United Nations: Diminished UN Influence and Its Uncertain Revival
Diminished UN Influence and Its Uncertain Revival
Having lost its automatic majority in the assembly, the United States joined the Soviet Union in limiting UN power and authority, mainly by keeping major issues within the purview of the Security Council and the veto, with inaction the usual result. There was a corresponding decline in the freedom of movement allowed the secretary-general. In the wake of Hammarskjöld's Congo operation and accidental death, the Soviet Union's “troika” plan for a three-person secretary-generalship—an Eastern, a Western, and a neutralist member, each with a veto—was a sign that the USSR would not tolerate another activist secretary-general. Although its plan was defeated, the USSR's goal was largely achieved, since succeeding secretaries-general avoided actions that might be controversial.
Severe financial pressures have also served to restrict UN action. A number of countries, including the USSR, have refused to pay for UN actions, such as the Congo operation, not directly approved by the Security Council. The United States successfully pushed for a reduction of its assessment to 25% of the UN budget in 1977, instead of one third or more, but has still been in substantial arrears. (By the late 1990s the problem of U.S. arrears had grown so great that the United States was in danger of losing its vote in the General Assembly.)
Finally, the major powers have tended to deal with each other outside the framework of the UN. While certain agreements in peripheral areas of disarmament and international cooperation have been worked out within the UN—e.g., the peaceful use of atomic energy (see Atomic Energy Agency, International), cooperation in outer space, and arms limitation on the international seabed—most major negotiations and agreements have been on a bilateral basis.
As a result, until 1991 the UN played a relatively secondary role in most world crises, including the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973; the India-Pakistan War of 1971; the Vietnam War; and the Afghanistan War. However, with Soviet cooperation, the UN played a major role approving action in the Persian Gulf in 1991 to drive Iraq from Kuwait, and it actively supervised the subsequent cease-fire, embargo, and removal of strategic weapons from Iraq (see Persian Gulf War).
Since the early 1970s, the UN expanded its activity in the development of less developed countries. The UN and its related agencies have had a significant impact in disease control, aid to refugees, and technological cooperation. It has provided a mechanism through which developed countries can jointly contribute with a minimum of national antagonism and from which less developed countries can receive aid with a minimum of suspicion and resentment. The UN has also been active in setting standards of human dignity and freedom, such as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the establishment of international labor standards, and has been a forum for discussion on some environmental issues, such as at the “Earth Summit” in 1992.
The current UN is an all but universal global institution. Its peacekeeping forces were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988, and in 2001 the UN itself, along with Secretary-General Annan, was awarded the prize. Beginning in the 1990s, the UN was increasingly involved in peacekeeping efforts throughout the world. Although the UN played a subsidiary role in the Persian Gulf War, its potential to gain a more prominent peacekeeping role was enhanced with the end of the cold war. In recent years the UN has supervised the 1993 elections in Cambodia (as part of its largest peacekeeping effort ever) and the 1999 referendum in East Timor (although it could not prevent the violence the followed), and it has mounted peacekeeping operations in Angola, Bosnia, Congo (Kinshasa), Eritrea and Ethiopia, Haiti, Kosovo, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan and Chad among others. In addition, the UN has provided police forces in regions, such as Kosovo, Bosnia, and East Timor, where the local government could not.
The Security Council's assertiveness in enforcing the Gulf War cease-fire resolutions in the early 1990s seemed indicative of a new vigor. Later divisions on the council over that issue, however, and limited success at times with respect to peacekeeping in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Sierra Leone, and Côte d'Ivore indicate that, unless the parties overseen by such forces are desirous of peace, perhaps the council can assert itself successfully only when the great powers are convinced that their interests are at stake. The fact was made all-too-obvious by the divisions that emerged between the United States and Britain, on one side, and France, Russia, and China over whether to approve military action against Iraq in 2003. Other divisions hampered the UN's ability to develop (2007) a fully workable peacekeeping mission in Sudan and Chad, where rebellion in Sudan's Darfur region and bordering parts of Chad created large numbers of refugees beginning in 2003. On the other hand, the UN peacekeeping mission along the Eritrea-Ethiopia border (2000–2008) was ended after the two benefiting nations undermined it.
