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8 November 2014

Is the United Nations Working?

Tag(s): Foreign Affairs
To celebrate United Nations Day this year the University of Bedfordshire, of which I am an Honorary Fellow, combined with the United Nations Association to invite Sir Jeremy Greenstock, former UK ambassador to the UN, to deliver a keynote speech.  He is now Chairman of the United Nations Association - UK which supports the institution of the UN but is independent of it[i]. Sir Jeremy accepted the title of the event: ‘Is the UN working?’ and attempted to address the question.

Of course it is working, he said. It is a collection of organisations through and beyond the intergovernmental process with 193 Member States. It runs the World Food programme delivering sustenance to over 90 million people. The UN Refugee Agency has helped 34 million people. It has 120,000 peace keepers in 16 countries. It vaccinates 58% of the world’s children against deadly diseases, saving an estimated 2.5 million lives a year. The UN’s maternal health campaign saves around 30 million lives a year.  It provides a terrific range of services and in the process it has to make sacrifices in resources, lives and livelihoods.

But when we consider the intergovernmental process the answer has to be more qualified. We have entered into an era of growing freedom. With the end of the threat of cold war in 1990, freedom won over repression, open markets capitalism over communism. We seemed to have reached the sunny uplands and Francis Fukuyama announced the End of History.

But History never finishes. Issues never go away. There is a need for order but there is an imbalance between freedom and order. Freedom brings a risk to structures. Sir Jeremy then gave a brief review of underlying anthropological factors. He asked why humans are the dominant species. We are not the biggest, strongest or fastest. But there are three characteristics of Homo Sapiens which contribute to the fact that we are the only species that can control our environment.

First, we have the intelligence necessary to understand our environment. Even more we have the intelligence to ‘know thyself’. Second, we have the adaptability to live anywhere where water is present and can eat virtually any food. And third, we can operate with team work. It is this last factor that is most important to the UN. We are all globally aware. We have globalised economies, information and communications. But we cannot act at a global level. We have to act through representatives. And so the UN understands the importance of grass roots.

The freer a community, the narrower our horizons become. When free, man’s choice is to revert to tribalism. That polarises culture, politics and religion. This is not accompanied by the responsibility to act cooperatively. The connection between global and local is not made.  And so in that sense the UN is not working.

Sir Jeremy then put some of the blame on his own generation. (He was born in 1943). His generation, he said, have enjoyed growing freedom and prosperity for the smallest return. They have created institutions but not kept them healthy. They have borrowed from their fathers and grandfathers who laid the foundations for that freedom and security by risking their lives in war. And they have borrowed from their children to whom they will pass on the burden of irrepayable debt.

