My relationship with the concept that is the United Nations (UN), is that which I have with plenty of other words/expressions/acronyms: I’ve heard of it before and I believe I roughly understand what it entails.
Put on the spot and robbed of my information-sourcing phone, I could however, by no means explain what it does in any detail, like how it all started and why its 75th anniversary is of global significance. Like, I sort of could – but it would entail many ‘likes’ and ‘sort ofs’.
If anyone out there feels the same, don’t fret – there’s hope for us yet.
Together, we shall briefly dive into the rich history of this peace-keeping pursuit; debunk its diplomatic deeds; scrutinise its sloppy slip-ups; and applaud its admirable achievements.
Here’s a condensed version of what, after a few hours of research, I’ve learned to be the UN and its aims. Cheers to becoming strong contenders at general knowledge Zoom quizzes – a worthwhile pursuit in light of the current situation.
Aim for the moon, land amongst the stars
The war is still raging across the Pacific on June 26 1945 when 50 nations gather in sunny San Francisco to sign the Charter of the United Nations. It’s main intentions: to end “scourges of war” and to regain “faith in fundamental human rights.”
Led by Britain; China; Soviet Union; and the United States, this charter was signed by 50 countries and took effect 75 years ago, to the day, on October 24 1945. In addition to maintaining peace globally, the document (said to be the most translated work in the world) commits to the economic and social development of all its member countries.
Although a well-intended initiative, in hindsight, many of these aspirations have stayed just that, never taking full effect or successfully being put into practice. However, if Ronaldo has no goal to aim at, football would be a completely different ballgame. Failure doesn’t necessarily equate defeat.
Also, at the time this charter was conceived, much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East was still ruled by colonial powers. Thus, they had no say in the constitution of this self-declared global initiative to promote international cooperation: a major flaw, if the intention was for all voices to be heard.
The inner workings: A simplified version
Each member has one vote within the main decision-making body, the United Nations General Assembly, which every autumn sees presidents and prime ministers give notoriously long speeches (the longest one on record was delivered by Fidel Castro, lasting four hours and 29 minutes, on September 26 1960).
Although, again, the intention to give all members an equal voice is admirable, critics argue that these assemblies don’t amount to much actual change. Coming from a large family of hot-headed debaters, I recognise this pattern far too well.
Ideally, everyone should have an equal say and realistically, (near to) everyone technically has the same capabilities to use their vocal cords and thus have their voices be heard. However, power dynamics will always be in play, rupturing this ideal, no matter what the circumstances.
May it be a parent or the most powerful member state of the UN, the one in charge will always have the final say. And someone is always in charge.
Freedom of Speech or Hatespeech?
With US President Donald J. Trump delivering a speech at the General Assembly in 2018, where he declared that “America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control and domination,” the very foundation of the UN is seemingly under threat. Bringing such speech into this space further undermined the already questionable authority of the organisation.
This arena, where hundreds of resolutions are introduced each year, seems to be largely symbolic. None of the topics raised are legally binding – real power is held elsewhere. However, it does a fine job at bringing important subjects into the limelight, such as facilitating the signature of the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2016.
Again, using the metaphor of family dynamics to make sense of things, the General Assembly sounds a bit like a mother asking her kids to clean up the dishes: nagging, nagging, nagging until someone finally listens and cleans up. Most effective strategy? Questionable. Necessary? Undoubtedly.
The hypocrisy of centralised power structures
Apart from this central one, there are a variety of different bodies for the different aims of the organisation. Some of these hold more power than others, including imposing economic sanctions on countries and authorizing military intervention when deemed necessary.
Thus, not all of the organisation’s actions are merely symbolic. However, as critics would point out, the members who have the power to impose such decisions are but a selected few. Undermining the idea of all member states holding equal sovereignty within the organisation, this arguably showcases severe double standards.
The main victors of World War II, Britain; China; Russia; France; and the United States, are the most powerful members of the UN. This is because they hold the power to veto any measures taken by the councils. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has used this privilege 22 times and many of the US veto-castings have concerned Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Bringing this back to my preferred frame of reference, this scenario reminds me of playing Monopoly with my siblings when I was younger. With two sisters, four of them six years my junior, my older brother and I could easily change the rules of the game without them noticing. And so we did.
Unfair advantages will more often than not be put into motion, unless the resistance is too strong to pursue. Due to the veto-rule, however, I find any attempt to challenge these structures seemingly as dead-ended as my poor sisters’ attempts to win our rigged Monopoly games.
Three quarters of a century later: here’s where we stand
Following Cold War tensions, post-World War II decolonisation, and a multitude of global humanitarian crises, the volume and nature of issues confronting the UN has increased drastically over the years. So has the number of member states, with 193 countries having signed the peace-loving charter as of today.
Considering this big number of member states, battling a diverse range of internal and external social, economic and humanitarian issues, there is, again, a gap between the aspirations of the UN and reality itself.
Each member should, in principle, hold equal sovereignty within the organisation. However, looking at the state of the world, there is plenty of room for scrutiny as to how effective it is at implementing this ideal.
Essential in all its flaws
On the other hand, the sheer number of members also signals the necessity and demand for such an organisation to exist. It can also be used as an explanation as to why things take such long time to change: the more the merrier – but also slower, as we can all relate to.
(Especially if you’ve ever gone on holiday with a big group of people. Actually, if you’ve ever done anything as a big group of people. Even food orders become a battleground. Again, large-family people will get it).
To counter to the critics, the UN has also achieved plenty of wonderous things during its time in operation: the set-up of the World Health Organization; the World Bank; the UN’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization; and plenty of other positive causes.
So, to conclude this semi-essay-like crash course on the UN, its familiar, family-like structure, and its partly questionable, partly progressive workings: peace-work is not simple but vital, there is corruption even within the most diplomatic of causes, and the world is full of greys.
I’ll sign off with a cheesy Michelangelo quote, channelling the energy of ‘notoriously long’ presidential speeches held at the yearly UN General Assemblies:
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”