This House believes that the United Nations has failed

The United Nations, formed out of the horrors of the World War II with the overarching purpose of preventing this kind of total war from ever happening again. Its formation came after the failures of the League of Nations, an international organisation that had the same lofty goal of preventing war. The UN sought out to overcome the Leagues failures by through embedding itself into all aspects of the international community setting up organisations such as the General Assembly, Security Council, International Court of Justice, the World Bank, and later on the International Atomic Energy Agency and its Development Programme. Over the last 60 years, the UN has changed and developed, along the way it has permanently changed the environment of the international community, through its work in peacekeeping, creating and developing international law, the establishment of human rights, the list goes on. However, in all this change some negatives have arisen, the decision making process is often very slow and many institutions like the Security Council are reactionary, and very easily caught up in power politics, rendering them useless at critical moments. This raises the question that this debate is focused around- has the UN failed?

: Main purpose of UN, to prevent war, has clearly not been achieved.

The UN was set up with the express purpose of preventing global wars, yet it has done absolutely nothing to prevent them. Indeed, the UN has often served merely as a forum for countries to abuse and criticise each other, rather than resolve disputes peacefully.

In some cases, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, UN resolutions have arguably been used as a justification for wars, rather than to prevent them. Research shows that the number of armed conflicts in the world rose steadily in the years after 1945 and has only begun to plateau or fall since the end of the Cold War.[1]

[1] Harrison, Mark & Wolf, Nikolaus. “The Frequency of Wars”. University of Warwick, 10th March 2011.


It is unfair to say that the United Nations has failed just because conflict has not been eradicated from the world. The causes that drive nations to war with one another often cannot be resolved by diplomatic means; to set global peace as the test for the UN’s efficiency is clearly unfair. Nonetheless the UN has served as an effective forum for behind the scenes diplomacy in many international crises. It has come to the aid of countries when attacked, as in the examples of [South] Korea and Kuwait in 1950 and 1990 respectively; it has also kept the peace in, for example, the former Yugoslavia, Cyprus and East Timor. The fact that armed conflicts around the world have become less common since 1990 is, arguably, at least partly down to the good offices of the United Nations.

UN ignores or enables human rights abuses.

Despite the development of the concept of human rights in the post-war world, the UN has totally failed to protect the rights of citizens, ethnic minorities, women and children. It has stood by during episodes of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo and Yugoslavia among many others [1], tolerates some of the world’s worst dictatorships as members, and does nothing to improve the situation of women in developing nations. Indeed, where UN peacekeepers have been sent into war-torn countries, they have sometimes been guilty of the most horrendous human rights abuses themselves.[2]

As of 2011, the UN’s Human Rights Council itself is comprised of members such as Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China.[3]

[1] “UN admits Rwanda genocide failure”. BBC website, 15th April 2000.

[2] MacFarquhar, Neil. “Peacekeepers’ Sex Scandals Linger, On-Screen and Off”.  New York Times, 7th September 2011.

[3] “Membership of the Human Rights Council”. United Nations website, 2011.


As argued below (Opposition argument 2), the UN has in fact been instrumental in developing the modern concept of human rights, which prior to its foundation essentially did not exist as an idea, and certainly not as a body of coherent international law. And the UN has acted to prevent and condemn human rights abuses all over the world.

Where the UN has failed to prevent genocide or human rights violations, it has generally been due to the failure of the international community rather than the UN itself. For example, the bloodshed in Rwanda went unstopped not because the UN was unconcerned, but because those nations that might have intervened, such as the US, France or neighbouring African countries, were unable or unwilling to do so - not a failure that can fairly be laid at the door of the UN.

UN decision-making procedures are very inefficient.

The UN displays all the worst traits of bureaucracies the world over. The General Assembly is little more than a forum for world leaders and ambassadors to lambast each other. The Security Council is systemically unable to take decisive action in many of the world’s trouble-spots due to its outdated permanent membership structure, which gives five nations a totally disproportionate power to prevent the world body from acting against their interests. In the UN’s 65 years, the veto has been used nearly 300 times. [1]

[1] “General Analysis on the Security Council Veto”, Global Policy Forum website.


Stories of bureaucracy and delay in the General Assembly obscure the vital work that goes on, often unnoticed, through United Nations agencies every day. It is true that the UN’s decision-making processes are not terribly efficient but in a body comprising nearly 200 members this is probably inevitable. If there are problems with the structure of the UN, such as the Security Council veto, the answer is to reform those institutions to fit the challenges of the 21st Century. As an analogy, national governments have often been accused of being slow to change and reform, but we do not conclude from this that “government has failed” and seek to abolish them!

