The UN still serves a purpose

September 25, 2016

The UN General Assembly, where every country on Earth has a voice, is in session in New York. About 135 heads of state and government and more than 50 ministers are taking turns addressing the annual gathering, one that has always been rich in clichés, caterwauling and cynicism. Every year there seem to be additional reasons to ask if the United Nations — a multilateral body formed in 1945 — is still relevant.

This year, even its outgoing head, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, did not sound so sure. Speaking at the end of his ten-year tenure, Ban lamented developments in Syria: “Just when we think it cannot get any worse, the bar of depravity sinks lower.” And he expressed unhappiness about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: “The prospects for a two-state solution are being lowered by the day.”

Criticism of the United Nations often seems to stick because its list of failures is so long. It has been unable to deliver justice for the Palestinians, to force Israel to respect international law, to bring about peace in Syria or to find a political solution to the conflict in Yemen. To be fair, the United Nations is hampered by the veto power held by a small group of countries since the end of World War II but its track record is not stellar.

Even so, the United Nations was able to cobble together a government of sorts for Libya but the country remains splintered and there are fears that a mighty power struggle over its oil wealth is about to ensue.

So is the United Nations sclerotic and unfit for purpose?

It was never meant to be a world government. With all its divisions and disagreements, it is an irreplaceable global actor in terms of aid and peacekeeping efforts. With 65.3 million people displaced worldwide — about 10 million of them in the Middle East — the United Nations is more relevant than ever before.

In our troubled world, it is always the last resort, the sole international entity that can channel humanitarian impulses through to some of the most benighted places. In recent days, the United Nations managed to resume the delivery of food and medicine to 40,000 desperate and besieged people in Moadamiya, near Damascus. It has plans to dispatch aid to other hard-to-reach Syrian towns as well, such as Madaya, Kefarya, Foua and Zabadani.

Then there is the United Nations’ ability to take the long view. At the turn of the millennium it identified eight development goals, ranging from halving extreme poverty rates to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education. These goals galvanised efforts by countries and development institu­tions to meet the needs of the world’s poorest. From this year, a new set of 17 sustainable development goals provides the frame­work for the global effort.

The United Nations is good at such unflashy acts for the com­monweal. On climate change, it is forging ahead. The COP 22 conference, in Morocco next November, aims to create an inde­pendent body to monitor and verify countries’ pollution levels, a huge advance if it were achieved.

Indeed, if the United Nations did not exist, we would have to invent it.