By Drs. Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Reba Goodman
The issue of the pros and cons of the United Nations continues to baffle us. This is especially so during the transition to new Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the amazing dramatic ups and downs of Donald Trump as the new president of the United States. This is a good time to consider the forthcoming prospects of the UN.
Most people don’t know much about what the UN does. This is due in part to absence of adequate media coverage. Why is the media reluctant to disseminate the information that the UN provides?
For example, how many people know that the UN provides food and housing for the staggering 65 million refugees in a variety of camps like in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey? Recently it was announced that the UN’s World Food program was running out of money and had to reduce food rations by half. The UN is chronically short of money for its vital humanitarian activities. The UN excels in providing clean water, sanitation, vaccines for fighting disease in children and maternal health care to 30 million women. The media mostly ignores these programs.
Transition Out of Poverty
In fact, in recent years the world has been experiencing a remarkable historic transition. Every day about a quarter-million people worldwide move out extreme poverty. In the 1980s more than 40 percent of all people were living in extreme poverty. Now, less than 10 percent are. Since 1990 more than 100 million children have been saved through vaccinations, breast-feeding promotion and diarrhea treatment. People are living much longer than they did 50 years ago and many more girls are getting an education. It is baffling that the media ignores these historic trends.
The new Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, is an able, polished politician from Portugal. He was prime minister of Portugal from 1995 until 2002 and UN High Commissioner of Refugees for 10 years. He is acutely aware that funding for UN operations is vital. He also recognizes that one of the great failures of the UN in recent years is preventing conflict and maintaining security. Due to the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council, the UN has been unable to prevent war crimes in Syria, South Sudan and Yemen.
Guterres is in tough spot. He will have to prevent a collision course between the UN and the new U.S. president and a Republican Congress that is mostly antagonistic to it. President Trump is considering serious cuts in many UN programs.
One the one hand, Guteress has to ensure U.S. buy-in to keep the UN running and relevant. On the other hand, he has to be a guardian and advocate of UN principles, including human rights and promoting cooperation when possible.
President Trump in his America First rhetoric is mostly antagonistic to the UN and international cooperation. His comments on climate action, human rights and UN funding run counter to UN positions. Trump has reintroduced the “gag rule,” which denies U.S. funding to any organization that provides reproductive information and mentions abortion. Vice president Mike Pence is a vocal critic of women’s rights and abortion. The UN Population Fund, which oversees maternal reproductive health programs, may become a victim.
Let us consider Trump’s unusual inaugural address. He did not reach out to the millions that did not vote for him, which is unusual. He was totally insensitive to the historic background of the America First language–the isolationalist movement in the 1930s before World War II and the Nazi-like language of Charles Lindbergh. Trump in his speech seemed to belittle international alliances and pursue American interest as he sees them.
In the increasingly globalized world, the reality is that to achieve American interests you have to work cooperatively with other countries. His vision is counter to the UN’s vision, which promotes human rights and cooperation. If Trump pursues his vision, he will most likely experience pushback. If he doesn’t learn from this experience, we may be in for a rough ride.
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, an IHEU representative to the UN and Dr. Reba Goodman, Ethical Culture Society member of Bergen County NJ.