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United Nations in the 21st Century: Obligations and Limitations


United Nations in the 21st Century: Obligations and Limitations.


  1. Brief survey of the working of United Nations.
  2. Objectives of United Nations at the time of its creation
  3. Obligations United Nations in the 21st
  4. To maintain international peace and security.
  5. To prevent the outbreak of war.
  6. To promote harmony among member states.
  7. Responsibility to protect from crimes against humanity.
  8. To combat terrorism/extremism
  9. To settle international disputes.
  10. To promote human rights.
  11. To abolish inequality among various groups/classes.
  12. Equal distribution of fruits of globalization among member states.
  13. To promote universal education.
  14. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
  15. To promote medical health facilities.
  16. Rehabilitation of refugees.
  17. To ensure environment sustainability.

Limitations of the United Nations.

  1. Structural limitations.
  2. Restricted character of U.N.S.C
  3. Undemocratic principles (veto power).
  4. Non-binding character of resolution.
  5. No force to implement its decisions.
  6. Functional problems/Limitations.
  7. No authority over big five.
  8. Failure in setting the world agenda
  9. Fait accompli
  10. Duplication of functions, authorities and activities of various agencies of United Nations.
  11. Lack of system wide policy and program coordination.
  12. Lack of transparency and accountability
  13.  Financial limitation
  14. Inadequate human and financial resources



United Nations is an inter-governmental organization established in 1945 on the ruins of World War II. It was established for saving the “succeeding generations from the scourge of war which has brought untold sorrows to mankind”. Since its inception, United Nations has truly attained the status of a global body. Its membership has increased from 51 in 1945 to more than 200 in 2013. However, by assuming the status of premier global organization, its obligations and functions have increased manifolds. It is now tasked with assignments which were previously beyond its scope. In this globalized world where new obligations and functions of United Nations have emerged, some of its limitations have also been exposed. It is imperative for the United Nations to perform its tasks efficiently by overcoming its limitations and weaknesses if it is to retain its legitimacy and status.

Before discussing the obligations and limitations of United Nations in the 21st century, let us first take a brief survey of the working of United Nations and objectives of its creation.

United Nations is composed of five main organs. These include General Assembly; Security Council; Economic and Social Council; International court of Justice and secretariat. Its sixth principal organ Trusteeship Council has stopped working after the independence of Palau in 1994. Besides principal organs, there are various specialized agencies that work under the umbrella of United Nations. Each specialized agency is mandated with a specified task. For example, International Labour organization is charged with the responsibility of ensuring labours rights.

General Assembly is the world’s deliberative assembly. Every member state is a member of General Assembly and has a single vote. Its resolutions are passed on the basis of majority votes and every member states have an equal status in the assembly. Its session is usually held in September. Besides ordinary session, General Assembly can meet in the event of some special event.

Security Council is the principal administrative organ of the United Nations. It is composed of fifteen members out of which five are permanent and ten are non-permanent. Five permanent members include United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China. These states also hold the special power of veto. The remaining non-permanent members are elected for a term of two years by the General Assembly. Security Council is charged with an important task of maintaining international peace and security.

Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is the third principal organ of the United Nations. It is responsible for the coordination between the member states on economic, social and Environmental issues. There are around fourteen specialized agencies working under the ECOSOC. ECOSOC has a broad responsibility of some 70% of human and financial resources of the entire U.N system. It holds meeting throughout the year.

International Court of Justice is the principal Judicial Organ of the United Nations. Its jurisdiction extends over civil disputes between the states. Originally it was thought that states cannot commit crimes, hence, the jurisdiction of ICJ was limited to civil matter. However, after the Rwandan and Kosovan genocide, another tribunal was established in 2000 known as International Criminal Court. ICC was conferred with criminal jurisdiction. However, ICC is not among the principal organs of the United Nations.

Secretariat is the fifth principal organ of the United Nations and is headed by Secretary General of the United Nations, assisted by International Civil Servants. It implements the programs and Policies of the other principal organs of the United Nations.

At the time of its creation, United Nations main objective was to prevent the breach of International Peace. Besides maintaining international Peace and security; world leaders also sought to promote human rights, international cooperation, food medical and social securities to the people of the world through United Nations. The obligations of the United Nations, in addition to its objectives agreed at the time of its creation have significantly increased in this rapidly globalizing world of 21st century.

The maintenance of international peace and security was and will always be the primary obligation of the United Nations. United Nations was established after Second World War in which more than five million people perished. The atrocities committed during the two world wars were fresh in the memories of the people. United Nations has been successful, so far, in preventing the outbreak of any major world war. It was able to diffuse the tensions between the two Super-powers during the cold war. It has also successfully suppressed many possible breaches of peace especially in Asia and Africa. United Nations, however, has its share of failures. It has failed to act especially in Vietnam and Congo wars.

With the invention of the nuclear and chemical weapons and the sophistication of traditional weapons, the obligation of preventing breach of peace and maintaining international peace and security should be the top concern of United Nations, in the 21st century.

