Mike Segar, Reuters

International Reports

The Relevance of the United Nations

by Andrea Ellen Ostheimer

In a New Era of Global Tensions

The United Nations’ effectiveness is being weakened by the gradual erosion of its foundation of liberal democratic values and the increasingly confrontational stance of major states with veto power. In many cases, the conflict between the US and China is paralysing UN diplomacy. Although the importance of the United Nations has once again been highlighted by the ­COVID-19 pandemic, 75 years after its inception it is now time to ask what global leadership should look like. But first and foremost, it is now to call on member states and their the political will to work together.

The Spirit of San Francisco

The Charter of the United Nations was signed by its founders in San Francisco on 26 June 1945. After being signed by 50 states, the Charter entered into force on 24 October 1945. Above all, the spirit of San Francisco was driven by an awareness that after two devastating world wars, an architecture of peace became indispensable. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of the driving forces behind the drafting of the Charter. Roosevelt, convinced of the need to move away from zero-sum games in international relations, aimed to build a network of collective security.

The norms established by the Charter not only regulated the interaction of state actors but also created legal certainty and predictability. Institutions were set up to facilitate cooperation between states in order to promote the common good. The basic premise was that countries would meet as equal partners and work together to achieve the goals set out in the preamble to the Charter.

In his address at the closing session of the UN Conference in San Francisco, President Harry S. Truman summarised the conditions for ensuring a functioning multilateralism and a functioning UN:

“We all have to recognize – no matter how great our strength – that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please. No one nation, no regional group, can or should expect any special privilege which harms any other nation. If any nation would keep security for itself, it must be ready and willing to share security with all. That is the price which each nation will have to pay for world peace. Unless we are all willing to pay that price, no organization for world peace can accomplish its purpose. And what a reasonable price that is!”


The United Nations in the Context of a New Era of Global Tensions

The post-war focus on the internationalisation of liberal values as a principle of multilateralism has become increasingly blurred over recent years. One reason for this is the growing influence of China in the UN and the fact that it has managed to find numerous allies in the G77 group, particularly when it comes to limiting the human rights agenda. In addition, the US’ reduced engagement from the United Nations has created a vacuum that China is about to fill. This phenomenon is evident in the way the US has cut financial contributions to UN peacekeeping missions, withdrawn from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and, most recently, not only halted funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) but subsequently begun the process of withdrawal from this specialised UN agency.

The US was instrumental in establishing the United Nations, but the success of a liberal value system as the foundation of multilateralism also depended on the US’ acceptance of this order. The process of erosion began when the US started moving away from these norms – or, as in the case of the International Criminal Court (ICC), refused to submit to them at all.

One does not necessarily need to agree with American political scientist Robert Kagan when he says the liberal international order is a deviation from history. However, he raises a legitimate question: What are we doing to stop the centrifugal forces and dissolution of the liberal order?

Alongside this gradual erosion of the foundation of liberal democratic values, the increasingly confrontational stance of major states with veto power in the Security Council is proving to be one of the main threats to multilateralism. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conflict between the US and China was about more than just trade. In many cases, this is leading to a paralysis of UN diplomacy. The most recent example is the UN Security Council’s failure over months to adopt a resolution in the context of COVID-19 and to support the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire in order to combat the pandemic.

If merely viewed as a platform for promoting national interests, the UN is not fit to accomplish its original objectives.

The ability to address global threats – whether they are pandemics, climate change, international terrorism, organised crime, or nuclear proliferation – is currently being hampered by nationalism, populism, isolationism, and the absence of collective solidarity. Criticism is being levelled above all at the United Nations and Security Council in this respect, as they are accused of failing. However, such failure is primarily down to the attitudes of the member states and particularly the permanent members of the Security Council, the P5 (permanent five). If the United Nations is viewed merely as a platform for promoting national interests, rather than as a forum for jointly addressing global challenges, then it is indeed not fit for purpose and certainly not fit to accomplish the objectives set by its founding fathers.


The Objectives and Principles Enshrined in the UN Charter

Seventy-five years on, the UN Charter remains an important cornerstone of the rules-based international order. However, then as now, its effectiveness relies on the member states’ voluntary commitment to the principle of pacta sunt servanda. While the UN can advise and launch initiatives, the power of political decision-making lies with its members.

