Op-ed – We shouldn’t expect meaningful reforms in UN

By Andrew Barungi


The General Assembly of the United Nations takes place annually in the Fall (this year, it started on 12 September). It is a ritual during which World Leaders travel to New York City to make speeches, many of which are clichés. Some of these leaders continue to update the world about the progress in their countries. Others, mostly from the West, are known for warning leaders other world leaders against violating international law. For some, it is a platform to abuse the Western world.

I have been wondering what the relevance of the UN General Assembly is, or the UN for that matter, especially since we still see conflicts and underdevelopment in several parts of the world. I think the UN General Assembly is just another expensive talking workshop which is a burden to taxpayers, especially those from the developing world who have to cater for the welfare of their leaders at the annual event. The only beneficiary of this talking workshop is New York City thanks to the foreign delegations injecting money into its economy.

The UN is an intergovernmental organization whose objective is to promote international co-operation and to create and maintain international order. Has the UN achieved its objective? Mr. John Bolton, a former United States ambassador to the UN once said: “There’s no such thing as the United Nations. If the UN Secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” I am inclined to agree with him.

The UN has not prevented coup d’états. It has not punished some dictators for committing atrocities against its citizens. The UN does not have the capacity to punish the P5 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council, which includes China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the USA)  for any of their actions which may be deemed illegal under international law. The UN, with many of its good intentions, is nothing but a barking dog.

While the UN should be applauded for adopting resolutions to impose sanctions and carry out military action against rogue leaders, those resolutions have not prevented others from emerging.

There have been many scandals at the UN such corruption in the UN Mission in Kosovo and sexual abuse by peacekeepers. It should be acknowledged that many have represented the UN well, e.g., whistleblowers who expose these scandals. But how can reforms take place when some whistleblowers have been punished for their actions? In 2010, United Nations Development Programme retaliated against a whistleblower for pointing out corruption in its Somalia aid intervention.

Who will take the lead in UN reforms? Will it the P5? That’s unlikely since they have veto powers, military might and will most likely promote their own interests.

What about the rest of the world? Some have recommended that more States should be included in the P5. Even that may not work, considering that the developing world that is demanding for that reform is the one violating rights of their citizens.

In case you did not know, Mr. Ian Khama, President of Botswana usually skips UN (as well as African Union) meetings on grounds that national priorities take precedence. This is something world leaders should emulate since these talking workshops do not improve the lives of ordinary people.

The UN, which has lasted longer than its predecessor, the League of Nations, is here to stay. But it will be foolhardy for anyone to expect meaningful reforms when it has failed to bring peace and promote sustainable development for the last 72 years. Reforms can be achieved when all States share the same interests.

Mr Barungi is a social scientist