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February 09, 2021 Tuesday 10:43:27 AM IST

Good Peacekeeper, Bad Enforcer

Guest Column

The United Nations born on 24th October 1945, completed 75 years last October. Seventy-five years is not a short time in the life of an organization. It is certainly a good time to take a step back and look at the impact -- or lack of it --of the UN on the world stage and take stock of its contemporary relevance.

The UN was set up immediately at the end of the World War II, as a response to the failure of the League of Nations -- that had been set up in 1919 at the end of the World War I and as a part of the Treaty of Versailles -- to prevent another World War. Regrettably, the League of Nations lasted a mere 20 years and collapsed when in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland.

UN was a joint initiative of USA, UK, France, USSR and China, the five victors of the II World War, to prevent a third World War. It now has 193 members, a truly global inter-governmental body, with only the Vatican, Kosovo and Taiwan not its members

The Talking Shop

The UN General Assembly consisting of all its members is a World Parliament, a Parliament of Nations. It is a global talking shop that brings its member nations together on a common platform to discuss and debate issues, aspirations and demands, that can be both common and opposing. It is a platform where nations can let off steam, proclaim their stand before the world and where small nations can have their voices heard.

Essentially however, the General Assembly is a powerless, toothless body. That is because while all its member nations are sovereign, the UN is not. It is merely a trans-national body of independent sovereign nations, having no sovereignty of its own. The sovereignty of its member countries resides within the member countries themselves. For the Indian republic, sovereignty resides with the people (We the People…………), and in a monarchy like the United Kingdom, sovereignty lies with the Queen. In Communist countries sovereignty may lie with the Communist Party. And it is possible that in a country like North Korea sovereignty lies with Kim Jong-un. Therefore, sovereignty of a country lies within the country.

This implies that the UN cannot impose let alone enforce its decisions – even those that are taken unanimously by all members - on any of its member countries. A decision taken by the UN, or say a Convention adopted by the General Assembly - or by any other body or Specialized Agency of the UN such as the UNICEF, the WHO, the ILO etc. --cannot be enforced or implemented in any member country of the UN, until that country agrees to such implementation. In the case of UN Conventions, such agreement takes the form of a Ratification of the Convention by the member country.

Toothless UN

Simply put the UN has no enforcement powers and its power to implement its decisions or even a Convention that it has unanimously adopted – where all member countries have voted in favour of the Convention, rests entirely on the member country.

There were many instances where member nations do not ratify UN Conventions, including those which it had voted for during the process of adoption of the Convention. For eg. even though the US voted with all the other countries to unanimously adopt the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it has not yet ratified it and therefore not a law in US.

Violation of Ratification

Even when a Law is ratified by a country, the enforcement power of the UN is often restricted to Naming and Shaming the country which violates a ratified convention. If a country that has ratified say the Child Rights Convention CRC, continues with policies and laws that are antithetical to children and is against the Convention, then the UN can only Name and Shame the country before a global public opinion. This is usually done by a Committee of Experts of the UN submitting to the General Assembly or other such global forums detailed reports about the errant behavior of the country and its failure to implement a ratified Convention. The UN can use only its moral force to bring pressure upon the country to implement the Conventions it has ratified. The UN does not have power to enforce its decisions. That is the nature of international laws, of which UN Conventions are a sub set.

Security Council

But there however is one exception to this global rule. The exception is for a decision or a Resolution adopted by the Security Council of the UN. The Security Council is like a global policeman that can enforce its decision through embargos, trade restrictions, economic blockade and even with armed military intervention. The real power in the UN thus lies with the Security Council.

The Security Council is a body that consists of the 5 victors of World War II as permanent members, the US, UK, France, Russia and China. The Council also has 10 other non-permanent elected members who have a two-year term each, with half of them being replaced every year.

The Security Council is therefore a highly undemocratic body where the 5 permanent members with their Veto powers have continued uninterrupted for 75 years now, whereas the non-permanent members come and go every year, these 10 being chosen from the rest of the 188 member countries of the UN!

Club of Victors

What makes the Security Council a lopsided but powerful ‘global club of the 5’ is that on the one hand the Council has powers of enforcement of its decisions while on the other the five permanent members control it through their permanent presence and through their veto power.

