At 75, UN is in crisis: Need to reform multilateralism to shape future narrative

There has been no informed discussion in the UN Security Council about Covid 19, its origin, its spread, its impact and the search for remedies and an effective vaccine. The UN Secretary General has been seen to be half-hearted in his response,  writes Amb Bhaswati Mukherjee (retd) for South Asia Monitor


Rising like a phoenix from the ashes of World War II and the twin tragedies of the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the founding fathers of the United Nations were determined that the UN  should not go the same way as the short-lived League of Nations.  Universal membership was an essential part of the process and the steely determination, underlined in the Preamble of its Charter, signed on 25th June, 1945, to save “succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. 

A carefully crafted power structure was intended to ensure the continuity of the Westphalia order and a rule-based international system. International law would be defined by the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of human rights. To ensure permanent dominance, the P-5 emerged with their veto power. The composition the Permanent Membership of the Security Council reflects the victors of World War II. USA, UK and France were part of this power structure.  Germany and Japan were excluded as were States emerging from the yoke of colonialism. India and Brazil remained outside. Nor was there any African or Arab or Latin American state inside this charmed circle.

In 2020, this composition seems a grotesque representation of the shifting sands of power. Along with the veto, it has ensured a non-representative Security Council, pitted against the vast majority of  UN Member States, whose voice remains unheard by the veto holders. Consensus among the P-5 has become a weapon in the hands of those who will not allow even a report of the president of the Security Council to be adopted, in case there is an implicit critical reference to a P-5 member or one of its satellite states.

Can an obsolete and inequitable ruled-based multilateral order survive till 2050 to mark a century of multilateralism? Can it respond effectively to the push for a new world order led by a P-5 member, an aggressive and militaristic China? The signs of malaise were clear even before COVID-19, initially labelled the "Chinese virus" by President Trump, hit an unsuspecting world. The Belt and Road Initiative was the first indicator of China’s determination to take over global leadership from a West perceived to be in terminal decline.  

What could be the Chinese vision of this emerging world order? Though ruled by a Communist Party, China has always drawn inspiration from its glorious past and history, the Middle Kingdom and from traditional Chinese thought. A determined and crafty Xi Jinping took full advantage of a simmering Trans Atlantic dispute between the EU and the USA, the decline of the Russian Federation and a confused and messy quagmire in the Middle East to push for China’s dominance. It was clear that China was changing its goalposts and its foreign and security policy. 

The West compounded the problem by giving confusing and contradictory signals, on one hand ignoring Chinese human rights violations and the appalling treatment of its minorities and dissidents, and on the other establishing consultation mechanisms like the EU ‘17 plus 1’ grouping in a naive quest for joint economic bounty. 

Effete response to pandemic 

There can be no doubt that today the UN is facing a full-blown crisis because of its inept and effete response to the pandemic. There has been no informed discussion in the UN Security Council about Covid 19, its origin, its spread, its impact and the search for remedies and an effective vaccine. The UN Secretary General has been seen to be half-hearted in his response. The WHO has appeared to be hesitant and fumbling in its efforts to focus on the possible origin of the virus; Its Head seems to be totally subservient to China’s demands and interests. 

This ramshackle response contrasts totally to the efforts of another UNSG, Ban ki Moon, to develop a united multilateral effort to control Ebola, another deadly virus. Many recall how he took over the entire responsibility of handling the UN’s response, thereby ensuring that the entire resources of the UN were at the disposal of the "Ebola warriors". He toured Ebola-infected countries, at great personal risk to himself. He asked Member States to contribute forces to help efforts on the ground. As a result, Ebola was contained to a few countries in Africa until a vaccine became available.  Why was this not done in 2020? A secret China hand is clearly the reason. A veto is such a useful weapon to muffle the Security Council and silence the UNSG.

Can the UN reform itself before it is too late? Can the Security Council be expanded to reflect a more equitable and representative power grouping? What is required is a paradigm shift in strategic thinking. The alternative is ominous.  Emerging powers will establish alternative strategic and military alliances outside the UN system. The Quad is one such example.

Winds of change

Some winds of change are blowing in the stultified corridors of UN Headquarters in New York and elsewhere. One example was the re-election of Judge Dalveer Bhandari of India to the vacant seat in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In its 72 year history, the P-5 has always presumed ‘permanent membership’ in the Court.  This presumption has been increasingly resented by the developing and emerging countries. 

India had been absent from the World Court for 22 years. India’s long absence from the Court was commented on by many of India’s supporters who questioned this absence. India obtained an overwhelming majority in the General Assembly and forced UK’s withdrawal. This was followed by India’s election with all 15 votes in the Security Council and 183 out of 193 votes in the General Assembly.  

This is the first time that a P-5 member, with a sitting judge, lost to a non P-5 member, ensuring also for the first time ever in the 72 year history of the Court, The UK would not be represented. It was even more symbolic that the contest was between an erstwhile colonial power and its former colony.

More recently, at a significant election, India defeated China to get elected for 1 of the 2 Asia Pacific seats to the Commission for the Status of Women. The new order is approaching but maybe not the way envisaged by China. Clearly change is inevitable.

The UN is the only multilateral mechanism available to ensure a democratic, equitable world order based on international law and the Charter. How the UN and its Member States respond and reform multilateralism will shape the narrative for this century. How India responds is also crucial. Along with its emerging allies in the Quad, India must ensure that the multilateral order does not falter. The stakes are too high for international peace and security.

(The writer is a retired Indian ambassador. The views expressed are personal)

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