May 04, 2005

WP Essay– Is the UN efffective?

Is the UN an effective organisation?

Iain Foreman 0305494
Tutor: Alina Gamboa

Since its creation in 1945, the United Nations (UN) and its effectiveness as an organisation has been the subject of much debate and discussion, especially in light of the events of the last two years where its role or perceived lack of it in the Iraq war has led to some to question its relevance in the contemporary world. The difficulties I feel lie in agreeing on what the UN actually should be doing and what should be left to the individual member states that make up the near universal membership of the UN1. The most effective way to deal with this question would be to look at what the UN does effectively and what it doesn’t, and then to come to some sort of conclusion and to see if it is as Peter Jones put it “only as effective as its members wish it to be.”2

The UN has many detractors with various criticisms of the organisation which I shall be dealing with first. The first of these is that it is unable to neither create peace nor prevent acts of aggression nor even to keep peace in parts of the world where violence has erupted. Examples from the past decade include the recent Gulf conflict, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In the case of the latter, it has been pointed out that its disintegration and descent into chaos and fighting between differing and national ethnic groups is what many feel could have been prevented by the UN or at least more effective measures should have been enforced to prevent the ‘ethnic cleansing’ perpetuated by Bosnian Serbs. One reason that the vast body of critics of the UN point out is the veto power that is wielded by the five permanent members of the Security Council, which makes it difficult for a decision leading to effective action to be made. In recent times, proposed resolutions relating to Yugoslavia and Israel, among others have been vetoed by permanent members (China/Russia and the USA respectively). This may lead to some seeing the UN as nothing more than a ‘talking shop’ that appears unable or unwilling to act against those transgressing the will of the international community or going against the principles of the UN Charter, due to the UN’s inability to get agreement on what should be done.

This certainly appeared to be the view of the ‘hawks’ in Washington when it became clear that France would veto any resolution that would explicitly permit the use of armed force in ensuring Iraq’s compliance with previous UN resolutions, including the unanimously passed Resolution 1441 of November 2002 that gave Iraq a last chance to prove that it had eliminated its weapons of mass destruction as required after the first Gulf War of 1991. The argument is; how can an organisation be effective when it can’t reach an agreement on how to punish a miscreant state that had consistently broken and then delayed its compliance with regards to obligations that it faces?3 This also raises the issue of whether or not the UN is actually relevant in these circumstances, as if we live in a world where there’s US hegemony, then the theory is that any meaningful UN action has to have US support (e.g. resolutions regarding Israel), or in cases where the US can’t get UN support for its views, then the USA is powerful enough to ‘go it alone’, as in the case of Iraq. This is perhaps summed up best by Urquhart who said “the determining factor in responding to future emergencies will be the interest and concerns of the USA and its allies in a given situation.”4

One of the problems that critics of the UN point out that it has is that it has no standing or permanent forces of its own. Instead it is reliant on member states of the UN to provide troops of their own on a case by case basis to ensure that military action is at least possible. Obviously, in these circumstances a nation will only provide finance or military troops if it regards the function of the UN force as acceptable, or in line with its own interests. The failure to set up a military committee, as anticipated by the founders of the UN, which would have taken over preparations for any collective action to ensure security has resulted in the rendering of the UN as “almost entirely ineffective as an instrument of collective security.”5 The issue of peacekeeping is one used as a rod by the UN’s critics with which to hit it. The supposed ineffective action of the UN in areas such as Somalia and the former Yugoslavia is often cited. Many commentators have noted that the IFOR NATO force sent to the Balkans after the Dayton Peace accords was more effective in keeping the peace than the UN’s ‘blue berets’ were6 .

Other instruments that the UN has at its disposal are seen as insufficient to carry out the tasks required of it. One of the UN’s very own reports has admitted that sanctions can be described as a “blunt instrument.”7 This report also goes on to say that the sanctions imposed are normally ineffectual and often result in the suffering of innocent civilians whilst being unlikely to affect the conduct of the leaders whose actions that the sanctions were supposed to change. The most recent example pointed out by many is the plight of ordinary Iraqis before the second Persian Gulf War, even though the UN had since modified its stance with the now discredited ‘Oil for Food’ programme. It has since been alleged and partly accepted by the subsequent Volcker report that Saddam Hussein was able to corrupt certain UN officials with vouchers for oil reserves in return for influence or a sympathetic ear in the higher echelons of the UN. It seems that sanctions are to be put in place in order to avoid the need for military action but as the cited UN report states this mechanism at the UN’s disposal is often unlikely to effect the desired change from badly behaved states and as Roberts suggests “sanctions are seldom enough: military means are therefore likely to be seen as necessary.”8 The UN is supposed to be able to uphold peace and security in the world and yet one of the ways in which it aims to achieve this end (using sanctions against aggressive states) is seen as ineffective.

Another issue blighting the UN in its search for effectiveness is its budgetary problems. According to the recent figures the UN debt stands at $800 million, with the US owing $690.9 million in unpaid dues9 and has had to cut its staff levels from 12,000 to 9,000. The USA has also withheld in $34milllion in protest against the UN Population Fund’s stance on contraception that has to be applied to Africa in its fight against AIDS. To further underscore the perception that ‘money talks’, the USA has not lost its voting rights despite it owing money to the organisation. Nations such as Afghanistan that didn’t pay monies that it owed have lost their voting rights in the past. The UN is supposed to be equitable in its dealings with all its members but this fact only further suggests that the UN is unable to control the larger, more powerful states that appear to be able to run roughshod over or bully the heavily criticised organisation.

