October 24 was United Nations Day - and I suspect that most readers of this article didn't know that. It was the 68th anniversary of the entry into force of the United Nations Charter, following its signature by 50 states in San Francisco in June 1945.
The preamble to the Charter begins with the words "We the Peoples" - and we all know where that came from. The United States took a leading part in drafting the language of the Charter of the new international organization which was designed "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom."
From those early days in the wake of World War II when hopes were high and so much was expected from the new organization, the United Nations has slipped markedly in the eyes of the American public. There was a time not so many years ago when trick or treat visits by children at Halloween were also accompanied by collection boxes for monetary gifts to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), but no longer.
There are many reasons why Americans have soured on the UN, some deservedly so but others not. First, with expectations so high it is not surprising that there should be disappointment when they are not achieved. Another factor is that the world has changed: in 1945 the global population was some two and half billion, but it is now seven billion and the world's carpet is wearing rather thin in places. In October 1945 there were 51 member states of the UN and the number increased significantly in the 1960s as countries became independent from colonialism: today there are 193. Finding agreement among that many is not easy.
A significant contribution to public misunderstanding is because most of what the UN does is never seen by Americans at large. The work of promoting human rights, social and economic progress, and better standards of life in larger freedom goes on in developing countries, not in the industrialized and rich countries of the USA and the West. Thus, for example, the valuable and dedicated work of UNICEF, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN Fund for the Development of Women (UNIFEM), the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO) and other agencies is largely carried out overseas out of sight - and out of mind - of the US media and general public.
But it is perhaps in the area of peace and security that Americans have become most disillusioned about the UN. For political decision-making, these matters are in the hands of the UN Security Council. This is the body of 15 member states that does its business at UN Headquarters in New York. It is composed of five permanent member states - China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States - plus ten other states who serve for two years at a time. For a resolution to be adopted it needs nine affirmative votes, but the permanent five (known colloquially as the P5) each have an ace up their sleeve: the veto. A negative vote by any of the P5 stops a resolution from being adopted. Without that veto power there can be no doubt that the USA would never have ratified the Charter in the first place.
In early September, America and its allies Britain and France were irritated by the refusal by Russia and China to accept resolutions authorizing the use of force against Syria. "The UN is useless - the Council doesn't work" cried the critics. But on the contrary, while we may be annoyed by the attitudes of Russia and China, the Council is working the way it was designed to work. It is the economic sanctions imposed by the Council on Iran over its nuclear program that have probably brought Iran to the negotiating table. And it is the veto power that would enable the United States to block any resolution that it felt was not in its own security interests or that of its friends, such as Israel.
Another often heard comment is "Why is America always the world's policeman?" But in fact, it isn't. Americans are largely unaware that the UN has over 115,000 military, police and civilian personnel serving in 15 ongoing peacekeeping operations, many of which are in Africa. They are mostly the small operations in which the United States has no or little strategic interest. America is certainly the world's most capable military SWAT team, but it is not the world's policeman. The troops themselves come from other countries and the biggest troop contributions at present come from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Ethiopia (yes - Ethiopia with 6,589).
The United States currently contributes 26 troops. The largest part of the $7.5 billion annual costs of peacekeeping are borne by the P5 and that is the price they pay for having the special voting power in the UN Security Council. Indeed, a complaint from countries that provide troops and take casualties is that the P5 vote to authorize the operations but it is the blood of the soldiers from developing countries that gets spilled.
However, when situations arise that need major combat capabilities, it is no good giving the job to the UN. After all, member states - particularly the United States - do not want the UN to be a world government and therefore do not want the UN to have the full military accoutrement of bombers, missiles and heavy armor. Thus, in principle and in accordance with the provisions of the United Nations Charter, international actions by coalitions of states that involve going to war require an authorizing resolution from the UN Security Council. In the absence of such authority, military actions initiated by states are unlawful in the eyes of international law - and in that context, read again the third quotation from the preamble to the United Nations Charter that I have given in the second paragraph above.
In sum, is the UN worth having? I suggest decidedly so. Does it fail to meet expectations? Again, yes. Is it a frustrating place to work? I can say from my own experience of working for well over 20 years in the political and security side of the organization that it certainly is, and often inevitably so because of the political differences and disagreements between the policies and attitudes of member states. But it is precisely to provide a mechanism where those differences can be aired and agreements hammered out that the UN exists at all. It may be a hackneyed phrase, but if it didn't exist it would have to be invented.
I know from my own experience that the UN family has a staff that contains many dedicated and hardworking men and women with a wide range of talents. They come from a wide range of countries and over the years some thousands have sacrificed their lives in pursuit of the aims identified in the Charter. Don't give up on the UN, America. Its basic aims are your aims and it needs you.
Derek Boothby worked for the United Nations from 1978 to 2008 in arms control, in peacekeeping and as a Director in the Department for Political Affairs.