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POLITICS: U.N. to Live or Die by Its Policy Ideas

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 23 2009 (IPS) - The United Nations has long been described – rather contemptuously – as one of the world’s biggest talking shops.

But a new study, the first intellectual history of the United Nations scheduled to be released in September, credits the world body with ideas that have “proven crucial to improving the quality of life on the planet”.

Many view the United Nations as a “rigid bureaucracy without sparkle, wit or creativity”.

And the general public – heavily influenced by the mass media – “sees a travelling circus, a talk shop and a paper-pushing enterprise”.

But international organisations, the study points out, live or die by the quality and relevance of policy ideas they put forward and support.

While the World Bank and the International Monetary (IMF), two sister institutions of the world body, have documented their histories, the United Nations has been remiss.

The result is the birth of the United Nations Intellectual History Project (UNIHP) undertaken by the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York (CUNY).

The achievements listed in the 16-volume historical study, titled “U.N. Ideas that Changed the World”, cover human development, the environment, health and education, gender empowerment and human rights, among many others.

The Human Development Report, launched in 1990, was the first to initiate the idea that development policies should place more value in improving the quality of people’s lives and less on growth measured by gross domestic product (GDP) statistics. The series has continued over the last two decades.

The U.N.’s contributions to environmental debates have been described as “revolutionary”, including the awareness that climate change is to a large extent human-made: “a dramatic transformation of conventional wisdom”.

The Law of the Sea, which limits the ocean space belonging to sovereign nations, was the creation of the United Nations.

The eradication of the deadly disease smallpox, which was accomplished over a period of 11 years under the aegis of the World Health Organisation (WHO), is a “miracle of global cooperation” that saved millions of lives.

The study also says that the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights made human rights central to public policy and scrutiny.

Thomas G.Weiss, one of the authors of the study which followed about 10 years of intensive research, points out that a critical evaluation shows that the world body has achieved practical results in advances in human rights, improvement in health, nutrition and education – especially for women and children – and in contributing to ideas and actions on national and international policies.

Weiss, presidential professor of political science at the CUNY Graduate Centre, is a joint author, along with Richard Jolly, honorary professor and research associate of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex; and Louis Emmerij, a senior research fellow at the CUNY Graduate Centre.

The 16-volume publication consists of interviews and articles by over 79 personalities, including former senior U.N. officials and academics.

The study points out that the 65-year-old organisation’s “most important achievements” are not in the political field but in the economic and social arenas.

Asked about the U.N.’s political failures, Stephen Zunes, professor of political science and international studies at the University of San Francisco, told IPS: “The greatest weakness of the U.N. system remains the archaic and undemocratic structure of the Security Council which allows five nations to block resolutions based not on a given resolution’s merits in regard to the U.N. Charter and international law, but on narrowly perceived national self-interests.”

Scores of legitimate resolutions have been vetoed, particularly in recent decades, by the United States, he said.

“Furthermore, simply the threat of a veto by the United States or another permanent member has resulted in countless draft resolutions either never coming to a vote or having the language so severely weakened as to make them meaningless,” said Zunes, who has authored several essays and publications on the politics of the Security Council.

Then there are the scores of Security Council resolutions that did manage to pass but are currently being violated because veto threats prevent them from being enforced under Chapter VII (which relates to action with respect to threats to peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression), he added.

Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, had a different take: “The question has to be asked, who considers the U.N. a failure?”

Certainly Palestinians recognise that the U.N. has so far been unable to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law and specifically U.N. resolutions and has been unable to wrest control of Palestine-Israel diplomacy out of U.S. hands and into the control of the U.N., she told IPS.

“But those same Palestinians recognise that the U.N. remains the one arena of struggle where Palestinians have a voice on the international stage – even if Palestinian diplomacy has badly misused it in recent years,” said Bennis, author of ‘Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power.’

She said Palestinian refugees are the first to recognise the crucial role that U.N. humanitarian assistance has played in providing the Palestinian refugees – now in the millions – access to not only basic food and shelter, but health care and crucial education and job training.

This is “not an acceptable replacement for all those human rights that remain out of reach, but a necessary role”, she added.

In official U.S. circles, Bennis argued, the U.N. is most consistently viewed as a failure on those occasions – all too rare – when it refuses to acquiesce to U.S. pressure.

When George H.W. Bush bribed, threatened, and punished Security Council members to assure enough votes to give a U.N. imprimatur to his 1990-91 Desert Storm war against Iraq, the U.N. was cheered as the appropriate centre of the first post-Cold War U.S.-led “coalition”, she said.

But 12 years later, Bush’s son excoriated the U.N. as a failure when it refused to endorse his war against Iraq.

During that brief eight-month span in which the U.N. joined the rising global anti-war mobilisation, to form what the New York Times called “the second super-power”, most of the world, governments and people alike, viewed the U.N. as a huge success, a partner in the effort to stop the latest drive towards empire.

On the day of the historic Feb. 15, 2003 mobilisations against the war in Iraq, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu told then-Secretary General Kofi Annan that “those people marching today in 665 cities across the world, we claim the United Nations as our own.” It was a moment of great triumph.

“But it didn’t last. And when the U.N. collapsed under U.S. pressure and embraced the U.S. occupation of Iraq as its own, people around the world then saw the U.N. as a huge failure,” Bennis declared.

The CUNY publication also points out that in the 1970s the United Nations sought fundamental changes in global policy by hosting a series of international conferences on key issues, including the environment, food and hunger, population, human settlements, employment and science and technology.

These included the U.N. Conference on Human Environment (1972), the World Population Conference (1974), the World Conference on the International Women’s Year (1975) and the U.N. Conference on Human Settlements (1976).

These conferences were held following the blessings of the General Assembly, the highest policy making body at the United Nations.

Bennis said the most democratic part of the U.N., the General Assembly, has historically been the least powerful part.

Under Fr Miguel d’Escoto’s current presidency, the Assembly has emerged as a potential centerpiece of a new kind of U.N. power, able to challenge the U.S.-led global domination of the five permanent members of the Security Council and simultaneously challenge that of the Group of 8 industrial nations (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia).

“But the success remains elusive, because so far governments in the General Assembly have not taken advantage of this new moment to consolidate an empowered the Assembly as a crucial barometer of success in the U.N,” she said.

And it has failed to make good on its potential to challenge the undemocratic, veto-dependent Security Council, Bennis declared.

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