A new Secretary General of the UN is to be chosen this year. In the past the usual procedure was that those interested in the job lobbied the permanent members with veto power of the Security Council (US, Russia, Britain, China, and France) behind closed doors. Once chosen, the name was send to the General Assembly, which automatically approved it. The smaller nations, who usually have had no say in the matter, insisted this time that the process be more open.
Diplomats from the UN will, for the first time, consider a woman candidate and have the opportunity to meet and question the candidates for the job. Currently, there are four women and four men running for the position. While the process will be more open diplomatic maneuvering between the US and Russia will still be decisive. They want the Secretary General to be more secretary than general. Rumors have been circulating that Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, may be considered. The chances are slim, even if she wanted the job, as she would be too strong a figure.
Facing the Challenges Ahead
The new Secretary General comes at a difficult time for the UN and will face serious challenges. For example, the allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers as well as the countries reluctance to hold their soldiers accountable, the poor sanitation by peacekeepers in Haiti linked to the terrible Cholera epidemic there. Other challenges include holding countries accountable for the promises made in Paris at the recent Climate Change conference. An important mission for the new Secretary General is to play a central role in ending wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen as well as finding resources to help millions of refugees. Also important is helping WHO which has been criticized for the inadequate response to the Ebola crisis.
With a new Secretary General taking the helm next year, it is a good time to look at the UN through the lens of our humanism and to provide a perspective on what the UN is able and unable to do.
Looking Back on the UN’s History
The UN was founded in 1945 after two catastrophic wars in which about 90 million people died. Its main task was to use collective action to prevent a third world war, to keep the peace and promote security. The UN is a repository of our hopes and ideals. Yet, it is a human institution in the real world with its inevitable conflicts. It is a mirror of the world its divisions, disagreements as well as our hopes.
The founding document, the Charter, embodies the ideals as well as hardnosed politics. The Charter was carefully crafted to maintain the power and control of the major powers. The Charter opens with a statement affirming faith in fundamental rights and the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women. It is certainly a humanist credo.
It is not a world government but an organization of currently 193 sovereign states. It does not have an army and is basically ruled by the Security Council. The Secretary General must carry out the mandates of the council.
Permanent Members’ Veto Power
The council consists of 15 member states, 10 on a 2 year rotation and 5 permanent members, US, Britain, China, Russia and France. Passing a resolution requires 9 votes, unless one of the permanent members uses the veto. In other words, if a major power does not want action and uses the veto it will not happen.
Some comment on the veto. The US and its four allies made it clear at the time that they would not participate if they did not have this power. The veto is not democratic but it keeps the big players in the game and there is no game without them. France and Britain support the idea of limiting the veto power in case of mass atrocities. However, it has been ignored by China, Russia and the US.
Basic to the UN is sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of a country as well as control by the major powers. That is the bottom line.
When the UN was founded most violence was between countries. Now most violence is within countries. The Security Council with the veto power nations as well as the inhibition to interfere in internal affairs have a great deal of difficulty with this. The basic tension is between Sovereignty and internationalism. In spite of this the UN over the years has negotiated many peaceful settlements in El Salvador, Cambodia, Macedonia, Mozambique, Namibia, Sierra Leone East Timor etc. We rarely hear about these successes. Why?
UN’s Many Accomplishments
Among its accomplishments are being in the forefront in promoting the science and the realty of climate change. This recently resulted in a major agreement. The UN feeds and shelters, vaccinates and educates millions of people. The World Food Program reaches 90 million people a year. UN efforts have led to the eradication of smallpox and has provided much help in development assistance. This has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of extreme poor in the world. The UN assists, when they can, refugees fleeing war famine and persecution. However, the UN is seriously underfunded. In 2015 UN spending was only about half of NYC’s $75 billion budget.
Some of the UN’s failures have been highly visible. Very disappointing is that the UN has not been able to stop ethnic cleansing, genocide, and atrocious crimes against humanity which have taken place in Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia, Srebrenica, and now the carnage in Syria. The principle cause of the UN’s failure has been the lack of will and agreement of the major powers. In the case of Rwanda, the Clinton administration blocked action in the Security Council. In the case of Syria, Russia and China have blocked progress. Among other failures has been the inability to stop sex abuses by some peacekeepers and WHO’s delayed response to the Ebola and the later Zika epidemic.
What About the Future of the UN?
Problems increasingly cross borders without passports. However, no nation can solve these problems by themselves. These problems are global and require global attention. Examples of such problems are: global climate change, terrorism, migration, proliferation of weapons, international crime, and trafficking. Nations addressing these global problems, despite their unwillingness, are being pulled toward the need for cooperation. The UN is a natural forum for this ongoing need. If the UN didn’t do these things who would?
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, the IHEU and National Ethical Service representative to the UN and Reba Goodman member of ECSBC.