The Relevance of the UN in its 60th year
October  2,  2012

The UN system turns 60 this year. Sixty is the age when people at the UN contemplate retirement. Is the UN ready to be pensioned off? Our answer is a resounding “no”–the world needs the United Nations now, more than ever.

The United Nations was founded at the end of a period bookended by two savage World Wars that began within 25 years of each other.

In the first half of the 20th century, people in most parts of the world scarcely had the luxury of deciding whether they were interested in world politics. World politics took a thoroughly intrusive interest in them. Horror succeeded horror, until, in 1945, the world was brought face to face with the terrible tragedies wrought by war, fascism, attempted genocide and the nuclear bomb. Had things gone on like that, the future of the human race would have been bleak indeed.

The second half of the 20th century was far from perfect. But it was a spectacular improvement on the first half.

Progress Made

I do not deny that tyrannies and civil wars and even international wars continued, and billions of people still live in extreme and degrading poverty. But the overall record of the second half of the 20th century is one of amazing advances. Many in the industrialized world now enjoy a level of prosperity, and have access to a range of experiences, that their grandparents could scarcely have dreamt of; and even in the developing world, there has been spectacular economic growth. Child mortality has been reduced. Literacy has spread. The peoples of the so-called “Third World” threw off the yoke of colonialism, and those of the Soviet bloc won political freedom. Democracy and human rights are not yet universal, but they are now much more the norm than the exception.

Did all this happen by accident? No. It happened because, in and after 1945, a group of farsighted leaders were determined to make the second half of the 20th century different from the first.

So they drew up rules to govern international behavior, and they founded institutions in which different nations could cooperate for the common good. That was the idea of “global governance”–to foster international cooperation, for the elaboration of consensual global norms and for the establishment of predictable, universally applicable rules, to the benefit of all.

The keystone of the arch was the United Nations itself. The UN was seen by world leaders as the only possible alternative to the disastrous experiences of the first half of the century. It stood for a world in which people of different nations and cultures looked on each other, not as subjects of fear and suspicion but as potential partners.

The U.S. President who presided at the birth of the UN, Harry Truman, put it clearly: “You have created a great instrument for peace and security and human progress in the world,” he declared to the assembled signatories of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco on June 26, 1945. ” If we fail to use it, we shall betray all those who have died in order that we might meet here in freedom and safety to create it. If we seek to use it selfishly–for the advantage of any one nation or any small group of nations–we shall be equally guilty of that betrayal.”

The UN Charter was not, however, the work of starry-eyed idealists, but rather of the leaders of the coalition of states that won the Second World War, and what they were seeking to do was convert their wartime alliance into a peacetime organization.

The world for which they had fought was a world of increasing openness; of imperial contraction making way for the expansion of freedom; of growing mutual confidence; above all, a world of hope.

That hope seemed to have dimmed around the world in 2003. A Pew Poll taken in 20 countries showed that the UN’s credibility was down in the U.S. because it did not support the U.S. administration on the war on Iraq, and in 19 other countries because it did not prevent the war. So we got hit from both sides of the debate. And we are aware that Iraq is not the only source of frustration with the international system.

But there can be no weakening of our efforts to make the world a better place in larger freedom. On the contrary, we are seizing on our 60th anniversary to contemplate renewal, not retirement. Recently we saw the release of the report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, which examines the entire architecture of the international system built up since 1945. This year, the UN will also review the Millennium Development Goals established five years ago. So our 60th anniversary is a crucial one.

And, whatever happens in Iraq, let us also not forget that the relevance of the United Nations does not stand or fall on its conduct on one issue alone. When this crisis has passed, the world will still be facing (to use Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s phrase) innumerable “problems without passports”–problems that cross all frontiers uninvited, problems of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, of the degradation of our common environment, of contagious disease and chronic starvation, of human rights and human wrongs, of mass illiteracy and massive displacement.

Mirror of the World

Of course, the UN is not perfect. It has sometimes acted unwisely and sometimes been too divided to succeed. And all too often, Member States have passed resolutions they themselves had no intention of implementing.

The United Nations is, at its best, a mirror of the world: it reflects our divisions and disagreements as well as our hopes and convictions.

And the United Nations is both a stage and an actor. It is a stage on which the Member States play their parts, declaiming their differences and their convergences, and it is an actor executing the policies made on that stage.

Governments have at times seen advantage in blaming their sins of omission or commission on the organization. When certain government officials blame the UN for failing to prevent genocide in Rwanda, overlooking their own government’s role in ensuring the Security Council took no action on that issue, the point could not be clearer.

When all is said and done, the world needs laws and norms that countries negotiate together, and agree to uphold as the “rules of the road.” And it needs a forum where sovereign states can come together to share burdens, address common problems and seize common opportunities. That forum is the United Nations.

If we continue to be guided by the compass of our determination to live in a world governed by common rules and shared values, and to steer together in the multilateral institutions that the enlightened leaders of the last century have bequeathed to us, then indeed we can explore the hopes of the UN’s founding fathers, and fulfill the continuing adventure of making this century better than the last.

Source: SGI Quarterly