Saturday 30 June 2012

Rio+20 – A UK Perspective

Robert Pollard

Tens of thousands of civil society groups; thousands of parliamentarians, mayors, UN officials, and business CEOs; over 180 heads of State and government, and one document which no one can agree upon. Over 55000 people have descended on Rio Di Janeiro, Brazil, to be part of the frenzy which is the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, and the outcome document which is supposed to shape our future global sustainable development strategy is contended by almost everyone involved.
Heads of state at Rio+20. Photograph: Buda Mendes/STF/LatinContent/Getty Images
There is genuine concern that the 3-day summit (or Rio+20) will actually change nothing. On-going disagreements meant the negotiating process leading up to the conference had to be extended, with the G77 developing countries walking out on discussions at one point. This was supposed to be the occasion we finally stop throwing money at socio-environmental problems, and instead develop policy to stem wastefulness and overconsumption in the west. Cameron and Obama aren’t even going. 

Many argue we are at a tipping point. More than one billion people suffer poverty, we have already transgressed 4 of the 9 planetary boundaries (environmental limits), and we face economic and social uncertainty in the wake of financial crisis and the potential collapse of the Eurozone. Thankfully, out of the 20% of the outcome document which has been officially agreed, there are a few global policy changes which look set to make it out the other side. But with western attentions seemingly passing by Rio+20 to far more pertinent, home-hitting concerns such as the Olympics and hosepipe bans, will any of this even affect the UK?

1. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The SDGs will set development goals and targets to meet today’s global challenges and could be one of the more concrete outcomes at Rio. On the surface this appears like another means of throwing money at the issues of developing nations, but in fact with this new onus on a sustainable economy, the developed world would have to fall in line too. Unsustainable consumption patterns in rich countries may have to change in order to relieve the pressures on those in poverty, and more equitable distribution of current resource stocks was considered. 

Or at least that would be the case, if it weren’t for David Cameron’s invitation to co-chair the International High-level Committee responsible for determining a post Millennium Development Goal framework. Cameron is focused on economic development for relieving poverty, and intends to stick to the target of assigning 0.7% of UK GDP as aid from 2013 onwards. Under the same rouse many corporations use to promote self-interests as genuine concern for the poor, Mr Cameron’s plans for bolstering developing economies appears as nothing more than an opportunity to extend the reach of trans-national corporation’s supply chains in the third world. 0.7% of GDP as aid remains just a public relations strategy. 

If intentions were indeed sincere, Cameron, on the way back from the economy-related G20 Summit in Mexico would have stopped in Rio and would be approaching his co-chair role entirely differently.  Sustainable Development Goals are widely referenced throughout the Outcome Document and countries are ‘firmly committed to their full and timely achievement’ and the process should be ‘coherent with and integrated into the United Nations development agenda beyond 2015’. So they will happen. Despite this all I can really take from Cameron’s typically economically-headed stance is how it will reflect on any tangible UK contribution to SDG’s, in minutia. 

The initiative would engage all sectors of society in support of three interlinked objectives to be achieved by 2030: providing universal access to modern energy services for all; doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. Again, penned as a fantastic scheme which the UK could profitably spearhead in transition to a low-carbon economy. 

Instead George Osborne chooses to snuff the opportunity by taking an openly anti-environment stance, and inadvertently discouraging green investment, and attitude which may prove detrimental.

British researchers forecast global energy demand to increase by 50% by 2030, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects an almost 50% decline in global conventional oil production by 2020, bludgeoning a hole between supply and demand.  These statistics prove not only does a pro-economy agenda not necessarily have to be anti-green, but in fact, energy efficiency, innovation and fossil-alternative fuels will soon be market essentials. 

Osborne’s careless eco malice could in reality have grave consequences on the cost of green tech borrowing. Our future national energy security will come to rely on the formation of a new energy system during the next decade. Being an economist, the Chancellor should know that renewable and clean tech investment is heavily front-loaded, after which production is low cost. Such front-loading means the initial capital price is essential, a price which is intrinsically related to political risk. Thanks Mr Osborne.

