The United Nations' systemic failure to respond to humanitarian crises

By Mayamiko Goliati

Over the past four months, the world has listened to one horror story after another come out of Myanmar. After seeing all the bone chilling pictures and reading the shocking reports from the Rohingya, there is one lingering question: What is the UN doing about all of this?

Since the inception of the United Nations in 1945, the maintenance of international peace and security has been its top mission and central theme. This was reaffirmed in December 1948 when the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. However, recent history has proved that the organization, in its current form, is impotent at responding to massive abuses of human rights especially when it comes to genocides and ethnic cleansing. One need only look at current events to see this. Other than some highly publicized finger wagging, the UN has made no substantial efforts to stop the Burmese military's campaign against the Rohingya. This, as well as the slow response to the Tutsi Genocide in Rwanda and the fall of Srebrenica in ‎Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1994 and 1995 respectively, is evidence of the UN’s failure to uphold the crux of its mission statement.  

The first problem lies in the veto power possessed by the five permanent members of the UN’s Security Council.  This veto power allows China, Russia, France, Great Britain or the United States to unilaterally prevent the adoption of any proposed resolution. It is the duty of the Security Council to decide on how to handle any violations of human rights. However, this power has led to these five nations killing resolutions which conflicted with their interests and those of their close allies. According to the UN library, the Russian Federation has used this power to stop four resolutions regarding Syria, a Russian ally, since 2011. These resolutions called for investigations into possible human rights violations committed by the Assad Regime, as well as implementation of sanctions on the Syrian government which interfered with Russian military operations in the region. This explains why the UN has been relatively inactive in the Syrian Crisis. In 1972 the US infamously vetoed resolution S/10784, which called for a halt against Israel’s unprovoked military aggression in Lebanon, because of its economic and geopolitical relationship with Israel. The list of the abuses of the veto power goes on and all the five countries have contributed to it, leading to situation where the UN could not deploy its resources to the detriment of many people.

The second problem primarily boils down to semantics. The distinction between what qualifies as genocide or ethnic cleansing is not very clear but has two main legal ramifications. First, the International Criminal Court (ICC) only recognizes genocide as a crime. Although the ICC is an independent judicial body separate from the UN, it is the responsibility of the UN Security Council to report any cases of genocide to the ICC under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. This means that any government found guilty of “ethnic cleansing” by the Security Council does not face any trial or punishment by the ICC. Second, Responsibility to Protect (or R2P) Doctrine states the responsibility of member countries to intervene with necessary measures (including military action) in the case of genocide and “large scale ethnic cleansing” only. Seeing that military action is costly and unpopular overall, the Security Council is incentivized to mislabel many potential cases of genocide as ethnic cleansing as there is more room to justify the absence of any military response by the UN member States. This explains the lack of any substantial actions against Myanmar and its military’s campaign against the Rohingya. Despite the troubling stories and the clear signs of an ongoing genocide in the Rakhine State, the Security Council labeled it as ethnic cleansing. This has resulted in no action being taken against the Burmese government over the genocide, not even a single sanction.

The nuances of the inner workings of the UN have turned the organization into a bog of biases and compromises which is unable to deal with humanitarian crises with the speed and precision needed. This has left the UN ineffective at preventing and handling quickly developing cases of genocide. Because of this, the UN has become more of a reactionary body that would opt for a popular yet ineffective solution at the expense of those it is mandated to protect.


Mayamiko Goliati is a freshman at Lehigh University and a special contributor to the SIR Journal.