The UN: Still Indispensable!

The conservative Heritage Foundation will probably never be the United Nations’ biggest fan. Still, there comes a time when one must separate unabashed bias from, well, reality.

In a blog post last week, fellow Brett D. Schaefer rips into the UN with one-sided accusations of mismanagement. The UN is far from a perfect institution, but Schaefer’s diatribe neglects to mention at all the positive change the UN has affected just in the past few months alone.

Every day, all over the world, there are small and large victories for peace, security and development that happen under the auspices of the UN. For instance, the UN peacekeeping mission in Timor Leste, which ended a few months ago, was hailed as a success in giving a young country a strong start.  That is just once recent example, but there are many others which Schaefer simply ignores in his one-sided critique of the UN.

So, we thought we’d offer a little bit of that balance.

For Schaefer’s arguments, he begins by pointing to Syria. While indeed Russia and China have infuriatingly used their veto to block strong Security Council action against Syria, the UN has nevertheless played a crucial role in efforts to build a broad international consensus against human rights abuses committed by the Syrian government. And, perhaps more importantly, UN humanitarian agencies have stood at the forefront of international efforts to provide life-sustaining aid to Syria’s battered civilian population.

The World Food Program (WFP) is scaling up its efforts to provide food aid to nearly 2.5 million people every month within Syria, and is also currently providing desperately needed relief to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. Meanwhile, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is leading efforts to provide shelter, mattresses, heating stoves, clothing, fuel, cash assistance, and other essential items to Syrians affected by the fighting, as well as support to host communities that have been their own scarce resources with refugees. Additionally, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is working to respond to the needs of Syrian children who have been displaced or otherwise affected by the conflict, providing access to clean water and sanitation facilities, health care, educational materials, and psychological counseling. In addition, UNICEF has teamed up with the World Health Organization (WHO) to mount an emergency vaccination campaign for children under the age of five against measles and polio, targeting children both inside Syria and in refugee camps in northern Jordan.

On the issue of North Korea, Schaefer laments that the Security Council has been unable to singlehandedly quell Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, criticizing steps to isolate the nation as merely “timid.” The argument suggests a blanket disregard for diplomacy. In the Huffington Post, Peter Yeo recently suggested that the most recent resolution is actually a step forward in getting the U.S. and China to agree on a course of action for North Korea. In addition, just yesterday, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously agreed to launch an investigation into human rights abuses taking place in North Korea. This action may further signal the country’s isolation on the international scene.

Schaefer discusses UN accountability for the cholera epidemic in Haiti. Much thoughtful and reasonable criticism has been levied on UN peacekeeping for a failure to take accountability for its role in the post-earthquake cholera outbreak. However, the UN is also responsible for much more in Haiti — such as vaccinating nearly 3 million children under age 10 against polio, measles and rubella; treating and curing 60% of tuberculosis patients; providing treatment to more than 33,000 HIV-positive patients; improving de-sludging operations to reduce contamination risks for an estimated 1 million people; and implementing a 10-year plan on the elimination of cholera in Haiti.

Of course, even the staunchest UN supporters recognize the need for reform and improvement. Like any other institution that receives public funds, the myriad agencies and programs that form the “UN system” need to be carefully evaluated and, indeed, donor countries have a role to play in making these institutions more efficient. But to dismiss the UN entirely, based on the fact that there are imperfections  – just like in any organization – is really missing the point. What alternatives do we have for nations to come together under one roof and attempt to iron out differences, collaborate and take collective action? What NGOs or other agencies have the ability to deliver humanitarian support on a massive scale, the way UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO or WFP are able to? The United Nations is far from perfect. But it’s by far the best – and only – set of institutions available today for global cooperation.

Perhaps Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel put it best when as a Senator he said: “No international conflict is simple or easy to deal with, but each requires attention and the United Nations is the only international organization that can help bring the consensus that is indispensable in finding solutions and resolving crises.” This is not to say that consensus is always easy or possible to achieve – but the international community is better off having – however imperfect – institutional arrangements that create the space for dialogue and consensus-building, than to have to resort to complex bilateral and multilateral discussions that do not have the legitimacy that working under the UN confers.