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In May 1959, Dag Hammarskjöld asked the Students Association in Copenhagen, “Do we need the United Nations?” Ever since, we have been periodically returning to that question whenever the UN remains conspicuously absent during a crisis. With enough ongoing crises to merit a sequel to Billy Joel’s 1989 hit, We Didn’t Start The Fire – Syria, drugs, Libya, human trafficking, Yemen, terrorism, Boko Haram, climate change, Afghanistan, water, Kordofan, disease, Somalia, poverty, Balochistan, refugees, South Sudan, hunger, Donbass – the United Nations has not had much positive press. Disenchantment with the Organisation, particularly in the more developed countries, has grown as various crises threaten their prosperity.

This is a very uncharitable and narrow view of the United Nations. There are many areas in which the United Nations been a vital force, many regions where Blue Helmets were the only acceptable foreign presence. The criticism of the UN falls short in that it conflates the two roles the Organisation plays: one as a forum for negotiations and the other as an executive body. Most dissatisfaction with the United Nations, when considered closely, is directed at the second role, the not infrequent failure of the Security Council to live up to our morality. However, it would be myopic to disregard the UN’s unsung successes in the several other aspects of the executive function, not to mention the importance of its negotiating platform.

Although despair at the UN seems to run high among policy wonks, the Organisation enjoys robust support among the public. In a 2011 Gallup poll, the UN registered greater approval than disapproval in 106 of 126 countries surveyed. Overall, 44 per cent of the people surveyed responded positively about the UN while only 17 per cent disapproved. The UN was most unpopular in the Middle East, North Africa, and the United States while its most ardent supporters were from Sub-Saharan Africa; 61 per cent of Qataris disapproved of the UN while 86 per cent of Sierra Leoneans approved of it. This spread is not surprising when seen as indicative of the UN’s successes and failures.

Some of the United Nation’s greatest hits includes food aid to war-torn, impoverished, and famine-struck countries. Since 1961, the World Food Programme (WFP) has been one of the most effective multilateral efforts against global hunger. With a workforce of only 11,500 people, the WFP, on average, feeds some 80 million people in 75 countries. Even better, the group fights to prevent future hunger by helping communities build food assets and providing them education and training in agriculture, food security, procurement, nutrition, logistics, and other related topics. Similarly, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) have worked with the international poor by providing them microloans and grants for agricultural activities that not only feed them but also alleviate their poverty. Set up in 1977, IFAD has since reached over 430 million poor rural people.

The United Nations has also led the international effort against diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and polio. Through the World Health Organisation (WHO), Global Fund, and UNAIDS, the United Nations has provided medicines, including antiretroviral therapy, quinine, Rifampicin, Isoniazid, Salk vaccine, and sulfa drugs to millions of people; over 500 million insecticide-treated nets have been distributed to prevent malarial outbreaks. The UN has worked with other organisations and governments to raise funds, heighten awareness, and establish systems and protocols to prevent and fight epidemics. The successful campaign to eradicate smallpox is a testimony to the enormous work that has been put in by the UN, its affiliates, and cosponsors towards global health.

The cause of women and children has found a strong advocate in the United Nations. Expertise in mother and child health, family planning, and preventing sexually transmitted diseases has been shared with more than 100 countries via affiliates like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Definitive measures were taken to create sources of clean water and improve sanitation and nutrition. The Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has made great strides in promoting literacy and protecting children against exploitation. The United Nations has been an important forum in drafting international conventions to remove discrimination against women in the political, civil, economic, social, and cultural life. Women and children are among the worst affected by human trafficking and the narcotics trade. The Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking (UN.GIFT) works to foster awareness, consolidate global support, and counter trafficking in consultation with governments. A trust fund supports victims’ rehabilitation. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) provides states technical expertise on illicit drugs and detection to help law enforcement; it also provides legal services to help draft and implement domestic and international legislation to thwart the influence of narcotics on institutions and society.

