On September 21, 2021, in front of the same green marble tile where many of his predecessors and other prominent world leaders have spoken, US President Joe Biden had some stirring words for the 76th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA): “Instead of continuing to fight the wars of the past, we are fixing our eyes on devoting our resources to the challenges that hold the keys to our collective future: ending this pandemic; addressing the climate crisis; managing the shifts in global power dynamics; shaping the rules of the world on vital issues like trade, cyber, and emerging technologies; and facing the threat of terrorism as it stands today.”
At the same time, the reality of the moment brushed up against the president’s optimistic tone. Much of the world is facing third or fourth waves of COVID-19 due to more contagious variants and poor vaccine coverage, and there is no meaningful global (or even domestic) plan to tackle climate change to the extent that scientists warn is needed. The management of global power dynamics and other issues raised by the president seem endlessly mired in political debate, especially considering the fluctuating incentives domestically and for other nation-states around the world. In addition, the United States is having difficulty with changing its conception of “terrorism,” shifting from the stereotype of the perceived foreign (often Muslim) threat to one that recognizes the dominance of domestic, often right-wing, terrorism.
The UNGA has hosted many memorable speeches, including that by the late Muammar Qadhafi in 2009 who seemingly ripped part of the UN charter, multiple belligerent and conspiratorial addresses from Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Israel’s former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2012 warning of imminent Iranian nuclear enrichment while using an image of a cartoon bomb. For most people, these moments may be the extent to which they consider the purpose or functioning of the UNGA. Despite its universal membership and reputation for debate and declaration, the General Assembly has long been criticized for being largely toothless and in need of serious reform. In fact, the United Nations itself has been facing significant criticism of its inability to manage many of the world’s greatest crises in recent decades, up to and including COVID-19, future threats of climate change, and the rise of anti-democratic movements.
According to the Charter of the United Nations, the General Assembly has many areas in its purview, including international peace and security, international cooperation, and “assisting in the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.” Similarly, the UN Security Council (UNSC) is meant “to promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security.” Yet considering the conflicts and injustices of the world, many of them in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the inability of the United Nations to attend to these and other urgent matters has led to widespread criticism.
The UNGA’s former president, Volkan Bozkir, criticized the Security Council in 2020, observing, “Even in some of the most urgent humanitarian crises, the council could not provide a timely and adequate response.” Back in 2005, then-Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan warned of “the decline in the [General] Assembly’s prestige and its diminishing contribution” in a report about the need for the United Nations to live up to its ideals to meet the challenges of the coming decades. Has this international organization done so? How have the two major UN bodies—the Security Council and the General Assembly—operated in the MENA region, and with what consequences?
What Is the United Nations?
As with so many of the modern conventions of international diplomacy, the idea of the United Nations was born out of the atrocities committed during World War II. Just over 75 years ago, in 1945, the United Nations charter was signed by 50 member countries in San Francisco, California, hoping to overcome the failure of its predecessor, the League of Nations, which was founded after World War I to prevent future wars (and failed disastrously). Famously, the United States was not a member of the League of Nations, primarily due to an isolationist attitude in the country and in Congress. Like the League of Nations, the United Nations was composed of several smaller bodies with different members, protocols, and mandates: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat.
Today, there are 193 member states in the United Nations. Unlike the Security Council, which is made up of five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and ten non-permanent members that are elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly, all 193 member states are part of the General Assembly. As such, it is considered “the chief deliberative, policymaking and representative” body of the United Nations.
While the UNGA certainly features lots of deliberation, it is not a lawmaking body. Its resolutions are akin to “soft law,” reflecting the norms and customs based on the opinions of member states but are not legally binding or enforceable.
While the UNGA certainly features lots of deliberation, it is not a lawmaking body. Its resolutions are akin to “soft law,” reflecting the norms and customs based on the opinions of member states but are not legally binding or enforceable. Further, while the UNGA controls the financing of peace operations and can pass resolutions, it does not make the political decisions usually taken up in the Security Council. The council’s permanent members must approve (some may abstain) its decisions, which may block or delay many significant initiatives. The permanent members are facing increasing fractures as incentives deviate, especially as China rises in prominence and Europe and the United States increasingly diverge on global approaches.
United Nations Actions, and Failures, in MENA: Three Salient Examples
Palestine. The United Nations has been deeply enmeshed in the conflicts of the Middle East almost since the body’s inception. One of its first consequential decisions was made in 1947, in UNGA Resolution 181, which called for the end of the British Mandate of Palestine and the partition of the land into an Arab state and a Jewish state—despite rejection by Arab and several non-Arab states as an obvious affront to the principles of self-determination. Since then, and in light of all the subsequent events in the conflict, the UNGA has passed many resolutions affirming Palestinian rights on the land and condemning Israel’s human rights violations, calling for the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories and a cessation of settlement construction, and even recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state in 2012—leading to criticism from some that the body has an anti-Israel bias. Hardly any of these efforts have led to any positive changes in the trajectory of the conflict or meaningful improvements to quality of life for Palestinians, as Israeli control over land and resources has only grown over the decades. A primary reason for the impasse lies in the Security Council, where the United States has vetoed more than 50 resolutions critical of Israel since 1972, even those that adhere to stated US policies.
Hardly any of the UN efforts have led to any positive changes in the quality of life for Palestinians, as Israeli control over land and resources has only grown over the decades.
