As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine draws significant backlash from the international community, some have begun to question the efficacy of the UN and whether it has a role in today’s society.
In 1945, in the wake of the devastating effects of World War II, the UN was formed as a means for all the world’s nations to “gather together, discuss common problems, and find shared solutions that benefit all of humanity”. Nearly 77 years later, after various crises and a decades long Cold War, the UN finds itself at a crossroads as war rages in Europe once again. While the UN has issued an official resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many have begun to question whether these condemnations have any real weight to them.
Many people doubt the legitimacy of the UN and their purpose on the world stage. Jokes about the UN issuing ineffective sanctions against countries openly committing genocide are not uncommon. This negative sentiment was especially prevalent after the UN’s failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Since then, the UN has been derided as unnecessary and ineffective by critics. Allegations of rampant sexual abuse of civilians by UN Peacekeepers have only worsened the reputation of the UN.
Many have lost faith in the UN as a result. This shows in the UN’s funding, which has decreased by 2.1% since 2020. In the wake of major world power Russia invading Ukraine, some have begun to question if the UN was effective at keeping peace and whether it was actually necessary. However, these people fail to realize that the UN is a massive organization operating on a global scale, and as such, does a lot more than most people might think.
The current peacekeeping budget of the UN for the years of 2021-22 is about $6.38 billion. This may not be even a fraction of a percent of the almost $2 trillion in global military expenditures, but the amount is still substantial. And with this money, UN Peacekeepers are hard at work trying to help marginalized communities and nations worldwide in areas such as humanitarian aid, peace and security, and human rights among others. And with the backing of almost all recognized countries and over 44,000 workers worldwide, the UN is able to support the well-being of billions.
The humanitarian arm of the UN is probably one of the most important portions of the UN’s operations. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) serves to offer aid to regions and people affected by disasters and conflict. This is achieved through its Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), which delivers aid rapidly to regions in need of its assistance. With the rise of disasters due to climate change and rising conflict worldwide, this service will undoubtedly be high in demand in the near future.
The peacekeeping arm of the UN has two branches: the Security Council and the General Assembly. The Security Council works to identify and respond to threats to international peace and security while the General Assembly is mostly responsible for legislation. Together, these branches work to enact policies necessary for maintaining peace throughout the world.
Lastly, there is the human rights arm of the UN, which mostly concerns itself with maintaining democracy and protecting the rights of marginalized people worldwide. The UN proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which still serves as a keystone for the human rights work that they perform in vulnerable regions of the world. This is an integral part of everything that the UN does because by ensuring everyone has their human rights maintained, they can improve the standards of living in even the most vulnerable of countries.
Despite everything they do for those afflicted with disease, conflict, and disasters, the efficacy of the UN is still being questioned. While it is by no means perfect, there is no doubt that billions of lives have been saved and improved through their humanitarian and peacekeeping work. By maintaining human rights around the world, the UN is dedicated to making the world better and more peaceful. The UN may have failed in some areas like failing to prevent genocide in Rwanda, but they have succeeded in improving the overall quality of life around the world.
The UN is not only necessary for billions of people, but it will be much more important in the years to come as climate change and various world conflicts rage on.
What Is a Sovereign State?
Against the backdrop of the rapid collapse of the US-led world order, the question of which states will survive in the new world is becoming increasingly relevant. It is no coincidence that the President of Russia regularly addresses this problem. In one of his recent speeches at the forum of the Agency for Strategic Initiatives, Vladimir Putin defined “genuine sovereignty” as the main condition for the success of the countries of the world in the new era.
At first glance, it may seem that we are talking about the obvious — over the past 100 years, the formal sovereignty of dozens of countries has become commonplace. However, in reality, the problem is much deeper — it is not at all evident that formally-recognised statehood indicates the viability of a state as a social organisation.
That is why we now associate the survival of a state with its ability to independently determine its development and foreign policy behaviour. There are almost 200 sovereign countries in the world, including large, medium and small ones — but not all can be considered truly sovereign; fewer than half, in fact. This is not surprising — the entire international order after the Second World War was focused on somehow solving the problem of an ever-increasing number of formal sovereign jurisdictions. This is really a problem, because only a limited number of states have the resources to ensure a relatively independent existence. The rest had to rely on special connections with more powerful players from the start. Here there is no need to talk about complete sovereignty.
The last century was marked by three waves of emergence of states whose ability to survive independently in a chaotic system was unproven. The first set of these includes the countries that became the product of the collapse of European empires as a result of the First World War. At that time, practically all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the former possessions of the Austrian, German and Russian empires in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, arose. The only exception was Iran, which has maintained its tradition of statehood for centuries. The small new countries of Eastern Europe existed in an incomprehensible status for two decades and, after the Second World War, actually lost their sovereignty in favour of one of the superpowers — mainly the USSR.
The second wave of sovereignty is associated with the collapse of the world colonial empires, whose metropolises are located in Western Europe. The collapse of the British, Belgian, Dutch, Portuguese and French empires led to the emergence of dozens of new jurisdictions in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, most of which immediately came under the decisive influence of their former colonial masters. Only a few powers in Asia and a few in Africa were able to achieve true independence. India, Vietnam or Egypt owe this to their demographics — a large population made it possible to create military and economic resources for independent behaviour.
And, finally, the third round of fragmentation into small formally sovereign units is associated with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Then 14 new countries of the so-called post-Soviet space appeared at once, and Moscow’s satellites did not restore their sovereignty, but simply came under the patronage of the winners — the United States and the large countries of Western Europe. Among the countries that emerged after the collapse of the USSR, only a few still look like they are capable of independent development. Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan have unique resources — population and natural wealth — the rest cannot boast of this, and their sovereign future is in question. In some cases (Georgia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) their geopolitical position contributes to the gradual strengthening of their sovereignty. These republics behave adequately to the power composition of Eurasia because they know how to look at the map. Although in the case of Georgia, the development of this skill does not take place without the help of Russia.
As a result of these waves of sovereignisation, more and more countries have emerged in the world whose power capabilities do not allow them to be considered fully autonomous units. This means that their own contribution to global stability is minimal, if anything. However, the endowment of small and medium-sized countries with formal rights within the framework of the UN system invented by the West after the Second World War required somehow the solving of the problem of managing these rights from outside.
For several decades, the consequences of the participation in world politics of many sovereign states which are incapable of independence have been mitigated through the institutions of the Liberal International Order. This gave small and medium-sized countries the opportunity to develop within a certain system of rules and norms determined by the West, led by the United States. Scores of countries throughout the world were actually deprived of sovereignty with respect to their domestic and foreign policies. In some cases, as, for example, in the system of agreements between the European Union and groups of developing countries, the renunciation of full sovereignty was fixed in the form of obligations in exchange for access to the resource development offered by Europe. All this, however, required the West to actually share a part, albeit a small one, of the development resources that the global market economy created.
The process of depriving many countries of real sovereignty gained particular intensity after 1991, when even the elementary system of checks and balances that existed during the Cold War was destroyed. It is not surprising that it was during this historical period, the discussion about the withering away of “Westphalian sovereignty” actively began in the context of the strengthening of international institutions. In fact, these institutions were controlled, directly or indirectly, by the victorious countries in the Cold War, who themselves were in no hurry to give up their sovereignty.
However, be that as it may, even if the deprivation of sovereignty by many countries did not receive formal implementation at the level of international law, they themselves were quite ready for this, in fact, glad about quite specific benefits. Moreover, many countries from among the last “wave” of sovereignisation even associated their plans for solving the main tasks of development with the loss of independence. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, we can find a whole group of countries for which the renunciation of sovereignty has already turned out to be practically the official “key” to a brighter future within the Liberal world order. It even went so far as to introduce such a task, in a veiled form, into the national Constitutions. In other cases, such as Kazakhstan, the transfer of some sovereign rights to partners in the West is seen as a way to protect themselves from the US and allies using local corruption and social stratification as a tool to influence the ruling regimes. There were countries which were suppliers of labour, other countries were gas stations, still other countries were granaries, other countries were military bases, and so on. The partial renunciation of sovereignty in favour of the West, in addition, is considered by individual regimes as a kind of ideal “guarantee” that the bigger neighbours — Russia or China — could more insistently indicate to their small neighbours their place in the geopolitical position.
However, this international order proved to be short-lived. First, because the largest of the countries outside the narrow community of the West — China, India and Russia — were not ready for their own desovereignisation. For them, following the proposed path would be disastrous for internal reasons and, accordingly, irrational from the point of view of the state’s survival. Therefore, such powers sooner or later had to create direct or indirect opposition to the West. Second, and more importantly, the world’s leading countries themselves have run out of resources that could be exchanged for the sovereignty of small and medium-sized countries. As a result, the US and Western Europe are increasingly forced to resort to extremely repressive measures — sanctions and special trade regimes — in order to ensure that their desires are met. The most striking example here is last year’s initiative of the European Union to make the ability of external partners to trade with its states dependent on the fulfilment of EU requirements in terms of climate change.
