As the United Nations celebrates 75 years with the anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter, the question is pressing—what is the point, and the value, of the UN system?
Former US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton famously said in 1994, if UN headquarters “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference”. While this may be true, there is no doubt that the bureaucracy is both vastly inflated and largely up to no good, the UN is more than just its bureaucrats.
The beating heart of the UN is its Member States—193 countries with a vast array of political priorities, domestic realities, and cultural concerns. It was created to serve these Member States in the pursuit of global peace. Now, more often than not, the Member States, most commonly the poor ones, beg the bureaucracy to heed their cries.
So, why should the UN persist if it is constantly trampling on the rights of its Members?
Firstly, it is often the case, even in big ways, that the good guys win at the UN. In my decade tenure as a human rights advocate, I have witnessed innumerable incidents of “ideological colonization”. Western diplomats team up with their UN bureaucrat counterparts to bully African governments into submission. Sometimes, the battle is long. Weary diplomats capitulate to the aggressors—usually to save their jobs, or the millions of dollars in essential aid money for their country that hangs in the balance.
Nevertheless, I have seen African governments resist repeatedly, and with great success, the ingrained racism of the UN and stand up for their sovereign rights. This racism transpires most evidently at the political level. Poor African governments receive non-negotiable dictates, requiring them to fundamentally alter their national laws and norms to cater to Western ideas of “human rights”.
The racism inside UN deliberations goes almost entirely unseen. African diplomats are personally typecast as backwards for challenging Western impositions. This is disguised as a progressive solicitude for human rights, but is deeply xenophobic in its complete disregard for the African experience.
I witnessed an African diplomat question a UN expert’s claim that abortion serve as the answer to the pervasive, and heartbreaking, continental problem of obstetric fistula in Africa. Fistula, eradicated in the US in the 20th century, is a medical condition in which a hole develops as a result of childbirth, leaving a woman incontinent and bleeding, prone to infertility and social isolation.
In response to the UN expert’s insistence on the abortion “solution,” the African diplomat deftly defended his government’s position with facts supported by his medical degree, and a personal story involving a cousin who died from this traumatic, and entirely preventable, condition.
The room was silenced when he said, “none of you know a single person who has had obstetric fistula—and yet, I’m sure every African in this room has a mother, sister, cousin, or neighbor who has suffered from this terrible condition”. One by one, his African colleagues nodded in agreement. Africa won that day. Abortion was removed from the text.
The second reason the UN should persist is that it is often entirely unclear who the good guys are on any given day—a complex reality that the UN is uniquely well suited to managing. One day, Africa may be standing proud—resisting cultural imperialism and saying no to the ideological trends that they know will destroy their continent. Another day, African governments may be under fire for religious freedom violations, corruption, or crimes of war, and the West steps into the role of defender of the common good.
While some political situations are objectively better than others, the reality for most is inherently murky. No one government can claim total moral superiority, leaving relationships at the UN to ebb and flow along the lines of carefully segmented areas of convergence.
Without the physical platform that the UN provides for these deliberations, where would these conversations take place? Despite (justified) concerns regarding the evils and futility of the UN, let us not dismiss the essential need for a place of dialogue.
On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, Pope Saint John Paull II called on the UN “to become a moral centre where all the nations of the world feel at home and develop a shared awareness of being, as it were, a ‘family of nations’”. In a family, he explained, “the strong do not dominate; instead, the weaker members…are all the more welcomed and served”. 25 years later let us not abandon the UN, but continue to strive to live up to this call.