Manchester Calling

The Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute

by Roger Mac Ginty, HCRI Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies.

United Nations Day is 24 October. It is easy to criticise the UN. Where shall I start? Slow decision-making, weak leadership, expensive, often focused on conflict manifestations rather than conflict causes, and reflective of the geopolitical order in 1945 rather than 2016. In Ban Ki Moon, the UN had a Secretary General so anonymous it is worth asking if he actually was in office for all those years.

As I say, it is easy to criticise the UN. But we must remember that the UN is not an autonomous body. It is merely the sum of its parts and those parts are the national states that comprise its membership. Criticism of the UN should be directed at national governments, principally the US, UK, France, China and Russia (the permanent members of the UN). It is worth noting that as of August 2016, the United States was contributing a total of 68 troops and police to UN operations. That is 68 people out of an armed forces of over 2 million persons (including reserves)! The US is the largest funder of the UN peacekeeping, but its willingness to put boots on the ground in the name of peace speaks volumes. Russia has a mere 98 personnel on UN peacekeeping duty (the figures of the other Permanent Five members are: UK 337, France 867 and China 2,639).

Rather than look at the negatives though, let us highlight two positive facts for UN day. The first is to highlight that the UN saves and improves millions of lives by routinely engaging in activities that rarely get any attention. Whether this is inoculation programmes, providing shelter to refugees, or repatriating the displaced, these activities matter to people on the ground. They require a UN that is staffed by conscientious (and often brave) people on the ground and with an efficient headquarters operation in New York, Geneva or elsewhere. Quite simply, millions of people depend on the UN because of the extreme situations they face, and the UN is there for them. The bravery of UN officials in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere is not to be under-estimated.

The second positive point to note is that the UN still exists. At first sight, that might sound as though I am setting the bar low. But if we step back and look at the structural obstacles in the way of the UN surviving in the post-1945 world, then mere survival and persistence are major achievements. The number one obstacle facing the UN is the jealousies attending national sovereignty. Such sovereignty has been defended by states (after all, without it they are nothing) and is clearly incompatible with the notion of a universal and multi-lateral security organisation. The fact that the US, Russia or another major power has not simply left the UN (and therefore punctured its legitimacy) is a major achievement. The League of Nations floundered because, among many other factors, it was not able to recruit and maintain support from major states. The UN has managed to do so. Albeit major states have side-lined the UN when that has been useful for them, but they have not left it. That is something to be grateful for.