role of the un

Written by Muhammad Hayat Lak 12:12 pm International Relations, Published Content, Research Papers

Questioning the Role of the United Nations (UN)

This research paper aims to evaluate the role of the United Nations Organization in light of some of the most highlighted events in its history, ranging from Rwanda to Kashmir; the crises mentioned will be summarized and analyzed to provide the reader with only the relevant information which is consistent with the central theme of this paper. In addition to this, the paper will also shed light upon the effectiveness of the UN when it comes to dealing with the world’s superpowers. A brief part of this paper will scrutinize the role of the International Court of Justice from a legal point of view, covering its overall structure and the extent to which its decisions are binding on the member Nations.
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About the Author(s)
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Muhammad Hayat Lak is currently pursuing his undergraduate degree from LUMS.

Background and Origins

War is defined as “a situation in which two or more countries or groups fight against each other over a period of time” (Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, n.d.). The world has seen many wars over the years and they have been fought for different purposes, but in hindsight, the only purpose is victory and domination over others. The cost of this victory includes damage to property, lands, infrastructure, and most importantly loss of human life.

It was not until 1918 that the World realized that human life had a value attached to it and that it must not be wasted away just because countries had disputes or conflicts with each other. WWI also enlightened the world leaders about the concept of ‘peace’ in its most absolute meaning and they agreed that any other conflicts or matters between the countries should be solved through table talks rather than waging wars.

The League of Nations was formed after WW1 to make sure that the promises and treaties signed by the world leaders could be enforced practically, but due to a heap of problems, it lasted only until 1939 (League of Nations, 2017). After WWII, the United Nations (UN) was formed in 1945 through the Charter of The United Nations which was signed by 50 countries including the United States of America (United Nations, n.d.).

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However, as far as the political, legal, and human rights violations in or between countries are concerned, the United Nations has not been able to play its key role which is specified in its charter, and on many occasions, the UN can be seen compromising in its goals and bowing down to the wishes of the world powers rather than acting as a neutral mediator and setting the welfare of the humanity as its priority.

When the First World War started, it was believed by many that it would end by Christmas of 1914 and no one had expected it to be fought for as long as 4 years and on such a great level and area. After seeing the horrors and killings (a total of 40 million civilian and military causalities took place) in that war (Royde-Smith, n.d.), the world powers decided to form the League of Nations, which would allow for matters between countries to be solved by negotiations.

However, the League of Nations failed in maintaining world peace and preventing a war in 1939 when Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland. There are, however, numerous reasons why the league failed and the most prominent one was that countries like the US, Germany, and USSR were not a part of it; USSR and Germany only joined later when it was already too late (League of Nations, 2017). In 1945, the world powers once again decided to form an organization with the same purpose as the league, but this time the US took the lead and so the United Nations Organization was formed.

The UN charter states its role, objectives, and the rules and regulations through which each of its organs (General Assembly, Security Council, Secretariat, International Court of Justice, Economic and Social Council, and the Trusteeship Council) must operate. It can be stated that the objectives of the United Nations stated in its charter include the stability of international peace and security, promoting the welfare of people around the world, and international cooperation.

Highlighted Events

When talking about political conflicts in which the United Nations failed, the first example is that of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands. Since 1948, the Palestinians have been fighting a war against Israel for their lands and in this process, about 15000 Palestinians lost their lives between 1947-49 and then over 7000 Palestinians and 1100 Israelis died between 2000-14 (TRT World, 2018).

About 750,000 of them were forced to leave their homes and take refuge elsewhere (TRT World, 2018). The UN has passed several minor resolutions of very insignificant value to ensure peace, but no major Security Council resolution has ever been passed because the US always uses its veto power.

The second example is of Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, where things have never remained stable; people of that region have continuously shown resistance to Indian rule and have conducted many armed struggles against them and there have been cases of many atrocities being reported including rape and mass killings (TRT World, 2018). Although the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for a plebiscite, due to the lack of any implementation power of the UN, it has yet to hold this plebiscite.

The UN’s peacekeeping forces have failed the UN on many occasions. In the Bosnian war, the UN peacekeeping forces in Srebrenica failed to protect around 8000 Muslims from being massacred by the Serbian forces in 1995. On its 10th anniversary, the UN Secretary-General claimed that the “UN had made serious errors of judgment, rooted in a philosophy of impartiality, contributing to a mass murder that would haunt our history forever” (Symons, 2020).

In Libya, the UN sent its forces to help the government to fight warlord Khalifa Haftar’s forces which were threatening to invade the capital of Tripoli, but after facing a lot of resistance from Russia (a permanent member of UN Security Council) which supported Khalifa Haftar, the UN Secretary-General said that there was “no military solution to the conflict in Libya” (Lederer, 2020).