One fact about the United Nations is often overlooked: It is more than just a multilateral, intergovernmental institution; the United Nations is an autonomous but not entirely independent actor that provides a platform for its members. The United Nations is able to set international norms, provided the political will of the member states is present. However, at the same time, it is often the implementing organisation with an operational mandate.

This hybrid character, and the resultant tensions, all too often compromise the organisation’s ability to act, as well as its efficiency. Even when the UN is perceived as an actor in its own right, it remains dependent on the support of the member states and their willingness to take action. For example, any misconduct on the part of blue helmets soldiers during deployment cannot be punished by the United Nations; this must be done by the country that provides the troops.

In view of limited budgets and funding, which is frequently project-based, the scope of development interventions on the part of UN agencies and their sub-structures in their countries of operation largely depends on the priorities of the donors.


“[…] to Reaffirm Faith in Fundamental Human Rights.”

In 1945, the preamble to the UN Charter laid the foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the corpus of conventions and protocols that were derived from it. Through its institutions, the UN has made a significant contribution to the establishment of the international human rights system, but it is frequently caught up in the tensions arising from Article 2 paragraphs (1) and (7) regarding sovereignty of member states and the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of states.

The dynamics of the UNHRC in Geneva reflect how the spheres of power and influence are shifting towards China and the continuing solidarity of the G77 bloc. However, it is also clear that established practices and traditions are in urgent need of reform at a time when liberal values are coming under fire. In last autumn’s UNHRC elections, it was impossible to prevent renewed membership of the Maduro regime in Venezuela, as the Group of Latin America and Caribbean Countries (GRULAC) initially followed its tradition of consensus and complied to the wishes of Venezuela and Brazil, thereby nominating these two countries.

Despite the Lima Group’s political declarations in favour of the Venezuelan opposition, no one within GRULAC was prepared to question the legitimacy and credibility of the Maduro regime on the issue of human rights. Costa Rica alone decided to run against it, and this only following massive civil society protests about the human rights violations committed by the Maduro regime. But this late candidature left Costa Rica with just one week to lobby before the election, and Venezuela was thus able to renew its membership of the UNHRC.

Due to a fear of endangering development projects the UN tends to keep quiet about human rights violations.

In 2013, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the Human Rights up Front initiative (HRuF) to strengthen the UN’s human rights focus. The purpose of HRuF is also to break down the silos that exist within the UN administration (i. e. peace and security; human rights; development). So far, its record is somewhat mixed. In terms of the need to balance the interests of the various departments, the main criticism is that the UN tends to keep quiet about human rights violations due to fear of losing access for humanitarian aid or of endangering the willingness of governments to cooperate in development projects.

Ultimately, UN diplomats find themselves in a constant dilemma. Their job is to advocate for human rights all the while maintaining diplomatic dialogue, even with autocratic regimes.

In situations such as the conflicts in Syria and Libya, the UN lacks a political voice to accompany its regular humanitarian appeals. However, were the organisation to possess such a voice, it might well have the unwanted effect of being disqualified as a mediator, and UN actors would immediately be accused of partisanship.

In such a dilemma, the UN can ultimately only lose and weaken its own position, particularly in terms of public perception. Secretary-General Guterres took office at a time when the US administration was beginning to downplay the importance of human rights. In addition, some of his former colleagues have accused him of being too respectful of countries that flex their muscles and trample on human rights. The former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, is quoted as saying: “I’m sure the secretary-general has convinced himself that he is acting prudently. […but] I think future historians won’t interpret it as prudence but will interpret it as weakness.”

The nexus of human rights and security is becoming increasingly thorny in light of recent shifts in geopolitical power. Protecting human rights was not initially considered part of the Security Council’s mandate. However, the advent of new kinds of conflicts – which are primarily domestic in nature, and that often involve or are preceded by human rights violations – means that the topic of human rights has taken on greater importance in the Security Council. Reports by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation in places like North Korea, Burundi, and South Sudan are now commonplace. The UN Special Rapporteurs are also an important source of information for the members of the Security Council. However, human rights issues can often only be discussed using the Arria formula, i. e. unofficially.

