UNderappreciated

"I'm not a big fan of the United Nations. But if the UN was good for anything, it would be something like this. Since the UN was no good for this, maybe they're good for nothing."

-- Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), on the eve of war in Iraq

The United Nations is easy to hate. With operations sprawling from Manhattan's First Avenue to the far reaches of Azerbaijan, a byzantine organizational structure including nearly 9,000 employees and a $2.6 billion annual budget, it can be inefficient, inconsistent and unresponsive. It's failed miserably at times at its primary objective -- keeping the peace -- by virtually ignoring Rwandan genocide and standing by as Bosnian Serbs overran the town of Srebrenica, a UN-designated "safe area." Such disappointments led former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban to compare the UN to "an umbrella which folds up every time it rains." The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), a former representative to the United Nations, dubbed the chamber a "theater of the absurd."

More recently, President George W. Bush, the aforementioned Bartlett (who also introduced a 1997 bill to restrict U.S. payments to the United Nations) and neocons itching to launch the war in Iraq believed that if they bellowed enough about these UN shortcomings, they could render the world body irrelevant -- making an unfavorable Security Council judgment on Iraq meaningless. While Bush prefers a go-it-alone approach to foreign policy, most presidents have secured support from the UN community before acting on international issues. So it's worth recalling a few of the episodes wherein the United Nations has proven itself an essential vehicle for multilateral conversation and cooperation, a means of resolving conflict and improving living conditions worldwide, and a reflection of an increasingly tight-knit global community.

Established in 1945 as the successor to the League of Nations -- a multilateral organization conceived during World War I to "promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security" -- the United Nations originally consisted of 51 member states. It now includes 191 countries, and peacekeeping remains a primary concern, as well as its most challenging mandate. As John Ruggie, former UN assistant secretary-general who now directs Harvard University's Center for Business and Government, notes, "If you look at the whole track record of UN peacekeeping roughly, it's been moderately successful in containing conflicts in about half of the cases."

Cambodia is one such case. "If that's not a success, you won't find too many," says Michael Doyle, director of the Center of International Studies at Princeton University. During the mid- to late 1970s, the brutal Khmer Rouge regime left more than 1 million Cambodians dead; throughout the '80s, it embroiled the nation in a violent civil war. Several nations tried to set up a coalition government in Cambodia and failed. In 1991 the United Nations moved in, spending more than $2 billion on a peacekeeping operation, which resulted in democratic elections in 1993 that brought 90 percent of Cambodians to the polls. Contemporary Cambodia isn't perfect, but it is an internationally recognized government and boasts a developing economy. Members of the Khmer Rouge could soon be brought to justice via a UN-sponsored court. "If you put all that together and compare that to pre-1991," says Doyle, "it is positive, substantial and probably sustainable."

When a UN intervention fits the conflict at hand -- certain struggles require a lesser degree of intervention than a bitter civil war -- peacekeeping missions tend to succeed, says Doyle, citing the recent liberation of East Timor as an example. On May 20, 2002, following three years of intense UN governance, East Timor became the world's newest nation. More than 120,000 East Timorese were killed or died from diseases from 1975 to 1979 under a violent Indonesian occupation. In August 1999, the United Nations oversaw a referendum in which 78 percent of East Timorese voted for their independence. A month later, then-President Bill Clinton urged the United Nations to send a peacekeeping mission to East Timor to contain violence and implement the territory's self-determination.

Decolonization is an essential component of the UN Charter, and more than 80 former colonies have gained their independence since 1945. Today only 16 "non-self-governing territories" remain. "The UN had a very significant success, which we've forgotten about" in the struggle for decolonization, "which, in another form, was then carried to the struggle of apartheid," says David Malone, president of the International Peace Academy and former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations. To this end, the United Nations isolated South Africa for decades, imposing an arms embargo and stripping the nation of its UN credentials in 1974. The United Nations ultimately played a significant role in dismantling apartheid and arranging a democratic election in 1994.

Besides its peacekeeping role, the United Nations has the unique ability to elevate less visible issues -- from land-mine excavation to literacy initiatives -- on the international agenda. Take, for example, the struggle for human rights, not only on the grand scale of a South Africa or a Cambodia but by the smallest of tribes in South America. "It is difficult for political leaders to always see the connection between human rights and the national interest," says William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "It isn't a connection that many political leaders can recognize ... and it is tempting to shunt human rights as an add-on and not central to public policy."

The United Nations helped leaders make that connection in the case of the Yanomami, an indigenous tribe in the northern Brazilian Amazon state of Roraima. During the 1980s, Brazilian gold miners overran the Yanomami and killed 20 percent of its population, more than 1,500 people, either by direct violence, malnutrition or disease ushered in by the gold rush, according to Tim Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center. Acting on pleas from indigenous-rights advocates, UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar intervened and delivered several ultimatums to the Brazilian government to expel the miners. "Well, it worked," says Coulter. "It put a stop to the deaths of the Yanomamis. That was a major accomplishment." Three years ago, the United Nations established the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council designed to give indigenous communities a voice within the larger UN framework.

Another way in which the United Nations has shown its value recently is through the World Health Organization. The group distributed information about SARS, the respiratory syndrome that started in China and quickly spread around the globe, which led many countries to quarantine those with symptoms, thus keeping the death toll from reaching epidemic proportions so far. "SARS, AIDS, TB -- all jump borders in an era of globalization. Disease even very far away matters desperately to Americans," says the International Peace Academy's Malone. "The minute you shift to the medium and long term, you realize that improving international health standards are critical to maintaining health within the United States." We can also thank a 13-year effort by the World Health Organization for the eradication of smallpox in 1980; the United Nations estimates that the effort has saved $1 billion each year in vaccination and monitoring.

Combating disease is just one way that the United Nations directs resources to impoverished communities. Malone also cites UN resolutions on poverty, in which industrialized nations have promised to devote 0.7 percent of their gross domestic products to external aid each year, as an important source of relief. Whereas most of these donor countries actually slashed their aid programs in the '90s, the UN Millennium Summit jump-started the discussion so that more nations are finally making good on their commitments. Additionally, UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund), founded in 1946 to help European children after World War II, now operates offices in 162 countries and territories and marks improvements in children's quality of life through its annual "State of the World's Children" report.

Two years ago, when the United Nations received its seventh Nobel Peace Prize, the committee that awards the prize aimed "to proclaim that the only negotiable route to global peace and cooperation goes by way of the United Nations." Presumably the committee was aware of both the United Nations' failures and successes. As Dag Hammarskjöld, the second secretary-general, once said, the United Nations was not created to take mankind to heaven but merely to save humanity from hell. A highly imperfect institution can be highly important, too.

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