The vision of a united world has always been a dream to many, especially in the times of the two Great Wars. Peace, collective security and equal development for all had been the key objectives of world leaders in the establishment of an international organization that would embody these ideals. Each nation had attempted to make their own interpretation of this goal with several known regional organizations, but what had been the crowning glory was the creation of the United Nations after the Second World War. Since its establishment, the world had clear hopes with the UN as the body that would aid in the protection of rights and peace, preventing wars, and ensuring a global development and cooperation of all countries. However, it had also been marred by controversy and speculation such as its lack of capable action. Although the UN’s structure and Charter enables it to work on improving international peace, development, and cooperation, the organization cannot fully provide useful service to its members because its actions or intervention can immediately be vetoed by permanent members of the Security Council even if the others would like to intervene in the conflict.
According to Taylor and Curtis (2011) and Heywood (2007), the United Nations has been established as the successor to the League of Nations, proposed after the First World War as an influential actor on preventing future wars and unite its member countries. However, the lack of effective power, organizational structure, power distribution and military and economic mechanisms against member states; the League of Nations had been disbanded. The founding members of the UN had slowly drafted the UN’s Charter in the San Francisco Conference and officially acknowledged on October 24, 1945. The UN has outlined in its charter that its purpose is divided into four major objectives: maintaining international peace and security, develop friendly relations amongst members, sustain collective action on problems and dispute and to serve as the hub or forum for states to act together. The UN provides a vote to all member states and each are given a chance to speak regarding various issues. The UN Charter’s Preamble also includes that the UN will also fight to protect fundamental human rights equal for both men and women, improve the system of justice and application of international law and promote social progress for all peoples. Hurd (2011) also adds that the UN is a ‘ formal institution of limited powers and a generalized system of constitutional principles to govern all of inter-state politics”. Currently, its main headquarters is located in New York, but it has regional offices in Geneva (Switzerland), Vienna (Austria) and Nairobi (Kenya).
In order to support its Charter, responsibilities, and basic functions and governance, the United Nations is divided into six principal organs, which also handles the numerous agencies and committees: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice and the Secretariat. All six of these bodies have independent autonomies and can influence its members in a certain degree with its resolutions and policies. The General Assembly acts as the plenary or forum for all 193 member countries, observers and related bodies to discuss crucial issues and take vote on the agreed UN action or resolution. Each member or state gets one vote and resolutions for key issues like international peace and security, new membership, UN budget and development would need to receive two-thirds of the population. The GA allows its members to consider issues that would be discussed, which would be forwarded off to its six major committees. The GA also meets each year in its main headquarters in New York where all heads of state are in attendance to discuss and take vote. GA resolutions are also non-binding for its members, however, several of its recommendations, such as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948) had made a huge impact in a universal framework for important issues. The entire 193 member countries is represented by the Secretariat under the Secretary-General. The Secretariat is the administrative body of the UN while the Secretary-General acts as the administrator for the entire organization. Currently, the UN Secretary-General is South Korean Ban Ki-Moon (2006-present) and under the UN Charter, he is tasked to bring into attention crucial disputes and issues (from economic and social problems to political disputes) that may impact international peace and security. However, the Secretariat lacks the political power that would allow him to mobilize the UN in times of crisis.
The Security Council can be considered the main governing body within the United Nations given the expanse of power it has in times of international disputes and concerns. The SC comprises 5 permanent members (USA, UK, China, France, and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) and 10 other members which are elected from their respective regional blocs. Unlike its fellow departments, the SC’s decisions are binding and executory as it is tasked to maintain international peace and security and act as the representative of the member countries for the issue. When an issue is deemed a threat, the SC tries to discuss peaceful means to resolve the dispute under Chapter VI of the UN Charter, proposing settlement terms and mediation. It is also the SC who could send peacekeeping missions to aid parties, but it can also take powerful decisions under Chapter VII if the dispute has already taken a deeper turn. It can impose economic sanctions or arms embargo, such as the ones applied in the Middle East; but it can authorize full action to ensure the disputing parties accept the UN decision .
The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is a subsidiary body of the GA and coordinates with member states and NGOs in issues about economic and social issues. It has 54 members which are elected by the GA with three terms, representing their regional blocs. The ECOSOC also serves as a coordinating body between UN agencies that handles issues from economic to health issues like the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization. Resolutions of this organ are non-binding and only the GA has final voice in approving its resolutions. The ECOSOC also handles the monitoring system for the Millennium Development Goals, eight identified issues that the UN and its member states must take into consideration to ensure development. The MDGs contains programs and goals for each member state to apply in their regional and local policies as the goals are due on 2015. The Trusteeship Council, on the other hand, handles international supervision for the 11 identified Trust Territories, which are under the control of seven member countries. The Council is tasked to support these territories in their transition phase into independence. With Palau, the last of the Trust Territories to be supervised, the Council is now amended to meet when situations call for its use. Finally, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) acts as the judiciary body of the UN that would help member countries settle disputes. Members involved in the conflict can opt to refuse participating in the Court’s proceedings, but if they accept it, they are obligated to accept the decision it would have. Its 15 judges are elected by both the GA and the SC and can also act as an advisory body to other UN agencies .
