Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


The 75th anniversary of the United Nations is an opportunity to reflect and look back on the UN’s history and take stock of its achievements and failures. It is also an opportunity to spotlight where the UN and the international community as a whole need to redouble their efforts to meet current and future challenges across the three pillars of UN: peace and security, development, and human rights.

Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the UN, reaffirmed his commitment to address the international conflicts when he said: “It’s very important that we now create the conditions to address the smaller but still dramatically deadly conflicts that we are facing in today’s world.”

Success is measured not only by objectives, but also by whether an alternate strategy would have been an improvement. Thus, as Winston Churchill said of democracy being the worst form of government except for all others that have been conceived or attempted, similarly, might it be said of the UN that it is the worst international organization for achieving peace, self-determination, and human rights, but for all the alternatives that have been attempted or contemplated?

75th Anniversary

On last 21st September the United Nations marked its 75th anniversary with its chief urging leaders of an increasingly polarized, go-it-alone world to work together and preserve the organization’s most important success since its founding: avoiding a military confrontation between the major global powers.

Secretary General Antonio Guterres appealed for a revival of multilateralism but it was clear that challenges lie ahead in collaborating to beat back the coronavirus pandemic, end numerous smaller conflicts from the Middle East to Africa, and achieve U.N. goals to eradicate extreme poverty and preserve the environment by a 2030 target. “Today, we have a surplus of multilateral challenges and a deficit of multilateral solutions,” the U.N. chief said, stressing that COVID-19 has “laid bare the world’s fragilities,” which can only be addressed together.

UN achievements

The UN has shown itself capable and flexible in many areas. While two of the Permanent Five (P5) countries had globe-girdling colonial empires in 1945, by 1970 these were largely dismantled. The UN’s membership has increased, especially as a result of decolonization, from 51 states to 193. The UN has added many new organizational entities aimed at addressing problems that were not on the 1945 agenda, ranging from the UN Environment Programme (1972) to the Peacebuilding Commission (2005), and has altered existing bodies, as in the case of the Human Rights Council (2006) and the introduction of the Universal Periodic Review of states’ human rights records. It has endeavored to bring policy coherence to such initiatives as the Sustainable Development Goals, three Global Compacts (on business social responsibility, migration, and refugees) while brilliantly operating in the realm of environmental issues.

UN failures

As for UN failures, it must be said that the organization has failed to empower the poor and weak while conflicts still persist in Syria, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, Palestine, Kashmir, etc.

Going back to past failures it is worth mentioning that, in May 1948, the first Arab-Israeli conflict over the sovereignty of Palestine saw the UN militarily passive. A fragile truce was then arranged and the UN deployed peacekeeping troops in Sinai which were withdrawn in 1967 on the eve of the Six-Day War, which resulted in UN Resolutions 242 and later 338. To resolve the Palestinian issue with the “two-state solution” the UN plays currently a limited role being the United States the main player.

Other dangerous hotspot was and remains Kashmir where after the “Partition” in 1947 the Security Council agreed to the plebiscite formula, but India did not accept it. The festering Kashmir dispute has occasioned two wars between Pakistan and India; and, at present, made the territory the largest army concentration anywhere in the world and the most dangerous nuclear hotspot on the globe. The UN observers along the Line of Control are an irrelevancy. They are but spectators who deter nothing and protect no human rights of millions of people of Kashmir. The case for an earnest mediatory initiative by the UN is thus indubitable, even though in the words of Antonio Guterres: “It’s very difficult to mediate international conflicts and to solve them.”

Cyprus features an equally bleak UN past. After its founding in 1960, Greek Cypriots in November 1963 launched an attack on Turkish Cypriots. UN peacekeeping forces were dispatched to Cyprus in 1964, and remained along the so-called Green Line. In July 1974, when Greek Cypriots began a second attack on Turkish Cypriots, the UN blue helmets did retreat into safe hiding. Turkish troops foiled the Greek Cypriots initiative and in 1976 the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” was established.

In 1994, a genocide occurred in Rwanda when close to a million ethnic Tutsis were slaughtered by Hutus. A 1999 inquiry found that the UN ignored evidence that the genocide was planned and did not act once it had started but withdrew more than 2,500 UN peacekeepers soldiers.

