Is The UN An Active Contributor To The North-South Divide?


The United Nations does admirable work internationally but can also be seen as an active contributor to the north-south divide especially in the case of Africa, where a large portion of the “South” resides. This is clearly evident through the use of an outdated UN system that caters predominantly to the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China and France, including the continued limited representation of African nations within the UN, and the UN’s failure to intervene African conflicts and crises.

In order to understand the impact that the United Nations has on the north-south divide it is critical to understand the definition behind it, the problems that arise from the definition, and the intended role of the UN. Stephanie Lawson describes the north-south as the “…mal-distribution of wealth and power…”  It should be noted that this definition is simplistic as it fails to take into consideration the significant differences in political, economic, and social development across the South. Sofie Boutlelegier acknowledges this fact by saying that the use of these “…dichotomies is tricky because they create the illusion that there exists two worlds that are separated by a clear-cut divide…” Having said this, though having such a simplistic view does not allow for detailed analysis of economic and political development in individual countries, it is a useful mechanism for understanding how and why power is centered disproportionately on the north.

The overarching intended role of the United Nations is stated in Charter 1 Article 1: “To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” It, unfortunately, becomes clearly evident that this is not always upheld.

Seventy years ago in 1945, the United Nations Charter was drawn up and signed by 51 countries as a necessary safety net after WW2, and as such it is an old system that has not adapted in all necessary ways to support the entirety of the globe as it should. The Security Council has had the same five permanent members of the security without any changes since its conception: Federation of Russia, France, China, UK, and USA.  Each of these five states have veto power allowing circumstances to emerge where critical decisions in international relations  become biased towards the political motivations of the permanent five.  This is seen in 2008 in regard to Zimbabwe’s elections, where Robert Mugabe used violence and corruption to secure his seat. In response to this a draft resolution was drawn up condemning his government for the alleged violence and Russia and China both vetoed this. The people of Zimbabwe had lost their political freedom, which under Mugabe led to an evident lack of change of the dire economic circumstances they were in. It is evident here that the UN failed in their responsibility to uphold the freedom of rights and condemn those who didn’t, thereby continuing the north-south divide.

Africa as a continent is severely underrepresented in the UN and as a result are not able to always have their voice heard. Lawson makes note that across a large range of studies of countries there are disadvantaged, such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and the Human Development Ranking, the majority of those at the bottom are located in Africa.  This entire continent has never been permanently represented in the Security Council, and in some cases some African countries such as the Central Republic of Africa and South Sudan have never been elected for a term. As the Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci said, “The working methods of the Security Council must be revised to ensure democratization, and its membership must be expanded to include new permanent and non-permanent members of the developing world, particularly Africa, the cradle of civilization.”  They are only guaranteed one of five seats that are non-permanent positions in the Security Council. This is hardly adequate to represent the needs of such a large cluster of global south countries that are desperately poor.  This is especially poignant in the case of South Sudan where the Security Council determined that the situation faced they face continues to constitute a threat to international peace and security in the region and established the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) to consolidate peace and security and to help establish conditions for development. This conflict has left hundreds dead in the past week alone. The UN, while providing assistance in the conflict, needs to realize that there must be a voice for the country, in the case South Sudan, on the council that makes decisions regarding its position on the international scene.

The third and final point is the UN’s failure to intervene in circumstances that exacerbates situations in the south. This is clear in the 1994 Rwandan genocide where there was the systematic killing of a specific ethnic group. The United Nations Mission in Rwanda scaled back from 2000-270, after casualties, but were not replaced with military assistance, which was rejected by the Security Council.  Some governments in the UN refused to describe the events as a genocide and by the time military action was authorized and troops were being placed the massacre had already ended with tragic results,   the rampage of the country had desecrated it physically spiritually and economically. Here the UN had failed not only to save the lives of innocents but prevent the destruction of a country and events that would continue its economic problems.

If we are to ever achieve world peace we need to analyse the institutions that make up the international scene and break down any social constructs that act as barriers.  Though the accomplishments of the UN are not to be ignored, it is clearly evident that there needs to be some changes to decrease the glaringly obvious divide between the north and south. This would mainly be through the process of reform that would seek to change the makeup of the Security Council, which should foremost seek to include more than the Federation of Russia, China, France the US, and the UK as permanent members, particularly in regards to Third World countries.

For further reading:

“Inequality in new global governance arrangements: the North-South divide in transnational municipal networks” by Sofie Boutlelegier

Annemarie Lewis