Posted By :
Comments : 0


By Prof. Tham Seong Chee, President, UNAS



As we commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the UN, it is timely that we remind ourselves once again of the aims and purposes that brought the UN into being.


The aims and purposes as stated in the Preamble to the UN Charter are as follows:


  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war
  • to reaffirm fundamental human rights
  • establish conditions for respect of international law and obligations
  • promote social progress, better standards of life and larger freedoms


To secure them, the UN called upon its member states


  • to practice tolerance
  • unite to maintain international peace
  • avoid the use of military force except in defending the common interests
  • employ international machinery for the promotion of economic and social progress


Let me at the start posit the following;






To get an appreciation of the impact of the UN in maintaining global peace, it is useful to look back at the key MILESTONES of the UN’s history over the last 70 years.


  1. Perhaps, the major milestone was the ending of the long ideological struggle between the then two super powers, the United States and the USSR  It was to divide the UN movement with member states taking sides or being

pushed into the struggle. For close to 50 years from the early 1950s to the 1990s ,

the UN’s work was severely undermined. The threat of a nuclear war was averted.

With it, came the promise of a new era of peace and development.                  .


  1. From the 1960s and on to the 1970s, the UN membership more than tripled from  the initial 54 to more than 165 following the collapse of colonial rule thus changing the face of the UN as well as the priorities being advocated Stress was  on removing the vestiges of colonialism and racism, removal of economic dependency, opening of the global trading system weighted in favor of the developed industrialized economies (the West in short), more ready access to education, health and investment, counter corruption and instituting good governance in the new states. Euphemistically termed the Third World many of these new states faced intra conflicts, poverty, ethnic division, misrule, corruption and territorial disputes. The call was for greater UN intervention with the poor developing countries calling for a New Economic Order.


  1. A third milestone during this uncertain period of the UN’ history was the growing awareness and concern for human rights. Global concern for human rights first saw light in 1948 when the UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly. As the years progressed, nine international treaties, conventions and covenants have come into force to steer the efforts of the UN member states towards promoting and protecting human rights among their respective citizens. Equally important is that these rights or INTERNATIONAL BILL OF HUMAN RIGHTS have now become the basis of all round concerted efforts to emplace them in all areas and levels of the UN’s initiatives to promote peace. The UNECOSOC has also replaced the Human Rights Commission with the Human Rights Council to ensure probity in the election of members to the Council as well as a monitoring device that require member states of the UN to adhere to the requirements of the Universal Periodic Review. The UN held regular world wide meetings to monitor and improve its human rights efforts. The message that emerged was that human rights and human development are the one and the same. Peace therefore, requires both the promotion and protection of human rights as much as efforts to eradicate poverty, illiteracy, poor health, inequality, discrimination and so on.


  1. Fast forward, at the close of the last century, consequent on the rapid growth of the world population especially in the poor and undeveloped countries and with more than a third of the world’s population at 7 billion at this time, the urgent need to confront this resulted in the UN World Conference of 2000 in which a landmark declaration known as the Millennium Declaration was adopted. The 8 development goals listed included the eradication of poverty and illiteracy, women’s health, reduction of HIVAids, access to clean water and sanitary facilities, care of the environment and multilateral co-operation to achieve them. The publication of the UN Report on the Environment and Development gave a pointed warning to the limits of development, that the rate of environmental exploitation was not sustainable. The subsequent World Conferences on Environment (1992, 2002 and 2012) put stress on “sustainability” to ensure that future generations are not deprived of their rights to the environment. To that end, the world community adopted AGENDA 21 as the road map for the future. In this, special attention was given to the protection of forests under the Forests Principle and the Convention on Bio-Diversity.


  1. The years before 2000, the UN was faced with numerous internal conflicts within states especially in Africa.  There were military coups, rebellions and genocide made worse by the easy availability of small arms. From this arose the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) – a UN mandate to intervene in states where law and order has broken down resulting in genocide and heinous crimes against humanity.. Later, the UN supported International Criminal Court (Rome Statute) was set up to bring to justice perpetrators of such crimes.



  1. The UN also initiated several international treaties to control the import and export of small arms. In the same vein it also initiated treaties aimed at banning child soldiers and the use of land mines and cluster bombs. In dealing with weapons of mass destruction, the UN instituted the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the COMPREHENSIVE NUCLEAR TEST BAN TREATY which still has not come into force because of the five nuclear powers. The other two conventions: are the Convention on Biological Weapons and the Convention of Chemical Weapons both now in force.




Seen in material terms, the UN can claim to have achieved progress. Certainly the number of people living below the poverty line has fallen. In its wake, the world economy has spawned an unregulated consumerism with implications for the future health of the environment. Millions of people now are able to enjoy human rights though the task before the UN remains formidable into the future. Perpetrators of injustice and human rights abuse can now be brought to justice. However, new and more acute challenges have emerged and they do not portend a peaceful future for mankind. Certainly they will test the ability of the UN to the fullest if they are to be mitigated.

