The month of September isn’t just back to school month; it’s also back to work for the United Nations. As the UN General Assembly begins its 68th session, it faces the ongoing problem of Syria, the looming 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and a host of other issues that would make anyone grateful that they’re not Ban Ki Moon.
Of course, Syria remains the most pressing issue, along with the frustration of the Security Council’s inability to do anything until the Permanent Five can agree on a course of action. For the past two years, there has been a complete stalemate in the Security Council, leaving frustrated policymakers to deem the UN as a whole a complete failure. Yes, whether we’re talking about the Syrian stalemate, climate change, or peacekeeping, no one has anything good to say about the poor old UN.
Let’s be fair: these claims of sub-par UN performance are not completely unfounded. When world leaders come to address the 68th session of the General Assembly, there’s concerns such as whether or not Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has a warrant out for his arrest by the International Criminal Court, will show up. In its day-to-day operations on the Human Rights Council, rotating members include shining beacons of human rights such as China, Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. We also can’t forget the UN Peacekeepers posted to Haiti after a major earthquake, who were responsible for a cholera outbreak that has killed more than 8,000 people and sickened 600,000 since 2010. These issues aside, critics have chosen to focus on the UN’s inability to even condemn Assad’s actions in the Security Council (until Obama threatened military action and suddenly Putin decided to become the peace-maker) and have declared the organization a failure, much like its predecessor, the League of Nations.
Is this fair? Not entirely. In the UN Charter, Chapter 1 states the purpose for its existence:
To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;
To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;
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; and
To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.
It is certainly easy to look at the current state of Syria, the 15 not-so-peaceful peacekeeping operations, and all the other issues around the world and reject the notion that the UN is fulfilling its purpose. However, that is not, and cannot ever be, the full story. Here’s what else the UN has done or is doing to ensure peace and security:
- The UN oversaw decolonization in the post-war world: The UN Trusteeship Council was established in 1945 to ensure that territories belonging to colonizing powers were administered in ways that promoted the advancement of the inhabitants of the Trust, while working towards self-government and independence. Although it was not perfect (the status of Palestine is still in question) nor without conflict, nearly all Trusts under the UN became independent, sovereign nations, and the Council suspended its operations in 1994 after Palau became independent.
- The UN saves countless lives every year: Starvation, malaria, diarrheal diseases, maternal mortality, HIV/AIDS, TB, and gender-based violence are just a sample of the problems that result in the millions of unnecessary deaths each year. We certainly can’t expect states to solve all of these problems (particularly if a problem doesn’t affect them), so UN affiliates and entities such as the WHO, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNEP, UN-HABITAT, and the WFP are focused on solving the world’s most pressing issues. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have set tangible targets to help address these issues, and although not all of the goals will be met by their 2015 deadline, without the UN, the following would not have occurred:
- 700 million fewer people lived in conditions of extreme poverty in 2010 than in 1990.
- Despite population growth, the number of deaths in children under five worldwide declined from 12.4 million in 1990 to 6.6 million in 2012, which translates into about 17,000 fewer children dying each day.
- At the end of 2011, 8 million people were receiving antiretroviral therapy for HIV. This total constitutes an increase of over 1.4 million people from December 2010.
- The UN is at the forefront of the global human rights regime: Unlike the Security Council, it does not matter what country you are when it comes to the findings of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Office of the High Commissioner has never been shy about naming and shaming human rights abuses from Boston to Beijing. The work of their special rapporteurs, independent experts, councils, and working groups have exposed human rights abuses all over the world, including in our own backyard in Guantanamo Bay.
Of course there are still abysmal failures when it comes to peace and security. The Security Council’s actions are dependent on the interests of the Permanent Five. But shouldn’t that mean reform in the Security Council is necessary, rather than classifying the UN as a whole as a complete and total failure. If the world wanted the UN to work, it would, because the operations of the UN are completely dependent on its members. The UN cannot simply break itself, and does not have to be a failure if its members don’t let it.