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The United Nations at 75: what are the challenges for the future?

The United Nations celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. With the corona crisis and rising nationalism, there’s not much cause for celebration. Which challenges will the global organisation have to overcome to be assured another 75 years of existence?

Challenge 1: Citizens don’t see the immediate relevance

Challenge 1: Citizens don’t see its immediate relevance
‘The United Nations is the most important organisation we have in the fight against human rights violations, armed conflict or climate change,’ says Alanna O'Malley, Endowed Professor in United Nations Studies in Peace and Justice. ‘The problem is that we only tend to hear about the Security Council, and generally when powerful states have used their veto to block a solution to a conflict. We soon forget the less visible work that is often more successful, the WHO vaccination programmes for instance.

‘The United Nations has an image problem, therefore. If we want to secure its future – and of the vaccination programmes too – we have to increase its visibility and relevance to citizens. We are doing that in Leiden and The Hague by entering into a local dialogue. We held an online discussion on the future of the United Nations on Friday 25 September, for instance, with not only researchers and policymakers, but also schoolchildren and students.’

Challenge 2: Nationalism and populism are becoming more popular

‘I think that the year 2020 could well be a crucial moment for the United Nations and other international partnerships,’ says Joris Larik, Assistant Professor of Comparative, EU and International Law and co-author of the recent UN 2.0 report. ‘It’s obvious that coronavirus couldn’t give a fig about national borders. Even North Korea hasn’t escaped unscathed. But how should we respond? Will there be a fragmentation into believers and non-believers in multilateralism or will we realise that we have to work together? If it were up to me, we’d choose the latter. Because if the corona crisis has shown us anything at all it’s that international collaboration is often also in the national interest.

‘If we want to make the United Nations future proof, one thing we could do would be to curb the Security Council’s veto power. The Accountability, Coherence and Transparency initiative has proposed a code of conduct that would reduce the use of the veto, which would make humanitarian intervention easier in conflicts. It would also be a good idea to start a campaign to convince more countries to recognise the authority of the International Court of Justice. So far, only 74 countries have done that. If there is a dispute between countries that have made such a declaration, the International Court of Justice can issue a binding judgment.’
 

Challenge 3: Multilateralism is out of fashion

‘The corona crisis has accelerated a trend that had been underway for longer: powerful states are becoming more inward-looking,’ says Karen Smith, University Lecturer in International Relations and special adviser

of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect. ‘This threatens the core values of the United Nations. Because if you want to protect the health and human rights of all, you will have to work together at an international level. No country is an island.

‘To turn the tide, we need brave leaders at all levels of society who dare to stand up for multilateralism, progressive internationalism and basic human values. We have to call to mind the history of the Second World War to remind ourselves why we set up organisations such as the United Nations in the first place. And we have to teach the younger generation the value of human rights and human dignity, and that intolerance and discrimination often have their origins in hatred.’

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