The maintenance of international peace and security is only possible if the member states live in harmony with each other. United Nations being a premier global body has an obligation to work for the international cooperation between member states. The significance of fostering friendly relations between the member states has also increased due to globalization. World has now become a global village in which there are frequent contacts between different states. Owing to this greater frequency of contract and competition, there is an enhanced possibility of conflict between two or more states. In such circumstances, role of United Nations in promoting international harmony attains much more significance.

At the time of creation of United Nations, external aggression was considered as a grave threat to international peace. However, since its establishment, more people have died as a result of civil wars, ethnic cleansing and genocide than war between two states. Initially, the role of the United Nations was not established in the event of violence of state against its own citizens. The atrocities committed during the Rwandan genocide shocked the world. The violent disintegration of Yugoslavia added further food for thought. Subsequently the United Nations in 2005 adopted the doctrine of “Responsibility to protect”. At present the United Nations has assumed the responsibility of protecting the people even if it means the violation of national sovereignty of a country. NATO intervention of Libya in 2011 under the auspices of United Nations is the example of the working of the responsibility to protect doctrine.

The spate of terrorism has engulfed the world after the attack on the twin tower in Near York in September 2011. United States retaliated by invading Afghanistan after accusing it for the attack on its soil. Since then the militancy and extremism is rapidly growing around the world. Many thousands have lost their lives as a result of the war of terror. As the terrorism is the world phenomenon, therefore, the United Nations has a huge responsibility of combating terrorism and extremism, which is a severe threat to international peace and security.

In maintaining minimum level of deterrence for repelling any attack on their soil, states have gone too far away in arming themselves with traditional and on-traditional weapons. The rivalry between the two super-powers during the cold war led to the arm race between the Western and Eastern bloc of countries. Invention of nuclear and chemical weapons has posed a grave threat to the maintenance of international peace and security. United Nations must work closely with the member states for systematic disarmament of states. It has an obligation to ensure that the science and technology, renders services to human beings and does not become its destroyer.

A final obligation of the United Nations for ensuring international peace and security is to ensure the peaceful settlement of disputes between the member states. With the growing interaction and interdependence among states disputes are likely to occur among them. United Nations has a responsibility to ensure that these disputes do not turn into massive conflict. It must create a mechanism for the pacific settlement of disputes. At present, International court of Justice is charged with the responsibility of setting disputes between the states. The jurisdiction of the ICJ is limited and non-binding. United Nations, therefore, must actively engaged in other modes of peaceful settlement of disputes i.e., Negotiations, Meditations etc. A treaty on the water dispute between India and Pakistan was brokered by World Bank, a specialized agency of the United Nations.

Apart from maintaining international peace and security, United Nations has an obligation for promoting human rights. This obligation was rightly recognized at the time of its creation. Its track record in promoting the human rights is commendable. It has been able to significantly raise the recognition and protection of human rights throughout the world. Universal Declaration on Human Right; International Covenant on political and Civil rights etc. guarantee extensive rights to the people. Many provisions of these conventions have been incorporated by the member states in their national constitutions. Still the position of human rights at the global level is far from ideal. Women and children continue to suffer particular in the developing countries. According to a recent report, around 30 million people still lives in slavery. In such circumstances the role of the United Nations becomes more important. It may, however, be pointed out that various agencies of the United Nations are working for an uplift to human rights around the world.

A very important aspect of human rights is the equality of citizens. World at present is stratified in many layers. Many groups and classes or even great number of world population is living at a disadvantageous position. Gender equality is still a far cry. Position of minorities in many parts of the world is worse. It is an obligation of the United Nations to work for the rights of disadvantageous one.

Another fact of inequality is the unequal position of the states themselves. The fruits of the globalization were not distributed equally. Many states were able to exploit the benefits of trade liberation. There are, however, hosts of countries which are unable to get any benefit from the globalization process. There are millions of people around the sub-Saharan Africa that do not have access to newspaper, lest to speak of telephones and computers. The obligation of United Nations for equal distribution of the benefits of globalization process was recognized by the then Secretary General Kofi Annan in his report to the General Assembly on the role of the United Nations in the 21st century.

United Nations also has an obligation towards the “people of the world” in ensuring that the basic facilities necessary to maintain minimum living standard. These include right to education, access to food and medical care services. Ignorance and poverty are the biggest threats to international peace and harmony. United Nations has incorporated these objectives in its “Millennium Development goals”. Progress on the stated objects has been slow. There are number of factors associated with this lackluster response. Imparting education, feeding peoples and providing health care to billions of people are not easy tasks. It requires huge human and capital resource along with strong political will and commitment from the member states. Still, the recognition of its obligations by the United Nations is a big step towards addressing these issues.

