Is the United Nations a friend of justice or a useless bystander?

REUTERS/David ‘Dee’ Delgado
The UN Security Council holds an emergency meeting at the United Nations Headquarters, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City on May 13.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has once again called into question the raison d’etre of the United Nations. In February, the U.N. Security Council rejected a draft resolution condemning Russia, due to Russia’s use of its veto power. Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ call on Russian President Vladimir Putin for a ceasefire was also in vain. People around the world are disappointed in the United Nations’ inability to stop Russia’s rampage. This disappointment is particularly strong in Japan.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida emphasized at the Liberal Democratic Party’s March 13 convention: “Russia’s outrageous actions, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, shows the need for a new framework for international order. Japan has long called for reform of the United Nations. The Kishida administration will do its utmost to realize this goal.”

The U.N. Security Council consists of five permanent members — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia — plus 10 nonpermanent members elected for two-year terms. A decision by the Security Council requires the approval of at least nine countries and is rejected if even one of the five permanent members opposes it. This is the so-called veto.

Regarding U.N. reform, Japan expressed its desire to become a permanent member of the Security Council in 1994. Later, in 2004, Japan formed the “G4” with Germany, Brazil and India, all of which were seeking permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council.

The hurdle to Security Council reform, however, is extremely high, as the realization of the G4 proposal would require a revision of the U.N. Charter. The proposal requires the approval and ratification of more than two-thirds (129 countries) of the U.N. member states, including all the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. If even one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council opposes the amendment, it will not be possible.

Intergovernmental negotiations on Security Council reform are held annually at U.N. headquarters in New York. While I was covering the United Nations from 2017-19, there were ongoing talks, but no progress was made. Even in this year’s intergovernmental negotiations, the Japanese ambassador to the United Nations recounted in a statement that “we have repeatedly returned to square one after taking only small steps forward.”

For many Japanese, the United Nations has been seen as an “ally of justice.” A U.N. official who is at home in two or three languages is an aspirational figure, part of a profession that attracts the highest status and prestige. Sadako Ogata, the former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees who passed away in 2019, is respected by many in Japan as a “small giant” who worked on the front lines for the benefit of the people of the world.

The Japanese media also closely follow and widely report on developments at the United Nations. Whenever there is a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, members of the Japanese media gather to cover it in far greater numbers than those of any other country. I have been asked by media representatives from other countries, “Why do the Japanese follow the U.N. so closely?”

One reason is that in their eyes, the international body has an image of being a “good mediator” that resolves international disputes whenever they arise. I believe this image is strongly connected to the history of Japan, which was defeated in World War II and achieved postwar reconstruction as a “peaceful nation.”

The Constitution of Japan that was drafted by GHQ during the Occupation prohibited Japan from possessing military power. The Constitution of Japan states that “Japan sincerely desires international peace based on justice and order.” The founding principle of the United Nations was to prevent the outbreak of World War III. From the perspective of realizing international peace, there is much overlap.

But the Japanese image of the United Nations as a “clean and innocent” organization has been shaken in recent years. In a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, Japan showed the lowest favorable perception of the United Nations among the 14 countries surveyed. In the past, “favorable perception of the United Nations” reached a high of 69%, but by 2020, it had dropped to 29%. More than half (55%) of Japanese respondents said they do not have a favorable impression of the United Nations.

A major reason for the decrease in Japan’s favorable perception was distrust of the World Health Organization’s response to the novel coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China. In the early stages of the outbreak, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised China for “setting a new example in responding to infectious disease outbreaks.”

The election of China, Russia and Cuba to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which monitors human rights abuses, was also questioned in Japan. Each of these countries has been accused of suppressing human rights at home. Such stances by U.N. agencies seemed like a betrayal to Japanese who believe in the neutrality of U.N. agencies. Because expectations had been so high, the pendulum has now swung to the point at which radical claims that the United Nations is unnecessary are beginning to spread.

In fact, the United Nations is not as “innocent” as Japanese people thought. Despite it being an advocate for the elimination of sex discrimination, there are numerous reports of sexual abuse within U.N. agencies. There is also waste and inefficiency among the agencies and there appears to be little appreciation of the fact that the budget is funded by money paid by countries around the world.

Furthermore, China is increasing its influence within the United Nations. China’s share of the U.N. regular budget has surpassed that of Japan and is now second only to the United States. China heads four of the 15 specialized U.N. agencies. Also, it has secured a pro-China bloc through economic aid to developing countries and has used that bloc to secure posts and amplify its voice.

In the United Nations, which was established after World War II, Japan, Germany and other countries were not allowed to be permanent members of the Security Council as “defeated nations.” Even so, Japan is now the third largest contributor to the United Nations after China, and it still spends $230 million every year. The frustration of the Japanese people is mounting.

Nevertheless, the argument that the United Nations is unnecessary is not persuasive. No matter how corrupt the organization may be, the United Nations is the only place in the world where nations gather to discuss issues in a single forum. When the U.N. Security Council votes on a resolution, it asks nations to vote for, vote against, or abstain, by a show of hands. When Russia alone raises its hand in opposition to a resolution, it gives strong evidence to the world of Russia’s isolation.

If Japan wins the upcoming June election, it will become a nonpermanent member of the Security Council for two years starting in 2023. Japan’s foreign policy has been based on the Japan-U.S. alliance and international cooperation centered on the United Nations. The United Nations is neither a friend of justice nor a useless bystander. The United Nations, though imperfect, is indispensable for the stability of international peace. The challenge for the Kishida administration is how much Japan can contribute to international peace as a member of the Security Council.

Junya Hashimoto

Hashimoto is a deputy editor in the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.