The date, 24th October is commemorated every year as United Nations (UN) Day. It is a day to look back on the achievements of the UN as well as the challenges it faces. The UN Charter, negotiated and signed at the San Francisco Conference between April and June 1945, entered into force on this day after being ratified by a majority of its 51 founding members. The main objective of the UN Charter in 1945 was to save “succeeding generations from the scourge of war”.
The significant military contributions by 2.5 million Indian troops to the Allied victories in the Second World War enabled India to be a founding member of the UN. Since 1948, more than 250,000 Indian troops have served under the UN flag in 49 missions across the world, the largest such contribution by any UN member-state.
The decision to deploy troops for UN peacekeeping is taken by the UN Security Council (UNSC), which has “primary responsibility” under the UN Charter to “maintain international peace and security”. In recent years, this mechanism has become unwieldy and in need of reform. Currently, four crises in Africa (in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and the Central African Republic) account for almost $4.7 billion of the total UN peacekeeping budget of $ 6 billion, and about 58,000 of the 75,000 peacekeeping troops from 121 member-states. Till now none of them have an exit date, as the political crises initiating their deployment show no signs of abating.
One of the major factors for this situation is that the mandate for the deployment of UN peacekeepers can only be agreed if the five permanent (P5) UNSC members (China, France, Russia, UK, and USA) agree not to use their veto. The P5 have consistently rejected suggestions from many troop contributing countries to allow them to participate in UNSC decisions for the effective deployment of the troops contributed by them to UN peace operations, as provided in Article 44 of the UN Charter.
If the deployment of the huge human and financial resources contributed by UN member-states has not enabled the UNSC to implement its responsibility for maintaining international peace and security on the ground, the impact of the breakdown of peace and security is being felt acutely on the UN’s socio-economic and human rights pillars.
A major achievement of the UN during the past 75 years has been to place an ambitious global framework on sustainable development at the heart of its agenda. Agenda 2030, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was adopted in September 2015 by UN member-states as a universally applicable, nationally driven, target-oriented time bound action plan. It prioritizes the eradication of poverty through socio-economic growth while protecting the environment. The interlinkage between the UN’s policies on peace, security, and development is clearly spelt out in Agenda 2030.
In 2020, when confronted by the unprecedented Covid pandemic, which affected all member-states of the UN, and dented their national efforts to achieve Agenda 2030, the UNSC was unable to provide political support for an “all-of-UN” response. This was due to a confrontation between two of the P5 (China and the United States) in UNSC decision-making. The confrontation contrasted with the previous record of the UNSC’s swift response in extending political support to the UN and its stakeholders when responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis twenty years ago, and even to the Ebola virus crisis in 2014.
In a broader context, Covid-19 has created greater inequalities across the world. The World Bank projects that over a 100 million people have been pushed back into poverty, jeopardizing the primary objective of Agenda 2030. An emerging “vaccine divide” is marked by privileged member-states stockpiling vaccines, while erecting protectionist barriers to mitigation measures sought by developing countries, such as the proposed waiver from the restrictive provisions of trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPs) initiated by India and South Africa in the World Tarde Organization.
For over a year, India has called for “reformed multilateralism” to make the UN more effective in responding to challenges on the ground to peace, security, and development. At the heart of this call is the need to reform the UNSC, implementing the unanimous mandate given by world leaders (including of the P5) in 2005 to make the Security Council “more broadly representative, efficient and transparent and thus to further enhance its effectiveness and the legitimacy and implementation of its decisions”. The thrust of such reform today has to be “human-centric”, due to the interlinkages between peace, security, and development.
Out of the 193 member-states of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), 141 member-states belong to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Yet, only one Asian country (China) is represented in the P5, while as many as three (France, the UK and USA) represent the 28 member-states of the Western Europe regional group in the UNGA.
The UN’s 2005 mandate for UNSC reforms continues to be opposed by the P5 in the ongoing inter-governmental negotiations in the UNGA. Even the United States, Russia, the UK, and France, who are publicly committed to India’s permanent membership of a “reformed UNSC”, have not taken proactive positions so far in the inter-governmental negotiations to propose a UNGA resolution to amend the UN Charter and achieve such a reform. China stands out for energetically opposing any amendment that does not have “the widest consensus”, knowing fully well that the UNGA itself decided in 1998 that a two-third majority (today equal to 129 member-states), and not “consensus”, is required to amend the UN Charter to reform the UNSC.
The status-quo approach by the P5 has resulted in a cynical manipulation of the UN system, resulting in visible humanitarian challenges affecting the third pillar of the UN for upholding fundamental human rights and freedoms, including the rights of women. The cases of humanitarian crises in Africa and Asia (Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Myanmar, and recently Afghanistan) on the UNSC’s agenda illustrate this prominently. Elected members of the UNSC have not succeeded in overcoming the hidden and explicit vetoes of the P5 to respond to these humanitarian crises in a sustainable manner.
During the negotiations on the UN Charter, several countries had opposed the veto privilege of the P5. Sir A. Ramaswamy Mudaliar, the leader of the Indian delegation, who signed the UN Charter, said at the first session of the UNGA in January 1946 that the veto privilege had been accepted in the UN Charter on the condition that “at the end of the ten years' period when we re‐examine the Charter, there will be unanimity again, and that this United Nations Charter will not require all the safeguards which big nations sometimes claim and small nations so unwillingly give.”
His reference of the ten-year period was to Article 109 of the UN Charter, which calls for a General Conference of the UN for “reviewing” the Charter after ten years (1955). This General Conference has never been held and has been linked by the P5 to amending the UN Charter for UNSC reform.
The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently proposed a UN Summit in 2023 to decide on “our common future”. Such a Summit can provide the platform for UN member-states to generate momentum and convene a UN General Conference to review the UN Charter. If timed with the UN’s 80th anniversary in 2025, such a General Conference can prioritize and give shape to ongoing efforts to reform the UN and make it effective and relevant for the 21st century.
(Ambassador Asoke Mukerji served in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 37 years, retiring as India’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York in December 2015).