UN - 70 and still relevant

Students waving torches as they form the UN sign at a rally to honour the 70th anniversary of the United Nations in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Oct 24, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Hitting a major milestone can often be a time for some introspection. And as the United Nations - which turns 70 today - peers into the mirror, one wonders if it is happy with how it is ageing.

For the past decade or so, its relevance has been continually brought into question, with the chorus growing louder of late, given its relative impotence in the face of global crises.

The UN has been a bystander in most of the largest geopolitical challenges of recent years. It was powerless to prevent the turmoil in Syria, did nothing to stop the Russian annexation of Crimea, and isn't even a key player in the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.

A multi-nation anti-ISIS effort is taking place; it is just not happening within the framework of the UN.

To top it off, a child sex abuse scandal involving UN peacekeepers that emerged this year has cast a cloud over the peacekeeping force.

What good then is this global forum if it can't seem to get anything done? And is the post-World War II power structure it reflects still relevant today?

Yet, it would be a mistake to simply dismiss the organisation. Away from its very salient failed efforts at preventing conflict, the UN does have its fair share of successes. While its just-concluded Millennium Development Goals have been a mixed bag, the clear victories - especially in areas such as decreasing famine - should not be sniffed at.

More broadly, the UN still matters because it remains a valuable platform for world leaders to engage one another on issues and the rules of the road. It doesn't always work - the ability for a single permanent member of the Security Council to veto a measure that has worldwide support is a source of much paralysis - but it is still the best hope we have for global cooperation.

If anything, given the growing number of global challenges, one can argue that the world needs this 70-year-old organisation more than ever.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2015, with the headline 'UN - 70 and still relevant'. Subscribe