Many UN bodies are corrupt or compromised.

As mentioned above, the Human Rights Council consists of some the worst human rights abusers in the world. The NGO UN Watch has accused the HRC focusing almost exclusively on alleged human rights abuses by Israel to the exclusion of almost every other country. [1]

There have been widespread allegations of corruption in UN bodies. [2] It is for these reasons that the US long refused to pay its full dues to the United Nations and threatens to do so again in future, as well as withholding funding from UNESCO in 2011 after it voted to recognise Palestine as an independent state.[3]

[1] “Anti-Israel Resolutions at the HRC”, UN Watch 2011.

[2] “Corruption at the Heart of the United Nations”, The Economist, 9th August 2005.

[3] “US cuts UNESCO funds over vote for Palestinian seat“. BBC website. 31st October 2011.


The United Nations is no more corrupt than any large organisation, much less national governments, and far more transparent than many comparable institutions.

It is true that the Human Rights Council contains some nations with bad records on civil liberties but it is surely better to engage with such regimes and shame them into slowly improving their human rights standards, than simply excluding them from UN organs and losing any influence over how they treat their citizens.

Most international co-operation can takes place outside UN framework.

The major economic, political and trade issues around the world are almost all dealt with either through bilateral agreements between nations or by specialised bodies set up for that purpose – the World Bank, IMF, EU, ASEAN, NATO, WTO and so on. In all of these fields the UN is little more than an irrelevance. Even where the UN does get involved in international affairs – such as in the Libyan crisis of 2011 – it is other bodies, in that case NATO, which serve as the vehicle for international cooperation. [1]

[1] . Bolopion, Philippe. “After Libya, the question: To Protect or Depose?”. Los Angeles Times.25th August 2011.


Despite the proliferation of supranational organisations, the United Nations remains the indispensable global forum for meeting to discuss world affairs. Indeed, in a way this expansion in the number and range of international organisations is a testament to the success of the UN model. Furthermore, many international organisations work very closely with the United Nations, or even partially within its system. For example, when the International Atomic Energy Authority assesses the compliance of nations such as Iraq or Iran with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it is to the UN Security Council that it reports.[1]

In any case, this debate is about whether or not the United Nations has failed. Even if many decisions are now taken outside the UN framework that does not reflect badly on that body.

[1] “How many times has the IAEA reported cases to the UN Security Council?”. IAEA Infolog. 15th February 2006.

The UN has performed a valuable service in preventing wars and in peacekeeping.

 It is clearly unrealistic to imagine that the United Nations could prevent all wars, but nonetheless it has been successful at negotiating peaceful resolutions to international disputes. It has also authorised military force to defend countries from unprovoked attacks; Kuwait and South Korea, to name just two, owe their freedom to UN action. Finally, UN peacekeepers do vital work all over the world from Cyprus to Korea. [1]

[1] “What is Peacekeeping?”. United Nations, 2011.


No-one is suggesting that the test of a successful United Nations should be an end to all armed conflict. But even judged on its own criteria, it has been remarkably ineffectual. The examples of Kuwait and Korea are both situations where defensive wars were fought by the US and allies for their own reasons – the containment of Saddam Hussein and Communism, respectively – not UN ideals. Where the UN did not authorise military action, such as in Vietnam or Iraq in 2003, this made no difference. It is hard to think of an example where imminent conflict was definitely averted due to UN influence.

As for UN peacekeepers, they usually come into conflicts only after they have ended and thousands of civilians been killed. They often do a good job, but they are seldom indispensable. Other regional organisations, such as NATO or the African Union, can equally well perform this function.

The UN has been at the forefront of promoting respect for international law and human rights.

When the United Nations was founded in 1945, the idea of “international law”, in so far as it had any meaning, was little more than the customary behaviour of states towards each other. Over the succeeding 60 years, the UN and its various offices and organs have taken a lead role in codifying and promoting the concept of international law and the protection of human rights. For example, the crime of genocide was first enshrined in international law in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[1]

[1] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “What is Genocide?”.


The UN has been only one among many organisations which have shaped the modern doctrine of international law. More influential in developing our contemporary understanding of human rights, arguably, was the worldwide horror at the Holocaust, Nuremberg war crimes trials, and the determination of the West to hold developing nations and Communist states to the same standards that they [supposedly] adhere to. When activists in undemocratic regimes fight for better civil rights, it is seldom the UN they cite as their model.

