The Failures of the United Nations

By Nicolas Grammatikakis

Following the end of the Second World War, the United Nations was conceptualized as a successor to the League of Nations ─ a project that had failed disastrously at preventing another World War ─ to primarily ensure and maintain the peace and security on a global scale. By 1976, a former United Nations official, Professor John Peters Humphrey, one of the officials responsible for drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, gave a speech to the Women’s Canadian Club ─ an all inclusive speech organization that focuses on the role of Canada on the global stage and the current state of the country among many other things[1] ─ in regards to the progress and current state of the United Nations after thirty years of existence. Fortunately for us, we presently have a copy of his speech in 1976 that was once buried deep within the McGill University archives. His presentation focuses on bringing to light the emerging criticisms and issues brought about in the media and the public with regards to the role of the United Nations at the time.

Professor Humphrey’s presentation addresses a large number of issues concerning the UN in 1976, however three in particular stand out most as they are just as relevant in the present time. In John Peters Humphrey’s speech titled The United Nations in 1976, he sheds light on the flaws and issues that plague the legitimacy and functionality of the United Nations such as the “tyranny of the artificial majority”, the prioritization of collective rights over individual rights and the inability of the organization to maintain international peace and security to its desired extent.

To begin, in his 1976 speech, Humphrey exposes one of the major flaws to the organization which he labelled the tyranny of the artificial majority.[2] In his address to the Women’s Canadian Club, he exposes the inability of the United Nations to function to the best of its ability in its current state of “fairness”. According to the United Nations and its charters, it is very well known that all states are equal in representation regardless of size, power or even population; in essence, each state gets one vote and that vote is equal to the vote of every other country (excluding the right to veto granted to the five permanent members of the security council in the most extreme cases).[3] The problem with this, Humphrey argues, is that in an attempt to be more democratic and fair, the UN has granted the countries of the Third-World an artificial majority which they have been able to use for their own interests against the will of the more industrialized and powerful states of the planet. The main issue with the idea of one state / one vote is that it grants a country with ten times less the population of another, for example, exactly the same amount of influence and power within the organization. With the countries of the Third World colluding together to vote alike, they, the artificial majority, have effectively imposed a tyranny that aims to implement charters that benefit them at the expense of the others who are effectively the real majority.[4]  Humphrey’s analysis of the tyranny of the artificial majority brings to light an important issue of the United Nations that is present even today within the organization. This attempt to be fair to everyone has worked against the interest of the UN and has further divided the globe between the conflict of interests of the prosperous Western democracies and the non-developed often authoritarian countries.

In addition, his oral presentation brings to light another major flaw of the United Nations namely the recent shift in prioritization of collective rights over individual rights. As the influence of the Third World countries grows within the United Nations, by 1976, we start to see a shift from the focus of individual rights granted to all under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to collective rights.[5] Both individual and collective rights are equally important but there must not be a bias for one type of right over another. The issue with prioritizing and focusing far more on collective rights over individual rights is that, on the global scale, no one disagrees with national self-determination, social rights and economic rights not even brutal authoritarian regimes.[6] By shifting our center of attention away from individual rights within the United Nations Organization, we indirectly help legitimize the brutal repressive authoritarian regimes that infringe on the peoples’ right to freedom of speech, freedom information and fair trial just to name a few.[7] With the undeniable shift towards prioritizing collective rights over individual rights, the flawed charters of the UN have allowed for the legitimization of repressive and oppressive regimes at the expense of the victims who rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are violated without consequence.

Finally, Professor John Peters Humphrey states that one of the worst major flaws of the UN is its inability to maintain peace and security to its desired extent. Humphrey states that even though the UN has played many crucial roles in maintaining the peace it has largely been less effective than it was intended to be. To name a few, he gives the examples of Vietnam and Bangladesh where the UN failed to play a role in ending these conflicts.[8] Further, he admits that the UN’s mission to preserve peace and security all over the globe is, essentially, flawed. It bases its power on the compliance of member states to play their part. The UN has no real and legitimate ability to enforce any policies on anyone. As we already know, the UN resolutions do not have legislative power but, rather, the force of recommendation based on the legitimacy and prestige of the institution.[9] In essence, if the super powers of the world decided to wage a war against each other, the UN and its respective members would not have any power in persuading them to do otherwise.

In conclusion, Professor Humphrey brings into the spotlight some of the major flaws that prevent the United Nations from functioning as intended as well as damage the legitimacy of the organization namely the tyranny of the artificial majority, the prioritization of collective rights over individual rights and the UN’s inability to maintain the peace and security to its intended extent. It is clear that Humphrey’s aim at addressing and acknowledging the existing flaws within the United Nations is to help us identify the true issues within the organization in order to make it a more legitimate and effective institution for future generations.

[1] Women’s Canadian Club London. “Our Mission”. (accessed February 22, 2017).

[2] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 4. MG 4127 C.18 F.370, Student Administrative Record, McGill University

[3] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 9-10.

[4] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 10.

[5] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 7.

[6] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 8.

[7] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 8.

[8] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 12.

[9] John Peters Humphrey, “The United Nations in 1976” (1976), 5.

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