A veto is the opposite of a visa. While a visa grants permission for any purpose, such as the permission for a person to enter a country, a veto gives the power to reject or refuse just about anything.

What the veto power effectively means is that if any one of the 5 permanent members of the Security Council says no to any proposal, decision or resolution of the Council, then even if all the other 14 members of the Council support and vote in favour of the decision, or resolution, it will not be passed or adopted by the Security Council.

Thus, permanent members have overriding powers to prevent any decision being taken by the Council. With the Security Council being the most powerful body with powers to enforce its decisions, the 5 permanent members are endowed with super powers which the remaining 188-member do not have.

An Anachronism

A resolution passed by the Security Council can be enforced against any member country against its will. Simply put the Security Council has the power to override the sovereignty of a nation. At the time of UN inception, the veto powers for the victors were, perhaps, legitimate.  Now when most of the member nations are economically rich and politically powerful it is absurd to continue with the privy power given to just a handful of nations. Hence, the monopoly held by the 5 permanent members and its enforceable mechanisms need to be challenged today.

India with its 130 crore people constituting about one fifth of the global population is not a permanent member of the UN, it is tragic that UK and France with a population of around 10 crores has the veto power! There is therefore an urgent need today to democratize the decision-making process of the Security Council. Hence, the veto power of 5 nations is no longer sustainable. The Security Council needs to be more democratically run perhaps by including other economically and politically powerful nations like India, Germany, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Canada etc. as permanent members. It can be done by expanding the number of permanent members of the Council to say ten or fifteen.  If you cannot raise the bridge, lower the river.


On the positive side, UN has largely succeeded in its main objective of preventing a III World War. That is no mean achievement. A III World War which will certainly be nuclear, will be immensely destructive, laying waste large parts of the world killing many millions. With many nations having nuclear arms capabilities, preventing it should not be seen as a mean achievement.

Also, the work of the UN’s development agenda needs to be emphasized. Many of the concepts and precepts that we take for granted today and which has seeped into our global consciousness is the result of the work of the UN. For eg., the principle of 8 hours work, 8 hours rest, 8 hours recreation, the concept of child rights, the consciousness of gender equality and women’s rights, the global awareness of global warming, of sustainable development etc. are its contributions.

Success in Cambodia

In Cambodia the UN was able to bring a degree of development and peace after the economic and political destruction of the country in the late 70s, by the extreme Communist Party, the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot.  Peace, and democracy were restored while ensuring a double-digit economic growth for at least a couple of decades. If Cambodia has a semblance of democracy and in spite of Covid continues to be one of the fastest growing economies of the world today, the UN can take credit.

Coordination & Cost Cutting

The UN also has 30 specialized agencies whose working needs to be coordinated and improved. Today most of them function as separate entities with autonomous governing bodies and largely independent Director Generals. This leads to duplication of efforts, lack of coordination and overlapping of work etc.

UN needs to cut administrative costs by effective rationalization and coordination. especially in the Capitals of its member countries. For eg. in New Delhi, the UN has some 22 separate offices, representing its many different specialized Agencies. The ILO, the UNICEF, WHO, UNDP, UNESCO, World Bank, IMF etc. all have different independent autonomous offices in most of the other Capitals of its member countries as well. Each of them has a Director, a Deputy Director, cars, drivers, secretaries, programme staff, technical staff, administrative staff, financial staff, reception staff etc. it would be very easy for all these different UN bodies to have one common office in national capitals.


The contemporary relevance of the UN however cannot be diminished or diluted. The presence of the UN and its continuation as a world body is more pertinent today than ever before. This is because contemporary problems cannot be solved by one country on its own or even by a group of countries or by blocks of countries or even regionally.

Global problems such as terrorism, global warming, and diseases like Covid are trans-national problems that require inter-governmental coordination that only the UN can provide. The problems of the future will continue to be more and more global and trans-national in nature and it would require a body like the UN to solve them.

Yes, there are problems and issues that the UN has, which need to be addressed. But like the old Malayalam proverb, the UN can at times be too bitter to swallow, but is mostly too sweet and necessary to spit out.

MP Joseph

The author is a former Indian civil servant and advisor to ILO, author of My Driver Tulong, reflecting on the soul of Cambodia.

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