It is fair to ascribe the United Nations its due share of credit for this emerging consensus, then, but it has been remarkably bad at actually encouraging, let alone enforcing, the rules it has helped to create.

Many UN organs carry out valuable work around the world.

The United Nations is far more than simply a debating forum; it does a massive amount of vital work around the world through its other organs. Examples of these are the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNESCO, UNICEF, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) among many others.[1]

Even if the slow speed of diplomacy at the UN General Assembly can sometimes be frustrating, the idea that the United Nations as a whole has “failed” simply does not take account of all these very important bodies. Furthermore, the UN remains one of the most respected of international organisations among ordinary citizens.

[1] “United Nations: Structure and Organisation”. United Nations, 2011.


It is obviously true that some UN agencies and organs carry out valuable and useful work. However, there are two ways of looking at this. The first is that UN work often duplicates programs and programs carried out by NGOs, national governments and charities. Its work is useful, but by no means indispensable.

The second way of approaching this question is to ask whether these are core functions of the UN – in other words, whether preserving world heritage or co-ordinating vaccination programmes is what the UN is really “for”. We can admit that some UN agencies do good work but still believe that as a body; overall the United Nations has failed.

Solution to problems of UN is to reform outdated structures.

It is undeniably true that some of the UN’s procedures need to be improved, and standards of financial transparency improved. However, this is true of many governments and international organisations, not just the UN. The answer to the UN’s problems is not to give up on it but rather reform it for the 21st century, including perhaps changing or augmenting the permanent membership of the Security Council to reflect the reality of the modern world. [1]

[1] London, Jacqueline. “Reform of the United Nations Security Council”. International Affairs and Foreign Policy Institute. 29th June 2007.


This debate is about whether or not the UN has failed. It may well be that the response to a failing organisation is not abolition but wholesale reform, as the opposition argue here, but that would not change the fact that the UN has not achieved what it was designed to do. And while reform has been promised for many decades, nothing has ever been done to resolve the systemic flaws of this organisation. So promises of reform are an unsatisfactory answer to the charges against the UN.

As world becomes more globalised, the need for a global forum for resolving problems becomes ever more important.

In a globalised economy nations depend on each other as never before, and the costs of war and conflict grow ever higher. So it is more important than ever than countries have a forum for resolving their disputes and simply talking to each other. Regional bodies such as the EU or ASEAN can perform some of these functions, and specialised bodies such as the WTO some others; but there can never be a substitute for the global forum provided by the UN. If the United Nations did not exist, we would have to invent it. [1]

[1] Hammarskjold, Dag. “Do We Need The United Nations?”. Address to the Students’ Association, Copenhagen, 2nd May 1959.


It is arguable that the era of globalisation makes the United Nations less important, not more. Trade disputes are settled bilaterally or through the WTO; economic crises through the offices of the World Bank and IMF; security problems, as often as not, through the mediation of the US or other interested powers. All too often, the UN is a forum not for dispute resolution but the airing of grievances against other nations. For example, in the run up to the 2003 Iraq War, both the United States and its detractors, such as France, used the UN to publicise and justify their position on military action, not to discuss it in any meaningful way. If a United Nations did not exist, and we were obliged to invent one, we would hopefully do a better job next time!


“UN admits Rwanda genocide failure”. BBC website, 15th April 2000.

“US cuts UNESCO funds over vote for Palestinian seat“. BBC website. 31st October 2011.

Bolopion, Philippe. “After Libya, the question: To Protect or Depose?”. Los Angeles Times.25th August 2011.

 “Corruption at the Heart of the United Nations”, The Economist, 9th August 2005.

“General Analysis on the Security Council Veto”, Global Policy Forum website.

Hammarskjold, Dag. “Do We Need The United Nations?”. Address to the Students’ Association, Copenhagen, 2nd May 1959. (PDF)

 Harrison, Mark & Wolf, Nikolaus. “The Frequency of Wars”. University of Warwick, 10th March 2011.

“How many times has the IAEA reported cases to the UN Security Council?”. IAEA Infolog. 15th February 2006.

London, Jacqueline. “Reform of the United Nations Security Council”. International Affairs and Foreign Policy Institute. 29th June 2007.

“Membership of the Human Rights Council”. United Nations website, 2011.

MacFarquhar, Neil. “Peacekeepers’ Sex Scandals Linger, On-Screen and Off”.  New York Times, 7th September 2011.

“What is Peacekeeping?”. United Nations, 2011.

“United Nations: Structure and Organisation”. United Nations, 2011.

“Anti-Israel Resolutions at the HRC”, UN Watch 2011.

 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “What is Genocide?”.