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
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
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.
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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