There are millions of internally displaced persons (IDP’s) and refugees who have lost their houses and resources necessary to sustain their lives. Individual governments are incapable to deal with this task of such enormous magnitude. They require help and assistance of the United Nations in the rehabilitation of IDP’s and refugees. United Nations High Commission for Refuges is a specialized United Nations agency which works in collaboration of the member states for the rehabilitation of refugee around the globe. It must work with individual governments urging them to open their borders to refugees.

The last but not the least important obligation of the United Nations is to ensure environmental sustainability. This was not considered as a function of the United Nations at the time of its creation. The rapid degeneration of environment over the last sixty years or so has put the responsibility for the environmental sustainability on the shoulders of United Nations. Many multi-lateral conventions have been adopted by the United Nations for the security of the environment. The implementation of these conventions is also poor because of the interest of the rich countries. United Nations is working hard to ensure the transmission of safe and healthy environment on to the coming generation. United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) is the specialized United Nations agency working in the field of Environment.

United Nations has not been a free agent in perusing its objectives and fulfilling its obligation. There are number of limitations which hinder the performance of the United Nations. These limitations stems from its structure, modus operandi and generation of its finances. Let us take a brief look at the limitations which adversely affects the working of the United Nations.

As stated earlier, Security Council is the principal administrative body of the United Nations. It is charged with the most important function of maintaining international peace and security. It also performs other important functions such as election of Secretary General of the United Nations and appointment of Judges of the International Court of Justice. The biggest problem with the United Nations in becoming the true global United Nations voice is in the structure of the Security Council’s. Security Council consists of fifteen members, out of which five members are permanent. They also hold veto power. Veto power effectively blocks passing of any resolution. Already stripped of global character veto power, hampers the working of Security Council. The membership of Security Council must be enhanced to accommodate the emerging powers and the right of veto must be abolished if it is to become a truly dynamic body in the 21st century.

Only the resolutions passed by the Security Council are binding on the member states. But the scope of the mandate of Security Council is limited as compared to its overall functions. The resolutions passed by other UN bodies are non-binding on the member states. Their resolution just carriers moral value, but morality gives way to the interest of the states. Even where its resolutions are binding, it is dependent upon the member states for the implementation of same as it lacks a mechanism to implement its decisions.

Like the structural problems, functional problems also stem from its inability to have any effective control over the permanent members of the Security Council. It cannot, in anyway, compel the big powers to adhere to the objectives and principles of the United Nations. For instance Art 2(4) of the charter of the United Nations restrains the states from violating the territorial sovereignty of other states. Yet, we have seen that the United States through the use of unmanned drone strikes effectively violates the sovereignty of countries like Pakistan, Libya etc. A resolution was moved by these states in the General Assembly has been adopted. But as pointed out earlier, the resolutions of General Assembly are non-binding. There is no chance of passing of such resolution from Security Council, thanks to the veto power. Hence, the United States continues to violate the sovereignty of other countries with impunity and makes mockery of the principles of United Nations. This creates a lot of resentment in the developing countries and eventually the working of United Nations is affected.

Owing to its structural and functional problems, United Nations has not been able to set world agenda. Where it has devised policies, it is unable to execute them. This weakness is greatly affecting the credibility of the United Nations.

United Nations was established as a platform to discuss and settle international problem. Recently, there is an increased tendency among the big powers to meet elsewhere and after deciding the matter comes to the United Nations to obtain legitimacy. This strategy of the big powers is fatal for the credibility of United Nations.

.           Another problem in the functioning of United Nations is the duplication of functions of authorities and activities of various agencies of the United Nations. There is over-lapping of functions of different agencies of United Nations. For instance, UNESCO, UNCLAD both have a mandate for technology related issue. This coupled with the lack coordination and system wide policies among different agencies of United Nations, overall affects the working of the organization.

There is also a lack of transparency and accountability in the entire United Nations set-up. The overall working of the United Nations is not transparent and there is practically no accountability of “international civil servants”.

Along with lack of transparency and accountability, United Nations faces acute shortage of human and financial resources. There is no mechanism within the United Nations to compel the member states to contribute in its budget. Further, there is no fixed proportionate which the each member has to contribute in the organization’s budget. For instance, US provide about 13 % of its budget. Saudi Arabia on the other hand, contributes less than 1 % of United Nations budget. Member states on their will increase or decrease their financial commitment to the United Nations. If a member states does not fulfill its commitment to the United Nations, it cannot be compelled. Thus, in 1960 France and other countries refused to provide the committed amount of 400 Million to the United Nations on account of expenses in Congo war. As a result, United Nations budget is severally affected and so does its activities. The budget of organization for the year 2012-2013 is meager 30 billion dollar which is insufficient to fulfill its obligations. This overall, affects the working of United Nations.

United Nations can truly claim to be the most significant international organization. It has some of the most important obligations to perform. It has largely been successful in discharging its responsibilities. However, 21stcentury is posing unique challengers to the United Nations. It must overcome its limitations if it is to retain its credibility and the status of premier global organization in the 21st century.

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