Finally, in the international community, a fairly significant group of states has emerged that feel so confident in their abilities that they can challenge the West’s monopoly in world affairs. This behaviour became evident in the US attempts to isolate Russia after the crisis around Ukraine turned into a military-political matter. And we are not talking only about such powers as Iran or Pakistan, whose interaction with the Liberal World Order has always been strained. In recent months, more and more middle-sized developing countries have shown that they are not going to follow the instructions of the US and its allies in politics and economic relations.
The result is the collapse of the system of limited sovereignties and, as a result, the “freezing” of many countries that are internally weak and incapable of independent development. Several dozen modern states are currently approaching a choice between gaining real sovereignty or losing it within the existing territorial limits. In fact, there is an alternative to such a gloomy choice — it is the formation of foreign policy and development policy based not on the institutional features of the outgoing world order, but on an objective assessment of one’s geopolitical position and place in the regional power composition. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine now when this or that great power will seek to deprive its neighbours of formal sovereignty — this is extremely costly in all respects. There is no doubt that not everyone is given the right choice, but only it, most likely, can become the basis for survival amid modern conditions.
From our partner RIAC
An interview with Joel Angel Bravo Anduaga: Are international organizations still relevant?
With recent developments in the international arena, and ghost conflicts from the past exacerbating contemporary global issues, it is inevitable to question what is happening with international organizations in different regions across the globe. Joel Bravo shares his insights about the importance of international organizations nowadays. Mr. Bravo is an international affairs practitioner with more than twenty years of experience managing design and implementation of strategies aimed at institutional strengthening and governance. Joel is a former electoral adviser for the United Nations to Ivory Coast (West Africa) and Timor-Leste (South-East Asia), respectively. Currently, he is a PhD candidate in Processes and Political Institutions at the University Adolfo Ibañez in Chile and a Professor at the Tecnologico de Monterrey University in Mexico. His ample experience in the field of international affairs as well as his theoretical and practical knowledge and expertise in international organizations, is crucial to help us understand the current state, challenges, and opportunities organizations faced by ongoing international conflicts.
What is the current role of international organizations?
For starters, Joel Bravo made it clear that is very important to take into account the period we talk about when explaining the role of international organizations because different periods in time have called for different roles. There must be a differentiation between what these organizations should do and what they can do. There are two levels of analysis towards them. First, the operational level which entails the everyday actions. Second, what the mass media portrays the actions of the organizations to be. There is a lot of speculation in the media about whether the United Nations (UN) works or if the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has a fair agenda, however in the operational sense they still work every day. Hence, the true answer lies within the background and the essence of each organization; circumstances and the purpose of each one are key.
From your personal experience in the peace missions of the Ivory Coast and Timor-Leste, what is your opinion about the influence of international organizations when it comes to conflict resolution?
To begin with, Mr. Bravo explained that the interests of world powers and regional powers are crucial factors. In both cases mentioned, it logically depended on the context of the countries directly involved and the external countries as well. So, it is a mix of variables that must be considered to see what the influence of an international organization in these situations truly is. Meanwhile, in Ivory Coast, at some point, the peace mission led to elections after a certain time; the peace operation from the Security Council was one of accompaniment. In contrast, the mandate that was held in the different missions in East Timor gave the United Nations more power, not only to organize the elections from a logistical and operational point of view, but also to make political decisions.
How do international organizations influence the exercise of democracy?
Joel Bravo shared that sometimes democracy can be seen simply as a concept and other times as a system or a way of living; it stretches and lengthens according to conditions and needs. Elections are a clear example of this. In the case of Ivory Coast, the efforts to hold elections started in 2005 and did not happen until 2010 because there were no appropriate internal or external conditions. On the other hand, in East Timor in 1999, when the referendum was held and then the presidential elections occurred, it was because there were conditions to do so. Additionally, it is crucial to understand what as well the underlying interest of each international organization is: to hold elections first, and then pacify the country, or pacify the country first then hold elections. Thus, the process of adaption also proves to be a strong challenge. Many factors must be taken into consideration to have a successful democracy in practice and not only in theory, understanding democracy in a broad sense and not simply from the electoral perspective.
