United Nations in the 21st Century: Obligation and Limitation


It has been pointed out by many scholars and scientists of Political science that the apocalyptic tragedy of Second World War pulled the entire human race backward enough as it was plunged down to the brink of Stone Age. Majority of the intellectuals and enlightened political thinkers of that time implicated all institutions of international stature and their masters; whose weak, flawed and disparate structure and governance culminated in such catastrophic event besides stressed the need to revamp and reinstate the whole system of international governance to hedge on the world from the recurrence of any such disaster. The creation of United Nations was their proposed masterpiece and plank to streamline the squalling archaic international order that subsequently realized and took birth from the ashes of Second World War. This International body was not only meant to grapple the challenges posed by that war-torn century but also to sustain order and peace for the forthcoming centuries and future generations to come.

As it is widely suggested, United Nations has delivered and performed commendably well to mitigate the problems of last century and heals the wound of their associated people marred by wars , it is now tasked of the vagaries of 21st century-also regard as the age of unprecedented transformations- embodying challenges pertaining to: Scientific and technological evolutions; massive globalization; Nuclearization of defensive might; fourth and fifth generation warfare; Militarization of space and marine; Non conventional security issues; Discordant developed and developing world; regionalization; democracy and representative international governance; threats to humanity; and neo-liberals cum neo-realists evolving multi polar world against the backdrop of encompassing limitations posed by this highly flux and turbulent world.

The United Nationss is being revered by 21st century world as the only universal organization to whom the whole international community have expressed faith by not only ratifying its historic charter- a document that entrusts United Nations an extra ordinary leadership role for the international arena- but also has shown willingness to voluntarily participate and it contributes in the pursuance of UN in those goals and objectives enshrined in its legendary Charter. Since the United Nations entire physical, operational and jurisdictional structure lies upon edifice of its universally hailed and accredited charter, all the enjoyed power that this organization wields also rests with its charter. Succinctly the charter is supposed to be the focal point and nuclei of its existence. Hence to trace and track the obligations that is being entrusted to UN and the limitations that restrict and constrain its operating structure can be identified by contextualizing its charter through the contemporary prism of modern world.

The charter has envisaged four overarching principles and mandated UN to conduct and streamline its affairs in the spotlight of four pioneer purposes and objectives. These benchmarks include: Maintenance of International peace and Security; Promotion of friendly relations among its member states; Promotion of cooperation in the realms of humanity, Economy and social welfare; and to become the focal point and central body to help the world for the realization of these novel goals. Moreover the charter also mentioned that it’s all others clauses are subservient to these four cannons therefore all other clauses must be interpret in the context of aforementioned principles. Thus United Nations could intervene or arbitrarily deliver only if any prevailing uncertain situation is in commensurate with in its charter’s defined jurisdiction that requires endorsement by UN organs particularly the Security Council and general assembly. Chiefly in this way the UN mandate and its state of ambit over any issue are established and the question of discerning its obligation and limitation in the 21st century could also be extrapolate through such approach of introspection.

The first and foremost duty of United Nations as contended by charter is the Maintenance of International peace and security. Given prevailing state of 21st century world where with as every day lapses new conflicts, disputes and stalemates begin to emerge with a prescient prospect of escalation to an extent that could threaten international peace and security. Such obligation has now become more prominent and formidable before the United Nations.

Moreover, the immemorial horrors and haunts of World War 2 also evoked fears in the international circles of its resurgence if UN for any reason would fail to deliver in its fundamental mission of ensuring sustainable Peace and Security. Given the substantial nature of this obligation coupled with the enormity of the current international situation, the security council of the United Nations in particular with it’s five permanent members has been taken to task and chooses to fend off the international order from any state of emergency, uncertainty and chaos that wields the wherewithal to ravage another international crisis of World War levels. Although a special veto power, mandate and decisive role in the UN was assigned to Security Council’s permanent members for prompt action and intervention against the hostile elements, the charter setters never forecasted how would these exceptional powers perversely hamstrung the entire UN from its universal conduct besides holding it hostage at the whims of unjust powers owing to presence of mutual dissensions, discords and bilateral rivalries that dominate over their UN custodianship role. This existing mutual suspicion and distrust among permanent members has severely affected the entire UN and has also strangulated its efficacy to contribute decisively in matters of international security concerns hence paradoxically limited United Nations instead of ameliorating it. The Crimean crisis, exacerbation of Syrian war to Iraq and the Korean war limelight the impotent state of perpetual entanglement and limitlessness of the UN due to differences of views over such issues among five majors powers.