In an effort to ensure that UN peacekeeping missions that are mounted are effective, Annan pushed for forces that were large enough to be able to enforce the peace, though that was not always possible. UN peacekeeping forces have also become more assertive about using force to protect themselves and civilians and more active in enforcing the peace. In 2011, in response to fighting in Libya, the Security Council authorized a no-fly zone in Libya to protect civilians and imposed sanctions on the government, but the NATO-Arab mission enforcing the zone also acted at times in apparent support of the rebels, who ultimately overthrew the government. A peace mission to Syria in 2012, which only involved UN observers, was not successful in stemming the Arab Spring conflict there, and subsequent UN efforts to protect Syrian civilians were marginally successful at best. A UN peacekeeping force was deployed in the Central African Republic in 2014, in response to fighting between Christian and Muslim militias following the overthrow of the government; the force superseded and absorbed an African Union contingent that had been deployed in the country in 2013.
A related and pressing problem has been the financial crisis created by the arrears owed by the United States and other nations, a crisis exacerbated by the expense of increased peacekeeping operations. Even as the nations of the world have been expanding the UN's role as peacekeeper, its ability to fund such operations has been hampered by nonpayment of UN dues. American dissatisfaction with the UN has led to opposition within Congress to payment of UN dues and resulted in unyielding U.S. opposition to the reelection of Boutros-Ghali as secretary-general. Kofi Annan, who succeeded Boutros-Ghali in 1997, worked to streamline UN operations and reduce costs, in part to restore American confidence and interest in the organization. In 1999 the U.S. Congress passed legislation that would pay some of the nation's back dues, but it also called for a further reduction in the assessment that the United States is expected to pay. An agreement in Dec., 2000, called for a reduction in U.S. dues to 22% of the UN's budget. In 2000, U.S. arrears had reached $1.3 billion, according to UN calculations, but by the end of 2004 that had been reduced by more than 80%.
In 2004 the UN's reputation was tarnished by revelations about corruption in the oil-for-food program that allowed Iraq, beginning in 1996 and ending after the U.S.-led invasion, to export oil to generate income that was to be used to purchase food and other humanitarian relief. Saddam Hussein's government received sizable kickbacks through the program (although the money Iraq earned through smuggling oil abroad was much greater), and many outside Iraq illicitly profited as well. A detailed UN investigation into the program, led by Paul
Also in 2005 Annan attempted to win international support for a group of comprehensive reforms within the United Nations, but agreement proved difficult to secure. UN members did approve the establishment of a Peacebuilding Commission, intended to aid war-torn nations in reestablishing political stability and economic growth. In Dec., 2005, under pressure from the United States and other wealthy nations, UN members approved a two-year budget with a spending cap for 2006 that was expected to be reached in June of that year. The intention was to link the approval of further spending to passage of management reforms by the General Assembly.
The General Assembly approved (Mar., 2006) the replacement of the UN Human Rights Commission with a Human Rights Council. The move was designed to restore credibility to the UN's human rights body, which was criticized for having included among its member nations many countries that had been denounced for violations of human rights, but the new body soon faced similar criticisms. In May the Assembly refused to approve the centerpiece of Annan's ambitious administrative reform plans for the United Nations; some modest reforms were approved in July. The budget cap, meanwhile, had been removed in June by the General Assembly.
Annan was succeeded as secretary-general by South Korean diplomat Ban Ki-Moon in 2007; he served for two terms. Ban, who also focused on reforming and restructuring the United Nations, was less of an activist international leader than Annan. Although UN peacekeepers kept the crisis in Côte d'Ivoire from worsening in 2011 and then aided in the installation of the country's internationally recognized president, elsewhere peacekeeping forces had more limited or even negligible effects. In Haiti, UN peacekeepers unintentionally introduced (2010) cholera into the island nation, leading to the deaths of more than 9,000, and the United Nations for a long time denied its forces were the cause. Increasing discord on the Security Council between Russia and Western nations during Ban's tenure especially hampered UN attempts to intervene in the Syrian civil war to save civilian lives. The most notable UN achievement under Ban was most likely the signing of the Paris climate change agreement in 2015, which included the broadest and most far-reaching program so far to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. António Guterres, a former Portuguese premier and UN High Commissioner for Refugees succeeded Ban as secretary-general in 2017.
Sections in this article:
- Diminished UN Influence and Its Uncertain Revival
- Effects of a Growing Membership
- Expanding Role of the Secretary-General
- Growing Activity of the Assembly
- Original Vision and Cold War Realities
- The Security Council
- The General Assembly
- The Secretariat and the Secretary-General
- Organization and Principles
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