Attempts to put human rights violations on the agenda have been torpedoed by states such as Russia, particularly now that conflicts like those in Syria, Yemen, and Libya are being waged with external help. Support often comes from states with poor human rights records and/or which regard the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs and state sovereignty as sacrosanct.

Over the years, the protection of human rights has been enshrined in numerous UN peace mission mandates. However, in the current discussions on the design of mandates in both the Security Council and the Fifth Committee (Budget Panel), it can be seen that Russia and China are exerting their influence to either remove human rights monitors or cut funding to such an extent that these components can no longer be implemented effectively.


“[…] to Maintain International Peace and Security”

When it was founded, the overriding objective of the United Nations was to maintain peace and security. Article 1 of the Charter and Chapters VI and VII focus on peacekeeping and on the establishment of peace and security. This pronounced focus is also accompanied by the fact that the success and relevance of the United Nations is primarily assessed in this area.

The complexity of the current crises and the limited progress made in overcoming them has led to criticism of the UN’s record. In the past, the UN’s relevance was mainly called into question due to its failures in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina or following the unilateral action of the US in Iraq in the face of a blocked Security Council. Today, Syria, Yemen, and Libya are the trouble spots where the UN’s peacekeeping capabilities are limited due to the power constellations in the Security Council.

However, critics of the United Nations often overlook the fact that the Security Council was often paralysed during the Cold War, as it is the case today. Nevertheless, the UN managed to prevent regional conflicts from turning into conflagrations. To name but a few examples – peace was achieved in Guatemala, El Salvador, Angola, and Mozambique, and, more recently, peacekeeping operations were brought to a successful close in countries such as Liberia (2003 to 2018), Sierra Leone (1999 to 2006), and Côte d’Ivoire (2004 to 2017).

Peacekeeping missions regularly have financing problems as a result of increasingly complex mandates and lax payment practices of member states.

The United Nations currently maintains 13 missions and deploys over 110,000 blue helmets. The financing of peace operations is becoming increasingly problematic. It is true that the US – the largest donor to UN peacekeeping missions – has not radically reduced its contributions, as had been announced by President Trump when he first took office. However, due to the 25 per cent cap introduced by the US Congress in 1995, the US has been failing to meet its mandatory contributions since 2017, which the UN sets at 27.89 per cent. The arrears of the US alone have left peace operations with an annual funding gap of 200 million US dollars. Peacekeeping missions regularly have financing problems as a result of increasingly complex mandates and the lax payment practices of member states.

Along with the problem of financing blue helmet missions, questions also arise about the capacities of the troops deployed in light of the increasingly asymmetrical nature of conflicts and the need for anti-terrorist capabilities. Seven peacekeeping missions are deployed in areas threatened by terrorism and violent extremism. However, at the political level in the UN headquarters in New York, there is no strategic approach, nor are there mission-specific concepts for these challenges. The largest area of operations is currently the Sahel, where anti-terrorist operations primarily fall to France’s Operation Barkhane and to the US troops currently stationed in the region. Along with trying to protect the civilian population in Mali, the UN’s MINUSMA mission mainly provides logistical support to the G5 Sahel regional alliance (supply services and medical evacuation capacities).

The deficits often associated with blue-helmet peacekeeping missions (dependence on government despite a mandate under Chapter VII of the Charter, lack of equipment, changes to the mandate, and the focus on protecting civilians without the necessary adjustments in terms of logistics, funding, and personnel) became particularly apparent in late 2013 in the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) after a resurgence of hostilities between President Salva Kir and Riek Machar, his challenger, opponent, and vice-president.

Although the Security Council has a wide range of instruments at its disposal, their deployment often lacks a strategic aim.

Secretary General Guterres launched the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) reform initiative in March 2018 in order to address these partly structural problems, documented in detail in a report by General Dos Santos Cruz. This sets out eight pillars and also provides for performance assessment and accountability, as well as a code of conduct. The latter focusses not only on sanctions for misconduct (in the past there have been regular cases of abuses perpetrated by Blue Helmets) but also strengthens the implementation of the Human Rights Due Diligence Policy and the Environment Strategy for peacekeeping missions.

Peacekeeping reforms have long been the subject of debate, and the design of mandates is one of the areas in need of reform. Twenty years ago, the Brahimi Report looked at the problems faced by UN peace operations. It stated that peacekeeping missions should contribute to the political resolution of conflicts but should not be seen as an alternative. The subsequent HIPPO Report also stressed the primacy of politics and the importance of political approaches to conflict resolution when designing peace missions. Although the Security Council has a wide range of instruments at its disposal (such as political declarations, visiting missions, direct dialogue with conflicting parties, and the threat or imposition of sanctions), these are not always used sufficiently and they often lack a strategic aim. Instead, political dynamics and the desire for compromise can often lead to mandates becoming overloaded and inconsistent. In cases where there is no clear strategy for political conflict resolution, there is a danger that mandates are formulated in an unclear manner and provide a poor basis for missions to meet expectations, particularly those of local communities.


Political Hurdles in the Security Council

Despite the political dynamics in the Security Council, in the past it has usually been possible to extend UN peacekeeping missions without major difficulties. However, this too is changing in the face of geopolitical power shifts and tensions. The so-called technical rollovers, where an existing mandate is renewed unchanged for a limited period, are becoming more frequent. Back in March 2019, the mandate of UNAMA, the political mission in Afghanistan, was rolled over because the Security Council was unable to agree on wording about regional cooperation. China had introduced a reference to the Belt and Road Initiative in previous resolutions and in the UNAMA mandate. The US initially rejected this in March 2019, but a compromise was finally reached in September 2019, when UNAMA’s mandate was renewed in negotiations led by Germany.

The work of the Security Council is being hampered or even blocked by the US’ declining willingness to compromise, and the way the Trump administration is ignoring issues that had already been agreed and adopted as the norm. A stumbling block for the Security Council’s resolution on COVID-19 had been the US’ refusal to accept any mention of the role and importance of the World Health Organisation. In recent months, it was mainly references to the Belt and Road Initiative, which were rejected by the US side, leading to confrontation with China. The US administration also rejects the emphasis on the right to reproductive health in resolutions that are particularly relevant to abused women in conflict regions. This almost caused the failure of a resolution on Women, Peace, and Security during Germany’s presidency of the Security Council Presidency in April 2019. Controversial discussions often arise when addressing the nexus of climate change and security, when enshrining the protection of human rights in Security Council resolutions, and on the issue of sanctions.

These positions are gradually hardening, which makes it surprising to see how many areas of conflict can nevertheless be addressed by the Security Council. This is certainly aided by the commitment of the Elected 10 (E10), the non-permanent members who are elected for two years. Their influence has led to a broader range of issues being included in the discussions.

Non-permanent members can have a significant impact on the Security Council’s working methods, and it would be desirable for these members to regain the influence they have lost over recent years. In the past, it was the exclusive prerogative of the presidency to set the agenda for the month, but now P5 members are allowed to intervene. The almost exclusive right of the P3 (US, France, United Kingdom) to claim the leadership (known as the penholdership) on various issues curtails both the E10’s scope for shaping the agenda and the effectiveness of the Council.


The Secretary-General and General Assembly in the Service of Peace and Security

It is not possible for the United Nations to resolve every conflict, and the blockages in the Security Council will certainly continue in the medium term. There are still opportunities for it to assert its relevance, but this also requires the Secretary-General to take a proactive approach to the Security Council, as granted in Article 99 of the Charter: “The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

In the past, very few Secretaries-General have seized this opportunity to pursue active crisis management.

Article 99 of the Charter enables the Secretary-General to go beyond the role of chief diplomat and to be a political actor. In the past, very few Secretaries-General have seized this opportunity to pursue active crisis management. The recently deceased Javier Pérez de Cuéllar was certainly someone who knew how to make the most of the options that were open to him. He specifically mentioned Article 99 when he put the situation in Lebanon on the agenda of the Security Council in 1989. His predecessors Dag Hammerskjöld (Congo crisis 1960) and Kurt Waldheim (occupation of the US embassy in Tehran 1979) also made use of Art. 99.

