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Despite the doomsayers, the United Nations is still open for business

By Keith Suter - posted Thursday, 2 October 2003


Talk of the UN's death is premature. There was much speculation that the United Nations would be a casualty of the US-led conflict against Iraq. But the UN has survived - it always has. Indeed, even President Bush has just been on a charm offensive at the UN.

It has been an unfortunate fact of political life that UN Security Council resolutions have often been ignored or the UN Security Council has been circumvented. When the United Nations was created in 1945, the Security Council was given the task of being able to meet day or night to handle threats to international peace and security. It is the only part of the UN system that can adopt resolutions binding on its members. On paper, it has immense power.

However, in reality, the UN Security Council has often failed to get the respect it deserves. For example, in late 1975, when Indonesia invaded East Timor, the Security Council called on Indonesia to withdraw. Indonesia ignored that instruction. Later on, Australia recognised Indonesian control of East Timor - in contravention of the UN Security Council resolutions - so as to divide up the oil wealth of Timor Gap.

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All countries have a policy of selective indignation. There are some invasions they criticise and others they ignore. There are some Security Council resolutions they endorse and others they ignore.

Additionally, the veto power of the Big Five (United States, Russia, Britain, France and China) means that disputes in which they are directly involved are rarely debated by the Security Council because the members know that any hostile resolution will be vetoed and so their efforts will be futile. The US in Vietnam, Soviet Union in Afghanistan and Britain's role in Northern Ireland all received little or no Security Council examination because of the threat of the veto.

Thus, the controversy over the United States and Iraq will eventually fade away - or be replaced by some other issue. For if the UN Security Council did not exist, then it would be necessary to invent it. For all its faults and limitations, it is the only body of its type in the world. It may not be much - but it is all we have.

This is not an argument for complacency but it is one urging a sense of history and getting some perspective.

The UN's history has been haunted by three themes. The first is the belief that this is "humankind's last best chance". Lord Caradon, a former British Ambassador to the UN in the 1960s, was fond of using that expression because it summed up the way in which the UN's creation in 1945 was seen as the world's best chance to learn from the errors that had led to World War II. It was to bring out the best in governments in working for the greater goal of international co-operation and the peaceful settlement of disputes.

Winston Churchill said that World War II should have been called the "unnecessary war" because if the League of Nations in Geneva had been used properly then the war could have been avoided. The UN was a bolder version of the League. It has also had (unlike the League) a "universal" membership (currently at 191 members, with East Timor as the newest member). The United States was never a member of the League; Churchill (an architect of the UN) was anxious that the US should be a member and so agreed to the UN being based in New York.

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The second theme has been the UN's failure to live it up to its high ideals. More accurately, it has been the failure of the UN's members to do so. The UN is simply a club of countries - it has no independent life of its own. It is not a world government. The UN's central budget is less than that of the New York City fire brigade and the UN has fewer employees than Disneyworld.

Meanwhile, countries still invade one another and most disputes are not brought before the UN. Few countries have reached the UN's target for foreign aid (0.7 per cent of GNP; most of them are now giving the lowest percentage since records began four decades ago).

The third theme consists of the predictions that the UN would "shortly collapse". The first such prediction was by the conservative British newspaper The Daily Express in 1947. Indeed, the sense of nationalism and rugged individualism that contributed to World War II never left the political cultures of countries.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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