The UN at 70: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

“The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.” – Dag Hammarskjöld

Over the last seven decades, the United Nations (UN) has been both criticised and revered in its operations around the world, and the celebration of its 70th birthday in October this year has prompted a new wave of analysis and critique. Public opinion, it seems, is notoriously divided on the UN, which for some represents a beacon of hope and the embodiment of illegitimate post-war bureaucracy for others. Is such a harsh criticism warranted by an organisation whose primary aim is to secure for the global community a better standard of living? Or are the ambiguous and often seemingly unachievable objectives set by the institution simply proving its inefficiency when tackling humanitarian, political and military disasters around the world?

Image courtesy of United Nations Photo ©2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of United Nations Photo ©2011, some rights reserved.

It cannot be denied that the failures by the United Nations to uphold Article 1 of its own mandate (to ‘maintain international peace and security’ and ‘achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character’[1]) have been manifold over the past seven decades. One need only glance at the UN’s lack of primary intervention during the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica to witness the horrifying contradictions between the organisation’s mandate and its actions. More recently, efforts to broker peace talks during Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year, have not seen any success and a third envoy (Italian diplomat Staffan de Mistura) is currently on the quest to break the impasse without, it seems, any forthcoming success.

It would seem then that public opinion finds no answer to its anxiety and frustrations about catastrophic humanitarian situations and the failure of peace-keeping operations, and furthermore has reason to call into question the legitimacy of the organisational structure of the UN as we progress further through the 21st century. The UN’s relative lack of involvement and intervention in conflicts such as the Vietnam War and, more recently, the US invasion of Iraq prompt criticism that the organisation was completely and controversially side-lined, proving both a lack of international legitimacy as well as power to implement its mandate in such cases.

The question of legitimacy further probes the contemporary examination of the UN’s internal governance structure. The primary concern is that the constitution of the UN Security Council no longer reflects global geopolitical reality[2]. The five permanent members constitute nothing more than the victors of the Second World War and the Council inadequately represents the Asia-Pacific and Latin American regions. The concept of rotating seats within the Security Council, a method by which more proportional representation is supposed to be achieved, also fails to function adequately. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for roughly 55 per cent of the world’s population, 44 per cent of its annual income but holds just 3 of the 15 seats on the Security Council.[3]

Reforms suggested for the institution as it enters its eighth decade range from increasing its funding from $45 billion to $75 billion, to a complete reformation of the UN’s governance structure or even the disbandment of the organisation entirely. It seems that public opinion is as divided on the need for UN reform as it is based primarily on the analysis of the organisation’s actions. [4]

Despite its failings, it cannot be denied that the United Nations plays a necessary and unique required role within the international arena and as such, must concern itself with widespread reform of its inner organisation in order to remain relevant in its eighth decade. The first major triumph to consider is the successful conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals, implemented by the UN at the turn of the century. These goals, which have been presided over by both Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon, have led to remarkable progress in the reduction of global poverty, education, and public health among other areas. Indeed, since 1990 the global rate of extreme poverty has been reduced by well over half – more than fulfilling the agenda’s number one goal.

Despite the vague and ambiguous nature of the UN’s goals concerning global improvement of living standards, it touches an important point: the trans-national nature of the United Nations renders it possible to create a multi-state approach to global issues, without which such progress in both humanitarian and sustainable development would simply not be possible. This is demonstrated quite clearly in the recent adoption by the United Nations of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, amongst which they aim to ‘End poverty in all its forms everywhere’ and ‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.[5]’ Critiques of these goals are naturally wide-spread given both their ambiguous nature and some might say almost unachievable objectives, but the point remains that the UN continues to provide a legitimate platform for such trans-national operations. The global conference for climate change set to be held in Paris this November, within which a global agreement on climate control is hoped to be reached, is a case in point.

The UN’s involvement in global strategic objectives and humanitarian causes are complimented by its contribution to such projects as the Iranian Nuclear Treaty signed earlier this year[6]. The treaty, which forbids Iran’s nuclear proliferation, undeniably adheres to the maintenance of international peace and security and has been considered a complete success in the eyes both of the member states and their publics.

It must be remembered that no criticism of the UN can ever be considered neutral or objective, but rather constitutes part of a larger debate on the concept of global society, more pertinent to us now in the 21st century than ever before. The failings of the United Nations to both maintain international peace and security and uphold a legitimate governance and global position are undeniable. And yet, the UN offers a key platform for polemic discussion and a blueprint for trans-national operations, without which successes in the reduction of child poverty levels and world hunger would simply not have been possible. As we continue on the path towards a global way of life, it is the UN’s trans-national quality that we simply cannot do without.

So, Happy Birthday UN.


[2] Bertrand, Maurice. “The UN as an Organization. A Critique of its Functioning,”The United Nations Jubilee Issue ed. Hoffmann, Stanley & Koskenniemi, Martti.

[3] Sachs, J D. United Nations Seventieth Anniversary, Project Syndicate.

[4] Sachs, J D. op cit.


[6] Ibid.

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