While the conflict in Syria rages on, the United Nations has been criticised for not doing enough to help. However the UN is working around the clock to address both the cause of the conflict and the huge humanitarian suffering it has caused. In the words of former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”
Australia played a leading role during our Presidency of the UN Security Council last month to unanimously pass a Security Council resolution requiring the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, calling for the convening of the Geneva II peace talks and endorsing the establishment of a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers.
UN agencies like UNICEF (the UN Children’s Fund), UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and the World Food Programme are working with neighbouring countries to provide food, shelter, clothing and security in response to more than 2 million refugees who have fled Syria, 1 million of whom are children.
The UN came into existence 68 years ago today when a majority of signatory states had ratified the UN Charter. In the aftermath of World War II, despite the failings of the League of Nations, countries saw a clear need for international governance to maintain peace and security, and advance international social, economic and humanitarian agendas.
Today, we face many challenges that spill across borders, including climate change, conflict, terrorism, natural disasters, and disease. Despite the fact that the UN has never been more relevant or more needed, the organisation is still met with a great deal of scepticism.
Some UN activities – like World Leaders’ Week at the General Assembly, peacekeeping troops around the world, or climate change negotiations at UN conferences – enjoy a higher profile. However many people don’t realise how many aspects of their lives the UN influences through the work of its agencies – from posting letters to flying planes, enjoying historical architecture or intellectual property rights, accessing essential drugs and immunisation or safe working standards.
We are very lucky in Australia, with an abundance of resources, a stable government and a strong economy. It is easy to lose perspective on global issues. For example, while much of the political discussion in Australia focuses on asylum seekers arriving by boat, we don’t acknowledge that 80% of the world’s refugees are actually hosted by developing countries, with far less capacity to accommodate them. The 25,000 people who arrived in Australia by boat pales in comparison to the 43 million people forcibly displaced around the world in 2013.
The UN’s international laws, norms and standards provide a useful framework through which we can gain perspective on how Australia is performing in relation to our international obligations. The UN Association of Australia has just released the Australia and the United Nations: Report Card 2013 which assesses Australian Government performance from 2007 – 2013. Overall Australia’s engagement with the UN has greatly improved since 2007, with the Government awarded an ‘A’ for our performance in the General Assembly and the Security Council, recognising our stewardship of the Arms Trade Treaty and activism on the Security Council in relation to small arms and the women, peace and security agenda. The Government also showed improvement in relation to human rights, humanitarian assistance and development aid, gender equality, nuclear disarmament and continued good performance in peacekeeping and peacebuilding.
However, the Government was given an ‘F’ for its treatment of asylum seekers, highlighting concerns about the compatibility of our asylum seeker policies with international law. Our ‘D+’ grade on climate change can be improved by making our emission reduction targets significantly more ambitious and reconciling our climate policy with our energy policy. While positive steps have been made to implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Australia,further work is needed to embed its principles into policy development, program implementation and service delivery to improve Australia’s ‘C+’ grade on indigenous peoples. Measuring Australia’s performance against UN conventions and agreements is a way to get beyond the domestic political rhetoric and into the global political reality.
Too often we criticise the UN in a simplistic way, arguing its bureaucracy is inefficient, the geo-political power-balance is out of date, the diplomacy is ineffective. The UN is not an immovable organisation – the UN is the ability of governments, including our own, to recognise the power of collaboration in the advancement of global goals. The UN is governments, including our own, playing leadership roles in forums like the Security Council, the Human Rights Council and other international conferences and discussions. The UN is governments, including our own, contributing funding and support to UN agencies like UNICEF, UN Women and UNHCR, so they can help the world’s most vulnerable people help themselves.
The simple truth is that if the UN didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. So on this United Nations Day, we need to recognise our own role in making the world a better place – not by criticising the UN, but by working to strengthen it. The UN is only as strong as the will of member states. Our job is to ensure that Australia plays a key role in a robust and effective United Nations.