The United Nations (UN) is often at the centre of dealing with peace and security issues globally. The end of the Cold War in 1991 brought with it renewed hope for a ‘peace dividend.’ But it also resulted in surplus weapons and arms-making capacity, which fuelled the international traffic in weapons. International affairs have been made even more complex since 1991 due to a range of other factors.
These include: increasing globalisation; a more multipolar world; political upheaval in Egypt, Libya, Pakistan and Syria; the potential for major conflict with Iran and North Korea; a deepening economic crisis in the North Atlantic; a seemingly unending war in Afghanistan; and non-traditional security threats like terrorism, piracy, and the illegal movement of people. The UN plays a major role in dealing with developments such as these, which then poses the reasonable question: Does the UN work well in attempting to achieve international peace and security?
Space precludes a comprehensive analysis of the UN’s performance in responding to all of these issues, so this paper will focus on its response to nuclear disarmament issues and addressing the threat from Chemical and Biological Weapons. It is clear from this analysis that the UN does not work as well as it should in achieving international peace and security.
The demolition of the bipolar system following the end of the Cold War resulted in regional instability in many parts of the world. This often arose from ethnic and religious factors, economic disparity between developed and developing countries, poverty, debt and environmental degradation. The UN Security Council has met more frequently since the end of the Cold War in considering these issues. But although vetoes have been used less frequently, the achievement of quick, substantive outcomes has remained elusive.
In terms of nuclear disarmament, the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998, and efforts by the United States to implement a missile defence system, further support the view that arms control rhetoric has been ‘more talk and less outcome’ since 1991 In more recent times, efforts to force Iran to comply with international will relating to its nuclear program have been similarly frustrated by the unwillingness of countries like Russia and China to support a strong UN position. Consequently, the achievement of key UN goals like stopping the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) remains largely unfulfilled. The development of nuclear programs in Iran, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea are important examples of this.
During the Cold War years, containment of the US-Soviet nuclear arsenals was the main game of UN efforts. In the post-Cold War period a shift from bilateral arms control to multilateral non-proliferation efforts occurred. There has been greater pressure within UN forums on arms control and non-proliferation issues, resulting in a number of apparently successful outcomes. For example, the number of nuclear weapons in the world has decreased since the end of the Cold War, and most nuclear weapon states have declared they aren’t producing fissile material for weapons. A Chemical Weapons Convention sponsored by the UN was agreed in 1997. Membership of nuclear weapon free zones has grown. A Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was developed and a de facto cessation of testing continues. These results have been achieved through sustained international pressure in the General Assembly.
But closer examination suggests this progress may not be what it seems. Despite numerical reductions, the nuclear stockpile of both the US and USSR remains arguably even more potent than during the Cold War. Reductions are mainly imposed on obsolete or surplus weapons systems. Verification of agreements to a level that would satisfy key stakeholders appears impossible. In essence, the UN has been unable to embed its ‘core’ arms control objectives or to effectively take negotiations through to full implementation of multilateral agreements. The current situation with Iran is a worrying example of the UN’s inability to achieve acceptable resolutions of problems that have the potential to lead to global war.
Despite a 2006 declaration by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran remained in breach of its nuclear arms control obligations, six years of UN effort has brought this issue no closer to resolution. Two UN Security Council Resolutions have not swayed Iran from a path that could lead to either Israel or the United States pre-empting an Iranian nuclear weapons capability.
Some commentators suggest that the system of international law built to control the spread of WMD is irreparably weakened by the unwillingness of nuclear weapon states to fulfil their nuclear disarmament commitments. UN efforts to secure chemical and biological weapons controls have also been similarly impeded.
Chemical and Biological Weapons
The threat from Chemical and Biological Weapons is more pronounced than ever within the current international security environment. Despite international prohibitions on the manufacture of biological weapons, these have not always been observed. The UN-sponsored 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Production, Stockpiling and use of Chemical Weapons (CWC), has been plagued by similar difficulties. These include the cost of enforcing compliance measures, unwillingness by a number of signatories to introduce legislation for national implementation, a lack of verification measures, and difficulties in defining which chemical/biological products are prohibited. It is also clear that some states sign treaties with no intention of complying. A number of countries may have signed the CWC and BWC, knowing they are already in violation of its provisions. UN-sponsored Ad Hoc Groups are seeking to overcome these shortcomings through mandatory declarations and compliance inspections. However, these are almost always thwarted by a lack of consensus and cooperation.
A key challenge for the UN in embedding the CWC/BWC is, once again, its inability to take negotiation forward into implementation.
Coalitions of the Willing?
Instead of accepting UN efforts as the basis for international agreement, countries like the USA and Russia are increasingly relying on military solutions or coalitions of the willing to pursue their national interests. It remains to be seen, for example, whether the UN can chart a peaceful course for the current Iranian impasse, or if Israel or the United States will choose to take matters into their own hands. Regular examples of UN impotence often lead to criticism. For example, US efforts to establish an antiballistic missile (ABM) defence system contravene the 1972 ABM Treaty.
Russia’s sale of arms to North Korea and support of Iran’s nuclear energy system are other examples. The lack of an effective ‘compulsion mechanism’ impedes the UN’s effectiveness. An additional impediment to progress is resentment by many states at what they perceive to be a lack of representation in the UN. This resentment of the UN structure and policy is felt in its subordinate committees and acts to constrain discussion and progress. If the UN is to deliver on substantive arms control and disarmament in the future, this sense of ‘disenfranchisement’ by many member states needs to be addressed.
The end of the Cold War was considered an opportunity for the UN to play a more effective role in international peace and security. It is apparent, however, that little substantive progress has been achieved. Arguably, the UN may never have the will or authority to deliver on the aspirations of its founders. But aside from its deficiencies, the UN remains the only widely accepted forum for multilateral negotiation of peace and security issues. Its success in the future depends on a willingness to adapt itself to contemporary realities. In particular, the Security Council’s composition and decision-making processes must be reviewed in order to enhance its legitimacy as an international peace and security broker. Given that its decisions ultimately depend for their effect on international support, the Council must be seen as impartial and not dictated to by the national concerns of powerful member states. Certainly many states see the UN as unrepresentative of the current realities of military power and economic influence.
Key impediments to UN efforts since the end of the Cold War include: the lack of an acceptable verification regime; the absence of a ‘compulsion mechanism’ to move negotiations to implementation; and the inability of the UN system to effectively reconcile powerful state interests within a multilateral, consensus-based negotiating framework. Consensus decision-making within such a large negotiating body as the UN has proven difficult, often leading to paralysis by analysis.
Additionally, the lack of progress often gives rise to scepticism about the UN’s future effectiveness. In order to achieve greater success in the future, the UN will be judged on its ability to respond more quickly and effectively to peace and security issues. Some argue that it may already be too late for the UN to recover its international authority in these matters, but a potentially bigger problem that then arises is whether anything approaching the UN could ever be agreed upon by a world fractured by its competing national interests. The best option appears to be trying to adapt the UN’s structure and processes to the needs and realities of the future.