Understanding the United Nations


The United Nations is the second attempt to form a global forum where the world can meet and debate issues of the day as a community of nations – 212 all up. Its predecessor, the League of Nations was born out of the aftermath of World War 1, with the realization that the world had taken quantum leap forward in its ability to harm itself, but also to de-escalate great power issues between Britain, Germany, France, Russia, the United States.

Right from the start the League of Nations was doomed. Whereas the United States was cheerleader for and an active proponent in setting up the United Nations, it was nowhere to be seen in the League of Nations. Whilst Germany was a member, it, like Italy, left in the 1930s when Adolf Hitler became convinced his expansionist plans and Germany’s rearmament were being actively hindered. So did Japan, upon censure for its attack on China. The League of Nations effectively wound itself up in late 1939, but it was not until 1946 that it formally dissolved.

As World War 2 drew to a close, invitations were issued to neutral nations to come to the inaugural United Nations conference on the condition that they declare war on the Axis powers. Thus began a rush before the March 1945 deadline, among nations in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America who had thus far stayed out of the war, to declare.

The primary function of the United Nations, in a world horrified at the carnage of World War 2, terrified at the prospect that weapons which could obliterate entire cities in seconds, could trigger a new arms race, was to provide a forum that could de-escalate crises before they became military conflicts.

But the United Nations also had a second function that many larger nations frowned upon: a place for small nations to be heard on the global stage. Not all of the major powers approved. For example the Russian acknowledgement of New Zealand’s initial joining of the United Nations was icy.

It is fair to say that the United Nations has its share of problems. Some are by design, such as the semi-permanent deadlock between the western powers and Russia and China in the Security Council. Perhaps the most frustrating and the most damaging of all the problems, the deadlock has prolonged the brutal Syrian Civil War, all but ensured Israel will at some point annex the West Bank and turned a blind eye to absolutely appalling human rights abuses in China.

Some are down to incompetence of officials whose abilities were played up, such as the current boss of the World Health Organisation Dr Tedros Adhanom and one might argue also the United Nations at large, Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Not helping the situation either has been the appointment of nations with scant regard for human rights to high positions in the Human Rights Council.

And then there are some that are not necessarily of the United Nations own making, but caused by people who by their very nature are suspicious of any global bodies and their intentions, however good they might be. Notably Agenda 21 and Agenda 30, which are two United Nations documents circulated in good faith, that have become lightning rods for anti-United Nations/ New World Order/conspiracy theories and their exponents. Agenda 21 alludes to sustainable environmental development and is a non-binding action plan to promote more sustainable use of our natural resources. It was born out of a summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro where the critical loss of these resources and the associated challenges were highlighted, and has since been used by conspiracy theorists to suggest environmentalism is a cover for plan to promote world dictatorship.

But I believe that there is two relatively simple answers that many nations are overlooking, including all of the major antagonists. The first is that the United Nations is a global entity, with input from all of the world. Is that input equal? No. The financial input has a major American component – 22% of all funding for the United Nations comes from the United States and 28% of the peace keeping budget. If other nations want a greater say in the United Nations, perhaps they could better spread out the funding among themselves.

Second, and no less important is how well do nations around the world want the United Nations to succeed. Based on current involvement and their Security Council records, one might argue that China, Russia and the United States would not terribly mind if it has major failures as long as it does not interfere with their interests. One might argue that this is setting the organization at large to fail since without their co-operation, many of the issues that are negatively impacting on nations with less of a voice, such as New Zealand and its Pasifika neighbours, are going to become more pressing before they get better. If at all.

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