When the 193 member states of the United Nations General Assembly convene in September, they will deal with a wide-range of issues, such as terrorism, poverty, climate change, diseases, nuclear proliferation and a myriad of other issues. They will also celebrate the 70th anniversary of the UN. This would be an ideal time to review the evolution of the UN, its necessary services and unique challenges over the past seven decades, and how it can be an even more effective and efficient world body in the 21st Century.
The Preamble of the United Nations highlights the three major functions of the international organization: "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war," promote economic and social development, and enhance human rights worldwide.
The UN evolved out of the devastation of World War II where Europe lay in ruins, parts of Asia had been destroyed, over 60 million people died and tens of millions more had been displaced. Some foreign policy observers equate the founding of the UN in 1945 to the mythical Greek Phoenix Bird that rose from the ashes of devastation and the failed League of Nations--which the UN replaced.
The main architect of the UN was US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), in collaboration with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. After witnessing the incredible devastation of WW II, leaders realized they needed an international organization that would bring all the countries of the world under one roof so they could, hopefully, resolve their differences peacefully at the negotiating table rather than on the battlefields as they did in WW I and WW II.
Undoubtedly, lurking in the backs of their minds was a fear of moving into an atomic weapon era. In August of 1945, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki indelibly stamped a picture of how the world would look if wars advanced from using conventional weapons to more devastating atomic weapons. As Dr. Albert Einstein prophesied, "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Shortly after FDR died on April 12, the United Nations Conference on International Organization convened in San Francisco, CA. on April 25, 1945. Along with 50 nations (Poland joined later), the world leaders invited major non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as Rotary International and Lions Clubs International, to play a strategic role in shaping a "blueprint for peace." On June 26, the UN Charter was signed, and on October 24, 1945, the Charter was ratified.
The UN created six basic Organs: the General Assembly (meeting hall of the world), the Security Council, International Court of Justice or World Court, Trusteeship Council, Economic and Social Council and the Secretariat. The Security Council was the most powerful of the Organs because the resolutions adopted, as opposed to the General Assembly's, were legally binding on the countries or parties.
The basic premise for the Security Council was that the five winners of WW II (US, USSR, Republic of China, UK and France) would theoretically mobilize their forces and work together if there were any threats to peace and security anyplace in the world. Unfortunately, the Cold War began shortly after the Charter was signed. Since each of the five Permanent Members had the VETO, it only took one to scuttle a resolution.
In essence, the Cold War was fought in the Security Council with the US and USSR vetoing one another's resolutions. In 1989-1991, what with the rusting of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the UN Security Council moved to a new approach of being more cooperative, rather than confrontational. Differences still exist; however, not to the degree they did during the Cold War.
During one of the bleakest periods of the Cold War, the UN played a pivotal role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. The US and the USSR were poised to engage in a nuclear war that probably would have eliminated most living organisms on Earth. As the Soviet ships steamed toward Cuba carrying nuclear missiles, the US moved to DEFCON 2 (Defense Condition 2). The next step was to push the button for a nuclear exchange.
UN Secretary-General U Thant and the and the UN's neutral venue played a critical role in possibly avoiding WW III. U Thant shuttled peace proposals between the two sides and the impartial UN forum allowed the two adversaries to conduct back-channel diplomacy. US Ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson utilized the Security Council to present ironclad evidence that clearly indicated preparations were being made to install the missiles. Had there been a nuclear exchange, nobody would have emerged a victor. Sir Winston Churchill summed it up when he said, "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."
Two other brief examples highlight the UN peacemaking services:
--In March of 2003, when the Bush Administration launched what is widely-viewed as the biggest foreign policy blunder in US history and an illegal invasion of a sovereign Iraq, the majority of the UN member states and people worldwide did not believe the contrived and bogus so-called facts being presented regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), of which Saddam had none. Regardless, after the damaging invasion occurred, the UN rallied to provide security and developmental assistance to the Iraqi people, thus helping President Bush out of a difficult situation. The by-passing of the UN Security Council was forgotten for the moment.
In hindsight, when Saddam Hussein was overthrown, there were numerous unintended negative consequences. Two of the most devastating were to set off a chain reaction of spawning radical Islamic groups, such as ISIS throughout the Middle East and to make Iran the most powerful player in that area of the world Today, the tragedy is still unfolding.