Delegates at Rio claim they are determined to act to make sustainable energy for all a reality, but only, according to the Outcome Document, if it is ‘prioritized according to their specific challenges, capacities and circumstances’. This unfortunately, is UN negotiation talk for ‘a bottom of the list agenda’. The text reflects Mr Osborne’s naivety in continuing to see environmental progress as nothing more than an externality which can be dealt with once the problems with our economy are resolved. Why, for once, can someone not step back and understand how long term returns on green investment would be integral to the stability of the economy.

3. Beyond GDP

This is the one Rio outcome which could potentially be implemented in the UK with positive effect. After the financial crisis, societal expectations are far more inclined to long-term, sustainable investments, ensuring the stability of our economy. Sustainable decision making requires knowledge of the social and environmental landscape, which requires a new, holistic metric for progress. GDP was never designed to be the globally accepted measure of prosperity, but unfortunately is the economic yardstick by which we determine countries’ development. Taking the lead on incorporating environmental and social well-being metric into national accounting could provide the UK with information invaluable to a successfully competitive country in the sustainable economy. 

Rio+20 or not, I have no doubt that indicators such as health, education, poverty gaps and the environment would be welcome additions to how we perceive success in the future, and the decision by government to enforce Main Market listed companies to report their emissions beginning 2013 is a step forward in incorporating the private sector in this adjustment. Ironically, Beyond GDP is lacking in the Outcome Document at Rio, but is remaining in the government’s crosshairs. Nick Clegg, who did attend Rio+20, shared a promising viewpoint on GDP:

“We all know that GDP is a vital measure of growth. But it can only provide a narrow snapshot of a country’s welfare and it does not account for the quality of growth – for our wellbeing, and that of the natural environment on which future prosperity depends.”

We cannot afford to continue with the short-term profit maximization ideology, nor can we let business as usual investment decisions lead us back down the road of recession. Not for the economy, not for society, and not for the environment.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Women and International Development

Rachael McCallum

Source: UN Women.
The subject of empowering women is one which is frequently discussed in terms of the international development agenda. In this context, frequent in-depth analysis of development issues affecting women take place, which provide national and international bodies with critical input for enhanced attention to gender perspectives in regards to economic and development issues. 
This analysis is particularly important when looking at emerging development issues that have an impact on the role of women in the economy at all levels and indeed, when looking at the benefits accrued to women as a result of their effective participation in development, such as income, conditions of work, and decision-making. 
Women no doubt play a crucial role as agents and beneficiaries of international development, and are mobilised and integrated in the development agenda. The World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002), the International Conference on Population and Development (1994), the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), and the 2005 World Summit all acknowledged the pivotal and important role women play in development and in particular, in sustainable development. 
However, there are conditions under which women in the developing world have not been enable to enhance their capacity in promoting international development. Many democratic governments and institutions have yet to draft a policy that addresses the relation between the economy, the environment and their impact on society – and especially on women. As the UN Secretary-General‘s Report notes:
“The challenge of climate change is unlikely to be gender-neutral, as it increases the risk to the most vulnerable and less empowered social groups. In the formulation of global and national approaches, as well as in the strategic responses to specific sectors, gender awareness, substantive analysis and inclusive engagement will be necessary.”
Indeed, many development policies are "gender blind." Meaning that the planning and policy making processes has failed to appreciate that men and women have different societal roles and that in many cases, their needs and obstacles in terms of development are different. 
Gender disparities exist with respect to access to, and control of, a range of assets including land and credit lines, human capital assets including education and health, and social capital assets such as participation at various levels, legal rights and protection. Policies in these areas have not recognised the existing gender imbalances and as a result, have effectively constrained the participation of women in the development process.
Besides the policy environment, women have also been constrained by existing socio-cultural norms. There has been a tendency to use culture and tradition to undermine the position of women, which has had a negative impact in promoting international development. Socio-cultural factors continue to hinder gender equality in terms of access to, and use of, services and also contribute to situations such as inequitable allocation of food within the household, which leads to malnutrition notably among women and children. Gender- based violence also has important health, economical, political and environmental implications. For women to play a dynamic role in development, they themselves need to create an alternative culture that challenges existing socio-cultural norms and promotes full gender equity. 
The first step to making women full participants in international development lies in recognizing their value in national and international negotiations and policy making. Following this, we need to find concrete ways to integrate women into the planning, development and just as importantly, the execution of integrated strategies for future economic, political and social development. 
It is essential that governments and international organisations understand the role women can and should play in the democratic future of their countries and start integrating women in the civil service and private sector in large numbers in order to drive their economies forward and achieve a sustainable balance in all aspects of their economic, political, social and environmental security and development.
In recent years, there has been an increasing shift in the development discourse towards an increasing portfolio of development policies and rhetoric taking into account the role of women by applying gender-sensitive approaches and incorporating as well as actively promoting women’s involvement. The creation of UN Women in 2010 was an important step towards this end as in doing so, UN Member States took an historic step in accelerating the UN´s goals on gender equality and the empowerment of women.
However, women still remain, in many cases, largely untapped resources particularly in terms of emerging challenges in the international development field such as climate change. Despite progress, ‘We’ cannot afford to underestimate or neglect the role of women in building a sustainable future. It is important to remember that whilst Gender equality is the third Millennium Development Goal, it is vital to achieving progress in the other seven. Many observers realise that for international development to truly succeed, women need to be protected, engaged and empowered in all areas and at all levels in the development discourse and practice. 

