The U.N. at 75; Why the World Needs the United Nations More Than Ever
2020 was quite a year for the United Nations [UN]. The UN's World Health Organization has been at the center of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and the World Food Program won the Nobel Peace Prize "for its efforts to combat hunger, foster conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war."
The United Nations recently celebrated its 75th birthday and It's aging quite well despite the rising tide of nationalism afflicting nations like Poland, Brazil, and the United States. The UN's existence corresponds to three-quarters of a century of extraordinary progress for humanity and it has played a pivotal role in battling environmental degradation, improving world health, enhancing diplomacy, reducing extreme poverty, and expanding human rights. During its 75 years, the United Nations has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize twelve times for the work of its agencies and programs, and two Secretaries-General, Kofi Annan and Dag Hammarskjöld, were also honored for their accomplishments.
Even more impressive is that it still exists after 75 years. The whole concept of a "community of nations" often with vastly different cultures, races, religions, and national interests working together to solve common problems was quite novel in 1945, and the failure of the League of Nations didn't bode well for the new international organization. City states and then nations had been fighting over land and resources for thousands of years so trust and cooperation were not easy. Moreover, during its three-quarters of a century the UN has often been an easy target for nationalists in first world countries who object to the whole notion of collective security and "sharing the wealth."
And the United Nations isn't without its flaws. It is often criticized as overly bureaucratic, undemocratic [the Security Council], and ineffective at preventing war. Some of that is true, of course, but despite such criticisms, the UN system is viewed positively around the world. A Pew Research Center survey of 34,904 people from 32 countries, conducted in 2019 found an approval rating of 61%, mirroring, almost exactly, America's views of the organization according to a poll conducted recently. Moreover, many of the individual components of the UN like the World Food Program and the World Health Organization are indispensable, so indispensable in fact, that most of us now take for granted that they will be there to address pandemics, refugee crises, and national disasters.
Much of the criticism of the UN results from its inability to prevent war, but that defect was baked into the organization from the beginning. The individuals that designed it didn't want it to be an all-powerful world policeman, simply a tool to reduce tensions before they led to war. The Security Council has a significant role to play in settling disputes and ameliorating the horrors of war, but it was not designed to stop powerful nations from going to war if they believe their vital national interests are threatened. It does what it can to diffuse the situation and then gets out of the way and tries to reduce the suffering. So, in other words, it works within its mandate and its limitations.
Moreover, if you are just focused on the Security Council you are missing 95% of what the UN does today. The organization's true power is in its voice. Margaret Huang of Amnesty International once said that "the U.N. is like your conscience," She's exactly right; the ideals the UN embodies and the norms it nurtures are our attempt to be better, a statement of our aspirations of what we want to become.
Each day, the United Nations is there to remind us of those that suffer at the hands of tyrants, that have been displaced because of war, who don't have adequate food or clean water or lack human rights. It gives a voice to the world's poor and disenfranchised. And, over time, it's been empowered to address such issues concretely, ameliorating the suffering of children and refugees, sanctioning tyrants, providing clean water and life-saving vaccines.
Moreover, in our shrinking, globalized world we need the United Nations more than ever because the challenges we face can't be addressed unilaterally and the UN is the focal point of negotiations to find global solutions. No one nation can address the international trade in drugs, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, arms, endangered species and so many other potentially harmful commodities. And even when nations can't agree on much politically, they often find common cause to address global problems like ozone depletion, human trafficking, terrorism, pandemics, climate change, threats to the global financial system, biodiversity loss, cybercrimes, refugees, and migration. The United Nations was created to combat the scourge of war, but also to find and help implement solutions to common threats.
The UN's History: The United Nations grew out of the ashes of WWII, but the idea for such an organization wasn't new. In 1795, In Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, German philosopher Immanuel Kant imagined a global organization with a mandate to ensure the peace. US President Woodrow Wilson embraced that vision after World War I and it was the foundation of his League of Nations. The League failed to keep the peace in the 1930s, but the horrors of WWII encouraged the allies to try again.
When President Franklin Roosevelt [FDR] met with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Iran in 1943, he proposed a new international organization to replace the failed League of Nations. British, American, Soviet, and Chinese representatives met at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington in the Summer of 1944 to draft the UN charter based on the principle of collective security. They decided on a General Assembly of all member states and a Security Council consisting of the "Big Four" plus six members chosen by the Assembly.
