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Why is the United Nations so ineffective?

By Peter Bowden - posted Tuesday, 3 January 2023

The United Nations, a successor of the even more useless League of Nations, was incorporated in 1945 with 51 members. It now has 193. By the 1970s, the UN's budget for economic and social development programmes far outstripped its spending on peacekeeping.  

What this article attempts is to develop a peaceful world, a world without war. And to identify the reasons why the United Nations has failed to do that. The leading objective of the United Nations is to maintain international peace and security, not to create a world governing body. The nations of this world demand independence, not an international government.

Alexander Gillespie, Professor of Law, University of Waikato and joint winner of the 2021 Critic and Conscience of Society Award pointed out in The Times Dec 21, 2022: “There could be no better example of the United Nations’ failure to live up to its founding ideals than the recent visit by secretary general António Guterres to Russia. Attempting to calm the dangerous war in Ukraine, he obtained nothing of significance.”


The peacekeeping failures of the United Nations over the years have been numerous, including:

  • Failure to stop the 2003 US invasion or Iraq.
  • Inability to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
  • Not being able to end the Israel-Palestine conflict.
  • Failure to prevent the 2017 Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.
  • Not doing enough to end the genocide in Darfur, from 2003 onwards.
  • The Kashmir dispute being the oldest and most serious of all is unresolved since 1948.
  • Bosnia, where Dutch UN Peacekeepers failed to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in which Bosnian Serb forces murdered over 8000 Bosnian Muslims.
  • Syria, where protests clamouring for political change, evolved into a civil war,
  • Papua New Guinea, where local indigenous people clamour for independence from Indonesia,
  • The Vietnam War raged for 19 years and cost the lives of two million people. The UN proved powerless to stop it.
  • The current crisis in Ukraine

Another example of UN incompetence is Myanmar. The Association for Political Prisoners, a rights monitoring organisation, said over 16,000 people had been detained on political charges in Myanmar since the army takeover in early 2021. Of those arrested, more than 13,000 were still in detention. The association said at least 2,465 civilians had been killed since the 2021 takeover, although the number is thought to be far higher.

The 15-member Security Council has long been split on how to deal with the Myanmar crisis, with China and Russia arguing against strong action. They both abstained from the vote in December 2022 along with India. The remaining 12 members voted in favour.

Under the Charter of the United Nations, all Member States are obligated to comply with Council decisions. Myanmar has been a UN member since 1948.

Under chapter VII of the UN Charter, Article 39 reads “The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.”


It has failed miserably in this task. Why?

The UN has six principal organs: the General Assembly; the Security Council; the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC);the Trusteeship Council; the International Court of Justice; and the United Nations Secretariat, the UN's executive arm.
A brief outline of these institutions will help us understand the functions of these parts of the UN and possible reasons why the UN’s peacekeeping operations have mostly failed.

There are 195 countries in the world, of which 193 are members of the General Assembly, with the Holy See and Palestine as observer states.

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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