bangladesh for the Rohingya people. They want to see climate change at the top of the international agenda, in line with the overwhelming scientific evidence of the detrimental effect it is having on the planet. And they would like human rights to be at the heart of the UN’s endeavors. Others wonder whether the concept of the United Nations as we know it is past its sell-by date, viewing it as little more than talking shop with no power to make any real difference.

Just as importantly, if not more so, they would like to see changes to the composition of the Security Council, the most important organ of the UN, so that it better reflects the distribution of power in the 21st century and not that of an era long gone. To this end, they would like it to undergo a structural change to prevent the constant and predictable cycle of impasse and deadlock, especially on urgent and critical issues.

Such criticisms do not originate from a wish to disband the UN, however, and neither should they; their aim is rather to reform and fortify this global security instrument. In nearly 75 years of existence the UN might not have fulfilled the dreams of its founders to prevent wars, mass atrocities and genocide.

Yet the organization can only be as good as its member states allow it to be. To its credit, it has found ways, through its main organs, specialized agencies and other programs, in which it can work to advance economic stability and prosperity, to protect and promote culture, and to safeguard refugees.

For instance, in nearly 20 years since the Millennium Development Goals were agreed, and replaced in 2016 by the Sustainable Development Goals, much progress has been made in the areas of education, health, gender empowerment and even the environment. Such successes clearly demonstrate that when the international community comes together, through the UN, with clear objectives and timescales that reflect universal values, communities and societies can be transformed for the better.

Now, for the first time, there is at the helm of the UN a secretary general who is an experienced politician, in the person of former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres. However, he will not be able to successfully navigate one of the world’s most complex international organizations as long as leaders of some of the most powerful countries in the world continue to use it as a scapegoat for their own faults or an unwillingness to cooperate internationally while defending their vested interests.

The thousands of young women and men I met, in all their great diversity, last week in New York are all calling on those world leaders to clean up their act, for the sake of our present and future generations. Someone had better listen to them.


Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.

Twitter: @YMekelberg

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