My friends are very happy after 128 countries didn’t back America at the UN over Jerusalem. Most of my friends are celebrating this and few see it as unity among world but the question remains, IS UN REALLY POWERFUL ENOUGH? Will America change its decision under Trump Administration? Well, let’s find out the answer and let’s know more about WHAT UN ACTUALLY IS?
Now, before I go any further, I need to say that while I may have some snarky things to say about UN systems and institutions individually, I have the utmost respect for the institution of the United Nations overall, in spite of its flaws. I also have deep respect for many of the professionals who work within the various UN agencies around the world, many of whom are professionals passionate about trying to make the world a better place, and many of whom are close colleagues and friends of mine of whom I am very fond. This post is not meant to disparage any of them, or their work. Infact You all helped me to draft this article well.
Also, a big shout-out to the lovely folks who run the Humanitarian Response Fund, the Central Emergency Response Fund, and our partners in the contracts divisions of UNICEF, UNOPS,UNOCHA,UNDP,UNHCR, WHO,UNDESA, and WFP. Did I mention lately how much we like you guys? Also, about that quarterly report.
- The UN is Not a Para-State Actor
The structure of the United Nations is not that of a para-state actor. What does that mean? It means the UN isn’t a separate country, with an economy and a military and a judiciary and an executive branch and territory and so forth. It is not a system of government.
The UN is, at its core, a coordinating organization. In crude terms, it provides a forum and good offices for all the countries of the world to come together and agree on stuff, in order to limit how often they get into fights with each other.
It has sub-organizations that then provide sub-forums to facilitate and support action in particular sectors. For example, the World Health Organization facilitates research into aspects of public health, promotes strategies and courses of action to manage health issues, and works to strengthen individual nations’ Ministries of Health to improve the health of those nations. Individual nations choose to opt into the various programs that WHO, on an entirely voluntary basis, each working bilaterally with WHO on those aspects of health management which are relevant and for which there is budget.
The same is true of countless other UN programs. UNESCO works to support nations in protecting their cultural heritage. The International Court of Justice provides a forum for trying to resolve certain aspects of international law that exceed the jurisdiction of individual nations and where those nations’ laws might be at odds. The International Labour Office creates guidelines around what fair labour practices should look like around the world in discussion with state representatives, and then encourages nations to adopt them, or provides advice on how best to reform their labour sector.
None of these organizations dictates policy to any sovereign nation. They have no power to do-so, nor a mandate. They simply provide the forum for common agreements to be reached between member states, then encourage the implementation of these agreements. The World Health Organization has no authority over any Ministry of Health. It cannot implement a single national-level policy or decision in a single state anywhere in the world. It is completely up to the individual member state to choose to implement (or not) a policy recommendation from the UN.
Understand that each of these organizations that make up the UN are staffed not by some shadowy cadre of placeless, stateless minions operating in some bubble of UN territory deep underground to create policies by which the world might be run. Every UN staff member is recruited from various member states of the UN, based on a policy that aims to ensure a representation of the various countries of the world based on their contributions to the overall UN system. The UN is staffed by people from Germany and India and Swaziland and Britain and Papua New Guinea and 188 other sovereign states. And because the US gives more to the UN than anybody else (debt notwithstanding), it is particularly heavily represented in UN staffing cadres. These people are professionals, technical experts, politicians- many of them formerly civil servants from their own governments before working for the UN.
- The UN has No Power At All to Enforce Anything
Let’s really drill this home. The UN has pretty much no power. It has no authority or line-management with a single state institution. It cannot, cannot, did I mention cannot make a single nation or head of state do anything.
Let’s take a treaty. For example, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It’s a broad document that captures a set of statements and ideals that reflect how the various member states feel children should be protected under their individual nations, laws. For example, it influences the age at which a child should be considered an adult, the age at which a child is allowed to vote, the age at which a child can serve in the military or be tried as an adult, or the laws that protect a child from being forced to work. It enshrines the rights of children to play, to have an education, to be with their families, and so forth.
All nations in the world save one have signed up to it. People like kids, and most good people feel kids should be protected. It’s a good thing.
Of course, when a nation signs a treaty, they then need to ratify it. Ratifying is writing the principles of the treaty into the legislation of their own country. So, for example, they have written into law that a child must be 18 years old before they can work at a particular level, and that there are penalties for employers breaking this law.
And of course, even once a treaty has been ratified into law, the country must then enforce those laws. There are a number of countries that have signed the convention on the rights of the child, written into law that children cannot marry before the age of 16, but do nothing to prevent child marriage or convict those who practice it.
The UN cannot make any member state sign a treaty.
The UN cannot make any member state that has signed a treaty ratify that treaty into law.
And the UN cannot make any country enforce those laws even if they have been written into legislation.
