UN International Day for Social Justice: A brief reassessment of the successes and failures of the United Nations system 


The Common Agenda that stemmed from the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations Organization identified the following 12 action goals: (1) Leave no one behind; (2) Protect our planet; (3) Promote peace and prevent conflicts; (4) Abide by international law and ensure justice; (5) Place women and girls at the centre; (6) Build trust; (7) Improve digital cooperation; (8) Upgrade the United Nations; (9) Ensure sustainable financing; (10) Boost partnership; (11) Listen to and work with the youth; (12) Be prepared.


These are all very vital and laudable commitments and the past two years since that commemoration have shown how serious or neglectful the member-states of the United Nations have been in taking forward their promises. The primary question to be resolved for concerned citizens like us, is how the present world, with its entrenched pattern of conflicts, and world deranging tensions can change to a world in which harmony and co-operation will prevail. Therefore, this year’s theme for International Day for Social Justice demands urgent attention. How successful have been our efforts in “overcoming barriers and unleashing opportunities” in the light of the 12 pledges in the UN Common Agenda listed above?

As for our country, on the one hand there is a daily dose of positivity “India is moving forward in every field” and on the other hand there are strong undercurrents and voices lamenting that the enormity of challenges is too daunting to be resolved by plain rhetoric. The multi-pronged crises that countries are facing, not just India alone, I believe are a foretaste for humanity of the convulsions that are latent on the face of this planet. Its inhabitants whether they live in democracies or under dictatorships, be they capitalists or wage earners, whether Christians or Jews, Jains or Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, atheists or agnostics, white or coloured, are all consciously or unconsciously stuck in a vortex, a global titanic upheaval.

What the whole world needs today is not a mere palliative or adhoc remedy consisting of superficial and cosmetic adjustments, but something that cuts deeply into the malady and brings about a fundamental, organic and far-reaching change, involving primarily the social and spiritual nature of all human beings. For example, Sustainable Goal 16 of Agenda 2030 advocates “peaceful and inclusive societies,” as well as “social justice.” However, since it does not mention how to deal with the worldwide wars, state sponsored conflicts, manufacture and exporting of weapons to nations around the globe, makes this goal impossible to fulfil. Here is another inherent contradiction between idealism and reality of our human situation.

From the perspective of educational programs and empowerment of women and girls—two most vital indices for the development of any country—India is marching ahead despite a host of challenges due to conditions prevailing throughout the world caused by the folly of decision-makers in the institutions of governance; environmental crises; fundamental tensions between absolute sovereignty of nation-states and processes of globalization.

In the context of the Common Agenda and the topic for this year’s international day of social justice the United Nations’ record against the classic “realist” interpretation of international relations, suggesting that while its failures can often be attributed to the realpolitik of competition between nation states, many of its greatest successes have occurred when the “idealist” vision of diplomacy shines through. It would not be wrong to say in surprising ways the UN overcame the structural limitations that were imposed on it at its creation, as well as the political restrictions imposed by events like the Cold War. Take for example, the relative position of the Security Council versus other UN branches.  The General Assembly looks at first glance that it would function like a global entity empowered to enforce its decisions, albeit in a limited way. A closer reading of its functions, powers and procedures shows the General Assembly to be far from the “political centre of gravity.”

Instead, the UN Charter clearly establishes the much smaller and less representative Security Council as the organization’s controlling entity. Its five permanent members, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, each have the power through the so-called “veto” to block virtually any decision at the United Nations. The reason is quite obvious, the resolutions of the General Assembly while carrying an important symbolic weight, are not binding on the member states. How shall we ever overcome this barrier is too complex a matter to be discussed at length over here.

Nevertheless, the General Assembly with other branches of the UN, such as the Secretariat, have in fact carved out significant and important roles. Let me cite a few instances: (a) Peacekeeping, in which domain India has contributed immensely, is authorized by the Security Council but is generally operated by the Secretariat—and often initiated through the “good offices” of the Secretary General. How often we have seen the blue-helmeted soldiers patrolling a cease-fire zone, distributing food to displaced villagers, and guarding election centres. When it works well, and there are a good number of examples, UN peacekeeping activities is truly one of the highest expressions our common human humanity, and proof that countries can work in harmony; (b) the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is another significant contribution in the realm of national and international human rights in the past seventy-five years than in any comparable period of recorded history; (c) another most notable accomplishment is the impact of UNICEF, which was created in 1953, merely as an emergency administering body to handle the humanitarian crisis faced by children in the aftermath of World War II. Today it is globally recognized and supported by governments, private foundations, local efforts, and even airliners who are keen to show their support for good causes; (d) the contribution of United Environment Program is equally valuable in the amount of awareness, the umpteen number of advocacy groups it has inspired to launch small and large projects in addressing the ecological crises caused by global warming, loss of biodiversity, tackling natural disasters, inter alia. A particularly important document that is often mentioned in the discourses on climate change and global warming is the Earth Charter adopted in 1992 at Rio de Janeiro.

Many far-reaching changes are an absolute must if the United Nations, as a work in progress, has to evolve and transform existing power relationships and worsening bilateral relations among the big powers of the world. Although governed by an anarchic system of sovereign nations-states, and hampered by structural limitations, the UN has an impressive record of successes, and I strongly believe that collaboration is possible on scales undreamt of in past ages, opening unparalleled prospects for humankind going far beyond the idealist vision of its founders. Failure to resolve present-day intractable differences and hegemonic attitudes risks consequences far more catastrophic than what we are already experiencing. Then and only then would the pledges enshrined in the Common Agenda may be realized and vast new opportunities unleashed for the betterment of the whole world.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Dr. A. K. Merchant is an independent researcher and social worker serving a number of institutions and non-governmental organizations in the country. Views expressed are personal.

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