If you didn’t have it, you’d have to invent it

The United Nations. A punching bag for many. Everyone (including myself) has at one point or another complained about the UN, how inefficient it is, how bureaucratic, how ineffective, how badly in need of reform and updating. All those claims are true to some extent. Knowing the UN from the inside and having been not only working for the organization but married to it, I know it is in bad need of reform. But what is the alternative? What else to do we have? As a collectivity of nations, as the vulnerable people of the world who have no one to fend for them, as the needs for peaceful solutions increase to counter all the conflicts, the greed, the abuses, who else is there but the UN? True there are many other organizations that exist to help the needy and the vulnerable, but there is only one UN. It is the only organization with a broad mandate, with an all encompassing charter based on ideals of humanity and human rights and a moral fortitude to address the issues collectively as a grouping of the world’s nations, and to do so multilaterally, as one world. Just because its management is in need of reform should not detract from its mission, charter and the reason behind its invention in the wake of two destructive world wars.

The UN has been routinely underfunded, treated unfairly by one of its main member states with the biggest unpaid contribution, the US. It is easy to pick on the United Nations, it stands for everybody and nobody, it is the soft target that everyone likes to throw stones at when things go wrong, mostly due to short-sighted decisions by member states that they in turn squarely blame the UN when it is convenient for them to do so. But again, what is the alternative? Who is going to be the world’s conscience if it wasn’t the United Nations? Who will fend for the poor and vulnerable? Who will flag human rights abuses, deliver food, fight AIDS, set the standards for health practices, education, children’s rights, water and sanitation, environmental standards, climate change, peaceful negotiations to end conflict, equitable and sustainable development, governance, humanitarian interventions to alleviate suffering and save lives, industrial norms, agricultural practices that help poor farmers across the globe, the spread of the rule of law, the preservation of world heritage, keeping nuclear armaments in check, and so many other tasks that the World expects the UN to deal with.

The United Nations and all its agencies and funds spend about $27 billion each year, or about $4 for each of the world’s inhabitants. This is a very small sum compared to most government budgets and it is just a tiny fraction of the world’s military spending. Yet for nearly two decades, the UN has faced financial difficulties and it has been forced to cut back on important programs in all areas. Many member states have not paid their full dues and have cut their donations to the UN’s voluntary funds. As of May 31, 2009, members’ arrears to the Regular Budget topped $1282 million, of which the United States alone owed $857 million (67% of the regular budget arrears)- Source:UN Financial Crisis, Global Policy Forum (accessed September 13, 2009). Just so you can get the picture of the spending priorities of the world we live in, World military expenditure in 2008 is estimated to have reached $1.464 trillion in current dollars.

One of the issues faced of late in the UN is the unwillingness of the member states to support the families of peacekeeping staff, as other specialized agencies do, which means that staff working in peacekeeping missions either have to be without families, leave their families far away from their places of work with no added support, or bring them to their mission country contravening the rules. This is now an issue in Haiti, where staff working for the stabilization mission have brought families into the country, against the rules, but out of necessity, as they happen to be human. The head of mission himself, whose body was just identified under the rubble of his office in Port-au-Prince had his wife in the country, which reflected a need of these people to have their loved ones around them when doing a difficult job. The member states have again failed the UN by disregarding the needs of staff who do the undervalued job of peacekeeping, protection of civilians and spreading the values of the United Nations charter across the troubled areas of the world. And now they die in the line of duty.

In Haiti around 200 UN staff are feared dead. These are people with families and loved ones who were in the country doing a noble job in difficult circumstances. It is the biggest catastrophe in the organization’s history. The UN lost its innocence when its Baghdad Headquarters in the Canal hotel was bombed by terrorists settling scores with the US, of which Sergio Vieira de Mello (www.sergiovdmfoundation.org) – the chief of mission at the time and the brightest the UN has produced – was killed along with 22 other staff. Algeria bombings followed, as did attacks against UN staff in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, Congo and various places across the globe where these staff working to save lives and restore dignity are considered soft targets, expendable pawns much like the civilians they aim to protect, in a global chess game of power. And a few days ago nature contributed by leveling Christopher Hotel, which housed the UN mission’s headquarters in Port-au-Prince, killing scores of UN employees.

Maybe now is a good opportunity for the world to stop and take notice of its treatment of the global body that is tasked with protecting civilians and solving many of the World’s intractable problems (including the minor climate change issue that could potentially annihilate millions of the globe’s inhabitants and end life on earth). We should take a hard look at the games played by the United Nations’ 192 member states, who don’t pay their arrears and routinely push inept nationals to take leading UN jobs that contribute to the inefficiency of the organization. These member states should reflect on how their squabbling puts spokes in the wheels of what the UN is mandated to do. The US, for example, should take a step back and re-evaluate its history of using (or rather abusing) its veto power on the Security Council to protect Israel and its often abusive treatment of Palestinians and defiance of International law.

The UN needs to be given the space and the wherewithal to operate and be effective to fulfill its noble global mandate.

The time to act is now, as the UN is burying its dead and mourning its dedicated staff.

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8 Responses to If you didn’t have it, you’d have to invent it

  1. Nune says:

    Ms. Bowers sounds like one of those individuals who applied for any job at the United Nations, but was turned down for luck of skill, aptitude or good humour. How can one dislike the United Nations so much, when it is the only entity that at least tries to hold all of us together… even if you were to be an arid republican (-:

  2. Sandy Lorens says:

    Those American citizens who are so concerned about taxpaying and wasting their money on the UN which they consider as a wistful and a failed world organization, should be more worried about the fact that the US government military expenditures in 2008 have reached $1.464 trillion in current dollars which probably accounts for most of the taxes they are actually paying. Consider the fact that against that colossal sum the US is only supposed to pay less than 1 billion dollars as UN membership fee which it fails to pay anyway. It must be a joke therefore to blame the UN for the taxes US citizens are paying. What is actually happening is that Americans have been footing for decades the bill for their government’s colossal spending on military and financing of endless wars around the globe which is how it keeps its economy going,t at the very hard and real cost to its citizens .
    At least the UN is about peace and so many other undeniably noble causes concerning humanity as a whole.

