| Dr. Martin Luther King called it the "World House" and humanity's best hope for tolerance and peace. When you step across the threshold of the United Nations headquarters in New York City, you are no longer in the U.S.A. You have entered "international territory" that belongs to no one country yet is open to all. Flags from 192 nations line the front of the complex, arranged alphabetically from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. There are six official languages (English, French, Russian, Chinese, Arabic and Spanish) and dozens more spoken in the hallways, where diplomats in suits mingle with others in colorful national dress from Asia, Africa and Latin America. It is the most international and multicultural place on earth. And you can go there.
Inside, voices from the global south and north, east and west, debate the world's most pressing problems, such as the global AIDS pandemic, nuclear proliferation, human rights, genocide in Darfur, global warming, the plight of children worldwide, racism and dire poverty. There are vigorous dialogues, debates and even denunciations -- but all without violence or threats. At the U.N. words replace weapons.
Here in the U.N. General Assembly -- the closest thing we have to a world parliament -- struggling peoples like the Palestinians and Kurds come to be heard. Here Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress were defended when the U.S. State Department branded them as "terrorists" in the 1970s. Here the great African-American, Ralph Bunche, oversaw the trusteeship division, helping colonies become independent countries and winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. Here W.E.B. DuBois appealed to "end discrimination against citizens of Negro descent in the U.S." back in 1948 -- an appeal that was ignored in his own homeland but taken up by African and Asian representatives. And here more recently, Secretary General Kofi Annan courageously resisted the U.S. invasion of Iraq, branding it an "illegal war," thereby arousing the wrath of the Bush administration. If our government had listened to the U.N. (and the U.N. inspectors who after exhaustive investigation could find no evidence of weapons of mass destruction), we would not be immeshed in the civil war nightmare of Iraq right now.
The U.N. headquarters in N.Y.C. and the over 30 U.N. programs and specialized agencies around the world bring together millions of people from hundreds of different cultures each year to "achieve international co-operation in solving international problems" (Article 1, U.N. Charter). If this were attempted by any one country, such as the U.S., it would be suspect as having a self-interested bias. But the U.N. at its best provides a neutral forum, yet one open to virtually all.
Thus one way of seeing the U.N. is as the premier "school" of global and multicultural education, teaching by example, tolerance, understanding and respect for all "without distinction as to race, gender, language or religion" (Article 2, Universal Declaration of Human Rights). The flag of the U.N. depicts the planet earth and thus all humanity. In an era of rising sectarianism, extremist nationalism, terrorism and religious dogmatism, this vision of global unity in the midst of multicultural diversity is more essential than ever before. It may be necessary to continued human survival.
Yet the U.N. avoids the fatal error committed by some programs of multiculturalism that in their efforts to "celebrate diversity" sanctify culture above the individual person and refuse to criticize any aspect of any culture. At the U.N., cultural traditions that subordinate women to men, exploit children, deny religious freedom, advocate genital mutilation of girls and militarization of boys are not celebrated -- but rather condemned. Loyalty to one's culture or country does not come ahead of human rights and the global common good. "Hence there are conventions (i.e. treaties) against genocide, aggressive warfare, racial bigotry, religious intolerance, gender inequality, etc. Loyalty to one's own group is not a license to violate the rights of the human person says the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed unanimously by the U.N. in 1948.
The way that this historic document was created disproves the oft-heard criticism that the very concept of "human rights" is a Western construct illegitimately "imposed" on non-Western cultures. The Chair of the Commission on Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt, understood the problem of ethnocentrism and therefore had eminent scholars from Lebanon, China, Canada and France draw-up a summary of key principles drawn from the main cultures and religions of the world, including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity and secular humanism. Through U.N.E.S.C.O., over 70 noted scholars, poets, and religious leaders (including Gandhi) from around the world were consulted to identify underlying common ethical principles. These were then debated by the 55 member nations at the U.N. until a series of compromises and agreements were reached. Despite the tragic absence of African nations, never before had there been such a multicultural process to achieve a "universal" declaration.
The main purpose of the U.N., however, was to prevent war. The charter famously begins: "We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind ..." But has the U.N. been successful? Has it actually saved us from the "scourge of war?" Or, as its conservative critics charge -- is it a corrupt morass of babbling bureaucrats?
To answer this question we need to look back at the 62-year evolution of the U.N., because it is not quite the same institution today as it was at its founding in 1945. Back then it was primarily a European club of 50 members led by the victors of World War II and the big issue quickly became the East-West Cold War (which often paralyzed the U.N. Security Council).