The United Nations has developed impressive credentials in holding and monitoring elections. Just in the last 25 years, the United Nations Department of Political Affairs (UNDPA), through its Electoral Assistance Division (UNEAD), has provided technical, logistical, and other support to Cambodia, Iraq, El Salvador, East Timor, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Congo, South Africa, and Nepal to conduct free and fair elections. The UN has participated in over 300 projects in the same time period, at times in locations where the only foreign presence acceptable was the international organisation.

Credit must also be given the United Nations for attempting to create a legal framework for war crimes and genocide. A sensitive issue inextricably tied to national honour and sovereignty, input is taken from several sources – states, individuals, advocacy groups – and progress depends on nearly unanimous decisions of several parties. There has been some success, admittedly slow, on tribunals covering the erstwhile Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia but funding is another hurdle.

Among the most visible activities that the United Nations performs is peacekeeping. In fact, the role is almost synonymous with the United Nations and seen as the raison d’etre for its formation in 1945. The Blue Helmets deserve credit for going into countries in which no one else had any interest. In several cases, neighbouring states were themselves too weak and divided to contribute to regional security. In Congo, Liberia, Kosovo, or Burundi, for example, the only alternative to UN peacekeepers would have been slaughter and mayhem. Most problems arising in UN peacekeeping operations are a result of vague mandates and the difficulty of managing troops from so many different sovereignties and varying capabilities and training. Currently, the United Nations is involved in 16 peacekeeping missions worldwide with an internationally contributed force of slightly over 118,000 troops, police, and civilian personnel. In many of these places, the UN is the most reliable institution on the ground.

Often underestimated is the United Nations’ presence as a forum for informal discussions on several issues of regional or international importance such as the removal of landmines, disarmament, nuclear proliferation, internet privacy, or climate change. The United Nations may not always take the lead in such discussions but the assembly of a permanent diplomatic conference facilitates low-key negotiations between parties in bilateral or even multilateral settings. Diplomats assigned to the New York office develop wide-ranging contacts and come to understand each other on a personal basis. Such anonymity and flexibility of exchanges are a great service to international diplomacy: their lack of publicity should not be taken to suggest that they are unimportant. On the contrary, the exact opposite is the case.

The most acrid criticism of the United Nations is reserved for its other most visible role – that as a security provider. The UN Security Council’s (UNSC) numerous failings are often cited as an indication that the UN has not lived up to its most important task. However, it must also be borne in mind that the United Nations was not created as a global gendarme, and there are practical as well as conceptual problems associated with demanding such a role. The Organisation is a collective of states and it is only with their permission that it can act on behalf of the world community. The United Nations has no independent army nor an economy by which to procure such an army; it depends on the contributions of its members to function in a military or civilian capacity.

The use of military force by the United Nations must have the support of all the Great Powers and the majority of the Security Council. Without this high standard of congruence, Hammarskjöld warned, no military action has an effective foundation with which to act. Furthermore, without such unanimity, the United Nations is susceptible to being transformed into a military alliance in a conflict between the Powers. The intervention in Korea demonstrated how dangerous such action could be if taken only by a simple majority of members. The United Nations was never designed to be an organ of collective security such as one of the alphabet soup of alliances the United States created during the early Cold War to contain the Soviet Union; rather, the aim was to create a universal system through which peace and other common goals may be pursued.

If the failings of the Great Powers diminish the UN, then it is a reflection of the prevailing world order and abandoning the Organisation will hardly contribute to peace and stability. Ultimately, though the nations of the world come together at the United Nations in false equality – one country, one vote – the Security Council is a reminder of global economic and military wherewithal. The UN is not truly an idealistic organisation as many suppose but a fairly pragmatic one, infused with just a little hope for a better tomorrow. To write off the UN because of difficulties or a few failures, Hammarskjöld reminded his audience in 1959, would mean, among other things, “to write off our hope of developing methods for international coexistence which offer a better chance than the traditional ones for truth, justice, and good sense to prevail.”

This past weekend, the UN crossed 70. I, for one, hope it has as many more.

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