Among the greatest failures of the UN there is also Srebrenica, which came under attack by the Bosnian Serbs in July 1995 during the Bosnian war. The Bosnian Serbs attacked the town and separated 8.000 men and boys from women and children and killed them. In April 1993 the UN had declared the besieged enclave of Srebrenica a “”safe area” under UN protection. However, the UN failed to demilitarize the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. UNPROFOR soldiers in Srebrenica could not prevent the town's capture nor the subsequent massacre.

The way ahead

A precondition for a ‘new multilateralism’ is the realistic reform of the current institutional framework and governance. But progressive forces also need to be aware of the vast and diverse field of adversaries and obstacles that stand in the way of this political priority.

Nationalism is coming back in its worst forms. The nation is indeed compatible with multilateralism, provided that inward-looking, exclusive and aggressive nationalism is fought and defeated.

There is also unprecedented confusion regarding the way out of the UN’s current competences. According to Article 108 of the UN Charter, amendments must be adopted by two thirds of the members of the UN General Assembly and ratified by two thirds of the members of the United Nations including all five permanent members of the Security Council.

An effective UN reform can be neither about cosmetics, nor about dream worlds: what is needed is a very large mobilisation and commitment for gradual, concrete and feasible changes. Everybody must be anyway aware that the current five permanent members of the UN Security Council are divided over almost everything, with a single exception: they are ready to veto any treaty reform.

There is the need to courageously address the UN’s efficiency gaps, and its current representation and legitimacy deficits, with new ways of parliamentary and citizen participation.

One of the top priorities is surely an enhanced role for democratic regional organisations.

Regional Organisations

Regional organisations (such as the EU, ASEAN, African Union, and MERCOSUR) represent consolidated actors on every continent. They combine the decentralisation of the UN system and are able to limit nationalism and disintegration. Even without a UN Treaty reform, they can be recognised and supported by the UN System, through their inclusion in the decision-making process so as to remedy the current unbalance in the UN between the regional and global level of the multilateral governance system. Their endeavours may eventually be finalised by the innovative leadership of the current Secretary General, António Guterres, supported by political resolve, competent expertise, and courageous measures to build a multi-layered post-hegemonic multilateralism.

Security council reform

UN member states should change the system of participation and voting in the UN Security Council. Now the five victors in World War II have permanent seats while a few of the other countries serve two-year terms. Only the five permanent members (P5) endowed with the power of the veto really matter. Among the ten non-permanent members (with non-renewable two-year terms) there is a profound bias. The veto power often prevents desperately needed humanitarian action.

Reforming the Security Council to be more inclusive, representative, transparent, and effective, and to demonstrate greater cooperation and consensus-building, therefore remains critical to the United Nations’ overall success.

All nations should be able to play a role in Security Council decisions. The “Universal Weighted Regional Representation” could accomplish this result. According to such proposal, each nation would join one of twelve regional groupings. A region’s weighted vote would depend on three factors: (1) its percentage of the world’s total population, (2) the portion of the total UN budget its members pay, and (3) its being one of twelve regions which equals 8.33% of the total. Each region with more than one nation would establish a process for determining how its representative will vote. Such balanced policy making would give Security Council decisions greater moral authority, and would provides an alternative to the present arrangement where one major power by itself can prevent Security Council action.


The United Nations rose from the ashes of a devastating global conflict, but the world is once again at risk. To avoid another major global conflict, the supporters of the United Nations - with all its imperfections - need to reinforce and reinvigorate its collective power. As already stressed this will require restructuring the Security Council to reflect the changed power distribution in today’s world and to tackle inaction by veto.

There is no longer any doubt that three primary threats endanger the existence of humanity: climate change, infectious disease, and nuclear weapons. They differ in their origins and degree of immediacy, yet they share one commonality: only global, multilateral efforts can reduce their destructive potential. No other forum is more suitable for such efforts than the United Nations.

In the heated political discourse of 2020, the differences between the United States and China have been exaggerated. Washington and Beijing, in fact, have a decidedly common agenda: peacemaking, climate change, poverty reduction, arms control and disarmament, nonproliferation, antiterrorism, and regional security, among other goals. These challenges will surely be best tackled within the framework of the United Nations.

United Nations Peacekeeping

From its origins during the Cold War monitoring ceasefires between states to supporting comprehensive peace agreements after intrastate armed conflict, to responding to risks of mass atrocities, peacekeeping has continued to evolve.

Today, great and regional power involvement in intrastate conflict, violent extremism and terrorism, fragmented armed groups, and intercommunal violence are testing the boundaries of what UN peacekeeping can achieve.

