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.