Nations united: The United Nations at 75
Trevor Lwere | Monday, October 12, 2020
Exactly 75 years ago, as World War II raged on, leaders of the Allied Powers and their allies met in San Francisco to design a post-war world order. The United Nations (U.N.) was, thus, born with the primary aim of maintaining international peace and stability. In the 75 years since its founding, there has not been a global conflict on the scale of either of the two world wars, so once can say that the United Nations has achieved its primary aim, so far at least. Yet, as time has evolved, the U.N. system has been challenged and called upon to respond to new challenges that require cooperation amongst the world’s states. With modest effort, the United Nations has attempted to respond to challenges from expanding access to basic services like health care and education to fighting disease and climate change.
As the U.N. celebrates 75 years of existence this year, the question of concern to our generation should be defining the challenges of our time and mobilizing the vehicle of the United Nations to best respond to those challenges that require collective action of all the world’s states. As we reflect on the role of the U.N. in delivering on our generational mission, we ought to be concerned with its very nature and structure. Yet, I believe, in its current form, the system of the United Nations is ill-suited to respond to the challenges of our time, particularly the existential threats whose resolution requires global cooperation. At its core, the U.N. is not an organization for all, and this stems from its very foundation.
The U.N. system is riddled with power imbalances. Chapter I of the U.N. Charter states that “the Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.” Yet, the U.N. is anything but an organization of sovereign equals. The Organization neither hides nor makes apologies about the fact that it is captured by — and primarily serves the interests of — the world’s military superpowers. The most vivid example of this is the current structure of the U.N. Security Council, which has five permanent members each with veto power. These power asymmetries in the U.N. system were prompted as much by strategic considerations as by attitudes of superiority. As a strategic consideration, it is possible that, at the time the U.N. was founded, such an arrangement of the Security Council was necessary to pacify the conflicting parties who were the largest threats to world peace.
Beyond strategic considerations, however, the U.N. system was shaped by attitudes of superiority that view the rest of the world as inferior to the allied powers. When the U.N. was founded, one-third of the world’s population was still under colonial rule. Moreover, key founding members of the U.N. held colonies at the time the U.N. charter was signed. Yet, these founding members would decree in the preamble of the U.N. Charter that they “re-affirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” The irony.
Either these founding members did not consider the people of their colonies to be full human beings — and, therefore, did not see the U.N. Charter as applicable — or the Charter is merely aspirational. In either view, the Charter is eerily similar to the U.S. Constitution, which proclaimed the equality of all men, while really only referring to white men. Whichever way one reads the U.N. Charter, the bigger point is that this attitude of the superiority was carried forward to today as it now pervades the entire U.N. system.
Whatever the pragmatic or strategic considerations behind this asymmetrical power system, the fact that the Organization was founded as — and remains — a winners’ club undermines its effectiveness in responding to international challenges. As a generation, we ought to be concerned about this particularly because the existential threats we face require a formula different from the peace and security imperative of 1945. Climate change is an existential threat. Racism is an existential threat. Poverty, hunger and disease are existential threats. Imperialism is an existential threat. Nuclear proliferation is an existential threat. It is not possible to address these challenges effectively under a system of supposed international cooperation that is, in truth, riddled by power asymmetries.
When some nations, relying on military might, think of themselves as superior to others and therefore act according to their own interests, we are all threatened. This is the attitude the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on the questions of disarmament and nuclear weapons. As a result, while there has not been a true world war since the inception of the U.N., we constantly live under the threat of war as countries stockpile nuclear weapons. The failure of the current U.N. system must teach us that nations can only truly unite on the basis of equality.
Therefore, as we reflect on the mission of our generation, and the role of the U.N. in achieving that mission, we must reject the attitudes of superiority pervading through the current U.N. system. This is our only chance at advancing our human fraternity. Our role as a generation is to take the U.N. beyond its current place by not only achieving the concrete goals of the Organization but also by radically reimagining its structure. We must return to the Declaration of St. James Palace which, preceding the U.N charter, states that “the only true basis of enduring peace is the willing cooperation of free peoples in a world in which, relieved of the menace of aggression, all may enjoy economic and social security.” As a generation that knows better and wants better, we must rid the U.N. of its explicit bias against the majority of the world’s people.
Trevor Lwere is a junior at Notre Dame majoring in economics, with a PPE minor. He hails from Kampala, Uganda and lives off campus. He is a dee-jay in his other life and can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.