  3. Paola Baldi says:

    Nobody says the UN is perfect, but not everyone is a thug or a thief. Like any organization, is made of men and sometimes some have not been of the greatest type both individually and professionally. Having said this , I had the opportunity to meet a few who were incredible individuals, hands-on the situation and who did a remarkable job where they were posted.
    What I think is needed is an urgent reform of the United Nations, not just of the security council but also on the day to day operations.

  4. I am quite familiar with the United Nations and I like the majority of Americans would prefer that our government pull out of that corrupted den of vipers and that its headquarters be moved elsewhere. At age 68 I have had a lifetime of watching the United Nations blunder and spend the funds of hard working American tax payers on foreign and domestic diplomatic thugs and criminals. The Security Council is dominated by communists and Islamist. Our leaders from Presidents and Congress have routinely voted against any United Nations initiatives and proclamations with the exception of our current disappointment of a President. He is the first and only President in the past 40 years who has had any faith in the United Nations and the One World government with the United Nations as its head which the UN is advocating. The American people made a mistake putting him in office and will soon rectify that mistake.

    I will not as you have give facts and figures as the list of corrupt activities is too long and too well known. Simply google United Nations for a history of their deeds. Any time there is a disaster in the world or a need for aid it is not the United Nations that people rely on or ask for but the United States. When peace keepers are needed it is not the United Nations Peace Keepers who are asked for but the US Army. United Nations Peace Keepers stand by and allow thugs to kill, rape and pillage and people of all nations know this. I can not recall one disaster in the world where the United Nations was of any help. You ask who will “Who is going to be the world’s conscience if it wasn’t the United Nations? Who will fend for the poor and vulnerable? Who will flag human rights abuses, deliver food, fight AIDS, set the standards for health practices, education, children’s rights, water and sanitation, environmental standards, climate change, peaceful negotiations to end conflict, equitable and sustainable development, governance, humanitarian interventions to alleviate suffering and save lives, industrial norms, agricultural practices that help poor farmers across the globe, the spread of the rule of law, the preservation of world heritage, keeping nuclear armaments in check, and so many other tasks that the World expects the UN to deal with.” The American Red Cross and the United States Armed Forces are always at the forefront of these endeavors.

    As for the war in the Middle East where a dictator and killer of his own people with WMD’s was removed by a President that has been vilified by evil doers here and abroad. History will certainly place George Bush among the greatest leaders for world peace. Heroes and villains alike are often not recognized by their contemporaries. Only after all the facts are known can people be judged accurately. The United Nations has been around long enough for far too many sad facts to be known and the organization has been deemed a failure by all. It is merely being kept alive by those who have generously been giving a voice and a vote but who offer no monetary assistance. BB

  5. As a tax payer in the “biggest contributing member” country I disagree with much said above. My money is being used so that the criminals and thugs in the United Nations can blame the United States for everything that is wrong with the world. When other countries put their money where their mouths are then perhaps we in the United States can give the United Nations a bit of respect. Right now it is only contempt that it garners from most Americans. Brenda Bowers

    • brigittekm1 says:

      Dear Ms. Bowers, thanks for your comment. I would like to point out that the United Nations was founded in the US, in San Francisco to be exact, in 1945. The US has a number of agencies in the UN that it leads, like UNICEF (now headed by your ex Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman-I will ask her if she considers herself a thug or a thief, but I doubt that very much), and the World Food Programme, headed by the ex U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs Josette Sheeran(I will also investigate for you whether Ms. Sheeran qualifies herself as a thug), and the head of department of political affairs, Mr. Lynn Pascoe, also ex US ambassador to Indonesia, in addition to hundreds of US employees that make the UN the essence of multilateralism, being the microcosm of the world, serving the world. True, there are some shortcomings in the management of the world body, but that happens in all administrations. I remember not long ago, your highest office in the US was not occupied by the most competent of people, and was judged as such not only by the world, but by his own citizens.
      Please read up on what the UN does, how the US at times asks the UN to cover for its adventures, such as the Iraq invasion, despite the UN asserting that there were no weapons of mass destruction and the war was judged illegal in that case. The US and the United Nations need each other, and we are hoping that under this new administration, a lot more cooperation will be possible, as democrats in general are more receptive of multilateralism and encourage the US to be an active player in the world, upholding the universal declaration of human rights and the charter of the UN, which basically safeguards the rights of individuals and states worldwide. International law is unfortunately not optional nor selective. The world has come together in San Francisco following world war II, and agreed on a universal charter on the terms of the winners, which were the allies, led by the US. You can see where I am going with this. The UN and the US are made to work together, and complement each other. The UN has had pretty bad hype in the US, due to purely political agendas by what I consider to be fanatics and zealots. Ask any American who works in the UN what they think, I think it will give you quite a new perspective on the work of that indispensable organization that is the conscience of the world. Thanks for reading the blog, I look forward to interacting with you on many more issues.

  6. Hans Thoolen says:

    All very true! Have never heard any critic come up with a better idea or proposal. The ‘punchball’ function of the UN would be less prominent if the UN was allowed (and capable) of bringing out its own news and ‘spin’. Where is the 24 hours UN television channel?

  7. Christiane Berthiaume says:

    The UN is not perfect. No doubt. But one thing is sure…. the world would be in a worse shape if the UN did not exist!

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