As world leaders Zoomed in for the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly this week, it became incumbent upon observers as well as those taking part directly, albeit virtually, to confront what has been exposed by the pandemic over the past nine months: the level of international cooperation and amity that we have managed to attain, even after 75 years of the U.N. (and a good quarter century of its precursor the League of Nations before that) and its groundbreaking charter, leaves much to be desired.
As an instrument of peace, that it was meant to be following the death and destruction witnessed during the two World Wars fought in the first half of the 20th century, it has achieved only limited success. It is therefore only prudent to ask: at a time when people’s trust in governments, public and private institutions, and even one another has declined across much of the world, can the U.N. provide the forum through which it can be restored?
It’s not as if the “rock-bottom confidence” we witness today is new. The current crisis brought on by COVID-19 is not only globe-spanning and unprecedented in many ways, but also highly ambiguous. While the public-health emergency has escalated and triggered a collapse in the real economy, financial markets have boomed in some parts of the world. As with the 2008 global financial crisis, the pandemic has decisively weakened public confidence in expertise. Conspiracy theories and political rhetoric rejecting science have proliferated. That leaves us at a dangerous juncture, when you consider that it will be imperative to rely on science if we are going to truly beat the virus.
The answer to the question, is perhaps regrettably not. Not unless it chooses to address some of the foundational flaws that still afflict its operations across the world, and compromise its mission and purpose. The system of vetoes that serve to undermine the General Assembly has been held up as one area where the work of U.N. reform can start for decades, yet remains untouched. The intransigence within the Security Council to any changes that may take away some of its powers, or more specifically the powers of its individual members who are divided into two very convenient camps, has successfully torpedoed all efforts, whether genuine or half-baked, that have been aimed at a more equitable distribution of the powers reposed in what is the highest decisionmaking body and principal organ of the U.N. That it should operate with just five permanent members out of a total membership that today stands at 193 (having started the journey with 51) is a glaring blind spot in the vision that gave birth to the U.N. Today it must recognise this shortcoming, or the day may not be far, when it is forced to meet the same fate as its predecessor, leaving an all-too-dangerous world even more dangerously poised.