In the aftermath of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, unprovoked and without the United Nations Security Council’s approval, many obituaries were written of the global body as it failed to prevent an unwanted war. Almost two decades later, the UN’s relevance is yet again debated over similar circumstances as Russia, another P5 member, has invaded Ukraine without the Council’s assent or any immediate provocation.
A unilateral war, without the UN’s sanction, goes against the fundamentals of its Charter. After all, the organisation was established, in the wake of the devastating World War II, to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. It was created to give peace a secure foundation and to uphold equal rights of men and women, and of “nations small and large”.
Critics point out the impunity with which the five permanent members of the Security Council go about advancing their self-interests unhindered, as long as they do not step on each other’s toes. Russia chairing the Council meeting to consider a resolution deploring its own actions was aptly compared to the fox being in charge of the chicken coop. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lost no time to demand that a country that commits war crimes should not be allowed to hold a permanent seat in the Security Council. While a change there requires an amendment to the UN Charter that is next to impossible, the General Assembly did vote to suspend Russia’s membership of the Human Rights Council.
With President Vladimir Putin ordering his country’s nuclear forces to heightened alert status, a red line has been crossed, adding a chilling dimension to the conflict. Belarus quickly abandoning its status as a non-nuclear-weapon country, reaffirming its readiness to host Russian nuclear weapons on its territory, is a fallout of grave concern.
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True, the UN could not prevent the conflict in Ukraine, the first war on European soil for many decades. True, the stature of the UN stands diminished. Yet, puzzling as it may sound, the UN has a pivotal role to play amidst the war and it will continue to have a significant role even after the war has ended.
The answer to this puzzle can be found in the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize citation. (So far, the UN, its specialised agencies, related agencies, funds, programmes, and staff have won the prestigious Peace Prize 12 times). Awarding the 100th Peace Prize to then secretary-general, Kofi Annan, the Nobel Committee stated its wish “to proclaim that the only negotiable route to global peace and co-operation goes by way of the United Nations”. It was an eloquent testimony to the UN’s raison d’être in our troubled world.
Ever since its inception, the UN has been at the forefront of several efforts to reconstruct societies torn apart by conflicts and to maintain ceasefire among warring parties. The first such operation, the UN Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO), launched in 1948 following the Arab-Israeli conflict the same year, is still operational. So is the second one, the UN Military Observer Group (UNMOGIP) launched in 1949 to maintain the ceasefire between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir. Each, for different reasons, can be considered a failure, since neither has been able to produce or maintain peace.
Major success stories from among the more than 70 peacekeeping operations during the past 75 years do exist, however. They include, among others, restoring peace in Cambodia, the Balkans, Timor Leste, and Liberia — all societies torn apart by brutal civil wars. Among the glaring failures are the debacle in Somalia and the inability to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that killed more than 8,00,000 people in just three months.
Nearly 4,200 peacekeepers from some 120 countries have died serving under the UN flag, including more than 160 from India, the highest number for any troop-contributing nation. In 2007, India became the first country to deploy an all-women police contingent to a peacekeeping mission, to war-torn Liberia. India is currently the third-largest troop contributor to UN peace operations with over 5,500 uniformed personnel serving in seven missions.
The tragedy in Ukraine raises immediate questions: Who will stand by the country during its reconstruction? Who will protect the millions of people, internally displaced as well as those who fled the country seeking refuge elsewhere? Europe’s worst humanitarian and refugee crisis in decades has witnessed the number of refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries, including Russia, nearing five million.
Humanitarian relief has become the UN’s forte, but it is not the whole story. With the war in Ukraine and NATO’s increasing military build-up in Eastern Europe, more crises cannot be ruled out. There is no guarantee that the war may stop in Ukraine. A stray incident could ignite more disarray and violence ahead. Issues such as European security and arms control will need to be resolved through dialogue to prevent further disaster. In all these, the UN will have a major role to play.
While the UN will be grappling with the humanitarian crises unleashed by the war, parallel attempts are necessary to restore multilateralism as the norm of the world order. Errant superpowers exempting themselves from that principle will only lead to more catastrophes. Eventually, the very structure of the Security Council, the veto system, and even its membership will need an overhaul to reflect the realities of the 21st century.
However, those who rush to write obituaries for the UN whenever it fails to avert a conflict should not overlook the fact that the only global body of its kind is the sum of its parts and cannot exceed the political will of its member states. As Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General, famously said about the organisation: “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 19, 2022 under the title ‘The pivotal player’. Tharoor, a former UN Under Secretary-General (2001-2007), is Lok Sabha MP from Thiruvananthapuram, and Mathew is a former spokesman for the United Nations
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