Many things were said by Foreign Minister Jaishankar in his address to the General Assembly on 24 September, but what stood out as noteworthy was his focus on the urgency of UN reform, describing the current structure as ‘anachronistic and ineffective’ and how it was being increasingly perceived as ‘denying entire continents and regions a voice.’
Many people have expressed disappointment with the United Nations in the context of the Ukrainian conflict. Dissatisfaction has been expressed on two counts. On the one hand the complaint has been made that the organisation itself has shown itself to be incapable of handling a real global crisis. Especially since this particular crisis is not an ordinary one, since Russia, possesses nuclear weapons in the thousands – and President Putin has recently hinted darkly at the possibility that he may use them.
The second complaint doesn’t target the organisation itself as much as it targets its current leader, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres. In a recent article in Foreign Policy Harvard Professor Stephen Walt wished for every world leader to have the following observation prominently displayed on his work desk: ‘It’s much easier to start a war than to end it.’ It has been separately argued that Guterres did not do enough to prevent the war in Ukraine.
It is argued that the Secretary General did not properly heed advice given to him by Western nations in January this year before the Russian attack commenced on 24 February 2022. Satellite imagery clearly showed a troop build-up by the Russians near the Ukrainian border. According to American intelligence and advice tendered there was a clear possibility of the Russians invading and Mr Guterres should therefore have taken preventive action. What kind of preventive action?
At a minimum, have a face-to-face talk with the leaders of both nations, especially Putin. It is further argued that it wasn’t even necessary for Guterres to make a special trip to Moscow for this purpose. He was, anyhow, going to attend the inauguration ceremony of the Winter Olympics taking place in Beijing, which Putin would also be attending, (together with the Chinese premier Xi). He could have tried to use that opportunity to have a short but effective engagement with Putin.
Guterres confessed later that, like many others at the time, he never really believed that Russia would invade Ukraine. As a matter of fact, he had made a public announcement to that effect just three weeks before the invasion happened.
In his defence, it can be said that at the end of the day we are all human, and Guterres was by no means alone in concluding that the Russians were actually bluffing and would never really invade. Critics of Guterres do not accept this line of defence arguing that the job of the Secretary General of the United Nations is a job different from all others and requires the head of the UN to be on the ball all the time. The Secretary General needs to be super-alert and super-active all the time, simply because the stakes can be so very high. Once the invasion of Ukraine took place, it became all the more difficult to end the war.
Anyhow what’s done is done and cannot be undone. After all, even had the UN Secretary General been more alert and savvier than he was, he may not have been able to prevent the invasion. Critics of the UN Secretary General perhaps do not have an appreciation of the structural limitations under which the Secretary General operates, which brings us to the second criticism which is that the UN has failed as an institution.
There are some of us who argue that the organisation itself should be disbanded. Clearly an overreaction and an extremely foolish idea, it is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Let us not forget that the UN and Guterres are even now playing an important, perhaps indispensable role in the conflict. In the early days of the conflict, on 28 April 2022, when Guterres visited Kiev, he spoke in an interview on how he had seen airports, roads and schools all lie in ruins due to Russia’s invasion. Large populations were without water or electricity. The Secretary General also spoke then on how together with its humanitarian partners the UN was working to ensure safe passage from besieged areas, and to provide aid where security permitted, allowing around 600,000 people to receive some form of aid. That humanitarian effort continues.
If the UN did not exist, we would anyhow need an organisation much like it. What makes far greater sense is to try and reform the United Nations so that it has the power to constructively intervene in such volatile, dangerous situations. As Prime Minister Modi suggested recently, a view echoed by President Macron, this is not the era of war, and there should therefore be an immediate cessation of hostilities and serious negotiations based on the principles of the UN Charter and International Law. As things stand, however, the UN Charter does not envisage a credible action plan in the event a UN Security Council member, in this case Russia, itself becomes an aggressor.
Who will bell the cat? The Council will never reform itself, without pressure being brought to bear upon it. The call for reform can only come from the larger community of nations. History has time and time again shown how the demonstration of public will and determination can unseat monarchs and dictators who might appear, from the outside, to be too well entrenched to topple. We, the people of the world, cannot sit and watch while the UN Security Council starts to increasingly resemble an oligarchic club that refuses to open its doors to other important actors, for all of us have a stake in the survival of the planet.
Rajesh Talwar is an author of 34 books across multiple genres. He has worked for the United Nations for over two decades across three continents in numerous countries.