Growing challenges expose the limitations of the UN
World leaders will convene next week for the annual UN General Assembly in a year when the organization has appeared marginal to international crises and conflicts. Despite its flaws, however, the UN retains unique capabilities and crisis response tools, and is the only mediator in stand-offs that span generations.
Discussions this year will probably focus on more robust climate action, COVID-19, mounting human rights issues and humanitarian crises the world over. However, according to the UN itself, the world is far from solving existing challenges, let alone making substantial progress toward achieving sustainable development goals.
If the UN is to steer the world through crisis and propose global solutions to global challenges, it must evolve from the reactionary models that have guided it so far. Preventing war, fostering economic and social development, and promoting respect for human rights are all noble — albeit not easily attainable — goals, but it will no longer suffice simply to follow flashpoints, with a narrow focus on avoiding negative outcomes, showing up late, underfunded, under-resourced, and triaging development assistance. Instead, bold, predictive actions are required.
It is ironic that the author and steward of the sustainable development goals remains crippled by an operational model that is unsustainable. Since its inception, UN membership has grown to essentially include all countries, and shared threats such as HIV/AIDS, gender equity, climate change and terrorism, have added new responsibilities to its existing mandates. New programs and additional funding over the years have resulted in a patchwork of loosely connected specialized agencies, with the UN at their core — a complex organization for an increasingly complicated world.
Unfortunately, when viewed through a diagnostic lens, the mounting challenges of today have consistently exposed the UN’s severe limitations and impediments to its efficacy in dealing with crises. From Ethiopia to Palestine, and from Libya to Myanmar, the UN has erred in favor of avoiding risk and settling for inaction exacerbated by intractable divisions within the Security Council. As a result, the one body empowered to mitigate violent conflict has been relegated to dealing with its fallout, rather than taking decisive action to deal with its causes.
The challenge for the delegates at the General Assembly should go beyond avoiding the doomsday scenario in Secretary-General António Guterres’s report outlining his vision for the future of international cooperation. In it, the world is faced with two deeply contrasting futures.
... a year has already gone by in the UN’s Decade of Action, and the international community remains resistant to change, even when it is increasingly clear that failure to cooperate risks wreaking irreversible damage. It can only be hoped that the upcoming General Assembly session will strike a different tone, or the world could lose yet another year to inaction.
In the first, COVID-19 continues to mutate as wealthier nations resist sharing vaccine surpluses, creating surges of the infected that will collapse much of the developing world's already embattled healthcare systems. Meanwhile, inaction on climate change will mean temperatures rise unabated, making parts of the planet uninhabitable. Water and food insecurity, record biodiversity losses, widespread droughts, and extreme weather events will then spark conflicts, resulting in the forced migration of vulnerable tens of millions.
Migrant swells at the borders of still habitable regions will also spur domestic unrest and political upheaval, as citizens take to the streets, fearing job or income losses should their governments consider resettling refugees. The resulting widespread protests will then be met by violent repression, as well as the erosion of human rights, fueling even more domestic antipathy, and eventually widespread conflict, pushing humanity to the brink of total collapse.
The alternative future is a bolder agenda that includes equitable vaccine sharing and increasing assistance to jump-start developing world economies devastated by the pandemic. The objective of greater multilateral cooperation is a sustainable and inclusive recovery, while simultaneously decarbonizing societies to meet climate goals. Thus, the UN is perfectly positioned to become the sole collaboration platform for a world now keenly aware of the inherent risks posed by unmitigated, runaway threats, thanks to COVID-19.
Granted, UN agencies have stepped up to deal with the humanitarian debacles that emanate from unstable regions in the world, ensuring pipelines for aid are intact, to the benefit of the vulnerable. UN officials have also consistently taken advantage of the ebbs and flows of conflicts to accelerate peacebuilding, or efforts to dissipate long-standing tension, with notable progress in Libya, Haiti, and Cyprus. Through these remarkable interventions, the UN retains and deploys its unique abilities for long-term problem solving, and member nations have yet to question its relevance — despite a record of failures in addressing global challenges.
However, the road to achieving that breakthrough is as elusive as ever. The Security Council continues on the road to becoming irrelevant. An abrupt U-turn in US engagement in the Biden era has only made the Security Council more civil than effective. It has become an arena for geopolitical rivals to balance interests, rather than take decisive steps to address global challenges.
This lack of cohesion among the permanent members often means collaboration on real action is substituted for perfunctory debates about the terms for humanitarian aid. Now, most other UN member states simply prefer the Security Council to stay out of their backyards, or not to meddle in their domestic affairs. Increasingly, the Security Council will find it even more challenging to find common ground for containing or pre-empting crises.
Given these constraints, the secretary-general and UN member states have chosen to focus on the humanitarian spillover and quiet engagement. Even in his “Our Common Agenda” report, the secretary-general shied away from talking about global security or long-term peace, focusing instead on non-traditional threats such as gender equity, misinformation, and social protections for the vulnerable. After all, bolder actions require taking riskier political bets, likely to be dismissed or undercut by the Security Council's endless rivalries. Guterres has often preferred to let other stakeholders such as the African Union or Association of Southeast Asian Nations lead mediation efforts.
It is still too early to tell whether the renewed emphasis on global cooperation is the missing piece in accelerating progress toward the UN’s 2030 goals. However, a year has already gone by in the UN’s Decade of Action, and the international community remains resistant to change, even when it is increasingly clear that failure to cooperate risks wreaking irreversible damage. It can only be hoped that the upcoming General Assembly session will strike a different tone, or the world could lose yet another year to inaction.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell