The UN:
a frozen behemoth

Marta Bernardi
Current events

Hence, it would seem that the United Nations are at a crossroads: it can either reform itself and reclaim its rightful role, or it can resign and continue seeing its authority ignored, thus exacerbating the perception of its immobility towards crises.

The last week has been a rollercoaster of events and emotions. What is happening in the East caused many heartbreaking reactions, from open disbelief, to fear, to frustration, to anger. Disbelief, facing a situation that rolls us back to the past. Fear, for a possible escalation of violence. Frustration, because once again we could not stop a conflict from happening. And, finally, anger because – like always – it is the common people who will pay the price of this war. For this very reason, many expressions of solidarity, coming from all over the world, and addressed to the Ukrainian people have contributed to warming everybody’s hearts a little, given how they froze from shock. 

Between the many signs shown during the rallies, the most recurrent ones read ‘STOP WAR’ or its Ukrainian equivalent ‘НЕТ ВОЙНЕ’. However, there was another type of sign that stood out in many squares, holding another kind of message. This gist pleaded for NATO’s intervention in the ongoing conflict. So, a question that comes naturally is why beg NATO for help instead of the United Nations? Of course, NATO is a military alliance, hence better equipped to handle  the current crisis – militarily. Furthermore, it was Ukraine who turned to NATO, stepping away from the Russian sphere of influence, which is also one of the many reasons behind Putin’s invasion. And yet, Ukraine is not part of it, thus it cannot appeal to the famous article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which mandates that in case of an attack on a Member State, the others are bound to intervene in its defense. Having considered this, would it not be more appropriate to turn to the UN, as the organization was conceived primarily to manage threats of peace and security on a global scale? 

It would not seem so, due to more than a reason. First of all, the most obvious reason that is pushing protestors away from pleading the UN is its decision-making structure. Indeed, the United Nations Security Council, the organization’s most central and important body from which any military intervention in any war relies on, suffers from a great deficiency: the right belonging only to permanent members – France, England, the US, the Russian Federation, and China – to veto any proposition advanced in the discussion forum. Clearly, everybody was expecting – as it actually did happen – a veto on behalf of the Russian Federation towards a resolution to put an end to the conflict in Ukraine.

To worsen the situation and the International Organization’s image in the eyes of the world even more is the fact that for the second time in twenty years one of its member states – notably one of the five permanent members – deliberately broke international laws and violated the territorial sovereignty of another state by invading it. A similar act profoundly delegitimizes the United Nations, which sees its regulations bypassed as if nothing could happen, and it is not managing, moreover, to hold the perpetrators accountable for their wrongdoings. As it happened before, like in the armed interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, for instance.

This burdens the institution, which has already been suffering for a long time, with yet another deficiency. It concerns the thorny issue of the Security Council representativeness, which reflects also on its legitimacy. In fact, the UN members sitting at its General Assembly are many (193, to be precise), but the seats in the Security Council are less (a total of ten, excluding the five permanent members). To guarantee the members a balanced presence within the body itself, the principle of equitable geographic distribution is used. This means that for each geographic region a certain number of representatives are chosen, with the assumption that a country can represent the interests of its neighbors as well, since they are adjacent and bound by a high level of interdependence. The system might work on paper, however, when practically applied, it is not enough to ensure the representation of everybody’s interests, especially because we are referring not to economic, cultural, or social interests but political ones. The issue is pretty obvious: a country like Libya or Morocco can hardly represent the interests of a Sub-Saharan nation, like, in the same way, India cannot by all means represent the political interests of Pakistan, even though they share a border. In turn, increasing the number of members in the Security Council would reduce its efficiency, complicating even more the organism’s already thorny decision-making process . 

Clearly, the deficiency in the representativeness of a decision-making body directly invalidates its legitimacy, thus, reducing its relevance on the global chessboard. Furthermore, it encourages the outbreak of more situations like the one we are living in right now: where the UN gets sidestepped and set aside as a passive spectator, instead of fulfilling its role as the leading actor in crisis management. Hence, it would seem that the United Nations are at a crossroads: it can either reform itself and reclaims its rightful role, or it can resign and continue seeing its authority ignored, thus exacerbating the perception of its immobility towards crises. This immobility has clearly been perceived by the general public if both those who are personally immersed in the crisis and those who support them from afar do not think of turning to the institution whose main objective is to maintain peace.

[1] Finizio, G., & Gallo, E. (2013). Democracy at the United Nations. UN Reform in the Age of Globalisation (pp. 1-359). Peter Lang.

[2] Finizio, G. (2018, seminario). Il ruolo internazionale dell’UE.

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