“We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war … do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.”
These words, from the preamble of the United Nations’ founding charter, capture the ambition, far-sightedness and optimism of the leaders who founded the organization in 1945. But today, they ring a little hollow.
On Feb. 24, after years of tension and months of anxiety, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. With social media users sharing an almost blow-by-blow account of the conflict online, the world has looked on in horror as Ukrainian forces defend their democracy.
The crisis has plunged the United Nations into chaos. Although the U.N. Security Council convened immediately after the invasion, Russia used its veto power to block a draft resolution that would have deplored the invasion as a violation of international law “in the strongest terms.” The Security Council then called an emergency special session of the General Assembly—the first in 40 years—to discuss another resolution condemning Russia. But here, too, reaching any kind of agreement is likely to be a cumbersome and sluggish process.
And this, of course, is simply the most recent example of how the “scourge of war” continues to plague the world. With conflicts also raging in Yemen, Ethiopia and Afghanistan—to name just a few—the United Nations is clearly falling short of the high expectations set by its founders. With the U.N. seemingly ill-suited to both prevent and resolve conflict, it is no wonder that so many people around the world today feel that the organization is irrelevant and outdated. For instance, more than half of the young people surveyed by the U.N. in 2020 said they see it “as remote from their lives and don’t know much about it.”
Adding to this sense of failure, this week saw the release of the second chapter of the International Panel on Climate Change’s sweeping climate assessment, which focuses on “Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was quick to summarize the report as “an atlas of human suffering” and a “damning indictment of failed leadership”—a criticism that encompasses the very organization over which he presides.
If the U.N is failing to fulfill the fundamental promise on which its existence was predicated, then it may be worth asking: Do we still need the U.N.?
According to the report, humanity is not on track to achieve a climate-resilient, sustainable world. At this point, some amount of devastation as a result of climate change is inevitable, even if we succeed in limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels—a target that continues to elude us. And despite countless U.N.-sponsored summits and declarations, less than 15 percent of the world’s land, 21 percent of its freshwater and 8 percent of the ocean is currently protected, a far cry from the 30 to 50 percent needed.
Climate change is not war, nor was it mentioned in the U.N. Charter, which was drafted well before global warming’s effects were understood. In the 21st century, however, there is no way to “save succeeding generations” without addressing the planetary emergency. The fight against climate change is a fight for our future. If the U.N is failing to fulfill the fundamental promise on which its existence was predicated, then it may be worth asking: Do we still need the U.N.?
Historically, the United Nations’ positive impact has been clear. Since it was founded in 1945, the frequency, scale and death toll of wars have all decreased—although whether this is completely attributable to the U.N. is up for some debate. Globalization, for instance, has led countries to become increasingly interdependent, both politically and financially, so any conflict now endangers the interests not just of the warring parties, but of the entire international community. That is a powerful deterrent. On the whole, though, there is strong evidence to suggest that the U.N. itself has helped to make the world more peaceful than it was before by enhancing global dialogue, shaping norms and developing international laws that condemn the “threat or use of force.”
Equally, the world has benefited from the 30 years of international climate cooperation spearheaded by the United Nations. According to a paper published in September by the U.N. Foundation, E3G and Climate Analytics, without any international action and cooperation, the world “would have already crossed the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold of dangerous warming, or would shortly be about to do so.” At this point, the costs of climate change “would be greater than those currently under discussion,” and we would have “almost a zero chance of humanity stepping away from the abyss.”
The value of the United Nations’ work on peace and climate action—not to mention gender equality, global health and everything else contained in its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals—is, therefore, pretty evident. But that doesn’t mean those who are disillusioned with the U.N. are wrong, or that the U.N. will always be needed.
While the U.N. and other global bodies hesitate and negotiate, people across the world have been stepping up to take matters into their own hands. For instance, in Ukraine, nongovernmental organizations and vast grassroots networks have been organizing donations for Ukrainian refugees. Young people have even been designing and leading their own peacekeeping programs.
This trend replicates what’s been happening in the climate arena, where many of the most ambitious climate-resilience efforts have cropped up at the local level, devised by grassroots organizations or city governments. A global group of mayors, for example, have come together to form the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, sharing ideas and information in order to help one another achieve ambitious climate action plans. Where global leadership has failed them, people are creating their own spaces for engagement and implementing their own solutions.
I firmly believe that the United Nations has an invaluable role to play in coordinating these local efforts to prevent regional and ideological fragmentation, and in promoting holistic, far-sighted solutions to the challenges of the 21st century. If, however, it continues to be crippled by bureaucracy and divided by conflicting national interests, it will not be fit for purpose. And if it fails to find innovative and meaningful ways to work with those enterprising local actors, it may also become redundant.
Saving future generations was never going to be an easy mission—but that’s no excuse for not giving it a shot.