Do you really think that most UN representatives (or global governments, for that matter) think it’s a good thing that a 40-year-old man can marry and have sex with an eight-year-old girl in Yemen? Pretty much every country would have that man in prison on charges of pedophilia. But does the UN do anything to Yemen on this front, even though such activity is against the UN-backed convention on the rights of the child, and Yemen has not just signed but also ratified that treaty? It does not, because it has no such power or authority. And recall that Yemen is one of the weaker member states of the UN (Currently in war with Saudi led coalition)
Note that the US is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child but has not ratified it- one of only two nations globally. This is because in the US, minors can serve in the armed forces from the age of 16 (if you include military training), and because the US allows some minors to be tried as and face the same sentences as an adult. The US government is not willing to change its practices in this regards, and claims that it has adequate protections already written into law around other aspects of the convention to protect children, so ratifying the treaty is not necessary. Whatever the perspective on this position, one thing is very clear. The US has never faced any fallout in terms of its sovereignty with regards to this treaty. It has suffered no repercussions. The UN cannot force the US government to do a thing.
- The UN can take No Unilateral Action without Agreement from Member States
The UN has no direct control over any member state. The UN does have a few options up its sleeve to encourage, influence or impress decisions however. If diplomacy on a critical issue fails, it can apply economic sanctions on a country, in a variety of fashions that may limit certain kinds of imports and exports (see Iraqi oil under Saddam Hussein), or target certain members of national leadership by freezing international assets or disallowing international travel. It can also mandate an international intervention force which will go in with a range of possible responses under it (more on this below). Regardless of the effectiveness of some of these measures the UN cannot implement any of these measures without the approval of the majority of member states.
In fact, just getting to this stage takes weeks, months, sometimes years of diplomacy, conversation, meetings, working groups, recommendations, redrafts and general bureaucratic hamster wheeling.
I’m not going to explain the sanctions approval process here, because I don’t know it in any depth myself. I do know there are committees, that many (all?) UN sanctions have to go through a Security Council sanctions committee of some description, and that some (all?) sanctions or actions also go through the UN General Assembly.
In short, there are checks and balances. Horrible, bureaucracy. Bureaucracy that would bore a sloth. And, like everything else the UN does, decisions are not necessarily enforceable. For example, the UN can place sanctions on a particular country, but it is then up to the other member states of the UN to actually put that into action. The UN Security Council can decide to place export sanctions on Iran, for example, but other nations, if they choose to, can still trade with Iran. Travel restrictions were placed on Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir after the ICC issued a war-crimes arrest warrant for him, but he still travelled to Kenya (ostensibly a nation signatory to the ICC, although that’s another topic of conversation after its recent elections), and Kenya allowed the visit to continue without any fallout.
This is even truer for any military action the UN sanctions. For military action to go ahead, it must first be agreed upon by the UN Security Council, which has 5 permanent members and 10 temporary members drawn on a rotation basis from the other 188 member states. The 5 permanent members- the US, Britain, France, Russia and China- all have veto power, which means if just one of them disagrees with a recommended action to the security council (including sanctions, diplomatic action, military intervention) then they can simply vote ‘no’ and the action cannot proceed.
So again, with the US government being permanently represented on the UN Security Council, there is no way the UN as an organization can do anything major that the US isn’t prepared to tolerate.
- The UN has No Standing Army
This is where the talk of ‘UN forces’ gets a little silly. A bit like the whole Black Helicopter discussion. Only, you know, stealth helicopters and black paint both exist, so I’m sure somebody somewhere is using them. But probably not to keep tabs on what you buy at the local 7-11.
Let me say this clearly. The UN has no standing army. Aside from a few armed security guards who keep an eye on UN headquarters and the relatively small UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) which provides security assistance for UN programs.
The UN doesn’t ‘deploy’ forces. The UN ‘sanctions’ them. That means, it gives them its blessing. It lets them use the Blue Helmets and take on the title of whichever UN-approved mission this happens to be.
Once the UN Security Council has approved a UN intervention force (not a common thing), it is then entirely reliant on various soveriegn states to provide the necessary personnel, vehicles, weapons systems, logistics support, funding- everything required to field a military force on the ground. This can take weeks, months, sometimes years to scale-up. Once member states have chosen to allocate resources (usually quite patchwork and piecemeal), there is then a system of command and control that the UN coordinates via the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). However even within this, military units that have been ‘seconded’ into a peacekeeping operation still report primarily to their own government and military structure, and only after that to the DPKO. The giving nation can withdraw those forces at any time or countermand orders, and the contingent commander is under no ‘obligation’ to obey the DPKO command structure or Force Commander if their own state hierarchy deems it against their interest.
- UN Peacekeeping Forces are Not Staffed with Crack Military Operators
For the most part, western government commit relatively little to actual peacekeeping operations these days. The bulk of front-line troops in forces such as MONUC (in the DRC) or UNAMID (Darfur) are from developing countries. This is because the UN essentially leases troops from state governments for a fee, and for some developing countries, this means their soldiers get paid more than the government could afford to pay them (or at least offsets the costs), and it is therefore profitable both financially and from the experience gained by these troops. Major contributers to peacekeeping forces include Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nigeria, as examples.
