In 1968, social psychologist John M Darley in collaboration with Bibb Latane came up with the concept of “bystander effect” to explain group behaviour. Essentially, groups are found to be unwilling to intervene in the face of urgency/emergency, paralysed by uncertainty and the belief that others may act. The theory has since been found applicable to companies, governments and institutions.
It could be safely said that the United Nations, founded on lofty ideals, has been suffering from the bystander effect. In effect, the annual September meetings in New York, year after year, turn out to be a jamboree of bystanders. Validation of what the United Nations could do but did not was visible this week as leaders trooped up to the podium to wax eloquent.
The big question which begs to be asked as the UNGA draws to a close is: what came of the annual meetings, which problem of the world has been resolved, indeed even nudged towards resolution. To appreciate the extent of institutional inefficacy, consider action or rather inaction on two critical issues haunting lives — the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and the pandemic.
The United Nations Charter scripted in 1945 states it is determined to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights” and “equal rights of men and women”. Six weeks back, Afghanistan was taken over by a mercenary militia which was legitimised by a deal signed by the Trump administration. The Taliban promised an inclusive regime — its first act was to disband the ministry of women. On Friday, Mullah Turabi, one of the founders, declared return of amputations and executions — except under the “improved” Taliban 2.0, these would not be in public!
As the world comes to terms with its worst fears, there is no sign of any pressure on the principal sponsor, Pakistan. Islamabad’s involvement in fomenting terrorism and the active role of ISI in plotting the return of the Taliban has been flagged repeatedly. It is no coincidence that 131 individuals and 25 entities on the list of those under sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council for terrorism, are sheltered in Pakistan. And yet, Pakistan continues to play the victim card!
The pandemic afforded the UN an opportunity to show up. It has been stranded in words. The blame for much of the mess rests on its entity called WHO, which has blundered repeatedly. In January 2020, despite a raging epidemic in China, the WHO said there was “no evidence of human transmission” only to declare a pandemic a month later. Even after 20 months, 232 million cases and over 4.7 million deaths, the WHO is still waffling vacuously about who should be held accountable for letting the virus out.
It has been found grossly wanting in designing policy on critical aspects of containment. This column last week highlighted how the WHO has flailed at designing a global protocol on vaccine recognition and testing. Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, has described inequitable distribution of vaccines as an “obscenity”. Strong words for sure, but the blame lies with the UN — appeals don’t equal outcomes without an innovative mechanism.
World Bank President David Malpass estimates that G7 countries are sitting over a pile of over 2.4 billion excess doses of the vaccine — enough to fully vaccinate 70 per cent of Africa with two doses. Unless Malpass succeeds in persuading G7 to use existing stocks and allow new deliveries to be sent to developing nations, the virus will mutate between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. The havoc wreaked by the Delta variant is manifest and it bears mention that ‘Delta’ is only the fourth of 24 Greek alphabets.
It is not just the immediate challenges that the UN has failed to rise up to. The first sentence of its charter states the UN is determined “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Yet, whether it is the seven-year war in Yemen, the strife in Tigray or the junta’s atrocities in Myanmar, the moral authority of the UN has scarcely travelled beyond words. Add a ballistic North Korea and a belligerent China expanding its presence on South China Sea. The list of unattended issues is painfully long — and climate change has just joined the queue.
In its current form, the UN, founded on Westphalian principle of sovereignty, suffers from structural deficiencies. The veto power vested with the permanent members of the UN Security Council is deployed to delay and detain action. The composition itself is divorced from reality. Its membership leaves out new economic powers, for instance, India, Germany and Japan. It doesn’t reflect the changed demographic status of the new world either. Worsening this is the selection of leadership, which is driven by geopolitical expediencies, and a bloated bureaucracy.
There is no disputing the need for a global institution — with the rise in complex challenges, the need for a platform to build consensus is only greater. It was an iconic verse from Lord Byron’s iconic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, ‘Here, where the sword united nations drew...’, which gave the institution its name. To achieve the inspiring ideals envisaged post the war, the world needs to reimagine the United Nations anew for it to be relevant to our times.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India