These challenges include:


  1. the growing inequality in wealth within states and between states. Millions are out off work. Demonstrations against austerity measures imposed by governments occur almost on a daily basis in parts of Europe in particular. There is high unemployment. Widespread poverty now engulfs a third of mankind all over the world including the so called wealthy states of the West. The UN Post – 2015 Development Agenda will need significant inputs of aid and development strategies to move forward order to go beyond the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000.

The development expenditure needed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals has been estimated to represent only about 2% of the total cost of global rearmament. It is indeed a sad and tragic commentary on how humans manage their affairs.


  1. To make the situation worse, thousands of immigrants at great danger to their lives continue to swarm the shores of Europe and Southeast Asia. In the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of refugees are made homeless and unprotected as a result of the fighting and sectarian violence. In the Ukraine, more than two million refugees have fled the civil war into Russia. More countries have become lawless or bereft of government thus leaving thousands homeless and without care or protection.


  1. Amidst this is the increasing opposition to unchecked immigration and fear of Islamic radicalism in the EU member states as shown by the significant swing of voters in support of far right political parties. Behind it all, is the prevailing fear of being swamped.



  1. Global wide threats to health remain with the latest MERS pandemic following a series of other pandemics (HIVAids, SARS, Ebola, Malaria, TB and Avian Flu) still to be fully contained. In this the World Health Organization needs to revamp  its operational methods to contain outbreaks consequent on the slow response to the spread of Ebola and Mers recently.


  1. While the protection of the environment as well as efforts made to repair it has made progress, still more recent UN reports indicate that mass species extinction have been detected testifying to the impact of natural disasters and human activities associated with climate change.



  1. To be sure, climate change poses the most immediate and global wide threat to not only the environment but to the very survival of human kind. Under the UN FRAMEWORK CONVENTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE (UNFCCCC) regular efforts have been tried to hammer out a new agreement in the last tem years and made little real progress. The pledge of developed industrialized countries to contribute US  $100M in 2004 for addressing mounting carbon emission has yet to be honored with only $30M having been met. There continues to be foot dragging, recriminations and mutual distrust. The effects of rising carbon emission are now more than evident: rising global temperatures: alteration of natural weather patters resulting in natural disasters such as floods, landslides, desertification, hurricanes, tropical storms, rising sea levels  threatening island communities,  whether it is drought or too much rainfall both threaten food production and therefore food security. It is now accepted that weather extremes pose a deleterious impact on human health in general. The UNFCCC next meeting in December in Paris will need to achieve firm commitments from state parties to the convention to reverse the rapidly worsening climate situation. What has become increasingly evident is that everything is connected to each other: the environment, climate change, ocean acidification, desertification, endemic /pandemic diseases, food security, security of coastal and island communities, wars and conflict over access to natural resources etc.


  1. In the meanwhile, the issue of fair trade will continue to rue. The WTO round of trade negotiation is still in limbo. To get round the apparent negotiating stalemate,  member states of the UN have struck up free trade agreements either bilaterally or multilaterally. This is a logical outcome as it brings together member states of the UN whose economies are in sync from a variety of perspectives.  Still the WTO (World Trade Organization) which assumed the mantle of UNCTAD (UN Conference on Trade and Development)  is still the global wide UN organization with the global mandate to ensure open and fair trade. To be sure, the global trading system has come a long way. No single country can anymore dominate the world trading system to its own advantage. A multi-polar global system is now in the making. To be sure it will impact directly the relationship between the “new powers” and “existing powers”. The new powers are desirous of having a larger say in charting and managing global wide monetary and financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF both western dominated institutions. The emergence of the Asia Infrastructural Investment Bank (AIIB) led by the Chinese government is a case in point. The American initiative to set up the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) without an invitation to China to become a member clearly exposes US pique as well as it refusal to play by what President Obama was reported to have said “Chinese rules.” In addition, the other initiative of the US to set up the Trans Atlantic Trade and Industry Pact (TTIP) is to cement further its economic ties with the EU.


  1. The current and future relationship between the “current powers” (America and European Union) and the “new powers” (China and Russia) is one fraught with danger, .if allowed to persist. Instead of lending their collective strengthen as called for by the UN Charter, they are engaged more in pursuing geo-political advantages all in the name of national security. Instead of planning for peace, these competing states through their actions and words are in fact creating tensions which could easily lead to war or conflict. Worst still, media spin has become a subtle art form of politicians aided and abetted by the press. Institutes and centers devoted to strategic and defense studies have mushroomed – a testimony to the rising concern with potential and real threats to the security of states. This is not very different from waging war by posing threats and identifying enemies real or imagined. As in all discussions on military strategy, real and potential enemies are identified. This is nothing more but a rehearsal of things to come. The latest National Military Strategy issued by the Pentagon lists Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and ISIS/ISIL as the greatest threats to the interests of the US and its allies. One could with cynicism lists the US and its allies as equally dangerous to world peace as a counter claim. In this regard, the political mess and daily loss of human lives in the Middle East countries is both illustrative and instructive.