However, that’s not to say it is all gloom when one considers the UN’s effectiveness. Many supporters of the UN point to the success of the first Gulf War where the UN was able to reverse an act of aggression on the part of Iraq when it had invaded Kuwait in 1990. The UN acted with reasonable pace in being able to agree that action was necessary and had expelled Iraq from Kuwait within eight months of its first Resolution calling for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. This success was attributed to the fact that both superpowers, the USA and Russia (which took up the USSR’s seat on the Security Council), both accepted that something must be done. The Cold War divide that had hitherto paralysed the UN taking action was no longer in existence. Both East and West had decided on what action was necessary and led to President Bush’s proclamation of a ‘new world order’ with the UN at its heart. This example could refute the claim of the UN’s critics that the power of veto is the main obstacle to the UN acting effectively.

Another thing going for the UN is that it has as Claire Short put it, “a special moral authority on the world stage.”10 It is seen as the place where to air grievances and it has a unique authority as it is the only international organisation with near universal membership able to deal with issues of the day. As such, it can legitimately claim to speak for the international community as a whole when a proclamation is made on the behalf of the UN. Any action authorised by the UN is going to carry more moral weight than one without its support and members of the UN are more inclined to interfere on the world stage if it is clear that they have the UN’s authority behind them. In short, the UN is seen as a neutral means of garnering support for action in order to reverse undesirable acts, such as acts of aggression.

This has been seen in Parsons’ six examples of the UN helping to mediate and lessen the probability of armed conflict11. One of these is the Falklands dispute where the UK got international support for the notion that force was not the way to assert a nations’ sovereignty over disputed territories, and garnered some moral authority when it sent out an armed force to recover the islands. The UN had also helped mediate between the superpowers in the Cold War. Parsons points out the role the Secretary-General played in the Cuban Missile Crisis in helping to draft letters and allowed Khrushchev to be seen as listening to a plea from the international community in order to back down and avoid a potential nuclear war. To put in Parsons’ own words, “the UN escape route had worked.”12

Another thing that could be said that the UN does effectively is that it aims to improve the lives of citizens all over the world. In this respect it has had limited success, such as the UN development goals and the aim to halve poverty by 2015. According to the UN, the aim to halve the number of people living on under a dollar a day has been met in South East Asia and the Pacific13, but the targets have yet to be reached in sub- Saharan Africa, where there are real problems in attempting to reach the target. The picture of mixed success also applies to the attempt to combat hunger, but most regions have reached or are on course to reach the target requiring every child to have had a primary education14.

In conclusion, the UN has had some success, albeit limited in improving the lives of the less fortunate but could be more effective, especially with regards to maintaining peace in the international community. The problem lies in the make up of the UN where the five potential vetoes in the Security Council ensure that the agenda tends to stay in line with those of the more powerful countries, thus ensuring that remedial action against acts of aggression can only take place if these countries, most notably the USA, allow it. The fact that regional organisations often fare better than the UN in dealing with trouble, such as NATO in the former Yugoslavia or the Arab League helping to diffuse tensions in 1961 between Kuwait and Iraq when the Security Council was paralysed by Soviet vetoes15, show some the UN’s, particularly the Security Council’s failings. In other issues, the UN has been more effective such as reaching agreement on the Millennium Development Goals which aim to help the third world and improve the lives of the less advantaged in the world. In sum, the UN is not as effective as it could be in regards in maintaining world peace but a lot of the ‘behind the scenes’ work has been more effective, although admittedly not as successful as it would be hoped.


1.the UN website membership page at link (Accessed 17 February 05)
2.Peter Jones (1996), Introducing International Politics, Sheffield Hallam University: PAVIC, p135.
3. (Accessed 7 Feb 05)
4.Urquhart, B “The UN and international security after the Cold War” in Kingsbury, B and Roberts, A (eds) (2000 2nd edition) United Nations in a Divided World, New York: Oxford University Press, p86.
5.Peter Jones (1996), Introducing International Politics, Sheffield Hallam University: PAVIC, p130.
6.Teresa Cowling on the web at link (Accessed 6 Feb 05).
7.Adam Roberts “The UN and Collective Security” in Woods, N (ed) (2002), Explaining International Relations since 1945, New York: Oxford University Press, p318 citing Supplement to an Agenda for Peace: Position Paper of the Secretary-General on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations, UN doc.A/50/60 (3rd January 1995), para.70.
8.Adam Roberts “The UN and Collective Security” in Woods, N (ed) (2002), Explaining International Relations since 1945, New York: Oxford University Press, p318.
9. (Accessed 12 February 2005)
10.The Claire Short speech at the Rockefeller Foundation, New York, 26th October 1999 online at link (Accessed 13 February 05).
11.Anthony Parsons “The UN and National Interests of States” in Kingsbury, B and Roberts, A (eds) (2000 2nd edition) United Nations in a Divided World, New York: Oxford University Press, pp106–111.
12.Anthony Parsons “The UN and National Interests of States” in Kingsbury, B and Roberts, A (eds) (2000 2nd edition) United Nations in a Divided World, New York: Oxford University Press, p107.
13. (Accessed 13 February 05).
14. (Accessed 13 February 05).
15.Sally Morphet, “UN Peacekeeping and Election Monitoring" in Kingsbury, B and Roberts, A (eds) (2000 2nd edition) United Nations in a Divided World, New York: Oxford University Press, p189.


Peter Jones (1996), Introducing International Politics, Sheffield Hallam University: PAVIC
Kingsbury, B and Roberts, A (eds) (2000 2nd edition) United Nations in a Divided World, New York: Oxford University Press
Woods, N (ed) (2002), Explaining International Relations since 1945, New York: Oxford University Press

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Pamela

    I think the UN is doing a great job especially for countries in the Third World. Last year the World Food Programme (WFP) helped to raise one million USD to end child hunger in 'Walk the World to Fight Hunger' campaign. This year the walk is on the 12th of June and for more information check out this website: link

    23 May 2005, 09:13

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