Sir Jeremy then set out a manifesto developed by the UNA of ten ideas for UK foreign policy[ii]. As we approach the General Election he and his organisation will be making every effort to get all the political parties to adopt these:
  1. A comprehensive strategy to prevent mass atrocities. After the slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994, the international community vowed: never again. 20 years on, civilians are still being massacred, from Iraq to South Sudan. Genocide, war crimes, mass rape – these ‘crimes against humanity’ diminish us all. Intrinsically unacceptable, the fall-out from such atrocities can also threaten our security. The UK must make atrocity prevention a priority.
  2. More Intensive Engagement to Strengthen UN Peacekeeping. Across the world, UN peacekeeping has proved to be the most effective framework for stabilising post-conflict situations and preventing them from threatening regional and global security. Compared to missions led by countries, UN operations have fewer costs and a higher degree of success and legitimacy. The UK should do more to support them.
  3. A Clear Pathway to Eradicate Nuclear Weapons. The UK signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 in the belief that a world free from nuclear weapons was in the national and global interest. Although 189 states have taken on this legal duty to disarm, this objective remains unfulfilled, undermining not just our safety but our international system and relations. It is time for the UK to set out a concrete plan on how it will actively contribute to multilateral disarmament.
  4. Robust Policies to Control Arms, Drones and ‘Killer Robots’. Conventional weapons kill half a million people a year, yet the UK continues to sell arms to countries with poor human rights records. Given the alarming absence of international regulation, drone technology is rapidly proliferating and advancing towards a new generation of ‘killer robots’. Robust controls ae urgently needed.
  5. Leadership to Protect Human Rights Internationally. The UK should be proud of its historic role in shaping the international human rights system, which helps to protect millions around the world and to create more stable, prosperous societies. Unfortunately, too many people see their rights unfulfilled, denied or abused – leading to misery, poverty and conflict. For their sake and to increase global security, the UK must continue to provide leadership on human rights, including by setting a positive example and by strengthening the UN’s capacity to address violations.
  6. A Strong Commitment to Safeguard Human Rights at Home. International human rights laws, norms and standards provide crucial protections for people in the UK. Indeed, British citizens have played a key role in achieving these hard-won gains at the global level, and in making them a reality at home. These rights should be reinforced and celebrated. By striving for an unimpeachable human rights record, the UK is serving not just its own people, but strengthening its ability to act as a credible advocate for human rights internationally.
  7. A Bold Plan to Advance Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. The UK has earned its reputation as a leader in promoting gender equality and protecting women’s rights, but there is a real risk that hard-won gains may be lost amidst the numerous UN negotiations due in 2015. The UK must work with partners around the world to ensure that this does not happen. It should also continue to strive to tackle gender equality and promote women’s empowerment here in the UK.
  8. Concerted Action to Promote Progressive New Development Goals. Adopted in 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – the UN’s most ambitious development drive – have delivered real gains for millions around the world. But too many have been left behind. The creation of a new set of goals is an opportunity to end poverty and to build sustainable societies that will ultimately benefit us all – the UK should make the most of it.
  9. A Vigorous drive to Secure the Climate Deal We Need. After years of frustrating negotiations, the international community has made December 2015 its deadline for adopting a global agreement on climate change. Getting there will require ambition, leadership and dedication from the UK.
  10. Support to Enhance the UN’s Effectiveness by Improving its Leadership Selection. The UN is an essential tool for the UK – and international community – to address global challenges. It is in the UK’s interest to support efforts to increase the UN’s capacity to do so. This includes lending its voice to the growing calls to improve the process for selecting the next UN chief.
I can’t see much wrong with any of those. If they look a little top line that’s because they are but there’s more well-thought out detail in the manifesto and I commend it to you. General Elections are seldom decided by matters of foreign policy unless the problems created by our membership of the European Union and our feelings about mass migration intervene. But it would be nice if for once these larger issues could be the dominant factors. Sir Jeremy is a wonderful public speaker and now he is no longer shackled by his career in the diplomatic corps he speaks freely and with great intelligence as well as experience about these global challenges. He was the UK permanent representative to the UN and the UK representative on the Security Council from 1998 to 2003 and so speaks with first-hand knowledge of how these affairs are conducted.
This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had been on my first visit to Berlin only a few months before and went up to the observation platform which then allowed you to look across the waste of Potsdamer Platz patrolled by East German guards. I was so shocked by this abomination that in a loud voice I cried “This must come down.” I suppose sub-consciously I was echoing the words of President Reagan who, two years before in a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, ostensibly to mark the 750th anniversary of the City of Berlin, said “Tear down this wall, Mr Gorbachev!” But his words were carefully prepared and mine were simply an emotional reaction to what I saw. When the wall actually fell on 9th November I was in Japan but we could talk of little else for days.
It was not the End of History but it was the end of the cold war. But the US Secretary of State James Baker assured Gorbachev that, apart from the reunification of Germany, NATO would not expand eastwards. But that promise has been broken. In March 1999 the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, all former members of the rival Warsaw Pact, joined NATO. Then in March 2004 Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia followed suit. Russia naturally feels threatened by this and has reacted with aggression in the Crimea and other parts of the Ukraine. This too is in breach of its undertaking to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political independence in return for Ukraine eliminating the Russian nuclear weapons stationed on its soil. The West has responded with sanctions which to the Russian eye look quite like the rebuilding of a wall or an iron curtain. We still have much to learn and it is probably only through engagement in these processes that the United Nations can reconcile such differences and ensure peace and security.     

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