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How to defend the United Nations?

Human Rights

Celebrating the United Nations 70th anniversary. International Maritime Organization under a Creative Commons Licence

After weathering decades of diplomatic storms, many wonder if the international organization can still be reformed, writes Maggie Black.

The United Nations (UN) has just turned 70. Battered, bruised, its founding principles long buried beneath generations of rhetoric, the UN has survived – no mean achievement. Now we are told that the UN Security Council is close to agreeing a game plan for joint action – Russia included – on ending war in Syria.

The complaints against the UN for not managing this earlier have been legion. But the UN has no executive power to do anything unless its member nations want it to. That is, in fact, its virtue. An initiative under its auspices may fail. But the mechanisms are still there for the next one, and the one after that. They may be moribund for a while, but if key players on the world stage can’t agree on what to do about a major issue, what else could they be?

When the US and its allies, and Russia and its allies, really want to reach a common position, the UN is there as a hallowed and anaesthetic diplomatic arena. Its debating chambers are designed to make you feel that nothing said in them could ruffle a surface or a feather. Positions depending on days of navigation over one word can be hammered out with only the smallest reverberation.

To have available grand, anodyne, neutral places where Foreign Secretaries and Ambassadors can cross verbal swords has a vital function in getting the world to avoid blowing itself up. It provides a dilutant for international rage.

The other day, thanks to having written The No-Nonsense Guide to the UN for New Internationalist, I was asked to take part on a discussion about ‘the UN at 70’ on Radio Scotland. The discussion was chaired by Richard Holloway, ex-Bishop of Edinburgh, and had two other participants, both men, one a professor at Aberdeen, the other a Reverend.

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It was very hard to get the discussion away from the political functions of the UN and the reasons why it is not able to end wars. We all roughly agreed on the reasons for this. But on what to do about this, and whether the UN should somehow be made to have teeth, we were at odds. I would do nothing. Well anyway, what can anyone do if the UN’s members can’t agree on how it should be ‘reformed’? It’s like reforming the House of Lords: how do you get them to pass the legislation?

I never cease to be amazed that peoples such as ambassadors and professors of international studies do not understand the true nature of the UN. That its vast canopy is wide enough to shelter a motley crew of international bodies, some like universities, some like NGOs, some like government departments, that in a variety of ways address issues of common human cause. And that the political machinery’s inability to override the great powers is a major strength, not a weakness.

One of my co-guests on Radio Scotland wanted the Security Council to have majority voting. That would spell its end. Imagine a majority vote in favour of Assad or Netanyahu. Then what?

The thing that upset me about the programme was not the discussion, which was fun. But that that the only part of the recording that was cut in transmission was Richard Holloway approving the excellent work of the UN agency that delivers aid on the ground in Gaza – supporting me on the UN humanitarian record. It really did seem like a moment of BBC bias over Palestine, and I was well and truly shocked.

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