Friday 15 June 2012

Is there a risk of the post-independence window of opportunity closing for South Sudan?

Cristina Sarb

Children being educated in South Sudan Source: Educationforall blog.
The UK House of Commons International Development Select Committee has recently produced a report on the prospects for peace and development in South Sudan. 
The new post-independence environment and the heightening of tensions between the two Sudans, with the possibility of a return to an all-out war, have undoubtedly renewed focus on the role of the international aid donor community and in particular the UK.  
Recent reports have painted a bleak picture about the negative impacts of the oil shutdown, with many commentators warning of a large scale humanitarian crisis in the loom. More than a million people have been newly displaced after fleeing the fighting and are reliant on humanitarian assistance. This, combined with food insecurity and mass returns of refugees, is leaving thousands of people struggling to ensure sheer survival. 
Meanwhile, it is expected that this could worsen drastically with restricted access due to the weather and poor infrastructure. Limited accessibility hinders the delivery of aid to those in need on the ground. 
The continued escalation of tensions in the north-south relations have helped create a new sense of urgency among the donor community - but with the daunting scale of the development challenges faced by South Sudan, it is clear that there is a vital need for the international community to remain engaged in South Sudan. 
Studies on the progress towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have revealed that South Sudan is falling far behind in achieving most of the targets - for instance, the country is affected by mass poverty with over 50 percent of the population living below the poverty line.
South Sudan also faces significant challenges in education - having some of the lowest primary school enrolment rates, highest dropout rates and widest gender disparities. Young girls are particularly affected by the lack of education opportunities, with only 9 percent of girls who enrol in grade one complete primary school.
The renewed instability and the possible resumption of direct conflict between the two Sudans have prompted the international community to intervene in an effort to promote peace. The United Nations has threatened to impose economic sanctions if the two neighbouring countries fail to resolve their issues peacefully. 
With no resolution in sight for now, the re-emerging of the conflict between the two Sudans poses an important test for the international aid donor community. The clashes in the border regions have only exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation which has prompted calls for more humanitarian aid.  

UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs in South Sudan Lise Grande Source: Gurtong/ Waakhe Simon Wudu. 
As many commentators have pointed out, the recent events have called into question the ability of the international community to react quickly and effectively to the humanitarian crisis that is rapidly unfolding in South Sudan. 
But if, as it seems, many donors will in response to the ongoing crisis in South Sudan refocus their resources away from long-term development programmes to meeting more immediate humanitarian needs, there have also been fears expressed that this would risk seriously undermining fragile but hard-won MDG gains achieved in South Sudan. 
Indeed, focusing on humanitarian needs at the expense of more long-term development assistance appears to be the preferred course of action of the UK (though, importantly, this approach has not necessarily been shared by other donors). In giving evidence to the parliamentary Select Committee, the UK Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell has made it clear that "if the current shutdown persists, this will entail a substantial redirection of resources away from the longer-term priorities set out in the South Sudan Development Plan".
The implications of this shift in future UK support are potentially far-reaching, as the UK is one of the largest donors to South Sudan with plans to spend around £360 million between 2011 and 2015. It has been reported that programmes in the education sector, such as the investment in building centres to train teachers, are among those that would be put on hold.
While it is evident that humanitarian needs are great in South Sudan, and the outlook remains grim, the ways in which different international actors are responding to the evolving context in South Sudan needs considerable more discussion. 
In taking a stand, the UK has sought to send a clear message that it "cannot bankroll South Sudan through this austerity period". As its economy remains highly dependent on oil revenues, which are estimated to account for 98 percent of the country's income, the South Sudan government has been faced with substantial budget shortfalls from the loss of oil revenues. 
The absence of alternative sources of funding or resumption of oil production has forced the government to adopt severe fiscal austerity. Yet, despite the potential for spending on basic services such as health and education to be halved over the next year, spending on security and the military continues to take up a disproportionate amount of South Sudan's budget.   
Notwithstanding the current austerity budget, the South Sudan Government should be asked to make more efforts to mobilise and allocate domestic resources for basic service provision. However, while the UK is to some extent right to expect greater quid pro quo from the South Sudan Government in terms of shifting some of its budget to basic service delivery, it also needs to recognise that even when accounting for the oil revenues, the country would still face a huge financing gap. 
Also, as the figures above demonstrate, enormous challenges remain for South Sudan. The potential shift in donor resources - cutting long-term development assistance with donors being driven by humanitarian concerns alone - poses a significant risk of backsliding on the fragile progress that the country has made since gaining its independence. 
In light of this, long-term development assistance remains as critical as ever to accelerate progress towards many of the MDG goals. The international community's support should not be an "either emergency or development" issue, but must recognise that Sudan will need a commitment for both with the provision of humanitarian aid and assistance to support longer-term development. 
Finally, the debate over where the international community should focus its assistance raises a wider issue. Notwithstanding the increase in cross-border violence, there is a major opportunity for donors developing funding mechanisms post-independence to focus on improving their coordination in South Sudan. 
A recent report points to the uneven aid allocation in terms of sectors and activities and has highlighted the need for particular attention to be paid to cooperation between donors operating in different sectors. While this would be beneficial in and of itself, greater donor cooperation could also help reduce the perceived need for an "either or" approach in relation to providing development and humanitarian aid. 
The international community must seek to carefully avoid the window of opportunity to make meaningful progress towards the MDGs and build a better future closing in South Sudan. One of the ways to do so will be by taking a balanced approach between support for emergency humanitarian needs and continued long-term development assistance.

Tackling Inequality across Society – The Case Against

Daniel Watson

Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism in Liberia, Lewis Brown. MICAT Liberia.
The task of addressing inequality across society is, speaking as a former student of Anthropology, a dubious one. Recognising the structural inequality of society is important but the relative merit of appearing to desire cultural change is questionable. Programmes are much more successful when they seek only to reform practices and not norms. Cultural norms, in their discursive relationship with the practices of society, will follow. For instance, female education, it goes, leads to female empowerment.

So, we must listen when leaders cut off development plans at their root, denying permission to alter practices. Lewis Brown, the Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism of Liberia, ought to make us sit up and listen. He said recently that the Liberian government is not thinking about abolishing any traditional practices. In itself perhaps a laudable statement, however we ought to remember that the practices in question include Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a highly controversial procedure.

Key to Brown's argument was that any movement to change practices challenges the very essence of being Liberian. Traditional practices shouldn't be seen as evil and any act against them dilutes the values of every Liberian, he said. I can agree on the former but the latter is a conflation of identity and practices that denies their true relationship.

Highlighting the connection between practices and ideals, Brown has constructed an impasse on future routes to progress in female empowerment. What Brown has not done though is demonstrate an understanding of the fluid nature of identity. It is an unkind act to disseminate the idea that identity is irrevocably damaged by change in practices. In reality, practices and identity operate in a discursive relationship, the one informs the other. Furthermore, neither are, in practice, static domains.

