As U.N. Turns 75, the Celebration Is Muted by Calamity and Conflict

Worldwide contagion, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and a warming planet — not to mention rising hunger, growing legions of refugees, xenophobic bombast from strongmen leaders and a new cold war between the United States and China.

The United Nations is about to celebrate its birth in 1945 from the ruins of World War II, though “celebrate” might seem an odd choice of word amid the long list of current global woes and the organization’s own challenges.

So the marking of the anniversary will be muted, and not only because world leaders will be unable to gather in person to raise a glass — the pandemic has reduced the General Assembly beginning this week to virtual meetings. As the world body turns 75, it also faces profound questions about its own effectiveness, and even its relevance.

“The U.N. is weaker than it should be,” said Mary Robinson, a former U.N. high commissioner for human rights and the first woman to become president of Ireland.

When the United Nations was founded by the Allied victors, the goal was to avert another descent into another global apocalypse. And for all its shortcomings, the organization that Eleanor Roosevelt called “our greatest hope for future peace” has at least helped achieve that.

As he looked ahead toward convening this year’s General Assembly, Secretary General António Guterres emphasized the long view. The values embedded in the U.N. Charter, he said, have prevented “the scourge of a Third World War many had feared.”

Still, the organization is struggling like perhaps never before.

While it is the leading provider of humanitarian aid, and U.N. peacekeepers operate in more than dozen unstable areas, the United Nations has been unable to bring an end to the protracted wars in Syria, Yemen or Libya. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nearly as old as the United Nations itself.

But its basic structure gives little real power to the main body, the General Assembly, and the most to the World War II victors — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — with each wielding a veto on the 15-seat Security Council as permanent members. The council is empowered to impose economic sanctions and is the only U.N. entity permitted to deploy military force.

No permanent member seems willing to alter the power structure. The outcome is chronic Security Council deadlocks on many issues, often pitting the United States against not only China and Russia but also against American allies.

It is not only on questions of war and cease-fires where the United Nations is struggling for results.

The Sustainable Development Goals, 17 U.N. objectives aimed at eliminating inequities that include poverty, gender bias and illiteracy by 2030, are imperiled. Barbara Adams, chairwoman of the Global Policy Forum, a U.N. monitoring group, told a conference in July that the objectives were “seriously off track” even before the pandemic, according to PassBlue, a news site that covers the United Nations.

U.N. veterans say multilateralism — solving problems together, a tenet of the organization’s Charter — increasingly collides with principles in the same Charter emphasizing national sovereignty and nonintervention in a country’s internal affairs.

The result is often delays of aid or denial of U.N. access to humanitarian crises, whether in delivering supplies to displaced Syrians, investigating evidence of Rohingya massacres in Myanmar or helping sick children in Venezuela.

Mrs. Robinson, the former Irish president, pointed to the organization’s basic inability to orchestrate an effective battle plan against the coronavirus.

“We’ve just seen what a pandemic has done worldwide,” she said. “Some of the richest countries are not coping well with it. When we look back, the criticism will be quite sharp.”

Carrie Booth Walling, a political-science professor at Albion College and an expert on U.N. humanitarian interventions, said the turning inward of many countries afflicted by the virus might bode badly for the United Nations and the diplomacy it embodies.

“What is really frightening at this moment,” Dr. Walling said, is “the state of multilateralism in general, and whether the world’s governments and people will see the value of multilateral cooperation.”

The ascendance of autocratic-minded leaders has presented further challenges.

President Trump has been a frequent U.N. critic, rejecting notions of global governance and complaining about what he sees as wasteful spending on a budget that totals roughly $9.5 billion annually, including $6.5 billion for peacekeeping operations.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has called the U.N.’s Human Rights Council a “communist meeting place.” Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary has railed against U.N. policy protecting refugees. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has expressed fury over a U.N. human rights inquiry into his war on drugs.

Under Mr. Trump’s “America First” approach, the United States intends to withdraw from the World Health Organization, with the American president criticizing its coronavirus response and calling it a mouthpiece for China. Mr. Trump also has abandoned or slashed support for U.N. agencies, including the United Nations Population Fund, the Human Rights Council and the agency that aids Palestinians classified as refugees.

”You know you’ll not get a solution, but you can defuse the domestic pressure exerted on governments faced with intractable problems,” Mr. Akram said. “Just imagine if we couldn’t raise Kashmir in the Security Council. There would be tremendous pressure on our government to do something.”


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