While the UN’s structure, Charter, and services showcases a capable body of providing services to its member countries, experts and critics had argued that the UN remains as a disproportioned and weak body as its actions can easily be thwarted or vetoed by the Security Council, through the five permanent members, which also causes a disparity of power within the UN. Joyner (1997) stated that looking at the composition of the SC, the five permanent members all hold a veto power that would allow them to stop UN resolutions and overall UN action over the disputed issue. Experts had long criticized the SC for this very power and it does not even take into account the growing influence like countries such as Japan, India, Brazil, Germany, South Africa and Nigeria which would have been beneficial to how the SC makes its decisions. Considering that the United Nations values equal rights for all member states, the capacity of the permanent members to stop UN action in issues is alarming. Aside from this, member states, who are being represented by the SC, would not be able to dispute the decision made (Article 25) and can only provide assistance when SC action is released (Article 49), providing all forms of assistance like armed forces, facilities and rights to passage (Article 43) .
This disparity of power within the SC, as well as its capacity to influence how the UN would act in a crisis is visible in certain disputes throughout the globe. The Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009), for example, exemplified several lapses and limits of the UN in terms of influencing the conflict and acting upon it to save the affected civilians. Lee (2009) and Holt (2011) cited that Sri Lanka has long been under ethnic conflicts and the violence had severely affected the nation as the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) had continuously strived to fight for an independent Tamil State in the mid-1970s. The Sri Lankan government saw the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist group and the promoter of several crimes within the country, calling for the UN to intervene. Mexico had tried to raise the issue in the UN SC but met immediate refusal as Russia saw it as a domestic conflict and not an issue that needs to be checked by the Council. China had also opposed to check the Sri Lankan issue because of the connection of the Tamil Tigers to the terrorists located in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The UK had stated that they were also concerned over the Sri Lankan crisis, especially by the fact that the conflict is moving North . Destradi (2012) also cited that Japan and Vietnam had also stopped the UN SC from discussing the Sri Lankan issue, including India, which resulted limiting the action of the UN to international aid. Mathews (2009) stated that throughout the conflict, several negotiations had been attempted to resolve the issue, including the 2002 international mediation. However, the war continued to escalate in 2005 as the government immediately launched the offensive against the LTTE, driving them out of the Eastern province. The government had also rescinded their agreement with the ceasefire in January 2008 out of the concern that the LTTE had violated their discussions a thousand times. Almost immediately, the LTTE was viciously targeted and led to their defeat in May 17, 2009. The destruction had caused a financial burden $1. 6 billion and observers had immediately criticized the lack of UN action throughout the conflict .
In a summary provided by Agence France-Presse (2012) on the UN Internal Review Panel Report on Sri Lankan issue (which was appointed by the Sec –Gen to see the accountability of both parties over violations on international human rights and law), it clearly shows that UN had indeed failed to protect the people and there had been a cover up of information on how dangerous the conflict became. The report had also supported that the UN failed to respond to the early warnings in the 1980s and towards the final stages of the conflict, causing the deaths of thousands of civilians especially in the end in the conflict. The failure of the UN to act upon this shows that it has failed its responsibilities under its own Charter. Some of its staff had also been reluctant to protect the civilians, but given the intimidation they felt throughout the conflict, as well as their interpretation of their responsibilities, the staff did not aid the civilians. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon had even admitted that this failure of the UN to act upon the Sri Lankan crisis should serve as a lesson for all member countries and for the UN to try and regain the trust of the people. UN estimated that almost 300, 000 internally displaced persons had been recorded in May and civilians had been screened viciously by the government in fear of possible terrorists mingling with the refugees. Almost 250, 000 IDPs were also placed in several controlled camps, but had met harsh conditions due to the lack of access of the international agencies in these areas . Death toll, on UN estimate, ranges from 40, 000 to 100, 000 people, who died throughout the 37-year conflict and through army shelling .
The dream and vision of the United Nations for the entire globe is promising as the world, now traumatized by the great wars, wants to sustain the peace each had strived for and enter into a united front to prosper development. However, it is visible that even for an organization such as the UN, there is a disparity of power and its actions can easily be destabilized by its Security Council. Taking into example the Sri Lankan Civil War, the United Nations was unable to immediately react to the conflict as the issue was immediately struck down by the permanent members of the SC. Without the support of the SC and the lack of UN presence in the region, the Sri Lankan crisis became violent and resulted to the death and despair of many Sri Lankans caught in the conflict. If the United Nations had stepped up from the start of the conflict, it would have been likely that these deaths and human rights violations were prevented. It is crucial that the UN revises its administrative structure, especially in the SC, as one decision from the SC to stop discussions would paralyze the entire organization dedicated in moderating international peace and security.
Agence France-Presse. UN admits Sri Lanka civil war failure. 12 November 2012. Web. 10 October 2013.
Destradi, Sandra. ” India and Sri Lanka’s Civil War: The Failure of Regional Conflict Management in South Asia.” Asian Survey 52. 3 (2012): 595-616. Print.
Heywood, Andrew. Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2007. Print.
Holt, John. The Sri Lanka Reader. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.
Hurd, Ian. International Organizations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.
Joyner, Christopher. The United Nations and International Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.
Lee, Matthew Russell. ” Sri Lanka’s ” Bloodbath on the Beach” Made the UN’s Ban Ki-mute Moot: Now What?” The SAIS Review of International Affairs 29. 2 (2009): 39-49. Print.
Matthews, Bruce. ” The Limits of International Engagement in Human Rights Situations: the Case of Sri Lanka.” Pacific Affairs 82. 4 (2010): 577-596. Print.
Taylor, Paul and Devon Curtis. ” The United Nations.” Baylis, John, Steve Smith and Patricia Owens. The Globalization of World Politics: An introduction to international relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 310-325. Print.