Consider Islam. Being a Muslim means affiliating yourself to Islam, having a Muslim identity (as well as any other identity of course). How has it come to pass that we find many different practices of Islam? It is due to interpretation by the Ulama, it is due to the curious way in which we pass on tradition, and it is due to a multitude of Muslim identities. The practices undertaken are analysed by the actors, assessed for their conformity to their chosen identity, sometimes publicly. Acknowledging this process means a concomitant recognition that the relationship between identity, between cultural norms, and practices is not a hard and fast one. It is constantly under reformulation with respect to present concerns; religion is a “discursive tradition”.

A term coined by Talal Asad to explore an Anthropology of Islam, the idea of “discursive tradition” is a useful concept beyond examination of religion. It stands central, in my understanding, to analysis of the relationship between identity and practice. In all action there is an implicit reckoning of what constitutes apt performance. That is to say that cultural norms are constantly invoked in considering the practices of society and that as these practices change the norms carry this change too. Having said that, let's retreat from the esoteric and academic to beat our way back to a tangible scenario.

Joytara, one of the women of JITA who now hopes to grow a successful business. Picture: Kathryn Richards/CARE.
In Bangladesh a scheme has given women the political means to challenge their disadvantaged position. Joytara, the mother of two children, found herself in a difficult situation when her husband became paralysed and her maid servant work was not sufficient to support her family. CARE International's Rural Sales Programme (since rolled into a social enterprise business, JITA) offered Joytara a chance to earn a decent wage. In the programme Joytara operated a door-to-door sales service, selling products from private sector partners.

It is clear from this scheme that Joytara's prospects could not have been improved had she not been given the economic opportunity to change practices. The challenge to the problems of gender inequality at a cultural level are an extra boon to this economic support initiative. Joytara said: “The main problem at first was social acceptance”, and added: “women who stay in the house with no options should work like me and make themselves independent.” It seems clear from these words that CARE's programme has made a significant impact by coming to practical inequality first.

Despite the stated aim to promote gender equality, this approach benefited from looking initially to practices with vulnerable women and will have consequences that filter into wider understandings of female identity. Joytara's comments illustrate that a programme dedicated to challenging cultural norms first would have floundered amongst limited social acceptance.

It is all well and good expounding the opinion that the link between cultural norms and societal practices ought to be properly understood but how can this be achieved? The reality of it, as I see it, is that there is no capacity in which foreign policy can successfully lecture on the fluidity of identity without flirting with imperialism. Rather, the bottom line is this: Identity politics is a dangerous game, one that external agents are best avoiding. Foreign policy is permitted to admonish practices but care must be taken that there is no opportunity given for conflation of criticism of practices with criticism of identity.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Development: Problems of a History Un-Shared?

Daniel Watson

Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory. The surrealism movement was based on juxtaposition and claimed affinity with revolution and communism. Marxism holds capitalism as a stage on the return to communism.
International development plays a large role in foreign policy through the provision of aid. Both aid and development presuppose a certain mode of time, one concerned with progress. In fact, not only their raison d’ĂȘtre, but the very manner in which policy is constructed, is predicated on this premise. Progress, however, is not a universal understanding of time.

You might think I’m being unreasonable, comparing how people understand history and the future with how they might understand economic and social development. Really, you might suggest, economic and social development stands apart from reckoning of historical events. This development is measurable, and therefore objective.

I would have to disagree. Whilst there can be no argument against the positive outcomes of medical aid interventions such as lives saved and diseases challenged, it still stands that these interventions, in the name of ‘development’, are conceived by their recipients in their own way, through their own understanding of time that is certainly not necessarily similar to the providers.

Take a simple example outside of international development and you can already sow the seeds of doubt in the positivist’s field. Greece recently had a technocratic government, paving the way towards fiscal stability said the outside of observers. Some of those inside took a different view. Some decried the great debt of the country as similar to the Axis occupation, heralding a loss of sovereignty. It is not fair to suggest this is a fantastical linkage, this was indicative of the feeling of some of the Greek people, whether we regard it as overstated or not. Those drawing up the policy saw progress; those receiving it saw the past embodied in the present, positing themselves, then, in a cycle of repression.