However during the great decolonization movement of the 1950s and 1960s, dozens of newly formed African and Asian countries joined, eventually constituting a majority. This new Global South majority -- often referred to as the "Group of 77" -- demanded a new focus on social and economic development as a condition for peace. The South's greatest frustration was that the gap between the richer and poorer countries was widening. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana ascribed it to "neocolonialism," i.e., the developed countries continued exploitation of the less developed countries' resources.
The U.N. responded with the creation of the U.N. Development Program, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, UNICEF programs for inoculating and feeding desperately poor children, the dramatic work of the World Health Organization in eliminating small pox and reducing the scourge of polio. There was an explosion of international conferences on global economic justice that brought nation states together with international humanitarian and human rights groups. The U.N. demanded that the richer countries contribute .7% per cent of their GDP annually for aid to poorer countries.
Only a few virtuous Scandinavian countries actually have met this goal. Indeed the gap between the average income per capita in rich and poor countries continued to grow: from 13-1 in 1947 to 66-1 in 1991. As the "have-nots" increased their challenge to the "haves" in the General Assembly, denunciation often replaced dialogue. In reaction to this, conservatives rising to power in the U.S. and Great Britain began to attack the U.N. as "anti-American" and "anti-free enterprise," and then to withhold their very substantial dues. This created an ongoing budget crisis that very nearly crippled the organization and increased the acrimony in the General Assembly.
The inability of the U.N. to prevent the three great international disasters of the mid-l990s (civil war in Somalia, ethic cleansing in the Balkans, genocide in Rwanda) seemed to confirm the conservatives' accusations of the "the failure of the U.N." But what exactly can be meant by this phrase? Only the 15 members of the Security Council have any authority to intervene, and of those, the real power is with the five Permanent Members who wield the veto: China, Great Britain, France, Russia and the U.S. The U.N. can mandate nothing without the initiative and consent of these five "Great Powers." It was really their failure to act in time that allowed the horrible slaughter in Somalia, Rwanda, the Balkans and elsewhere. And today, it is their failure to act decisively in Darfur (especially China's support of the Sudanese government) that allows the genocide to continue there. In other words, the failure of the U.N. to prevent the "scourge of war" is almost totally dependent on the resolve of the five countries that were the Great Powers back in 1945.
This is, of course, a serious and anachronistic defect of the U.N. structure. Unfortunately, it seems to be an unavoidable, even necessary defect because those Great Powers, especially the U.S.S.R. and the U.S., made it clear from the very beginning that they would not be part of the U.N. without the veto power to protect their self-interest. And without them, the U.N. would be powerless -- a "paper tiger" like its failed predecessor, the League of Nations. Numerous attempts over the years to reform the Security Council have floundered on this "Catch 22": the veto power can be altered only if no one vetoes the reform. So we seem stuck with a flawed system of peace enforcement.
It is often said fatalistically that the U.N. is a flawed but indispensable institution. But is there hope that the U.N. can become more effective in confronting the problems of the world?
Yes, but only if some key reforms are carried out. First, the U.N. should develop a "ready deployment force" of specially trained peacekeepers -- blue helmets -- prepared to intervene quickly when authorized by the Security Council. Right now it takes critical months to gather funds and volunteer peacekeepers -- months during which horrible things can and do happen in conflict areas, as in 1994 when a million Rwandans were butchered while the world watched and debated. The world wants and needs an international 911 emergency number at the U.N. but then refuses to authorize the resources and power necessary to respond effectively. It's rather as if your house were on fire and when you call the fire department they tell you that they will discuss the matter, and then seek donations of personnel and equipment, and finally get back to you in several months.
At the U.N. World Summit in 2005 more than 150 heads of state acknowledged the international "responsibility to protect" (R2P) civilians from crimes of mass murder when governments fail to do so. This represents a dramatic shift from the traditional concept of national sovereignty as implying an absolute "hands off." As former Secretary General Kofi Annan stated in his Nobel Prize lecture: "The sovereignty of states must no longer be used as a shield for gross violations of human rights." Therefore, if a nation's government is unable or unwilling to protect vulnerable segments of their own population -- as in the Sudan today -- then the world community, acting through the U.N. must intervene as a last resort. Ultimately basic human rights must come ahead of a government's perogatives -- and this is a radical shift in world perspective. Now, however, this ethical principle needs tools for effective implementation, especially a standing ready-deployment force of the U.N. peacekeepers who can respond quickly to global emergencies. (The creation of the U.N. Emergency Peace Service is supported in the U.S. Congress by House Resolution 213.)
Second, the new Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon can continue the administrative and fiscal reforms of Kofi Annan to make the U.N. more effective and more transparent. Paradoxically the U.N. Charter's emphasis on hiring on the basis of "geographic balance" has sometimes resulted in the appointment of individuals who are not necessarily the most qualified for the specific job. Kofi Annan and his successor, Ban Ki-Moon have eliminated almost a third of the jobs in the Secretariat and have put in place an improved hiring process based on competency.
Third, the work of the Peacebuilding Commission must be accelerated and implemented to facilitate peaceful transformations in countries (like Burundi and Sierra Leone) that have recently ended civil wars but still have large smoldering factional resentments. Peacebuilding involves economic, legal and cultural stabilization, peace education and reconciliation to prevent the common pattern of sliding backwards into another civil war.
Fourth, the U.S. must decide whether it really wants an effective and strong United Nations, or just a whipping boy to blame when things go wrong. If the former, then we must pay-up past dues, respect the U.N. Charter (which prohibits wars of aggression) and ratify key international treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Criminal Court, the Law of the Sea and the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty.
Fifth, the U.N. could fulfill the implicit promise in its original Charter of "We the peoples of the United Nations" (as opposed to just "we the governments") by formally recognizing and strengthening the role of the 4000 non-governmental organizations that work in and around the formal structure of the U.N. They represent grassroots, yet global citizens'groups (what is being called "global civil society") and include three general types: 1) human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as many women';s and children's advocacy group; 2) environmental groups like greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund and global warming advocacy groups; and 3) humanitarian relief groups like Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam and the International Committee for the Red Cross. By lobbying for specific issues (e.g. the elimination of land mines) in coalition with sympathetic governments, these NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) often shape the progressive agenda of the General Assembly and the U.N. Global Assemblies. These groups could constitute a "forum of global civic society" -- a world people's assembly -- able to petition the General Assembly and Security Council. But unfortunately many governments see this as an encroachment upon their national sovereignty.
Almost every spring for the past 20 years, I have taken my students to the U.N. headquarters in New York City. We have met with bureaucrats and political representative from many countries, some conscientious, some not so dedicated. But I remember a particularly inspired visionary who was the director of peacekeeping. He originally came to the U.N. from the island of Fiji but said to us: "After many years at the U.N., I see the world not from the viewpoint of Fiji but from the viewpoint of humanity." He, like all Secretariat staff, carries an international civil servant passport, takes an oath of allegiance to the U.N. and agrees not to take directions from any other authority. These are true global citizen, and there are others in the many NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) around the U.N. who also put the global common good above particular countries or ethnic groups.
For U.S. citizens like my students, the U.N. thus provides a place to meet individuals and groups who have gone beyond a narrow nationalistic world view, people who, in the words of the U.N. Charter are actively working "to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors." Individuals like this represent the slow but essential evolution of genuine global consciousness.
But the U.N. also provides a place where the U.S. government and U.S. citizens can meet with the rich cultural diversity of peoples and nations of the world on an equal footing (at least in the General Assembly). Here the rich and powerful must listen to the complaints and demands of the poorer and less powerful. We must hear points of view and proposals from countries and cultures normally invisible to us. It is the ultimate in global pluralism.
At an even deeper philosophical level, however, I believe that the U.N. will only operate most effectively to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" when world leaders and their citizens come to the full awareness of the oneness of the human species. Science today has verified what world religions always claimed (but rarely followed): that there is only one race, the human race, and that our ability to survive and flourish on this fragile blue-green planet depends on our global cooperation in confronting "problems without passports" -- the awesome and interrelated problems of climate change, international terrorism, the AIDS pandemic, world poverty and resource wars. In this age of globalization, the security of each is linked to the security of all. Thus we need to replace the antiquated concept of "national security" with the concept of "global common security." Today no one nation can make itself secure by seeking supremacy over others.
For more than six years now, the U.S. has pursued a destructive and self-defeating foreign policy of "go-it-alone" and military dominance. It has not worked, has caused the deaths of thousands, and in addition has alienated much of the world. It is time to rejoin the community of nations and remember Dr. Martin Luther King's warning: "No individual and no nation can survive on its own because we are all inextricably interdependent. That's the nature of our reality. And until we realize it, war will have its way."
Vincent Kavaloski is a Professor of Philosophy at Edgewood College. He regularly teaches about the U.N. and this spring represented the Dane County United Nations Association at the UNA National Conference in New York City.
The United Nations: The most multicultural place on Earth
by Vincent Kavaloski