Syria. In late September 2021, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet told the Human Rights Council that her office estimated a minimum of 350,000 deaths from the conflict in Syria over the past decade. The civil war in Syria, along with the presence of the so-called Islamic State, have been devastating to Syrians and to the region. Many observers wondered why the United Nations could not prevent this war from escalating, especially as it was unfolding “before our very eyes.” In fact, toward the beginning of the war, there was some UN action on the issue; the UNGA passed several resolutions condemning the violence in Syria, calling for cease-fires, and supporting a political transition process. Many of these votes were largely symbolic, however. At the Security Council, potentially meaningful resolutions about arms embargoes or sanctions were vetoed by Russia and China. Russia, which has aided the Syrian government with weapons and other support, does not want to be implicated in findings from an investigation into war crimes in Syria and wants to maintain its foothold in the region. China’s reasons are more complex, but are largely related to its shifting position on the world stage. In 2016, the UNGA passed a resolution to establish an investigative mechanism for war crimes in Syria. To date, these investigations have gathered ample rigorous data, evidence, and firsthand accounts of war crimes, but ultimately they can only be used as evidence for potential trials and are not immediately consequential. More recently, in the Security Council, members could not even agree on efforts related to opening border crossings for humanitarian aid. In general, when measures do pass, they are extremely limited, time-bound, and do very little to address the core issues of the continuing crisis.
Yemen. Another stain on the record of the United Nations, Yemen, remains the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world” years into the start of the current conflict. In 2019, a group of experts and investigators appointed by the UN Human Rights Council decried the inaction on the many well-documented human rights violations and atrocities in Yemen, stating: “The international community must stop turning a blind eye to these violations and the intolerable humanitarian situation.” This community includes the United Nations itself. As early as 2011, the UN secretary-general appointed a special envoy for Yemen due to instability in the country. Yet this process seemed focused on the priorities of the international community—counterterrorism and economic policy—rather than the needs of the people in Yemen. With the situation continuing to deteriorate, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2014 in 2011, pushing for political transition in the country. This did not occur. Instead, the situation deteriorated and the Saudi-led external intervention began in 2015. Three weeks later, the UNSC passed Resolution 2216, calling for an unconditional end to the violence and included sanctions, travel bans, and other tools. This resolution continues to guide UN action in Yemen, but critics contend it legitimizes the Saudi bombing campaign by only calling on the Houthis to disarm and limiting the arms embargo to actors in Yemen. Accordingly, this resolution and subsequent UN actions have done little to end indiscriminate bombing campaigns of Yemen and the resulting humanitarian catastrophes in the country after years of suffering, including widespread famine and an unprecedented cholera outbreak in 2016. Again, the intransigence of the Security Council remains an obstacle, as the cozy relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom with Saudi Arabia prevents meaningful actions against the primary entity attacking Yemen. Just this past summer, the outgoing UN special envoy for Yemen expressed “deep regret” at the inability to broker a lasting cease-fire and peace talks.
Reform Is Needed for the UN to Maintain Legitimacy
Although this analysis focuses on three prominent contemporary examples, the United Nations has been heavily involved across the MENA region for decades. This has included a successful deployment of UN peacekeeping forces to Egypt in 1956, which ended the Suez Canal crisis, a cease-fire resolution in the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 (that was slammed as one-sided in Israel’s favor), and authorizing military action in Libya in 2011. This checkered past has led to an even more uncertain future, with the United Nations showing a stark inability to halt or mitigate the many humanitarian crises in the region, authorize any meaningful consequences for poor governance and creeping authoritarianism in nations like Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and others, or even enact reform within the body itself. In 2015, then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon openly told members of the Security Council, “You’re not doing much at all … you need to fix the way you operate.” Indeed, David Malone, rector of the United Nations University, called it a “crisis of relevance.”
The veto power of the permanent members has been cynically used to block important action on many fronts in the MENA region and beyond, and the body is highly reactive rather than proactive in managing deteriorating situations.
To its credit, the United Nations is not unaware of the need for reform; it is pursuing an entire reform agenda dedicated to issues like digitizing and streamlining processes, advancing collaboration across the organization, and emphasizing global threats like conflict and climate change. But these are reforms that are apolitical and anodyne enough to garner broad acceptance. Meaningful reform would require the world’s major powers, especially the five permanent members of the Security Council, to significantly reduce their influence and make the group more reflective of modern global dynamics. The veto power of the permanent members has been cynically used to block important action on many fronts in the MENA region and beyond, and the body is highly reactive rather that proactive in managing deteriorating situations. Evidence suggests that votes of the Security Council are linked to either increases or cuts in aid funding from powerful states like the United States. The outsize role of the Security Council in choosing the UN Secretary-General has also been criticized, with the need to appease the permanent members a central barrier to selecting a transformational, confrontational figure that would stand up to abuses by the members themselves.
Not surprisingly, these reforms are largely spurned by those in power. For example, proposals for a Security Council “Code of Conduct” meant to eliminate vetoes in situations of war crimes and mass atrocities have percolated for years with little movement. The idea had the support of most of the General Assembly, though excluding the United States, which claimed it did not use its veto in such instances to begin with. This single example depicts the fundamental issue at the core of the United Nations: dominant entities are reinforced with the power that maintains their authority, with no incentive to change or even admit to their failings.
Relying on the good faith of the nations that were the victors of World War II may have been a reasonable way to start the United Nations; however, it is an outdated and paternalistic way to run the body almost eight decades later. This is especially true when a number of these nations are directly or indirectly implicated in enabling some of the worst crises of today. At the same time, many of the most daunting global problems require multilateral action, investment, and cooperation. There is a significant role for the United Nations to play in managing these efforts, but to attend to this “crisis of relevance,” the body needs to go back to its vision from the UN Charter: “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” Such an effort could start within the United Nations’ own institutions.