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UN at 75: Slow Death or a New Direction – Part 1

Lord Mark Malloch‐Brown* holds international Board and Advisory positions in the commercial and not-for-profit sectors. He currently Co-chairs The UN Foundation and the International Crisis Group and is on the advisory committees to the heads of the IMF and UNICEF. He served as Deputy Secretary‐General and earlier Chief of Staff of the UN under Kofi Annan. For six years before that he was Administrator of UNDP, leading the UN's development efforts around the world.
“You cannot change the wind; but you can bend the sail”
        -    a favourite African proverb of Kofi Annan

The 75th anniversary of the United Nations is marked by a ceremony in the UN General Assembly September 2020. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

LONDON, Nov 3 2020 (IPS) - Let me begin with an appeal to our venerable friend, the UN: get down on the ground with the grandchildren. Just having celebrated its 75th birthday, we can hear your knees creak! The UN, for as long as I have known it up close- since its thirties- has often seemed prematurely old.

Today a Youth Challenge is being mounted to the way we live, organise and govern ourselves that is much bigger than the UN alone. The social restrictions of Covid may disguise the scale of the gathering social protest but Covid has also accelerated it.

I would wager that my generation will have the keys seized from us. A digital revolution on the one hand and rising social and economic inequality on the other will unseat a ruling Establishment that has failed to navigate these tides. The UN has to be part of that future or pushed aside by it.

For the UN a second older vector blows with equal force. The UN has been in the grip of a transition from its founding Anglo-Saxon and Western DNA to a more globally distributed state influence almost from its beginnings.

From 48 founding members 1945 to 193 today the expansion reflects the big twentieth century shifts- decolonisation, the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the pursuit of self-determination by those overlooked by history’s cartographers.

And adaptation to new members and their aspirations has been vital to the UN’s legitimacy and universality. Most notably it has allowed it to build a staff that for the most part is a proud mirror of the world it serves.

There is a price, however, for this changing agenda: The UN Charter, imbued with the wisdom and sacrifice of the survivors of a World War, is one of the world’s most eloquent and uplifting constitutional documents.

It is also thoroughly Western, borrowing from America’s founding fathers and assuming a world order managed by the Allied victors of 1945. This is reflected in a western rights-based agenda that to this day has stressed Human Rights, in terms of individual civil and political rights, refugee protection, gender and reproductive health over collective economic rights.

There was an early opposition to western dominance notably in the General Assembly centred on the championing of the New International Economic order. Through the Non-Aligned movement and the G77, new member states sought to correct the historical and structural imbalances in the global political economy.

At the time, despite the passion brought to the debate by its champions, it seemed likely to remain a permanent backbench cause.

Now, however, it is not a simple division of East and West or North and South. Many of us have added collective social and economic rights to our own agendas – climate change, structural inequality and exclusion, injustices in the global economic system.

A western human rights NGO or a former High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson is as likely to be heard championing Climate Justice as the cause of political prisoners.

Lord Mark Malloch-Brown

China with President Xi’s remarkable pledge at September’s General Assembly to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 has put himself in a leadership role on the latter. But this is the same regime that has employed mass incarceration and extensive discrimination to suppress the political rights of its 12 million Uighur minority.

The Economist editorialised earlier this month on the desperate plight of the Uighurs observing: “China’s ruling party has no truck with this concept of individual rights. It claims legitimacy from its record of providing stability and economic growth to the many”.

China has flexed its muscles in the UN, where it is now at 12% the second largest contributor to the assessed budget; strengthening its representation across the secretariat, agencies, funds and programs. It has become a more active voice in critical policy debates from regulation of the internet to peacekeeping.

And in the wider world, a more authoritarian model of government is the new majority. It embraces leaders who come to power by the ballot box and those who didn’t but who all share a preference for a nationalist foreign policy, weakening of domestic institutions and the rule of law including the political rights of its citizens, and a casual disregard for minority and in some cases majority rights.

That’s the world today. For now, at least they are the new majority in global share of population terms. Between them China, India, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Hungary and the United States represent a demographic majority. And many others are borrowing from their playbook.

The widespread rejection of middle-class liberalism reflects very real shifts in global public opinion that are likely to dissolve any time soon. The uneven impact of economic change, now accelerated by Covid, has produced across much of the world’s politics similar divisions of city versus town and country; young versus old; university educated versus high school or less, those employed in new services sectors versus those in failing industrial sectors.

From Trump to Brexit or Bolsonaro to Modi we have seen the rise of economic security, cultural identity and anti-immigration as the flagship issues of a new populist politics that reaches those who feel they are being left behind by unsettling change.

Freedom House in its 2020 Democracy report notes that last year was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Sixty-four countries experienced deterioration in their political rights from the pressure in India on Muslims to a steady less noticed restrictions of freedoms elsewhere.

