Erskine Childers on the United Nations

Everything will be all right when people stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it as a drawing they made themselves.

Dag Hammarskjöld

Hammarskjöld was right: the UN was in his time, and still is, seen by many as a weird abstraction, and one now obscured by heavy layers of factual distortion after decades of editorial bashing in the West and lazy replaying of right-wing and Zionist disinformation. We need to strip all this away in order to know what has actually happened to the UN, who is most responsible for it, and how the institution can be improved to cope with the fact that the era of post-Cold War ‘peace’ was only a fleeting moment of euphoria.

The UN has been portrayed so often as ‘a vast, bloated bureaucracy’ that many now assume it is too big to be reformable. It is not; it could and should be reformed, and national governments pressured to get their act together. The core staff numbers only three thousand two hundred, of whom some eight hundred are the interpreters who serve at the six-language meetings. Including support staff, the total number of employees is nine thousand worldwide, covering everything. That is fewer than the number of civil servants in the city of Winnipeg, or employees of Saatchi and Saatchi. If the UN was slow to respond to the crises of the Nineties, this is partly in consequence of a 13 per cent cut in staff numbers insisted on by the industrialised nations in 1986 which reduced the peacekeeping staff to barely forty – fewer than any single country would assign simply to support its own troop contribution. The larger UN ‘system’ – the UN itself, along with its development and humanitarian funds, and its 15 specialised agencies, such as the World Bank and Unesco – serves 184 countries and 5.6 billion people with just under 52,000 staff. That is fewer than the District Health Service in Wales.

In 1992, total UN expenditure on all its activities – including development aid, peacekeeping and humanitarian relief costs – totalled $10.5 billion. That is roughly what is spent every 15 weeks in Britain on alcohol. It represents less than $2 per human being alive on the planet today, compared with the $150 per capita spent annually by governments on arms and the military.

In short, the UN is perilously under-resourced, indeed kept perennially on the brink of bankruptcy by the country which hosts it. It is not safe that it should be at the mercy of any one member for as much as 25 per cent of its budget, as it is with the United States. A ceiling of 10 per cent should be adopted, and the quite small difference made up by other affluent members being asked to pay more. The remedies proposed recently by a top-level team of financiers including Shijuro Ogata and Paul Volcker should also be implemented – among them, interest penalties on those countries that pay late. Finally, it should be made possible for individuals around the world to contribute to other UN bodies besides Unicef. This wouldn’t be easy, but various painless schemes suggest themselves, such as one day a year of worldwide postage stamp sales or a UN Lottery or a tax on the international air travel that the UN should be making sure is safe.

The more profound problems identified by Hammarskjöld originate in the UN Charter itself. Contrary to the standard view, the UN was not designed to be only, or even predominantly, a peace and security organisation. Rather, the Charter reflects the lesson of two global wars: that international democratic management of key world economic and social problems is essential if we are to address the causes of conflict in time to prevent it.

At San Francisco in 1945 the smaller countries made sure that the Charter would be the first ever international social contract, implemented and monitored in the UN on a one-nation one-vote principle – a principle intended for the protection of smaller members vis à vis the Great Powers (not, as another canard has it, for the time when the ‘irresponsible new majority’ should arrive). In 1945, the colonial empires were not thought likely to collapse in this century – the UN planners were told to allow for expansion up to perhaps seventy members. Nonetheless, the original Charter proved entirely valid for the decolonised nations when they arrived, much sooner than expected, and made the UN into a global organisation: ‘International machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples ... a centre for harmonising the actions of nations ... the maintenance of peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources ... human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’. That could scarcely be improved on today, except to add the need to protect the environment. The Charter even specifies ‘the promotion of full employment’, a need G7 leaders seem only now to be rediscovering.

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