Recent and ongoing UN peacekeeping transitions underscore its limitations in addressing structural drivers of violence, including weak state institutions, social injustice, repression, and corruption. Amid these trends, UN peacekeeping must continue to be an effective, appropriate and desirable response to emerging security challenges in the decades to come.

What is at stake is the general consensus on the role of the UN in addressing international peace and security.

UN must provide legitimacy and legality for necessary actions and be the primary coordinator of the international response to future global and regional crises. UN must be the main forum for the international dialogue on PK, conflict prevention, and conflict resolution.

PK is not an end in itself. This is why rather than attempting to do everything, UN should focus on its core objectives and move away from the so-called “Christmas-tree” type of mandate, which includes every wish and desire of what UN would like to achieve. Overly ambitious mandates, without the necessary diplomatic preparation and resources, are a sure recipe for failure which will undermine UN credibility. A healthy dose of pragmatism and humility is necessary to make a PK mission successful.

Consequently, a peace operation will always be needed: independently of how a war may end, it will restart without a viable entity, well protected and resourced, and able to concentrate efforts whenever and wherever needed.

An innovative approach

In today’s complex world, identifying problems, designing policies, and delivering change is no longer within the power of states standing alone. It requires participation of diverse actors, including nonprofits, grassroots movements, corporations, and local authorities. Getting inclusivity right and shifting to a more equitable governance model will be critical to weathering power politics and delivering for all.

Working out how to bring the United Nations closer to the people and remaining relevant for future generations should drive the organization as it enters its next phase.

A reformed Security Council could tackle more intensive and goal-oriented intergovernmental discussions. At the same time, redistribution of some power from the Security Council to the General Assembly could be achieved so as to facilitate the reform process.

Countries need to closely cooperate with the UN by identifying goals - whether improved health or food security, better connectivity, or greater use of renewable energy sources - and define transformational public policies that create conditions for businesses to innovate and lead globally in finding solutions. History shows that it is possible for countries to shape their future development by leveraging global trends: examples include Denmark establishing world-leading expertise in wind power and the UAE capitalising on global trade patterns to become a logistics hub. While some global trends do present risks that must be mitigated, psychological research suggests that a more positive outlook makes people more resilient in times of change.


Taken as a whole it is clear that the world is a better place thanks to the United Nations, and many of its failings stem from the resistance of Member States - including, but not simply limited to, the major powers - toward developing more progressive programs. The fact that the UN has been able to navigate an often hostile international system is further evidence that there is reason for hope.

Today we find that, as in 1945, millions of people are oppressed and isolated. But we also see remarkably widespread access to instant global communications via mobile phones and the internet. We see the decline of American hegemony and the beginnings of a resurgent multipolarity, which brings with it both hope that new voices will be heard on the global stage and trepidation that key norms and institutions might be imperiled.

In this unsettled situation, one might ask: “Is the UN still relevant and can it really make a difference?” If the UN did not exist in 2020, we doubt that today’s political leaders would have the foresight and fortitude to create it.

The solutions to current and future problems will require more multilateralism rather than less. In the short term, the fundamental concern is to ensure that the basic framework for multilateralism and global governance remains in place and that the values that constitute it, as elaborated in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and elsewhere, inform the conduct of global affairs toward more peaceful, just, inclusive, prosperous, and sustainable ends for all.


Seventy-five years after the UN charter was signed in San Francisco, the world is facing a series of challenges - a pandemic, climate change, mass migration, to name a few - that should, ostensibly, make the global organization more relevant than ever. But a series of scandals, a reputation as a slow-moving, inefficient bureaucracy, and a lack of transparency about how and where its funds are spent, all challenge whether the United Nations is still relevant in the modern world.

Founded after World War II to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war," the United Nations had a fourfold mission: safeguard peace and security; reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights; uphold respect for international law; and, promote social progress and better standards of life. These were no small tasks - then or now - and the organization that began with 300 staff members in 1946, now has 44,000 staff, working with 40 programs and agencies, not including scores of contractors in varying roles.

For all the criticism about the United Nations, justified or not, the global organization still has its legions of fans, those who believe the world, with all its flaws, is better off with the UN than without it.

The role of the United Nations is more important than ever: the type of challenges that nations and societies face are not confined within borders, like pandemics, migration, and access to water. Given the interconnectedness of human life on the planet today, if we didn’t have the UN we would need it. If the problems are global and regional in nature, solutions will require groups of nations to work together or each neighbor will suffer.