Its lead author observed: “The unchecked brutality of autocratic regimes and the ethical decay of democratic powers are combining to make the world increasingly hostile to fresh demands for better governance”.

The closing space for open inclusive debate does not stop at the borders of these countries rather it seeps into the UN itself. This month’s elections for membership of the UN Human Rights council gave seats to China, Cuba and Russia although Saudi Arabia another candidate fell short.

Each has served before but it marks the steady capture of this institution by those opposed to that founding western individual rights based agenda.

Inevitably, perhaps as a consequence this is an age of UN caution. My colleague at the International Crisis Group, Richard Gowan, asked in a recent paper: “What is the purpose of the Security Council in an era of worsening great power tensions? Division among its five permanent members (or P5) have repeatedly undermined the United Nations in recent years”

In a way it was ever thus. I remember in my first UN year, 1976, an older generation – indeed in a few cases the original generation, the self-named last of the Mohicans founded by those who has joined the UN Secretariat before 15 August 1946, when the original secretariat camped out in temporary space on Lake Mohauk, complaining in not dissimilar terms. The place already seemed stiff, cautiously bureaucratic and a bit rundown.

Then as now, the UN has sought to make up for that black hole at the centre of its political authority then because of Cold War stand off by swarming the humanitarian and development space with compensating activity.

It was in the 1960s to 80s that its direct operational capacities to address the refugee flows of the Cold War and Post-Colonialization grew rapidly. For UNHCR it saw the transition from a small staff of lawyers to a large staff of logisticians; it was the years of early growth for this year’s Nobel Prize Winner WFP which was spun out of FAO in 1961. It was when the technical assistance activities of the specialised Agencies marshalled by UNDP were a critical prop to newly independent governments.

In 1980 the then UN Secretary-General visited a huge UNHCR supported refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border where I was the Field officer in charge. He turned to me in bewilderment as we toured the huge encampment with its heavy UN and NGO presence and asked how this huge UN operation could have been set up without him knowing almost anything about it.

I tell this story to illustrate a simple truth. The political and security UN in New York was gridlocked but there was ample space for activism and innovation as long as you stayed well away from that graveyard, the Security Council. Operations like mine were run in the Field and from Geneva, based on a mandate derived from international law not the permission of the Security Council.

A few remarkable hold outs such as Sir Brian Urquhart ingeniously shoehorned the UN into political and peacekeeping roles in the Middle East despite Big Power dead lock but this was the exception.

As I crisscrossed the world for UNHCR from refugee hotspots in South East Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Central America and the Horn of Africa, I saw that an extraordinarily committed and creative group of UNHCR leaders had managed to prise apart the Cold War gridlock and make sufficient space for an imaginative operational activism that saved countless lives and relieved huge suffering.

The politics of getting into these situations was never easy; the compromises often disappointing; and the motives of major interested powers and donors only rarely altruistic but the space was carved out and generally held.

When I arrived at UNDP as Administrator, I found a similar legacy of programs established by my independent-minded American predecessors against the prevailing political grain of the time – the first UN assistance program in “Red China”; PAPP a program begun in 1980 to support the Palestinians ; or an office in North Korea whose establishment was still being contested by the US State Department years later when I was Administrator.

And indeed, the UN of today has similarly found space – notably around the sustainable Development Goals (the SDGs) which play to the UN’s convening and standard-setting roles; Climate change where three Secretary-Generals in turn have driven this as a priority; and a tragically expanded humanitarian function as grim conflicts in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere stubbornly run on.

A UN, having to find space where it won’t be bullied by its stronger members and ignored at key moments by many others, is not new. In fact, it’s been the condition to which it has been condemned for most of its 75 years on earth.

There was a brief glorious period of conception and birth from the San Francisco conference in 1945 to Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech delivered in Fulton, Missouri in March 1946 when he warned of the coming conflict between the US and the Soviet Union.

*Mark Malloch-Brown was also Minister of State in the Foreign Office, covering Africa and Asia, and sat in Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s cabinet. He has also served as Vice-Chairman of the World Economic Forum. He began his career as a journalist at The Economist and then worked for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and was later a Vice-President of the World Bank. He has served for many years on the Board of the Open Society Foundation. He formerly chaired the Business Commission on Sustainable Development and the Royal Africa Society. He is author of The Unfinished Global Revolution: The Limits of Nations and the Pursuit of a New Politics.

The article is based on an address to the annual lecture at the Helsinki-based United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) last week.


(To be continued)


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  • Red Robbo

    John Boyd Orr, former director of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, was candid in stating: ‘a world of peace and friendship, a world with the plenty which modern science had made possible was a great ideal. But those in power had no patience with such an ideal. They said it was not practical politics’ (Daily Herald, 29 July 1948).

    Science today offers possibilites undreamed of in 1948. The same negative attitude persists, alas.