Written by Ionel Zamfir,
On 26 June 2020, the world marks 75 years since the United Nations Charter was signed by the 50 states attending the intergovernmental conference in San Francisco that opened in April 1945, as the war entered its final phase. The signing of the charter marked the successful achievement of a political process conducted since 1941 by the victors – the United States of America, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, United Kingdom and China and their allies – in a series of conferences and declarations. Later that year, when more than half of the charter’s signatories also ratified it, the United Nations (UN) came into existence in October 1945.
The UN Charter defines the principles on which the UN is based, its objectives, and sets out its functioning and structure. As the Preamble to the Charter states, the United Nations embodies the determination of its members to achieve lasting peace through international cooperation. It also affirms its Members’ faith in fundamental human rights, the dignity of the human person, the equality of rights of men and women and of ‘nations large and small’, and in international justice. The Charter establishes the six main UN bodies: the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the UN Secretariat (the administration), the International Court of Justice and the Trusteeship Council. It outlines provisions for the peaceful resolution of conflicts, appropriate measures against members who violate its principles, and sets in motion the process of decolonisation by proclaiming the obligation of states administering colonies ‘to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions’.
With hindsight, 75 years after the Charter’s signature, the achievements driven by the principles enshrined in the UN Charter are impressive. The UN has assisted former colonies to achieve their independence and establish their own governments; it has conducted numerous peace-keeping operations; has mediated in conflicts; and has provided vital humanitarian aid in crises. It has become an important development player, contributing to the eradication of poverty, to better education, and to the fight against disease in the developing countries. Its agencies have played a crucial role in the process of globalisation by setting international standards and norms that have smoothed international cooperation. The financial and trade institutions connected to the UN – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) – have been central drivers of economic globalisation. While the road to realising these objectives has not always been straightforward, the United Nations has endured the various crises. In recent history, UN peace keepers were not able to prevent the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, nor the Srebrenica massacre in 1995; the UN has not played a successful mediator role in prolonged civil wars accompanied by humanitarian crises, such as in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Moreover, the world is still far from eradicating poverty and famine, despite the solemnly proclaimed Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030.
More recently, the UN has faced stronger, even severe, headwinds. Vocal attacks by the United States of America – the country that has traditionally been at the heart of the multilateral system – and its actions designed to undermine the UN (such as withdrawing funding from peace-keeping or certain agencies), deprive the organisation of vital leadership. Less assertive but sometimes equally uncooperative, China enjoys rising influence in the organisation, causing concern that it may put the fundamental values on which the UN is based at risk, such as universal human rights. The risk of illiberal coalitions in an organisation based on the principle of one country-one vote, against the background of rising authoritarianism in the world, has already come to the fore in the workings of the Human Rights Council. More broadly, rising scepticism regarding globalisation at the national level is stirring mistrust in the multilateral order with the UN at its centre. In an undeniable fashion, the current coronavirus crisis has underlined the need for global coordination, cooperation and solidarity to respond to a major crisis of planetary scale, but also the degree to which the UN depends on the voluntary cooperation of its member states.
In these turbulent times for the United Nations, the EU has reaffirmed its unwavering commitment to multilateralism on numerous occasion. The EU shares a common history with the UN, both being born of efforts at the end of World War II to build sustainable peace through international cooperation. The fundamental values and principles on which the EU is based overlap to a significant degree to those enshrined in the UN Charter: such as the pursuit of peace and security, the recognition of universal human rights, as well as a commitment to international solidarity and cooperation among their members. The EU’s commitment to respect the principles of the UN Charter and work together with the UN is enshrined in its treaties.
In accordance with Chapter II of the UN Charter, the UN is an organisation of sovereign states and its membership is only open to such states. However, UN bodies accept a broad range of observers. The EU has obtained enhanced observer status in the UN General Assembly – the only international organisation to date to enjoy this status, which enables the EU to attend meetings, make statements and put forward proposals and amendments. The EU also has observer status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and in numerous UN agencies (while being a full member of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)), and has established broad partnerships with the various parts of the UN system. Moreover, the EU leverages its influence by coordinating the positions of its Member States in UN organs, including in the UN Security Council. The EU and its Member States are major contributors to the UN system, providing a third of its overall budget, while representing less than 15 % of UN membership. The EU alone is the biggest non-government donor to the United Nations. In 2018, it contributed approximately €3.12 billion, or 6.5 % of the total UN system budget. Most of this money represents development and humanitarian aid channelled through the UN.
The UN Charter may hold the key for EU’s long-term prospects in the UN. For the EU to become a regular member of the organisation, a modification of the Charter would be necessary. In a 2018 resolution, the European Parliament has suggested a reform of the UN Security Council that would open the door for the European Union to obtain a permanent seat. This remains, however, a distant prospect for the time being, as there is little international consensus on any possible reform of the UN Security Council.