The world has been demarcated through a nation-state borderlines and each part of the world entails a distinct nation-state. Each nation state has its own system of governance, culture, people and language. Given the existence of disparate nation-state situating across their own borders, regions and even continents, the charter delegated another important task before the United Nations: to act in the promotion of maintaining friendly relation among its member states. To this end UN has been equipped with a system of diversified general assembly, vast executive machinery- headed by Secretary General- and different organs- spearheading several agencies, i.e. UNESCO, IMF, World Band,WH0,FAO and UNICEF. It is conceived such fortified arrangement at the international level would create collective and collaborative atmosphere where due weightage and consideration would be provided to each member state for not only voicing their genuine concerns but also enabling it to resolve their apprehensions via constructive debates, discussions, negotiations and voluntary arbitration of UN organs in an amicable manner.

Nevertheless historical land marks like: Camp David accord that concluded under UN umbrella paved the way for Arab world and Israel to abdicate their policies of military aggression and resort to peaceful means for resolution of their disputes; the period of détente that witnessed UN’s abating role for US-Russia rapprochement; and the conclusion of Indus water treaty between Pakistan and India bargained by world bank substantiate the substantive contribution made by United Nations for the rejuvenation of friendly ties among member states, it is not able to re-assert itself as it has managed to do so in the past decades in the face of challenges emanating from the 21st century world. The burgeoning gap between developed and non-developed world due to the monopolization and misuse of Security Council’s vast powers to secure their interests coupled with the neglect of general assembly recommendations by same security council permanent members and their indifference towards pending structural and procedural reforms have stimulated the members states to adopted realistic and nationalistic foreign policies towards each other and exploit principles of sovereignty and self defense provisions couple with deliberately invoking ambiguities to secure their international agenda and competing interest at the cost of sacrificing these norms and values that were meant to foster multilateralism and international justice. The presences of these structural flaws have severely hampered the UN from its humane work. The world now reflect the dismal picture of deteriorating relations among member states either it could be of India and Pakistan, Israel and Arab states, US and Russia and between North and South Korea.

Although Second World War was a corollary of leaders of the great powers, Allied & Axis, of that time whose ambitions were built upon xenophobic and chauvinist lines, it was the Humanity that had to face the brunt of its crisis which stemmed from that virulent war. The war though ended but left behind its horrendous legacy of shattered humanity, ravaged economy and torn social fabric. The war shaken enlightened leaders realized the need to restore the human dignity, honour and liberty that had been severely plagued and decided to alleviate the suffering of mankind through the reconstruction and rehabilitation of war-torn society. This mission of reconstruction across all lines of social piers was subsequently inculcated in the charter and UN was authorized to establish and launch efforts in the pursuit of reviving the humanity through uplifting their social, economic and cultural wellbeing. Hence the Charter embodied the following objective for UN: To Promote Cooperation in the realms of Humanity, Economy and Social welfare and United Nations contributed notably to those myriad of issues emerged from the war. In the humanity sphere the UN codified and legislated Human rights by adopting several resolutions including the most venerated “Universal declaration of Human rights”. UN also established UN Human rights commission to oversee and protect human rights violations all over the world by penalizing the violators through imposing sanctions of economic and travel embargoes. The Human rights wing of United Nations also played a decisive role in providing food and shelter to refuges. The UN organ such as IMF and World Bank facilitated the world in stabilizing their economies by providing financial, monetary and policy assistance to them. More over it also bolstered social cohesion and welfare by offering their agencies-WHO, FAO, UNESCO, UNICEF and UNMO- invariable support to the member states’ governments for uplifting their respective citizenry standard of life by launching coordinated efforts over areas of education, health care and livelihood with its member states.

