UN at 75: Slow Death or a New Direction | Daily News

UN at 75: Slow Death or a New Direction

United Nations Headquarters in New York
United Nations Headquarters in New York

Part 1

Excerpted from an address to the annual lecture at the Helsinki-based United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) last week.

The UN, for as long as I have known it up close- since its thirties- has often seemed prematurely old.

The UN has been in the grip of a transition from its founding Anglo-Saxon and Western DNA to a more globally distributed state influence almost from its beginnings.

From 48 founding members 1945 to 193 today the expansion reflects the big twentieth century shifts- decolonisation, the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the pursuit of self-determination by those overlooked by history’s cartographers.

And adaptation to new members and their aspirations has been vital to the UN’s legitimacy and universality. Most notably it has allowed it to build a staff that for the most part is a proud mirror of the world it serves.

UN Charter

There is a price, however, for this changing agenda: The UN Charter, imbued with the wisdom and sacrifice of the survivors of a World War, is one of the world’s most eloquent and uplifting constitutional documents.

It is also thoroughly Western, borrowing from America’s founding fathers and assuming a world order managed by the Allied victors of 1945. This is reflected in a Western rights-based agenda that to this day has stressed Human Rights, in terms of individual civil and political rights, refugee protection, gender and reproductive health over collective economic rights.

There was an early opposition to western dominance notably in the General Assembly centred on the championing of the New International Economic order. Through the Non-Aligned movement and the G77, new member states sought to correct the historical and structural imbalances in the global political economy.

At the time, despite the passion brought to the debate by its champions, it seemed likely to remain a permanent backbench cause.

Now, however, it is not a simple division of East and West or North and South. Many of us have added collective social and economic rights to our own agendas – climate change, structural inequality and exclusion, injustices in the global economic system.

The widespread rejection of middle-class liberalism reflects very real shifts in global public opinion that are likely to dissolve any time soon. The uneven impact of economic change, now accelerated by Covid, has produced across much of the world’s politics similar divisions of city versus town and country; young versus old; university educated versus high school or less, those employed in new services sectors versus those in failing industrial sectors.

From Trump to Brexit or Bolsonaro to Modi we have seen the rise of economic security, cultural identity and anti-immigration as the flagship issues of a new populist politics that reaches those who feel they are being left behind by unsettling change.

Freedom House in its 2020 Democracy report notes that last year was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Sixty-four countries experienced deterioration in their political rights from the pressure in India on Muslims to a steady less noticed restrictions of freedoms elsewhere.

My colleague at the International Crisis Group, Richard Gowan, asked in a recent paper: “What is the purpose of the Security Council in an era of worsening great power tensions? Division among its five permanent members (or P5) have repeatedly undermined the United Nations in recent years”.


It was in the 1960s to 80s that its direct operational capacities to address the refugee flows of the Cold War and Post-Colonialization grew rapidly. For UNHCR it saw the transition from a small staff of lawyers to a large staff of logisticians; it was the years of early growth for this year’s Nobel Prize Winner WFP which was spun out of FAO in 1961. It was when the technical assistance activities of the specialised Agencies marshalled by UNDP were a critical prop to newly independent governments.

In 1980 the then UN Secretary-General visited a huge UNHCR supported refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border where I was the Field officer in charge. He turned to me in bewilderment as we toured the huge encampment with its heavy UN and NGO presence and asked how this huge UN operation could have been set up without him knowing almost anything about it.

I tell this story to illustrate a simple truth. The political and security UN in New York was gridlocked but there was ample space for activism and innovation as long as you stayed well away from that graveyard, the Security Council. Operations like mine were run in the Field and from Geneva, based on a mandate derived from international law not the permission of the Security Council.

As I crisscrossed the world for UNHCR from refugee hotspots in South East Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Central America and the Horn of Africa, I saw that an extraordinarily committed and creative group of UNHCR leaders had managed to prise apart the Cold War gridlock and make sufficient space for an imaginative operational activism that saved countless lives and relieved huge suffering.

The politics of getting into these situations was never easy; the compromises often disappointing; and the motives of major interested powers and donors only rarely altruistic but the space was carved out and generally held.

The UN of today has similarly found space – notably around the sustainable Development Goals (the SDGs) which play to the UN’s convening and standard-setting roles; Climate change where three Secretary-Generals in turn have driven this as a priority; and a tragically expanded humanitarian function as grim conflicts in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere stubbornly run on.

A UN, having to find space where it won’t be bullied by its stronger members and ignored at key moments by many others, is not new. In fact, it’s been the condition to which it has been condemned for most of its 75 years on earth.

There was a brief glorious period of conception and birth from the San Francisco conference in 1945 to Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech delivered in Fulton, Missouri in March 1946 when he warned of the coming conflict between the US and the Soviet Union.

(Mark Malloch-Brown, a former UNDP Administrator, was also Minister of State in the Foreign Office, covering Africa and Asia, and sat in Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Cabinet. He has also served as Vice-Chairman of the World Economic Forum.)

To be continued