Turning to international development we can similar relationships between foreign policy and those that it affects. Recently, narratives of progress in Pakistan were replaced with narratives of suspicion thanks to the methods used by the United States to locate Osama Bin Laden.

As was revealed in July 2011, the CIA used a fake vaccination drive in order to obtain DNA from the family of Osama Bin Laden in the village where they suspected him of hiding. Following this, Save the Children was forced to withdraw its workers for fear of reprisals as its name was falsely linked to the fake programme.

Similarly, secrecy has damaged the proper fulfilment of the aims of foreign policy in Egypt. The USAID programme there has been a classic example, failing to articulate its role in society and thus finding itself outside of some Egyptians' consideration of acceptable foreign involvement. As such, USAID has failed to build itself into Egyptians' conceptions of progress and is instead conceptualised as a static interfering entity from the past. With the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the guise of the Freedom and Justice Party, we are likely to witness further complications in the country's temporal reckoning of progress. 

These examples both illustrate the manner in which foreign intervention can be viewed as an unwelcome interference from the past. In these cases established participants have seen their roles redefined as the populations within which they work reconsider their relationship to the past and future.

To be clear, these redefinitions needn't be reformulations of 'western plot' theories derived from dissatisfaction with enduring inequality. Popularly, these have been manifest in rumours of sterilisation surrounding vaccination programmes. For instance, in 2003, measles vaccine suspicions in Nigeria led to decreased vaccination rates and consequent increased infections. This reckoning of the present with respect to an unkind past is precisely that which international development programmes ought to be most wary of, and indeed the endurance of colonial police acts in many countries makes the authority of those in power very difficult for an outsider to practically challenge. If those in power wish to make allusions to the past treatment of their citizens it is up to international development leaders to be sensitive to this and to accept that not all nations might embrace a foreign offer of 'progress'.

In Mali, external actors now have the opportunity to directly affect how their aid will be perceived in the future. By choosing to act in negotiation with the installed rebel groups they will colour how the population of Mali views their actions in the future. In doing so they can comfortably be subsumed into the cultural history of the population, becoming a byword for progress if Mali moves forward.

Medecins Du Monde (MDM) has been present in the region for an extended period and, including locals in its activities, it has gained widespread acceptance. MDM is heavily embedded in the community through, amongst other things, relying on locals to rent vehicles. Being resolutely rigid in its independence and impartiality will assist the agency in the long term if conflict flares up again, said Olivier Vandecasteele, head of MDM. I agree, by maintaining their impartiality and their thoroughly embedded role in society they can be carried along, adopted, and will gain a little immunity against the results of the constant revision of history that accompanies change in the present.

Aid programmes are based on progress. Progress is not a universal understanding; local populations interpret aid programmes within their own understandings of history and the future. A greater understanding of how recipients engage with the past and future might point to more sensitive ‘development’ programmes.

History is not fossilised and objective as we like to imagine. History and the future are constantly invoked in the present. Through administering sensitive programmes for development we can stay on the right side of this discourse, becoming an agent for progress if appropriate or a static rock in the cycle of a nation's history, helping to change the elements of the present whilst not interfering with the structure of their conceptions of time.

Friday 1 June 2012

The United Nations and Human Rights: Fit for purpose?