The veto power of permanent members of the Security Council was finalized at the Yalta Conference in 1945 when Roosevelt and Stalin agreed that the veto would not prevent discussions of sensitive issues by the Security Council.
Stalin has been widely blamed for the veto, and he certainly favored it, but there is quite a bit of evidence that Britain, China, and America all supported the principle of unanimity within the UN Security Council to protect sovereign rights and national interests. Harry Truman, who replaced FDR in April 1945, wrote: "All our experts, civil and military, favored it, and without such a veto no arrangement would have passed the Senate." The veto has often been an impediment to action by the Security Council, but it was the price necessary to keep the United States and the Soviet Union engaged.
Representatives of 50 nations met in San Francisco in the Spring of 1945 to complete the Charter of the United Nations. The final agreement called for a General Assembly and a Security Council of 5 permanent [France had been added] and 6 non-permanent members. In addition, the Charter created an Economic and Social Council, a Trusteeship Council to oversee colonial territories, and a Secretariat under a Secretary General. The organization’s purpose and principles are outlined in the Charter and according to that document the UN is empowered to:
Maintain international peace and security;
Develop friendly relations among nations;
Achieve international cooperation in solving international problems; and
Be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.
The UN charter also created the International Court of Justice [ICJ] to settle legal disputes submitted by the states in accordance with international law. It was essentially a continuation of the Permanent Court of International Justice [World Court] established as part of the League of Nations after World War I.
The US Senate overwhelmingly approved the UN Charter in July of 1945 and the organization began its work in October, after 29 nations had ratified the treaty. One of its earliest achievements was passing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of FDR, led the effort to ensure that atrocities like those that occurred during World War II would never happen again.
The Universal Declaration is based on the principles of the U.N. Charter to protect a broad array of human rights. Its breadth was criticized at the time as overly ambitious and unrealistic, but it was meant as a roadmap, a statement of aspirations of what the organization should strive to achieve. Since 1948, the UN has led efforts to secure those rights in a series of international agreements including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination , the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women , the Convention on the Rights of the Child , and many others.
The United Nations and Its Programs and Agencies Today:
Today, the UN is comprised of a multitude of agencies and programs tasked with addressing some of the most pressing global problems from climate change to refugee assistance, from health and food assistance to peacekeeping. Below are a few of the most notable with the history and impact of each.
1. The World Food Program [WFP]: The WFP was founded in 1961, based on a proposal by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to create “a workable scheme ... for providing food aid through the U.N. system.” The WFP got off the ground quickly, providing urgently needed food supplies to the victims of a 1962 earthquake in Iran, a hurricane in Thailand, and to about five million refugees resettling in Algeria.
The WFP is now the largest humanitarian organization in the world. Each year it assists about 80 million people in 75 countries. With its own fleet of trucks, ships, and planes, the agency carries out emergency response missions and delivers food and assistance directly to victims of war, revolution, droughts, floods, and other natural disasters. Most of its work is in conflict zones where people are three times more likely to be malnourished than those living in peace.
2. UN Peacekeeping: Although the U.N. Charter does not mention the use of an armed force to mediate between warring parties, peacekeeping has become an important part of the UN's mandate since 1956 when the first United Nations Emergency Force [UNEF] was deployed to Egypt to supervise the end of the Suez Crisis and the withdrawal of British, French and Israeli troops.
Since 1956, more than 1 million men and women have served in more than 70 UN peacekeeping operations. Not all have been successful in preventing bloodshed; the Rwanda and Srebrenica missions were disasters. However, when employed to keep the peace rather than stop an ongoing conflict, they have often been successful. Additionally, "most of the UN’s success stories have taken place in smaller countries where the conflict did not spread over a large geographic area"... and "the political leadership of the host country was generally willing to work with UN peacekeeping and allow it to play a supporting role in national processes like elections and security sector reform."
Currently, the United Nations has more than 100,000 peacekeepers serving in 14 operations around the globe. Although each peacekeeping mission is a bit different, there is some consistency in the types of operations approved by the UN Security Council. According to the UN, Peacekeepers are often asked to:
Deploy to prevent the outbreak of conflict or the spill-over of conflict across borders;
Stabilize conflict situations after a ceasefire, to create an environment for the parties to reach a lasting peace;
Assist in implementing comprehensive peace agreements;
Lead states or territories through a transition to stable government, based on democratic principles, good governance, and economic development.
Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of ex-combatants;
Find and deactivate mines;
Fun Fact: UN Peacekeeping Forces were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.
