On Oct. 24, 1945, the United Nations charter went into effect. It was and continues to be an ambitious experiment in international cooperation. It hasn’t always been successful, but I think it still deserves our support.
The UN is of course not humanity’s first attempt to bring nations together under an official umbrella. It was preceded by the League of Nations after World War I. The League of Nations was proposed by Woodrow Wilson as a means for resolving international disputes, but that didn’t really work out (as evidenced by, you know, World War II).
Post-World War II, however, was a different story. There was widespread agreement that a third world war was not in anyone’s interest, so 50 countries and some non-governmental organizations attended the UN Conference on International Organization in San Francisco in 1945 and drafted the United Nations Charter. The intergovernmental organization officially came into existence when the charter was ratified by the five permanent members of the Security Council and a majority of the signatories.
The goals of the United Nations are lofty, indeed. Some might say they are foolishly idealistic. According to the charter’s preamble, the goals of the UN are to:
- save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
- reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
- establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
- promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.
Sure. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Despite these easily-supportable goals, the United Nations has been the subject of many conspiracy theories. The John Birch Society thinks the UN’s goal is to establish a “socialist, global government,” and Agenda 21 has been opposed by conservatives in the United States because it’s going to take our cars away, or something.
The UN has also had its fair share of controversies. Just last week Chad and Saudi Arabia were elected to the Security Council, despite their human rights record (although Saudi Arabia has turned down the offered seat). The handling of the Rwandan genocide was, by the organizations own admission, an absolute failure.
It would be easy to get down on the United Nations. If you look at the organization as a panacea, a cure-all for the world’s ailments, then that makes sense. However, I think that’s the wrong way to look it.
The UN is a tool, and a tool is only as good as the people who use it. It hasn’t created a utopia in which everyone’s rights are respected and where attempts to oppress are swiftly and forcefully punished, but what it does do is give people a voice who may not have had one before.
The United Nations has an elaborate human rights apparatus involving many different human rights treaties. Cynics might argue that these treaties are basically impossible to enforce. If your definition of enforcement is the use of force, then those cynics are right. But there are other types of enforcement. Nations who sign human rights treaties are often required to submit a periodic report on the county’s progress, but it also allows interested non-governmental organizations to submit reports, as well. Even if the government’s report is dishonest or nonexistent, NGO reports can shed light on problem issues that in another time could be covered up. Perhaps it’s not an immediate fix, but you have to know about a problem in order to fix it. It’s a step in the right direction.
The United Nations isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s miles and miles away from perfect. But on this United Nations Day, I think it’s important to appreciate the UN for what it is and renew our commitment to make it better.
Photo Credit: sanjitbakshi via Flickr