The UN has long been derided as little more than a talking shop. But that is not down to the UN itself, but rather, the powerful nations that seek to use it as a tool, argues Xiaochen Su.

As conflicts across the Middle East and in Africa grind on, it is unsurprising to hear continued calls for international cooperation to rein in the violence. But, the United Nations, as an institution designed to promote international cooperation, has been conspicuously absent in the recent conflicts. But the UN is hamstrung, by its near-complete lack of autonomy when it comes to decision-making. Instead, the UN is used largely as a vehicle by its own member states to further their separate interests while giving a semblance of international agreement toward their behaviors.

This is not, of course, to say that the UN has nothing. Over the past decades, the UN has gradually established a reputation for humanitarian intervention, through its efforts to improve standards of living across swathes of the developing world. The UN Development Program and Millennium Development Goals, to name a couple such efforts, have done much to commit UN resources to concretely improving lives around the globe.


However, such work has been largely limited to places and times when peace was the rule, rather than the exception. Under conditions of political instability, the UN’s well-intentioned support becomes ineffective, despite the reality that a populace in conflict is much greater need of international efforts. While a desire to limit on-the-ground troop presence is understandable, a lack of longer-term commitment to protecting local populations in conflict areas is glaring.

One of the most infamous instances of neglect in the past decades is the Rwandan Genocide. UN involvement in this humanitarian disaster only came after the genocide had begun in earnest over the course of three months in 1994. At the time of the genocide, the UN Mission in Rwanda (UNMIR) was already in place to keep the peace between the Hutu government and Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The mass killing of Tutsi civilians was widely perceived by UN officials as mere casualties in the ongoing civil war — one which major powers saw little incentive in intervening. The failure to see the killings as a humanitarian crisis is why the UN felt they could stand on the sidelines as the genocide took place.

Worryingly, the same kind of passive UN presence can be witnessed today in the Central African Republic (CAR), where the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR (MINUSCA) plays a near-identical role to that which UNMIR played in Rwanda. The continued violence between Muslim ex-Seleka and Christian anti-Balaka forces had divided societies and created the crucible for genocide. But it is difficult to see from historical analogy alone how the UN might be empowered to act.

As a bystander in times of conflict, the UN faces accusation of intentional neglect to intense suffering. However, in cases of direct involvements, the UN cannot escape judgement of deliberate bias toward positions of some member states at the expense of others. There are ample incentives for member states to use the UN as cover for aggression since UN approval represents international agreement and as such, moral high ground. The UN itself has been powerless in itself being utilized as a “tool of legitimacy” as such. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The importance of member states’ interests in UN decision-making has not abated in the recent years. The UN quickly recognized South Sudan’s independence and admitted the new country as a member in 2011. South Sudan’s speedy embrace by the UN is in no small part down to Western distaste for Sudan’s continued conflicts in Darfur as well as allegations of human rights abuses and sheltering of Islamic terror elements in the country. Western powers were able to use the UN to weaken Sudan by making it give legitimacy to the new state.

However, similar agitation for independence by Somaliland has not resulted in similar action. International and regional powers have devoted significant resources to prop up the Somali federal government. They see a strong Somali federal government as essential for weakening Islamic militant group al-Shabaab and reducing piracy in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Vocal support for a Somaliland that seeks outright independence could serve to undo efforts to strengthen the federal government and to use it as a bulwark for regional stability. Support for a unified Somalia by UN member states dictates that the body cannot support Somaliland in the same way as it did South Sudan, despite the proto-nations’ underlying similarities.

In most cases, the safety of personnel and the necessity of compromise trump the need for principled, consistent conflict resolution, causing the UN to bend to the pressures of national interests while sacrificing its own interests as an independent actor on the global political stage. The UN is thus diminished. This has greatly reduced confidence in its independence as an institution and as an actor in its own right, and in the process making it little more than a platform for power struggles among powerful nations at the expense of the welfare of civilians mired in conflict.

About the author

XIAOCHEN SU is an Africa analyst. He holds an MSc in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics.

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