By Bill Miller
While a small number of politicians and some governments may fret about the United Nations (UN) becoming too powerful, the vast majority of their citizens have the opposite viewpoint.
A recent survey conducted by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs andWorldPublicOpinion.org documented that the bulk of people in the US and worldwide firmly believe that the “UN should be the vehicle for conflict resolution and international cooperation on a wide variety of pressing problems,” according to Christopher Whitney, Executive Director for Studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The extensive poll, which represented 56% of the world population and was conducted in the US, Russia, Mexico, South Korea and 14 other countries, made several dramatic findings that conclude:
-- By 64% to 23%, respondents favored developing a standing UN peacekeeping force that would be selected, trained and commanded by the UN. Many UN observers have argued that it was more logical, as well as cost-effective and efficient, to select (with a sponsoring country’s support) troops that would train together, speak a common language, adhere to a high code of ethics and be on call for rapid deployment when a crisis arose.
-- Somewhat surprisingly, even Israeli and the US respondents agreed by 54% and 60%, respectively, that decisions should be made within the UN -- and the countries of the UN should abide by these decisions. Had this been the prevailing sentiment at the UN in 2003, when 40 or so of the 192 UN member countries joined -- for a multitude of reasons -- the US’s Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq, the invasion would not have taken place and the Iraqi War would not be the disaster it is today. Interestingly, among the Coalition countries (except for three), the overwhelming majority of their citizens opposed their governments launching a military invasion in Iraq.
-- By a 75% to 25% margin, respondents felt the UN should have the authority to go into countries to investigate human rights violations. This concept is remarkable in that it could apply to the vast majority of countries that are UN members. Only a handful of countries have squeaky-clean human rights records, as witnessed by the Abu Ghraib torture, political repression in Cuba, and genocide in Darfur.
-- 50% of Americans do not support (45% do) the suggestion to “give the UN the power to fund its activities by imposing a small tax on the international sale of arms or oil.” The UN depends primarily on the 192 member states for its revenue, and it does not have the power to impose taxes or similar fundraising initiatives. This should be a wake-up-call to the US, which is both the largest donor and the major beneficiary of UN services, that it is necessary to stay current and pay its dues.
For example, in 2008 the US could be $1 billion in arrears on peacekeeping operations. The 18 UN peacekeeping missions are vital to the US because they bring stability to war-torn areas, keep US troops out of harm’s way, and are cheaper (according to the US Government Accountability Office) in that they cost one-eighth of a US Peacekeeping Mission.
Although the vast majority of Americans support working through the UN and giving it more authority and resources, the level of dissatisfaction with how the UN carries out its responsibilities and provides services is still around 60% (ironically, many governments would probably get a higher dissatisfaction rate in how they provide services to their citizens).
Much of this dissatisfaction is due to a lack of information about the UN. This broad based international poll has confirmed what virtually every poll since the founding of the UN in 1945 has discovered: the vast majority of the people support the UN, BUT they do not understand the UN. This dichotomy is quite reasonable when one looks at the strong current the UN’s image is swimming against.
First, everyday there are major activities being confronted by UN agencies that deal with refugees, genocide, health, international trade, drugs, and moving ships, mail and aircraft safely worldwide, only to mention a few. How many of these do the American public read or hear about? Very few. Generally speaking, American media coverage of the UN is mediocre and, at times, hostile.
Recently, one exception to the rule was how the media, by and large, did very professional, comprehensive and unbiased coverage of the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change Report. Kudos in this case!
Second, often when the media do report about a UN activity, they will say that an “international conference” was held, rather than the UN sponsored a conference on AIDS or some other issue. To compound the confusion, many UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization, are not identified by the media as affiliated with the UN.
Third, large segments of the media will grab onto something about the UN, such as the Oil for Food Program (OFFP), that they perceive to be totally negative. In reality, even though the OFFP tarnished the UN’s reputation because of some management problems, it was a very successful program because it kept Saddam Hussein constricted and helped provide basic humanitarian and infrastructure services to 80% of the Iraqi population.
Fourth, the virulent UN bashers provide a constant stream of nonsensical myths about how the UN is usurping American sovereignty, is draining its financial coffers, is undermining US foreign policy, and is totally corrupt. Much of the misinformation comes from the 80% of the radio talk show hosts that are anti-UN.
International polls are helpful to gauge the level of support for the UN and to point out where the media and the general public need to focus their attention to learn more about an organization that, although it is far from perfect, is necessary. This poll highlights that the UN is viewed as vital, and it should be used more aggressively to deal with thorny international problems that no one country, no matter how powerful, can defeat. As the maxim goes, “If the UN did not exist today, we would have to create it tomorrow.”
Bill Miller, former Chair of the UN Association of the USA, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN.