The United Nations at 50 - Dead or Alive?

By Malcolm Harper
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
1997, Vol. 1996/1997 No. 1 | pg. 1/1

When we commemorated the United Nations’ 50th anniversary last year, we all asked the question – what has the UN achieved and is it a living or a largely moribund organisation, buried by the bureaucracy and corruption which the media appear so willing to attribute to it?

The achievements of the United Nations since 1945 are quite remarkable – both in their extent and in terms of public ignorance of so many of them. Perhaps the most often quoted is the role which UN Agencies played in organising and implementing the eradication of smallpox. Now the Americas have been declared polio-free and the whole world is scheduled to be rid of that pernicious disease by the end of the century.

The work of such agencies as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the Universal Postal Union (UPU) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and all that they achieve are largely taken for granted and are rarely discussed in the public arena.

But, come some supposedly seductively attractive bestiality – whether in Angola, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or some such trouble-spot – and the appetite of the media is, at least in the short-term, insatiable. And what better than to berate the United Nations, either for sending in troops “who do nothing” or for failing to send in troops?

My own experience in different theatres is that the Blue Helmets often quietly contribute rather more than an all too often ignorant press corps understands. I recall once arguing with Douglas Hurd, then a Minister of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) had been given so weak and inadequate a mandate by the Security Council that it might be best for it to be withdrawn. Clearly he did not fully share that attitude; so I went to see the Lebanese Ambassador in London in order to seek his views. “Never,” he said to me, “ask for their withdrawal. Without UNIFIL, the ordinary civilian population, anxious for the violence to end, will have no hope left that a better life is still possible. UNIFIL is their only symbol of hope.” A viewpoint understood by that excellent journalist, Robert Fisk, but by sadly few others.

And in Bosnia-Herzegovina the UN, we were always being told, was a miserable failure. As Dr. Boutros-Ghali has said so often, he asked for 35,000 troops but never received more than about one-third of that number. 1,200 UN troops at Srebzenica might have made a preventive impact which some 400 could not. In Rwanda, several African countries offered troops for an enlarged UN presence but were hideously let down by the US and its NATO allies who declined to provide the logistical back-up which they required.

Oh! and part of the UN’s “failure” in Bosnia-Herzegovina included over 10,000 humanitarian sorties into Sarajevo over a three-year period and, by the time of the Dayton Peace Agreement, the provision of basic daily supplies to some 2.5 million people.

I am not saying that the UN is an untarnished success story. However, I do believe that the UN has achieved far more than we seem willing to admit and that its frustrations and failures are more a result of membership indifference than of basic flaws in the concept or broad structures of the organisation. Of course, changes are needed. The structure of the Security Council requires a radical rethink; the capacity of the Economic and Social Council needs to be enhanced; the strengthening of the UN’s ability to secure the implementation of the human rights standards which it has helped to set is an urgent need; the fuller support of the membership for poverty- focussed development strategies and for environmental protection are major requirements if Mother Earth is not to be raped still further; the list goes on and on.

In summary, the UN’s achievements are many and varied; members’ attitudes towards its fuller use in keeping with their Charter obligations vary considerably at different points in time and over different issues; and the world without the UN would be considerably less safe and more miserable for countless people than it is with it.

We need the UN for our survival; so let’s stop belittling it and being indifferent to it and start campaigning for its role to be more properly recognised and supported. When that happens, there is little doubt that the world will – at last – really start to become a more just and happy place for us all and not just for the lucky few.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

The United Nations Security Council is the most important organ in the United Nations, charged with determining “the existence of any threat to peace, breach of peace, or act of aggression” and to “maintain or restore international security” with military force if necessary. 1 The first attempts at reforming... MORE»
While in many cases it serves as a stabilizing factor in the international system, and can even be called a force for good, international law cannot be considered “law” when applied to states or state action. To be considered “law” these principles and decisions require enforcement mechanisms that go beyond... MORE»
The past sixty years witnessed a global proliferation of international courts and tribunals of almost all sizes and purposes. Today, they play important roles in international governance by handing down decisions in compelling areas ranging from global trade to environmental protection. In the past two decades, their reach has even... MORE»
To understand an administration, you need to understand the key players. Through analyzing the Bush presidency, it is clear that the agenda was constructed and shaped by more than just one man. The President’s choice for executive cabinet members is the first major decision he will make and may affect the outcome of his presidency. The President’s cabinet is comprised of the most senior appointed officers in the executive branch of the... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow IJ

Latest in

1997, Vol. 1996/1997 No. 1
It is a paradox of modern day politics that an issue of such immense constitutional and practical significance to the future of Britain as that of further European integration, which excites such great activity amongst politicians, should be... Read Article »
1997, Vol. 1996/1997 No. 1
Much has changed in the past years yet we still have the same two dominant parties as we did in 1922. I do not intend to give a historical or purely ideological account but I intend to develop a greater understanding of the more recent changes... Read Article »
1997, Vol. 1996/1997 No. 1
Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Aberystwyth, to open the new extension of the National Library of Wales, has predictably generated considerable furore in the local media, political circles and even the academe. The familiar siren... Read Article »
1999, Vol. 1998/1999 No. 1
On the 14th of October 1998, Mr. Ted Rowlands, Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhynmey, gave a brief talk on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of which he is a member and took questions from students and staff of the International Politics... Read Article »
1999, Vol. 1998/1999 No. 2
In Issue 53 of Interstate, Peter Hand argued that the ‘Third Way’ was nothing but a well packaged combination of rhetoric and soundbites on the part of a government wholly obsessed by presentation.[1] Given the constraints of space... Read Article »
1999, Vol. 1998/1999 No. 2
The Christmas of 1998 will be seen by political pundits in years to come as the first crisis to assail the ‘New Labour’ government of Tony Blair. I myself, remember sitting at home, having just returned from a short walk with the... Read Article »
1999, Vol. 1998/1999 No. 2
I think students can have a very positive role if it’s thought through properly.  I think there are many students who are involved in political activity in the Students’ Union or within the Universities political clubs and Labour... Read Article »

What are you looking for?


Writing a Graduate School Personal Statement
How to Select a Graduate Research Advisor