116. At 75 years old, the UN’s multilateral system is buckling

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 6 September 2020
Publication: Business Day
Image courtesy of: Mat Reding via Unsplash

The 193-member United Nations (UN) commemorates its 75th birthday this month. The UN emerged from the ashes of the Second World War in 1945 to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” But as UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, recently conceded: “Today we have a multilateralism that has no teeth.”

The multilateral system has three pillars: peace, human rights, and development. All three are under severe strain from the headwinds of the populist nativism that is blowing from Washington D.C. The UN’s work is being bankrupted by its largest donor behaving like a deadbeat dad. America has irresponsibly withdrawn from the World Health Organisation amidst a global COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration has also wielded a wrecking ball through the dispute resolution mechanism of the World Trade Organisation.

Kenyan scholar, Ali Mazrui, described Jesus Christ as “The Prince of Peace at the UN.” The world body’s 1945 Charter was drafted largely by Christian powers who insisted that only “peace-loving” nations could be members, and pushed Christian concepts of peace and love as the antidote to war. UN peacekeeping succeeded in Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Cambodia, El Salvador, and East Timor, but failed spectacularly in Rwanda, Angola, and Bosnia. The powerful 15-member UN Security Council has five anachronistic veto-wielding permanent members (P5) – the United States, China, Russia, Britain, and France – who still reflect the alliance of victors 75 years ago. While the Council represented 22% of the UN membership in 1945, it accounts for just 8% of today’s members. This body’s legitimacy is therefore threadbare, and must include countries such as Brazil, India, Nigeria, and South African to regain credibility.

The UN Human Rights Council, created in 2015, remains as ineffectual as its discredited predecessor. Abuses continue from Congo to China to Saudi Arabia and Kashmir, even as black citizens continue to be maimed and murdered by white policemen across American cities. The Albanian-Indian Catholic nun and Nobel peace laureate, Mother Teresa, promoted the rights of the poor, with 4,500 nuns across 133 countries. She can thus be seen as the embodiment of global human rights. Critics have, however, argued that the canonised nun believed that “the sick must suffer like Christ on the cross,” noting that she failed to provide proper health care in her clinics, as some rich countries like the US similarly neglect universal health coverage. Mother Teresa was further condemned for opposing the empowerment of women:  discrimination that occurs across many countries.

The UN development system has produced “Lords of Poverty” committed to bureaucratic inertia and allergic to innovation. More than a billion people still live on less than $1.25 a day; few rich countries are contributing 0.7 % of gross national income to development assistance, a target set 50 years ago, while environmental degradation continues unabated. The most recent embodiment of global socio-economic development is Africa’s Prophet of Regional Integration, Adebayo Adedeji, who headed the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) between 1975 and 1991. He used the ECA to launch the most sustained assault on the Structural Adjustment Programmes implemented from the 1980s by the World Bank and IMF. These programmes involved large enforced cuts in health, education, and employment. Like Argentina’s Raúl Prebisch in Latin America two decades earlier, Adedeji urged greater intra-regional growth and integration.

President Nelson Mandela commemorated the UN’s 50th anniversary in 1995 by noting that: “The youth . . . are . . . bound to wonder why it should be that poverty still pervades the greater part of the globe; that wars continue to rage; and that many in positions of power and privilege pursue cold-hearted philosophies which terrifyingly proclaim: I am not your brother’s keeper!” These words continue to ring true 25 years later, rendering the UN’s 75th birthday a rather sombre affair.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.