Meanwhile the UK, the US and other western nations generally find it against their political interests to send troops to the front lines. No western politician wants to be responsible for troops dying in some war that isn’t directly related to them. They will provide logistics support, some equipment, maybe some technical expertise or high-level staffing. But usually to a limited budget, and often reluctantly. UN Peacekeeping missions typically take from months to well over a year to reach full force, and are often poorly equipped even at that time.
Most UN peacekeeping forces, for example, use old equipment. Cold-war era helicopters (Mi-8s are a mainstay)and armoured personnel carriers (M113s, which date back to the Vietnam War, and BTR-60s, a 1960s Soviet APC) are commonplace. Personnel deploy in soft-skinned Toyota Land Cruisers. Their hardware is light. More advanced systems may be deployed at times today, but not in large numbers. What’s certainly key to note is that no UN-mandated force is deploying with M1A2 main battle tanks, Stryker LAVs (for better or for worse), Apache Longbows and MLRS. The only time a UN-mandated force did deploy like this was Operation Desert Storm in 1991, during the campaign to liberate Kuwait, and the bulk of its force was provided by the US military
- The United Nations Secretary General is not a Warlord
In more than 65 years of its existence, no UN Secretary General has attempted- or even exhibited behaviour towards- world domination. There has been no significant changes in the level of power or authority that the UN has. The UN’s various charters, treaties, edicts and so forth have grown deeper and more complex, like a colony of spiders on speed, but they haven’t actually
I have nothing against the UNSG. Nothing particular to say in favour of the man, either. I’m sure he’s doing the best he can under the circumstances. But the reality is that the UNSG’s job is, I imagine, pretty frustrating. He’s a deal-broker, perhaps- somebody who works to find a compromise between disagreeing parties that generally leaves both parties accepting an outcome that neither are fully satisfied with. He has his eyes on a relatively small portfolio of high-level international affairs, gives the occasional speech, smiles for the photo opportunities. Behind the scenes, he may be (I presume is) a skilled negotiator, schmoozer and general agent for keeping things calm and friendly between nations who’d like to park a few warhead on each other’s front lawns.
- The UN has Checks and Balances- like any other Government
In fact, more checks than you would believe. So much red tape it can be almost impossible to get anything done. And trust me, at times I’ve tried- admittedly from outside the system, but colleagues who work inside it profess the same thing. Every country office of every UN agency has its own way of doing things. An agreement with UNICEF in DRC,CAR may be won in a completely different manner to one in Chad due to the personalities involved and the way systems are applied. What WFP might agree to, UNHCR won’t.
There are councils, steering committees, working groups. Administration out the wazoo. You have seriously not see bureaucracy until you have worked closely with the UN .As I mentioned above, the UN has no real power. There are layers and layers of permissions and protocols to go through before any action is approved and sanctioned, and at every step, buy-in from member states is needed to actually achieve anything, and then those member-states must do the implementing. These checks and balances mean that, far from being a threat to society, the UN’s biggest threat is becoming useless and irrelevant. The UN Security Council is an anachronistic hangover from the end of the Second World War, when the five nuclear powers responsible for carving up what was left of Eurasia needed a forum to ensure that nuclear war didn’t start through some unfortunate misunderstanding among themselves. A reform of the UNSC has been discussed for years, but understandably, none of the permanent member states really want to give up their seat of control- even though there are now another half-dozen nuclear powers (at least) kicking around the table.
Getting the US, the UK, France, Russia and China to agree on anything is such a daunting task that if there’s anything to be gleaned here, it’s that the fact the UN can make even the smallest task happen is in itself a miracle worth celebrating.
These checks and balances tend the UN not towards a radical sweep to global power and evil mayhem, but towards overwhelming inertia.
The United Nations is simply a coordinating body that exists to capture and facilitate the collective will of its 193 member states, imperfectly and skewed in favor of the wealthier and more powerful nations, and specifically, the five permanent security-council members. It does not pose any threat to US even after 128 countries voted against US in the latest UNSC/UNGA session.
If you want to read about just how unwieldy a process UN peacekeeping interventions are, read Dallier’s Shake Hands with the Devil. It will have you alternatively weeping, screaming at the technocrats involved, or wanting to hurl your book/Kindle across the room in frustration. Sheri Fink’s War Hospital is similarly heart-wrenching.
A more damning report again comes from a reading of Shake Hands, in which General Dallier’s request for a relatively small force increment was assessed as sufficient to prevent the genocide that claimed 800,000 lives in Rwanda 19 years ago, but was never approved.
(Author is working as a consultant on World Bank Project in Bangladesh. Views are personal and not from the institution he works for. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)