  1. An impartial observer of US foreign policies to-day cannot but be astonished at the “double standards” adopted to address conflicts and security threats as in the case of the sectarian division and rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Furthermore by backing Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, puts into question the US claim to be the champion of democracy and human rights. The invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by the US led forces was strictly illegal by international law.(Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General.) The UN Security Council’s resolution declaring a “no fly zone” over Libya was flouted by both the US and NATO forces when US and NATO planes bombed the country in support of forces opposed to the rule of Muammar  Gaddafi. The same fate almost fell on Syria if not for the good offices of Russia who struck a bargain between the US and Syria in which the US agreed not to bomb Syria in exchange for the removal and destruction of all chemical weapons held by Syria. Such acts by the US, not to mention the use of drones to kill known and suspected terrorist commanders are strictly illegal not only do they violate the territorial integrity of the countries where drones operate but are extra judicial. This not to mention the many innocent victims of drone attacks due to human errors in targeting.


  1. There is lesson that one can extract arising from US foreign policy since 9/11 2001 and that is if you are a small or medium size state you will do well not to challenge the United States.. Whether you are a practicing democracy or not or that your human rights record is not exemplary is not always a part of the calculus. Powerful states such as Russia and China pose as threats to US supremacy or hegemony and therefore a “containment” policy is called for. This is to be done in two ways: one sew up mutual defense and security treaties with the surrounding countries so as to contain China’s influence and rise and second, construct and disseminate a narrative highlighting the territorial ambitions and threat to peace of China in the Asia Pacific and Russia in Central and Eastern Europe. Besides this. The US also actively supply arms and training to its allies. In the Ukraine, the US openly encouraged the overthrow of an elected government by supporting radicals, neo-fascists and racists despite major concessions offered by the government then in power including as well, the right to apply for membership in the EU. In this connection Russia voiced its objection only when the proposal to join NATO was mooted. Earlier, Russia’s proposal to NATO to jointly install the missile defense shield in Poland was rebuffed. When Russia abrogated the Warsaw Pact Treaty to assuage US and European security concern, the US Foreign Secretary then, James Baker had promised the Russians that the US and NATO would not take another step toward the Russian border. One can understand Russian security concerns with regard to the future outcome of Ukraine.







The world has changed. The US needs to recognize this clearly and to learn to live with the new geo-political and global economic realities. This includes the need to admit that it does not have the moral right even resources to force global wide compliance unilaterally. In this the political dogma of “regime change” should be treated as purely a dogma. The so called “pivot” or “rebalance” to the east is more a political move than it is economic. Similarly its refusal to invite China as a member of the TPP is essentially to dominate the trading architecture in the Pacific. In the case of the Ukraine, the military and financial support given to the Ukrainian government is geo-political in order to keep Russia at bay as if to say that Russia has no rights to protecting its legitimate geo-political interests. The truth is that the US without EU (and NATO) will be far more vulnerable should the EU lean more towards Russia. Still, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) which originally was a defensive military pact, in order to remain relevant, has become an instrument of US and EU foreign policy beyond the European continent.


An opinion offered by some circles in the US is that the US accepts the concept of a multi-polar world. But here is the catch, provided the current global legal and banking rules remain the foundation of the international system and its institutions.  This means that the G6 (now with Russia out) or advanced economies represented by the West will together with the World Bank and IMF continue to dictate banking and monetary policies. The reaction of the emerging powers to form a partnership under BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or Shanghai Pact (1996) are clear examples of the unhappiness generated by the current international system. Separately, China’s initiative to promote trade by setting up the “One Belt and One Road” concept is to go pass the domination of the West. The formation of the G20 made up of the key economies of the world in response to the economic recession of the 1980s is thus a natural outcome and indicates clearly the arrival of a polycentric world. On July 9th 2015, the BRICS countries met again in Ufa, Central Russia to deepen co-operation with each other.


What happens at the global stage is mirrored in the deliberations taking place at the UN. The developmental and human rights initiatives of the UN can be said to be progressing well though the challenges of climate change and environmental protection and repair remain a major concern due to the absence of a comprehensive commitment or treaty. The recent initiative of the BRICKS grouping on the eve of the Paris meeting of the UNFCCC to forge a common stand in support of a clear plan to curb climate change is a good sign.


In matters of conflict, its reduction and management, two considerations are important:

Firstly, all member states must adhere to and abide by international law. The national integrity and sovereignty of a state as provided by the UN Charter need to be respected and secondly, as a corollary, no state has the right to act unilaterally to alter the status of a state. In this, it is obvious and imperative that there must be unity and moral commitment to the spirit of the UN Charter which states clearly the collective responsibility of member states to promote and maintain peace.


However, what can be expected is the prospect of greater contestation for setting the rules of the future international system. The protagonists are lined up in two camps, with one striving to preserve and protect its dominance and the other driven to have a greater say and freedom to charter its future. In short, there is a contestation of political will and not ideology as during the early years of the UN.


To be sure the world is going through a dangerous phase. Mankind now has the knowledge and capacity to either make life more secure and enriching or to continue down the road of self destruction. This is the choice before us. It is stark and it is immediate. Let us hope that the ideals of the UN as enshrined in the Charter will prevail in the thought and action of every global citizen as we face the challenges ahead. It must not allow itself to be manipulated for self-serving aims whether national or otherwise.













About the Author

Leave a Reply


captcha *