Not So Fun Fact: The annual UN Peacekeeping budget is less than 0.5% of global military spending.
3. The United Nations Children's Fund [UNICEF]: The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was founded in 1946 to provide food, clothing, and healthcare to the children of war-ravaged Europe. Its mission was expanded after the General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959. That treaty outlines a global consensus on the fundamental principles of human rights for children including shelter, education, health care, and adequate nutrition.
Since 2010, UNICEF programs have helped save the lives of 48 million children by providing nutritional assistance, vaccines, and clean water. The agency also promotes education and gender equality and protects children from abuse and exploitation.
4. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] assists people displaced by conflict and persecution. It was created in 1950 to address the refugee crisis that resulted from World War II, but its mandate expanded quickly because of Cold War conflicts and the decolonization of Africa and Asia. Today its 17,000 staff members are assisting more than 65 million forcibly displaced people in 135 countries including Syria, Myanmar, Yemen, and South Sudan. The UNHCR provides refugees protection, shelter, and healthcare, and assists in resettlement and repatriation.
The UNHCR won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954 for its work resetting refugees in Europe after WWII, and again in 1981 as its mandate expanded. It's constantly won praise as an indispensable UN agency, willing to assist those individuals that national leaders would often ignore because they lack political influence. And the UNHCR is probably the only organization that could accomplish its mission because it has the trust of the international community. Its only agenda is to assist refugees without regard to domestic political divisions.
5. World Health Organization [WHO]: The founders of the United Nations discussed a global health organization and the WHO was created in April 1948 so that all people globally would benefit from advancements in the health sciences. The World Health Organization now works with governments and private organizations in more than 150 countries to combat preventable death and disease.
The WHO's mission includes monitoring public health risks, coordinating responses to health emergencies, and promoting strategies for enhancing public health. It also provides technical assistance to governments and organizations, sets international health standards and guidelines, and collects data on global health issues through the World Health Survey.
The WHO has played a leading role in many notable public health achievements including the eradication of smallpox, the near eradication of polio, and the development of an Ebola vaccine. The agency is also credited with increasing health and life expectancy in the developing world and reducing deaths from malaria and HIV. Since 2000, the WHO's efforts to stop tuberculosis have saved nearly 50 million lives. And, in 2014, the United Nations and the WHO engaged in their first Emergency Health Mission to combat the deadly Ebola epidemic in West Africa that eventually killed 11,000 in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Currently, the WHO is the primary international organization battling the Covid-19 pandemic. It weathered some criticism concerning the timing of its warning of a global health emergency, but among leaders and citizens the world over, it has been one of the most trusted sources of information about coronavirus prevention, treatments, and potential vaccines. And, in developing nations with little medical infrastructure, the WHO has been on the front lines battling the virus with thousands of staff in the field providing training, equipment, and critical supplies.
Other UN Programs: The agencies and programs above are just five of dozens within the UN working for the benefit of its 193 member states and their citizens. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) helps "over one million women a month overcome pregnancy complications," the International Monetary Fund [IMF] fosters economic growth and employment by providing financial assistance to developing countries, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] protects important historical and cultural sites around the world, and the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA] promotes and helps to enforce the safe and peaceful use of nuclear technologies. And there are many more.
Several decades ago, former Senator Bill Bradley spoke about US support for the United Nations and its mission. I suspect that President-elect Joe Biden would agree with Bradley; the UN is indispensable and American leadership within the organization is critical for its future success.
"One means of paying attention to smaller countries that have sometimes been overlooked is by revitalizing US leadership in the United Nations. The UN is committed to the goal of ensuring that all nations share in economic, social, & scientific progress. It delivers humanitarian assistance to the victims of wars and natural disasters. It provides a mechanism through which the US can help in dozens of conflicts around the world in which our vital interests aren’t directly involved but where we feel a more imperative to respond. Working with the UN’s diplomacy and development arms, we can prevent minor differences from escalating into wars. When conflicts do break out, UN peacekeepers should play a role in defusing and settling them. Without giving up our sovereignty, we can help the UN with better training and better command and control in order to develop more effective peacekeeping forces." -– US Sen. Bill Bradley
Today, it's almost impossible to imagine a world without the United Nations because of its substantial contributions to diplomacy, economic development, the rule of law, education, human rights, health, the environment, and peaceful coexistence on this ever-shrinking planet. So, Happy 75th UN, and many more.
By: Don Lam & Curated Content