“International Community” and the UN System

April 20, 2020

Some say that after coronavirus passes “nothing will be the same”. Should that prove to be the case, hopefully the past will not dictate the future.

Last week, President Trump announced he was halting funding to the World Health Organization (WHO). It seems that Washington was not happy with WHO’s praise of China in fighting the coronavirus. “Had the WHO done its job to get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground and to call out China’s lack of transparency, the outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death,” Mr. Trump said.

Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN said this is not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the WHO or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus. The CNN reported that of all the countries, the US is by far the largest donor; in the two-year funding cycle of 2018 to 2019, it gave $893 million to the WHO. Of this total, $237 million were the required membership dues, and $656 million was in the form of donations.

This is not the first time the U.S. has stopped funding to a UN specialized agency.

In 1983 President Reagan announced that the US will withdraw from UNESCO. The Organization “has extraneously politicized virtually every subject it deals with. It has exhibited hostility toward a free society, especially a free market and a free press, and it has demonstrated unrestrained budgetary expansion,” said Gregory Newell, then Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs. US Ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick also voiced her frustration: “The countries which have the votes don’t pay the bill, and those who pay the bill don’t have the votes,” she said. Thus, a year later the US formally left UNECO only to came back in 2003.

In October 2011, the US stopped funding UNESCO following its vote to grant the Palestinians full membership. At the time, the U.S. provided 22 % of the funding of the Organization. In October 2017, the Department of State once again announced that the US would leave UNESCO. At the end of 2018, both the US and Israel officially quit the Organization.

The Trump administration’s statement cited “mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO” as reasons for the decision.

In brief, Washington’s decision to withdraw from UNESCO was a political one. However, this is not to say that UNESCO does not need reform. On the contrary, it is not only UNESCO but the entire UN system which needs far-reaching reform.

The United Nations is world’s principal international organization founded in 1945. It is currently made up of 193 Member States. The official website of the UN says, “Due to the powers vested in its Charter and its unique international character, the United Nations can take action on the issues confronting humanity in the 21st century, such as peace and security, climate change, sustainable development, human rights, disarmament, terrorism, humanitarian and health emergencies, gender equality, governance, food production, and more.” Yet, wars go on in devastated lands; climate change remains a source of discord; disarmament treaties are being challenged; progress toward gender equality is far from satisfactory; there is no agreement on who is a terrorist and who is not; democracy’s decline and corruption are fundamental concerns; humanitarian disasters characterized by loss of life, disease and hunger continue. And, the UN remains a target of criticism.

The problem is international organizations’ achievements and failures mirror major powers’ choices which conveniently claim to lead the “international community”. These achievements and failures are reflections of their readiness or unwillingness to cooperate, their open-mindedness to rise above narrow interests or remain trapped in them, their will or lack of it to embrace multilateralism, their respect or disregard for the current norms of international behavior including the UN Charter which bears their signatures. The US and China, two global powers already engaged in a trade war, have failed to form a united front in the battle against the coronavirus. UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire has fallen on deaf ears. At a time when countries are internally divided on the handling of coronavirus and “politics of lockdown” is a current topic, this is hardly surprising.

The debate regarding the reforming of the UN system has for long centered on the Security Council. However, there is more. Some UN agencies are more than overstaffed. Their agendas are unnecessarily overstretched. To a certain extent this is understandable in view of globalization and technological progress. But there must be limits since this usually leads to lack of concentration and waste of funds. Most agencies have developed a language of their own which has no appeal for the people on the street. Their “communiques”, “final statements” written by experts and read by experts fail to convey messages to the public. Their missions set out in their founding documents have shifted to balancing the interests of leading members. And, when they fail in this comes the punishment, usually in the form of funding cuts.

An endeavor to render the UN system more efficient and cost-effective, if the “international community” ever comes to that, will have to be launched with the forming of a truly “independent body” to lay down the guidelines of reform. Sadly, under current circumstances this is mission impossible. Many believe that even the EU has failed to act collectively when Italy desperately needed a display of solidarity.

So, after coronavirus passes a few things may change. The question is, “for better or worse?”
















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