In the wake of the brutal crackdown by the Burmese military on the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and the flight of over 745,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, Secretary-General António Guterres officially addressed the Security Council in a letter (S/2017/753) (albeit without making reference to Article 99). The Security Council subsequently addressed the situation for the first time and adopted a presidential statement in November 2017, but it took no further steps due to a lack of political will among the members of the Security Council.

In cases such as Venezuela – where the Maduro regime is not only violently suppressing its opposition but also supporting the Colombian militia ELN in its fight against the Colombian government and backing organised crime in the region – Secretary-General Guterres has so far remained silent, apart from putting out humanitarian appeals regarding the supply situation and the resulting refugee movements.

In order to maintain peace, Article 11 of the UN Charter also assigns the UN General Assembly a role, albeit a subsidiary one in relation to the Security Council. However, this overlooks the fact that the General Assembly has previously tried to find its own avenues for action, such as the “Uniting for Peace” resolution during the Cold War. The General Assembly’s presidents are also increasingly trying to exert an influence that goes beyond their representative function. In 2011, the then President of the General Assembly Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser invited the High Commissioner for Human Rights to address the General Assembly for a briefing on the human rights situation in the Syrian civil war. In August 2012, the General Assembly condemned the atrocities committed by the Syrian government in a subsequent resolution. The annexation of the Crimea by Russia and the subsequent referendum were also declared null and void by a General Assembly resolution.

Recently, the General Assembly again made its presence felt, when, as early as the beginning of April, it spoke out about the COVID-19 pandemic, urging member states and parties involved in conflicts to support the ceasefire called for by Secretary General Guterres, and to ensure the global supply of vaccines.


UN@75 – A Reason to Celebrate?

Due to its rather mixed record over the years, the 75th anniversary of the United Nations in 2020 was not planned to be a celebration filled with eulogies. Instead, Secretary-General Guterres decided to use the anniversary as an opportunity to conduct a global dialogue with citizens on the challenges of the future, and on the role of the United Nations.

In parallel, the member states are debating a resolution that is intended to demonstrate a commitment to multilateralism in these times of crisis.

At first it seemed that the COVID-19 pandemic would pose a further challenge to multilateralism and the United Nations. National interests appeared to predominate and a zero-sum game of international relations also seemed to be gaining a foothold in the area of global public health. However, it has now become clear that global cooperation is and remains indispensable, not only because of the implications for public health policy but also given the socio-economic effects in a world of mutual dependencies.

Although the Security Council lost momentum and time for positioning itself during on the pandemic, the value of multilateral organisations is being demonstrated by the more technical UN institutions – as long as they are not caught in the political crossfire. Support from the WHO, but also from organisations such as UNDP and UNICEF, is essential for developing countries with weak healthcare systems.

However, COVID-19 has served to further accentuate the existing strategic tensions and, above all, the ongoing conflict between the US and China. Since 2017, the effectiveness of multilateral institutions has been hampered by the US’ isolationism, unpredictability, and its limited ability to compromise at the diplomatic level. These institutions benefitted from the global leadership of the US when they were established and, above all, after the end of the Cold War. During the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014, the US showed a willingness to take the lead. It initiated a UN Security Council resolution and the first ever UN medical mission. But today, the behaviour of the US in international relations is primarily determined by its domestic political agenda.

In many areas, the vacuum created by the US’ withdrawal is being used by China to manifest its new self-confidence and geopolitical ambitions.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the fact that other actors have an important role to play and that now, more than ever before, they should be prepared to take on the mantle of global leadership. The Coronavirus Global Pledging Event organised by the EU Commission on 4 May 2020 proved that Europe is not only being heard but also has the capacity to mobilise. More use should be made of this in foreign policy in order to compensate for the US’ absence as a world leader and to establish a balance with China.

However, reflections on strengthening multilateralism in this anniversary year will inevitably also require the UN’s member states to consider how to achieve the “re-engagement” of the United States.

 – translated from German – 



Andrea Ellen Ostheimer is Head of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s office in New York.



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