--At the 2013 Opening Session of the UN General Assembly, President Barack Obama had hoped to meet with the moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Although the two did not meet at the UN, they did talk by telephone later, which laid the groundwork for the current discussions that may keep Iran from securing a nuclear weapon. Had Rouhani not been at the UN, this opening for dialogue would have occurred---at least not this quickly.
Since the founding of the UN in 1945, various public opinion polls such as Roper, Wirthlin and Gallup, to mention just a few, have shown that Americans generally support the UN anywhere from 44-85%, depending upon the issue and topic polled. Although the vast majority of the people in the US support the UN's goals and concepts, they do not understand the UN. This dichotomy is quite reasonable when one looks at the prevailing headwinds battering the UN’s image.
First, most, but not all, American media coverage of the UN is mediocre and, at times, hostile, which means the American public is not getting a complete picture of the various programs, both with their strengths and weaknesses.
Second, courses on the UN are not taught in the school systems as they were 45 or 50 years ago. International public opinion polls show that people in other countries have more knowledge about the UN than do Americans.
Third, the virulent UN bashers provide a constant stream of fictional myths about how the UN is usurping American sovereignty, is draining the US's financial coffers, is undermining US foreign policy, and is totally corrupt--all of which are baseless and incorrect. Much of this misinformation comes from a large number of radio talk show hosts, FOX News and even members of the US Congress who are both anti-UN and do not understand how the UN operates.
Fourth, large segments of the media will grab onto a problem in the UN, such as the transgressions by a small number of UN peacekeepers (out of a total of 120,0000 troops on-loan from various countries) who may violate both the Military Code and people's human rights by trading sex for food or abusing someone under their protectorate. Although the UN has a Zero Tolerance Policy that automatically removes the perpetrator, that is often not reported in detail by the media.
Often, much of the American media have a fixation with the Security Council and peacekeeping which overlooks the other 80% of the UN that deals with basic humanitarian and social assistance. A few years ago when Russia threatened to veto a Security Council Resolution applying more pressure on Bashar Al-Assad, President of Syria, little media attention was paid to the front-line UN agencies working every day to assist over 2 million Syrian refugees so they had basic necessities and were moved out of the fighting zones.
People worldwide need to be reminded how the UN personally affects them through agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO). Although WHO got off to a slow start in combating the Ebola Virus outbreak, it led the world in eliminating smallpox and is effectively working with Rotary International and UNICEF to eliminate the scourge of polio.
There are many vital services the UN agencies provide such as bringing together airlines, shipping companies, postal authorities and national weather operations to draft the rules and regulations to deliver these services safely in international space. The US, which has the largest number of international flying passengers, is definitely concerned about issues such as safety regulations and air piracy while in international airspace. The same applies to traveling on ships on the high seas.
Arguably, the US earns more off of the UN than it pays in dues. Regarding the financial payback, various studies over the past several years indicate that the US earns about $1.66 for every $1.00 invested in the UN.
UN agencies help promote protection of intellectual property rights, democracy, market economies, economic investment, not to mention it saves UPS, Delta, Qantas, Air Canada, JAL, Aeromexico and scores of other airlines millions of dollars they do not have to spend to formulate individual bilateral aviation agreements with each overseas destination where those airlines fly.
The 16 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 generally cost one-eighth of that of a US Peacekeeping Mission.
The 70th Anniversary of the UN offers a unique opportunity for the UN's Department for Public Information to launch a "re-connection information campaign" between people worldwide and an international body that positively touches everyone's lives . It should be an objective overview of the UN's strengths and weaknesses, and not a puff-piece. Since the majority of the 7.2 billion people on the Earth were not alive when the UN was launched, UN experts should explain how and why the UN was formed, what the world looked like in 1945, how the UN's role evolved with more demanding challenges, and what is the logical role of the UN in confronting contemporary problems.
The UN of today is dealing with life-and-death issues that were not on the radar screen in 1945. The ideal situation would be for the American public and people worldwide to learn more about the UN's challenges, as well as contributing to making the organization more effective and efficient.
Given that the UN, even with its shortcomings, is one of the most important international institutions, everyone should learn more about it. As the maxim goes, “If the UN did not exist today, we would have to create it tomorrow.”
Bill Miller is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN and is the Producer/Moderator of “Global Connection Television.” (www.globalconnectionstelevision.com)
Cover photo by Muhammad Ghouri