Human Rights Violations

The United Nations has a role to play in situations where human rights are violated and according to the UN charter, “human rights are rights inherent to all human beings regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion or any other status”. The United Nations Human Rights Council is the actual body responsible for the promotion and preservation of all human rights across the world and the Security Council, too, has the power to take the necessary steps and decisions in dealing with such situations.

The genocide in Rwanda by the Hutus of the Tutsis lead to the killings of 800,000 people including children, thousands of cases of sexual violence were also reported (BBC, 2014). The UN report assessing its involvement in Rwanda stated that “UN failed Rwanda in deplorable ways in 1994, ignoring evidence that a genocide was planned and finally abandoning the Rwandan people when they most needed protection” (Winfield, 1999).

Then in Cambodia, after the civil war in 1975, the Khmer Rouge regime seized power. This regime carried out a genocide against its people and killed 25% of its population (TRT World, 2018). The United Nations did initially condemn this, but later accepted this regime and ignored every concern of the Cambodian people.

Since 2011, there have been many cases of human rights violations reported in Syria and even President Bashar Al Assad was accused of being involved in them. Since the uprising against the President, almost 5.6 million people were forced out of the country increasing the total world refugee number by nearly one-third (UNICEF, 2021).

The UN on several occasions has proposed an independent agency to probe into the Syrian humanitarian problem but no security resolution has been passed because Russia always uses its veto power in the Security Council, hence leaving the UN completely useless in the Syrian problem.

The UN’s failures can also be seen in the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, where the government launched a crackdown against the Muslim minority and killed 24,000 civilians and 750,000 others were forced to flee to Bangladesh (TRT World, 2018). UN once again can only condemn because China backs Myanmar’s decision in the Rohingya problem and blocks every effort of passing a resolution. This proves once again that the UN has come under the pressure of larger powers of the world and has forgotten its role.


The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is an organ of the UN that deals with legal disputes between member nations and can give an advisory opinion to the UN or any other organization on questions of International Law. The judges in the ICJ are elected in the General Assembly and the Security Council.

The main issue that this court faces is the power of implementation and its “inability to control state behavior” (Llamzon, 2008) and this means that if the ICJ cannot enforce its decision. In the Palestinian Wall case, the ICJ gave an advisory opinion and regarded the wall as illegal and to be demolished, but because the court’s decisions are not binding, the wall still exists (Alsaafin, 2019).

Another problem is its jurisdiction in a matter of law, and the Nicaragua case is a classic example that expresses this point. The facts of the case were that Nicaragua filed a suit in ICJ against the US and blamed it for the “illegal Parliamentary and Military intervention in and against Nicaragua” case (Casebriefs, n.d.).

The court decided in favor of Nicaragua and ordered the US to pay compensation as it had violated International Law, however, the US challenged the Court’s decision on the basis that the Court lacked the jurisdiction to deal with this case (Casebriefs, n.d.). The US also used its power in the Security Council to prevent the passage of a resolution and hence the court once again could not do anything about this situation.

There is a lot of suspicion regarding ICJ when it comes to its impartiality in dealing with disputes and it was established that the judges in the ICJ “favor the states that appoint them and judges tend to favor states whose wealth level is closer to that of the judge’s state” (Posner & Figueiredo, 2005). In other words, the weight of the expectations attached to it has exceeded the tools, machinery, and power it has to meet those expectations.

World Powers and the UN

In reality, the United Nations is continuously being manoeuvred by the permanent members of the Security Council and the examples mentioned above prove this point that the UN cannot do anything unless it keeps all of its permanent members satisfied. Owing to the veto power, permanent members can ensure that the UN works according to their beliefs, ideas, and strategies.

These types of problems harm the UN very severely as they raise suspicion and mistrust, especially for the developing nations which rely on the UN for ensuring peace, but such activities lead them to be perceived as a biased organization. The structure of the Security Council continuously hinders the UN’s attempts to deal with a crisis in an effective manner.

In Syria, Palestine, and Myanmar, the permanent members prevented the UN from taking any action in a situation because their interests lay with the aggressors. Over the years, it can also be seen that the Security Council has sometimes ignored disputes. Concerning the Rwandan Genocide, “the security council refused to strengthen the United Nations Peacekeeping efforts in Rwanda once the killings began” (UK Essays, 2018).

The UN is not just there to prevent a major war, its responsibilities are very expansive and are clearly prescribed in its charter. We can also not put aside the United Nations as an obsolete tool to deal with world crises, but the mere fact that the UN had few successes in dealing with political disputes in Sierra Leone, Burundi, Liberia etcetera does not make it a successful institution.

The UN needs to restrict the use of veto power, especially where there are serious issues of human rights violations. The UN needs to follow its objectives without any interference from any other country. However, if the situation remains the same, it is unlikely that the UN will be able to prevent the third world war in the future.


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