A global consciousness is emerging — a recognition that the world is increasingly interconnected. Global problems do not need passports to cross national boundaries. Only collective action can respond to them.
Still,the UN has been attacked, by both the right and the left. From the conservative or nationalist perspective, the UN is a threat to sovereignty. On the left, the UN is viewed as a tool for Western domination. Because the UN is a federation of nations, often with conflicting interests, there is a built-in tension between the insistence on sovereignty and internationalism.
A new Secretary-General took the helm at the beginning of the year — a good time to look at the UN through the lens of our humanism. The founding Charter begins by affirming faith in fundamental human rights, the worth of the human person, and the equal rights of men and women. Certainly our humanist credo. The UN embodies our hopes, yet it is a human institution in the real world, with inevitable conflicts within its 192 member states.
The idea of a federation of nations working collectively is not new. Much earlier than the failed League of Nations, in 1795, Immanuel Kant wrote a work called Perpetual Peace which outlines a federation of states (Republics) resolving conflicts by discussion based on international law and under terms of a founding charter. An idea whose time has come.
A snapshot of the UN’s accomplishments and its failures: The UN has negotiated 172 peaceful settlements, in El Salvador, Cambodia, Macedonia, Mozambique, …, the list goes on. UN peace operations have helped uphold ceasefires, promote and conduct free and fair elections, oversee troop withdrawals and maintain political stability. Currently 18 peacekeeping operations are in action.
The World Health Organization has eradicated smallpox and is close to eradicating polio. In 1995, an 80% immunization rate has saved 3,000,000 children a year. Famine relief is a major activity. In 1997, the UN High Commission for Refugees gave food, shelter and medical care to 2.2 million refugees, mostly women and children.
The UN monitors earth, air, sea and space, the world’s newest dimension. Curbing global warming and efforts to protect the ozone layer demand an international approach, as does control of over-fishing and environmental pollution.
Programs for the education and advancement of women have proved effective. As one example, raising women’s literacy has reduced child mortality in developing countries.
Some of the UN’s failures have been highly visible. The UN has not always stopped ethnic cleansing and genocide. Atrocious crimes against humanity have taken place in Rwanda, Cambodia, Srebenica and now the ongoing carnage in the Darfur region of Sudan. The principal cause of the UN’s failure has been lack of will of the major powers.
Still there are surprises. In the last 15 years, more civil wars ended through negotiation than in the last two centuries. Largely this has happened because of the UN. Some of these settlements fall apart, creating the danger that civil war will recur. In order to focus attention and preventive help for these dangerous and contagious troublespots, the UN has established a Peacebuilding Commission.
The UN is promoting the idea that extreme poverty is the denial of a basic human right. Too many people in the world suffer from hunger and curable disease, as well as poverty that creates a life without hope. By comparison with the past, there has been improvement. Today, the number of people in absolute poverty, less than $1 a day, is an unforgiveable 1.3 billion, 20% of the world’s population. This number has stayed the same since 1950, when the total of the world’s population was much smaller. The percent of absolute poor in 1950 was an astounding 50%. Now, today, many more people are living beyond the margins of extreme poverty than in 1950.
There is still much work to do. At mid-century, poverty and hunger seemed inevitable, an act of nature and essentially unalterable. Up to the present the UN has functioned as the world’s emergency room. Now largely because of the UN’s spotlight, it is clear that hunger and poverty can be eliminated by collective action. Given the inherent conflict between the will for sovereignty of the nations and the pressing need for international action to ward off chaos, major tensions will continue. To paraphrase the words of the poet, the world is slouching toward cooperation. There is good reason to expect that the nations will increasingly turn to regional cooperation and more openly to the UN.
So, finally, two cheers for the UN. The third cheer will be reserved for a time when the public, governments and the UN will succeed in preventing genocide and all crimes against humanity.
Phyllis Ehrenfeld, Representative to the UN for the National Service Conference of the American Ethical Union.
Sylvain Ehrenfeld, Representative to the UN for the International Humanist & Ethical Union.