The United Nations headquarters in New York.
LAST September, virtually, due to COVID-19, leaders from around the world made speeches lauding, decrying, or reflecting on the history of the United Nations. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations and in the recent past such anniversaries have been marked by significant actions taken by the 193 states that are members of the organization. In 2005, for example, the 60th anniversary of the UN, which followed the horror of the Rwandan genocide, the General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution on the Responsibility to Protect, a major advance in international law where every state acknowledged in paragraphs 138-139 of the World Summit Outcome Document that it had the “responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.”
Faced with the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has so far infected over 30 million people and is responsible for nearly a million deaths as of September 24, can the leaders of the world mark this anniversary by moving forcefully in 2020 not only to combat the current pandemic but also to reaffirm global cooperation to secure peace and stability, fight climate change, promote sustainable development, and achieve better equality between men and women, four of the many central pillars of the modern UN?
The fall session of the UN General Assembly is always one of the great events of international diplomacy: leaders flock to New York to speak to the Assembly and engage in critical bilateral meetings with their peers, ambassadors engage in hushed hallway diplomacy, and NGOs organize a plethora of off-site conferences, hoping to attract the attention of current decision makers to their cause. Not this year. For the first time since the founding of the United Nations, leaders did not attend in person. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres began the High-Level Meeting on September 21 speaking to the Declaration for the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations (achieved after a hectic summer of negotiations between member states), followed by leaders delivering their respective addresses by video link. President Xi Jinping reminded delegates that 75 years ago China was the first country to sign onto the UN Charter and that since its founding, “the UN has withstood one test after another and emerged with renewed vigor.”
France and Germany launched an Alliance for Multilateralism in defence of a rule-based world order in 2019. Referencing the pandemic, French President Emmanuel Macron said in his speech given to the general debate of the UN General Assembly, “We must together lay the foundations for a fairer, more balanced, more equitable, and more sustainable globalization.” He said that the reconstruction of the foundation of the international order requires the establishment of functional international cooperation based on clear rules, defined and respected by all. The theme was echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who told the assembly, “In the end, the United Nations can only be as good as its members are united.” The cuckoo in the nest, was Donald Trump, who used his speech, as if he was at a campaign rally, to laud his America First policy.
In the Declaration for the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations, today’s leaders pay tribute to their predecessors who had the vision to create the United Nations in the first place. There is no other global organization with the legitimacy, convening power, and normative impact as the United Nations. The respect of today’s leaders for those who preceded them is well founded: In the midst of the colossal life and death struggle of World War II, the Allied powers convened planning sessions at Dunbarton Oaks in Washington DC and Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. Out of these conferences came concrete plans on the mission and structure of the UN and the World Bank. At Dunbarton Oaks in 1944, the delegates made a key decision about the future international organization: It was to be an organization of states dependant on the decisions of a host of member states, not a world government. And the United Nations right from the start has had no independent source of financing or tax base. It is dependent financially on the assessed and voluntary contributions of the member states. The UN General Assembly, for example, approved a US $3.07 billion regular budget for the Secretariat in 2020, a pittance compared to the US $88.2 billion budget of its host city New York for the fiscal year 2021. New York City spends over three times as much on policing alone (near US $11 billion) as the regular budget of the UN does on trying to solve all the problems of the world.
It is important that we keep these facts in mind when we assess the highs and lows of the history of the UN over the past 75 years. It has made many achievements but experienced just as many disappointments especially when we look at expansive goals like ending world poverty. At the UN, the glass is always half full or half empty depending on one’s perspective. The preamble of the UN Charter pledges “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” and preventing conflict or helping to resolve it if war breaks out has always been the preeminent purpose of the UN. Around 60 million people had died in the ravages of WWII starting with Japan’s invasion of China and Hitler’s aggression against his neighbors, so it was the trauma from witnessing those horrors that weighed down on the minds of the UN’s founders. The UN of course has not ended war, but it has developed the concept of peacekeeping where troops voluntarily supplied by UN members interpose themselves between opposing armies, police ceasefires, and implement resolutions of the Security Council. The first mission began in 1948 followed by more than 70 in succeeding years with more than a million men and women having served under the UN flag. And conflict and violence is not a problem that is going away: 52 active state-based armed conflicts were recorded in 2018, the highest total since 1991.
The 51 nations that signed the UN Charter in 1945 have expanded to 193 states today demonstrating both the organization’s ability to adapt to changing times and its ability to influence one of the great turning points of modern history, the end of empires and overt colonialism. In the 60s and 70s of the preceding century, nations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East freed themselves from the shackles of imperialistic colonization, transforming the UN by giving it enhanced legitimacy. A milestone in this development was the vote of the General Assembly in 1971 recognizing the government of the People’s Republic of China as “the only legitimate representative of China” giving the People’s Republic its rightful chair in the Security Council and bringing into the UN system a government that represented a quarter of humanity.
The transformation of the United Nations by the South led to another major development, the focusing of the UN system on social and economic equity as much as traditional concerns about peace and security. The World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, UNICEF, and a host of other programs have greatly helped save and improve lives of millions. The World Health Organization, to cite just one example, has led the fight against smallpox and polio, eradicating these age-old diseases from all but a handful of countries. The UN now stands for a just world as well as a more peaceful one.
The third of the major UN transformations since 1945 is the growing partnership with civil society. In 1972 the UN sponsored the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment and created the United Nations Environment Programme. Since that time the health of the planet, biodiversity, and slowing down and adapting to climate change has become a major focus of the UN’s work. But a key impetus for the Stockholm Conference was the advocacy of hundreds of environmental groups which urged the states to take action to make development sustainable. Indeed at Stockholm while delegates met officially, parallel conferences of NGOs took place outside the formal proceedings and the NGOs presented an alternative and more radical set of environmental principles. Since 1972, civil society organizations have contributed to every major UN initiative from renewals of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 2015 Paris Climate Conference to the drafting of the 75th anniversary declaration this summer. Ambassadors now know that mobilization and initiatives originating from civil society cannot be ignored.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of the need for international cooperation to solve humankind’s problems. Viruses know no borders. But it has also revealed the perversity of some members of humanity. In the midst of the pandemic, Donald Trump announced that the United States would cease funding the World Health Organization and the United States has refused to join the international alliance to develop and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine. These actions follow his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, blocking the appellate body of the World Trade Organization, and the list goes on and on.
Dean Acheson, a former U.S. secretary of state, active in the post-WWII program of international institutional reform, said he was “Present at the Creation.” With Donald Trump we have been Present at the Destruction. We can only hope that other world leaders approach the 75th anniversary of the United Nations with a resolve to move the world forward not backward. Given the still raging COVID-19 pandemic and the host of world problems crying out for global action, we have never needed the United Nations more. We must hope that Xi Jinping is right that “after the storm comes the rainbow.”