Do you consider that international organizations are essential so that the citizens of a country can fully exercise their rights and freedoms? Why?
Initially, Mr. Bravo began explaining the difference between international organizations being essential or necessary. He claims they are not essential but rather necessary, because in many cases there have been accusations of international organizations working in favor of specific interests and being co-opted by world powers. Nonetheless, specifically for the citizens, with the idea of liberal democracy in mind, non-democratic countries would definitely need more the support of international organizations. Yet here we come to a paradox, because if a country is not democratic, thinking for example of North Korea, it is not going to allow an organization to carry out supervision, both in internal and external matters. Then, yes, the presence would probably become essential, but it is not decisive. On the other hand, these matters should be dealt with carefully because, sometimes, the media places excessive responsibility on international organizations. It is true that they help countries, and provide validation, but, at the end of the day, they are still constrained by the context and environment of each case.
Are international organizations accountable?
All organizations, or at least the most important and most robust have internal instruments, instances of accountability, of transparency; to a certain extent they self-monitor. Nevertheless, for example, security organizations such as NATO, due to their nature it is difficult for there to be proper transparency because it would be a matter of national security for the members and the region. It depends on the organization, there are some that can be more controlled. There are some that are highly questioned, for instance, the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, both which possess control mechanisms, but the question is who determines those mechanisms. Before the West was the main axis for how accountability is and is delivered; it was not questioned because there was no counterpart. China and Russia are now acting as a counterpart and there is a questioning of that order.
What impossibilities can international organizations have that do not allow them to operate as they are expected to do so in theory?
First of all, the nature of each organization is key. Nation-States are the first and focal factor. Anyhow, any international organization also considers at least two other variables, two other types of actors: economic interests represented by the companies that do lobbying and organized civil society; both of which influence decision-making and public opinion, more so in this age of social networks and cyberspace. The word international is now set too short, it would be better to called them world organizations, global organizations or regional organizations but speaking in terms of international continues to think of the Nation-State as the center, constraining its potential.
With new international conflicts developing, how does the role of international organizations change? Are they still relevant?
From a traditional point of view, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict logically has relevance, and it has been proven that international organizations sometimes fall short. Thinking, for example, of the United Nations, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which to a certain extent could not have prevented the conflict but do have a leading role. On the contrary, if these new conflicts are unknow territory, for example, what happens in the cyberspace, then international organizations are falling behind. Current conditions are shaping up to a hyper-specialization of international organizations. They are becoming increasingly technical, focusing on what needs fixing and working to agree on very specific issues. For these reasons, international organizations are in a process of adaptation. It would seem like it is still slow due to bureaucratic processes, but their relevance is still present.
What is the future of international organizations?
Mr. Bravo answered that there will be a greater presence of regionalization in international organizations that goes hand in hand with specialization. This occurs for example with NATO: in its name it continues to apparently be regional, but it is expanding. Also, the creation of new organizations is happening, like AUKUS, which on the one hand seems to be new, but it is a continuation of political dialogue mechanisms that were already established and that are now becoming more structured. Whilst the power structure is not perceived clearer, a global restructuring of international organizations cannot be mentioned. However, what can be mentioned is a sense of greater conformation, reactivation, and strengthening of the schemes. There is a cohabitation to a certain extent of the old, traditional organizations that come from the second post-war period that have been adapting, with the new problems and the new-old problems that evolved. Especially technology, social networks and the internet have a lot to do with these transformations.
The Noble Nobel
One of the most coveted awards in human history, the Nobel Prize was created by the last will and testament of Alfred Nobel, inventor of the “dynamite”. These are essentially personal awards from his private estate but has since evolved into something much larger. All the Nobel Prizes are awarded in Sweden except for the Peace Prize given in Norway. Alfred Nobel flourished during the Industrial Revolution, when the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway were still together, amassing his fortune making military weapons. Some argue that these prizes were posthumously conceived to improve his reputation.
Nobel Prizes are awarded in the fields of Chemistry, Physics, Medicine, Literature, and the most coveted, the Peace Prize. In his will, Alfred Nobel characterized the Peace Prize to be given “to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses”.
More than a century later, has the Nobel Peace Prize lost its luster?
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, a five-member committee appointed by the Parliament of Norway chooses the recipient. Interestingly, despite being appointed by Parliament, the committee is a private body tasked with awarding a private prize. Unless the Committee becomes inclusive, it will lose its moral authority in an increasingly divided world.