Despite the fact that UN has stood up well to its obligatory duties of grappling the challenges of preceding century however it seems ineffective in fulfilling the same responsibility for the 21st century world which is marred by plethora of same issues that fall under this UN obligation jurisdiction. The sheer human rights violations in Kashmir, Palestine and Syria and the resultant refugee crisis; mounting financial insolvencies of the developing world i.e Greece, Afghanistan; deteriorating environment or Climate change i.e develop and developing world impasse over Copenhagen accord; underscored the fault lines and bottlenecks rooted in UN’s entire management and operating structure that are circumscribing its abilities to contribute efficiently in the mitigation of these critical contemporary issues. The Non-binding nature of general assembly resolutions, deep rooted historical animosity among member states in particular the permanent members and non coordination between two important UN organs- General assembly and Security Council in matters of economic, financial, and social concerns have deprived the UN to revamp and modify itself up to the modalities of 21st century world.

Nevertheless the fact, the contemporaries of modern world on one hand brought about ease and comfort for its inhabited generation, meanwhile at the same time on the other hand it has also beset the mankind by breeding plenty of problems for them. Apart from the presence of traditional issues, the emergence of non- conventional challenges that include: Nuclear proliferation; pandemics; climate change; Humans and drugs trans-boundary smuggling; unruly and unbalanced globalization; Terrorism; Erosion of international legitimacy; food security and rampant poverty; Duopoly of developed world over international economic and financial institutions i.e IMF, World Bank and WTO; and extensive regionalization for military purposes; showcase the dark side of the contemporaries of the 21st century that pose potential to reverse the gains that arise from its brighter side.

Given the existence of such non conventional threats, the UN seems the only option that has the required wherewithal and sufficient verve to act as a bulwark against these multifaceted and complex challenges that threatens to destabilize the international peace and security. The UN charter deemed as its building block has therefore tasked UN to become the focal point and central body to help realize the world in ensuring those diverse goals that would eventually lead sustainable peace and security in a collective, collaborative and integrated fashion. Although, to work in the direction of accomplishing these tasks UN has equipped itself well with the necessary machinery and infrastructure which includes: establishment of International court of justice; Charter provisions that authorize UN to impose and enforce arm and travel embargos and other sanctions against miscreants; Provision in the charter to create International security assistance force for maintaining peace and security; flexibility in the charter for bringing any progressive improvement via amendment; a vast network of international economic and financial institution for monetary and financial assistance; and a platform for ensuring all stakeholders’ representation and participation in decision making  including states, multilateral institutions and civil society, yet the presence of structural and procedural anomalies in their organization and operating structure and its conduct of affairs in a non-representative, impartial and partisan manner that favors the mighty states- mostly the developed world- at the expense of marginalizing the weaker ones- certainly the developing and struggling nations- have infringed these institutions ambit and deflected UN to deliver to its promise. The unbridled discretionary powers of Security Council while the weak UN resolution enforcement apparatus, Secretary General’s Authority, and General Assembly’s powers with the UN’s inabilities to accomplish some of the goals in par with the enshrined standards such as creation of International security assistance force and attainment of targets set under the Millennium development goals lends credence to the fact that those holes need to be plugged as it has been demonizing UN’s universal stature.

The contemporary world is dynamic, hybrid and complex in nature thus a traditional arrangement or response would be insufficient. If the United Nations is to reinvigorate itself and lead the world the only recourse before the UN is to revive and rejuvenate itself by the inculcation of democratic ideals- Representativeness, Accountability, Transparency and impartiality- in its entire structure and operating machinery that would eventually allow it to unshackle its fettered model. The 21st century UN has to ensure if it is to maintain its universal posture it must represent the interest of the whole member-states and international community besides dispense the notion of being handmaiden in the duress of just few powers.

is a chemical engineer and studies Political Science at Karachi University.

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