A necessary contradiction

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - November 3, 2020 - 12:00am

Last Oct. 24, the United Nations commemorated the 75th anniversary of the day the UN Charter entered into force. One need look no further than the two words that constitute its name to realize the near miraculous feat that the organization has achieved by merely existing for so long.

“United.” “Nations.”

Nations seek to be united within themselves, but they were created for the express purpose of establishing borders, separation… “us” rather than “them” as the fate of the predecessor of the UN, the League of Nations, makes clear the inherent difficulties in creating a global organization of nations. Yet there’s also something to be said for the fact that even before the League of Nations was officially put to rest, the nations of the world were already laying the groundwork for the creation of its successor, the UN. Both global organizations arose from the ashes of war, when nations were forcefully and horribly reminded of the price we pay for a world violently divided.

A global alliance of nations is always going to be a messy and often contradictory endeavor, at best, but it is infinitely preferable to the alternative.

The UN has had to weather many storms almost right out of the gate, particularly the decades-long Cold War that practically paralyzed its Security Council because the contending powers both had permanent seats and veto powers on that Council. This hierarchical structure of the UN, where the great powers at the time its charter was signed were given permanent privilege, is but one of the roadblocks that make it difficult for the UN to live up to the ambitions of its founding. By design and necessity, it is a complex organization, seeking to operate on a global scale with a limited budget and the constant need to find a balance between international intervention and national sovereignty. With its every action or inaction, it is almost inevitable that one or the other member-nation will find something to critique, something that operates against its own national interest.

Yet for all that, there are many ways by which the United Nations and its programs have genuinely made the world a better place. The UN has provided a forum for the discussion and promotion of norms of conduct, particularly in the field of human rights, with milestones that include the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Concepts that the UN has popularized through use, such as sustainable development, have altered the conversation about the manner by which governments must pursue plans for progress. The UN has spearheaded the creation of multinational treaties on matters of great importance, including: the protection of the Ozone Layer (the Montreal Protocol),  climate change (the Framework Convention on Climate Change), the responsibilities of nations in international waters (the Convention on the Law of the Sea) and the peaceful settlement of international disputes (the Manila Declaration).

In the Philippines, UN agencies such as the World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) have contributed to assisting food issues in many areas through projects aimed at addressing malnutrition, and United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has been a constant presence in supporting initiatives to confront infant and maternal mortality. During calamities such as Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), we can always count on the United Nations for assistance. In these and in many other ways, the United Nations has been, and continues to be, a force for good in our country and in the world at large.

This does not mean that the UN is perfect. Far from it. Nor does it mean that the UN should be above criticism from the member-states, when this criticism is meant to improve how the organization functions or achieves the ambitions set out in its Charter. For instance, the Philippines supports the amendment of Article 23 to increase the composition of the Security Council members to up to 27, as well as the rationalizing of the use of the veto power by the Permanent Five.

But it would be wrong to expect the UN to ever be in the good graces of all of its member-states, to expect it to exist as an organization that ruffles no feathers. The United Nations was created to represent the collective interests of the world, not those of any one of its members, even the most powerful. An organization that seeks to safeguard world peace, protect human rights and promote social and economic progress must be expected to put pressure on those of its members that, in appearance or in fact, have fallen short of the duties and obligations to which they have previously agreed. Yes, the United Nations must respect the sovereignty of its member-states, but those members must also respect the mission and function of the UN, the organization to which they voluntarily belong.

It’s a delicate balancing act for both the UN and its members, but it is of the utmost importance that we all make the effort. Perhaps it is best to look at the United Nations not just as an organization but as an aspiration – the dynamic embodiment of the nations of the world constantly trying to find common ground and ways to advance our interests without treading on those of others. As we confront new transnational challenges such as COVID-19, cooperation between the nations of the world has only become more important, and there is simply no other organization other than the United Nations with the legitimacy or capability to unite the efforts of the world’s nations in pursuit of a common goal.

In this period of crisis, the UN is more important than ever, but as a prominent journalist once said: If the United Nations is to survive, those who represent it must bolster it; those who advocate it must submit to it; and those who believe in it must fight for it.”

The United Nations is a contradiction… but it is indisputably a necessary one.

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