Russian journalist, Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov, drew international headlines after auctioning off the Nobel Peace Prize he had won last year for a record $103.5 million to aid Ukrainian refugees.
In doing so, he showed a level of responsibility and moral leadership that has unfortunately been lacking in the institution of the Nobel Prize itself. This auction presents a moment to reflect on the future of the prestigious award.
Since its inception, nearly every winner of the Nobel Prize for Science has been a “white” man – as almost no scientist that were female or of any other ethnicity were deemed worthy enough to win this illustrious award. Not only this, but only four of the 200 winners in the history of the Nobel Prize for Physics have been women. The committee’s nomination and selection processes are reflected by the institution’s lack of diversity, tainting the reputation of a prize intended to celebrate humanity. This matters especially today because moral leadership is needed more than ever.
In these testing times, when the global powers are wrestling against the climate crisis, terrorism, population growth, food insecurity, refugee crisis, religious violence, Islamophobia, racism, and conflicts like the Russia-Ukraine war and its repercussions on world peace, the Nobel committee must demonstrate moral leadership. And it can only do so by redressing its centuries’ old gender and racial disparities against nominees.
The Nobel Prize committee has been on shaky ground in recent times. In matters of war and peace, the stakes are higher. In retrospect, the last two times it selected a head of state were a disaster. In 2009, the committee selected then-President Barrack Obama at the beginning of his presidency. The award was given in the hope that President Obama might change the direction of his country after he had campaigned for the office in part of his opposition to previous heavy-handed military interventions in the Middle East – notably in Iraq. This anti-war sentiment was what the Nobel committee likely honed in on when selecting him for the award.
Yet, President Obama authorized a military surge in Afghanistan and the invasion of Libya. The botched Libya invasion did remove Muammar Gaddafi, but it also helped destabilize the Sahel region, instigating a state of instability and chaos that is still with us today.
The Nobel Committee was on firmer ground when it chose Muratov along with Filipino journalist Maria Ressa “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
Ressa is considered a brave journalist, but many in the Philippines will say otherwise and even wonder if the award was given erroneously.
Furthermore, in the case of Muratov, it is worth asking if the undisclosed bidder for his Nobel Peace Prize – was, in fact, the Norwegian government. What we know for sure is that Norway recently handed 4 million Euros worth of seized Russian media assets to Muratov.
Cordell Hull, who secured the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 for his role in establishing the United Nations, was the same person who turned away Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust by redirecting their ships to the infamous concentration camps. On 5 June 1939, he returned a ship carrying 937 passengers. Over a quarter of them ended up dying in the Holocaust.
There have been some glaring omissions as well. At least one is worth noting. Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most significant persons of our time. Even today he is a byword for peace activism. Yet even he failed to win the Nobel Peace Prize, despite being shortlisted five times. In 2006. the former director of the Nobel Institute, Geir Lundestad, said the most significant omission in the prize’s history was never awarding the peace prize to the Indian political activist Mahatma Gandhi. However, the committee’s Euro-centric inclinations kept him from receiving the prize.
The sad reality appears to be that the Nobel Peace Prize committee blurs the lines between being an independent institution guided by clear moral principles and one that is a realpolitik instrument of Norwegian foreign policy. It was only in 2017 that the committee prevented current members of the Norwegian parliament from serving on the committee. However, the membership of the committee is currently selected by Norway’s Parliament and perhaps not surprisingly includes four politicians. Two of whom are former government ministers.
With Russia invading Ukraine, China making its own bold land grab in the South China Sea, disinformation on the rise, and many democracies in OECD countries facing a populist if not putschist threat, clear moral leadership on the international stage is needed more than ever.
The Nobel Prize Committee, in this context should take several reforms designed to make the organization more representative.
Firstly, the organization should clearly establish itself as a civil society organization – not an arm of Norwegian foreign policy. The presence of former or current politicians on the committee should be limited if not removed entirely. More civil society leaders like human rights experts would go a long way here.
Second, the committee lacks diversity considering it is composed of entirely of people from white, Christian backgrounds and, of course, Norwegian. Why aren’t representatives of Norway’s immigrant communities or even the ethnic Sami people a key feature of its famed instrument of soft power?
Thirdly, the committee should not be afraid to revoke the Nobel Prizes given to individuals who later betray its principles.
Again, these are extraordinary times, and the Nobel Committee is an important institution whose peace prize is closely followed globally. With Western institutions under pressure, the Nobel Peace Prize is an entity worth saving. The choice is Norway’s.
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