The United Nations at 75: “Imperfect but indispensable”?

(Disponible en français : Les Nations Unies, 75 ans plus tard : « imparfaites, mais indispensables »?)

At a 21 September 2020 high-level meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the United Nations’ (UN’s) member states adopted a declaration commemorating the organization’s 75th anniversary.

The declaration noted that no other global organization has the UN’s “legitimacy, convening power and normative impact,” but it also recognized that the “United Nations has had its moments of disappointment.”

On one hand, the declaration stated that the UN system – that is, its main organs, specialized agencies, committees, departments, funds and rapporteurs – has: helped “mitigate dozens of conflicts”; provided humanitarian relief that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives; delivered education to millions of children; and worked to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.

On the other hand, it acknowledged that the world continues to be “plagued by growing inequality, poverty, hunger, armed conflicts, terrorism, insecurity, climate change, and pandemics.” Pointing to the UN’s limited progress in addressing those “plagues,” critics have characterized the UN system as overly bureaucratic, undemocratic, inefficient and ineffective.

Despite criticisms, though, the UN system is generally viewed positively around the world. A Pew Research Center survey of 34,904 people from 32 countries, conducted between May and August 2019, found a median approval rating of 61%.

The UN system is implicated in almost all issues of global significance, from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to the US$18 billion in humanitarian assistance it helped mobilize and coordinate for response efforts in 2019, to the International Criminal Court’s investigations, trials and convictions.

There is at least some truth to the often-repeated saying: if there were no UN, it would need to be invented.

Reforming the United Nations Security Council

In June 2020, when he was asked to identify the UN’s single biggest accomplishment in its 75 years of existence, UN Secretary-General António Guterres – the organization’s ninth person to hold that role – responded that it was the avoidance of “a major confrontation among the big powers.”

According to Guterres, the UN’s biggest failing has been its inability to prevent the proliferation of small and medium-sized conflicts, such as those in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan. He assigned at least some of the blame for those ongoing conflicts to the UN Security Council (UNSC), which he argued has not acted “decisively in order to bring those countries into cease-fire, peace negotiations, and peace.”

Criticism of the role and functioning of the UNSC, which has the “maintenance of international peace and security” as a primary responsibility, is longstanding.

Countries in Latin America, Africa and South Asia are not represented among the UNSC’s five veto-wielding permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, known collectively as the P5. This situation creates what some UN member states view as a legitimacy gap. Some member states have proposed – among other things – expanding the UNSC’s permanent membership and abolishing or extending its veto power.

According to the organization Security Council Report, the UNSC has struggled to find a consensus and pass resolutions in the last few years. This failure has only increased criticism of its role. Recently, a global ceasefire resolution was delayed for months during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic because the United States and China disagreed about whether to include a reference to the World Health Organization, which operates within the UN system.

However, reforming the UNSC would prove challenging. Any amendments to the UN Charter, which established the UNSC’s rules, require the support of two-thirds of the UN’s 193 member states and all permanent members of the UNSC.

Peacekeeping Successes

Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN’s second secretary-general, once said: “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.” UN peacekeeping operations, which the UNSC establishes and oversees, continue throughout the world.

Currently, 82,245 personnel from 120 member states serve in the UN’s 13 active operations, seven of which are in Africa. These operations are carried out with a budget that is less than one-half of 1% of world military expenditures.

As well, UN data show that, as of 30 June 2020, Ethiopia was the single largest contributor of personnel to peacekeeping operations, at 6,638 individuals. Among the P5, China’s contribution of 2,534 personnel was the largest and more than double the contribution by the other four P5 members combined. Canada contributed 34 personnel.

Funding Problems

In financial terms, based on criteria established by UNGA resolutions, the United States is the largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget and to the UN regular budget, which funds the UNGA, the UNSC, the International Court of Justice, the UN Secretariat and other parts of the UN system.

Paying assessed contributions to these two budgets is a condition of UN membership. In 2019, the United States’ assessed contribution to peacekeeping operations was 27.89% of the peacekeeping budget, while its assessed contribution to the UN regular budget for 2020 was 22.00%. By comparison, Canada’s assessed contribution to each of these budgets was 2.73%.

Throughout the UN’s history, member states have paid their assessed contributions slowly. For example, in October 2019, 129 of the UN’s 193 member states had paid their 2019 contributions. Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Guterres, described the UN’s financial situation at the time as “the worst cash crisis facing the United Nations in nearly a decade.”

This table shows the top ten assessed contributors to the UN’s 2020 regular budget and their assessed contributions as a percentage of the overall budget. They are, in order, from highest to lowest: the United States (22.0%), China (12.0%), Japan (8.6%), Germany (6.1%), United Kingdom (4.6%), France (4.4%), Italy (3.3%), Brazil (2.9%), Canada (2.7%), Russia (2.4%), followed by the rest of membership (31.0%). The bottom of the table notes that the total estimated gross contributions to the UN regular budget in 2020 are US$3.1 billion.

Source: Table prepared by the author with data from: United Nations Secretariat, “Assessment of Member States’ advances to the Working Capital Fund for 2020 and contributions to the United Nations regular budget for 2020.”

However, in addition to assessed contributions, voluntary contributions – the largest amount of which are also made by the United States – fund a large number of programs, such as the UN Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UN at 100

The UN launched its “UN75” initiative on 1 January 2020 to mark its 75th anniversary, and to start the process of considering its priorities for its next significant milestone: its centenary in 2045.

As of March 2020, the initiative’s “global conversation,” which included an online survey and other engagement activities, had reached 13 million people in nearly all UN member states. While a final report will be presented in January 2021, the preliminary results of the survey identify climate change, armed conflict and health risks as respondents’ top three priorities.

The preliminary results also show that “95% of survey respondents indicated that international cooperation is either ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ to manage global trends” such as climate change and, more recently, the “socio-economic upheaval caused by COVID-19.”

For all of its acknowledged challenges, the UN system continues to be – in the words of former UN Assistant Secretary-General Gillian Martin Sorenson – “imperfect but indispensable.”

Additional Resources

Scott McTaggart, “The role of non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council,” Library of Parliament, 12 June 2020.

Council on Foreign Relations, “The Role of the UN General Assembly,” 24 September 2019.

Author: B. J. Siekierski, Library of Parliament