Rachael McCallum

To ensure that all human beings are granted their human rights, there is the need for international oversight bodies to set up laws, administer justice and ensure that governments and people are always observing human rights in all nations around the globe. One such global entity used to ensure human rights is the United Nations. The basic aim of the United Nations is to honour its Charter, which is built on the fundamental principles of human rights.
But how efficient and effective is it in discharging its function as a primary human rights body around the globe?  
First of all, whilst an obvious point, it must be pointed out that establishing international human rights targets and getting nations to commit to them are quite difficult particularly because one state’s human right situation does not directly impact on another’s. So it has been difficult for the UN to get the commitment of all nations in several matters. For instance, with the crises in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2006, nations were not so much interested in contributing troops and resources to avoid the racial injustices and conflicts. This led to the continuation of killings and serious humanitarian problems in the region. Thus in cases where nations and people are not interested in the affairs of a given nation, the United Nations is usually not effective in discharging its human rights roles. 
Furthermore, the United Nations charter does not lay out specific rules and regulations for governments to follow. The elements of the charter are so vague and generic that nations with a wide diversity of standards can have very different human rights standards and still claim to be honouring the Human Rights requirements of the UN. This always leads to conflicts between democratic states (Western European and North American nations) that respect human rights and authoritative states that have limited human right standards (like the former USSR and China).  
This diversity means that nations are inclined to distrust each other and due to that, there are always inherent conflicts that stand in the way of the operation of the United Nations. There have been instances where it was fashionable for the USSR to stand against anything the United States was lobbying for. This has stood in the way of humanitarian support from the UN and in other situations the UN machinery was incompetent in the face of proxy wars that caused serious humanitarian crises during the Cold War.
This situation is not helped by the fact that, in some respects, the UN is limited in its ability to handle human rights abuses in parts of the world because the Charter gives it limited power to enter certain nations to take action. Steiner & Alston (2000) identify that Procedure 1503 only allows a confidential study and report on the matter and the worst outcome any government or groups of persons can suffer is the loss of reputation when they are named after the investigation. This was the case in Sudan where Omar Al Bashir continue to remain in power though he has suffered some loss in reputation. Procedure 1235 also allows some cases to be referred to supervisory organs for human rights evaluation and recommendations. This has not helped much, especially in Africa, where the African Union seems to be limited in capacity and ability to control and instil justice in some cases. 
Also, in cases where the UN is limited to enter a nation and instil human rights where the government is cited for abuses, the UN often sanctions the nation. However, the use of sanctions is problematic as it affects ordinary civilians of the nation and not the actual people in government who are really responsible for the abuses. 
As well as challenges on the ground, the UN is also affected by internal politics, which is especially emanated by the five permanent members of the Security Council. Since its inception, the UN has had some difficulties in honouring human rights standards that it set because of the actions of some powerful nations in the group like the five vetoing members, USA, Britain, France, China and Russia. 
First of all, some nations around the world can choose to blatantly disregard the human rights standards set by the United Nations and other international bodies because they are rich and powerful. The United States and Britain chose to invade Iraq against the protests of the UN, EU, Arab League and many other international human rights groups. The invasion came at the cost of many deaths, displacement and several harsh human rights problems but because these two nations are powerful, no nation has been able to hold them accountable. Secondly, some nations have internal human rights problems but because they are more powerful than many international human rights organisations, they go unquestioned. China is a prominent example. Also, some nations have poor human rights records around the world but because their ruling governments are supported by one or more of the UN’s five vetoing nations, the human rights abuses in those nations also go unanswered. 
Although these challenges have rendered the UN ineffective and inefficient in handling matters related to human rights, they have been able to achieve a lot of successes in its 66 years of existence. It is important not to lose sight of the fact the basic, most popular and most influential set of human rights principles is the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is supported by the over 200 nations of the world who are members of the United Nations and it is reflected in the constitutions of almost all nations of the world. Due to this, the UN human rights standards are the yardsticks of almost every legal system on earth, and have been effective in creating and disseminating a domestic and international human rights norm. 
Also, the UN has focused on empowering regional and sub-regional organisations to promote and create awareness of human rights issues around the world. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was empowered by the UN through the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to maintain and restore peace to Liberia. 
Human rights protection is weak at the UN not because of some mistake in how the UN behaves but because of what the UN is – the problems are in the design not the proclivity.  It is these structural and internal problems that make it difficult for them to champion the human rights agenda they have and leads us to question the UN’s engagement with human rights.
Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, President of the General Assembly. UN Photo/Nick Bajornas.
However, as Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, the 66th elected president of the UN General Assembly recently told The Independent, the UN must urgently reform to stay relevant in a world facing unprecedented conflicts and is not fit for purpose.
Indeed, without radical overhaul, the UN will not provide the leadership the world seeks from it and needs from it.  The UN that we need is one equipped to help the world face key global challenges, which so far the UN has been somewhat removed from addressing.