How well has the United Nations managed to “maintain international peace and security, … develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, …and to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character?”
Any attempt to answer in any depth is far beyond for a blog post, more like a PhD thesis or one of those huge doorstop textbooks!!! But I won’t let that stop me from making a few observations.
The Charter turned 70 years old on June 26th, with UN Secretary general ban Ki-Moon declaring that the anniversary is:
“a timely opportunity to highlight its many and enduring achievements — and to strengthen our collective resolve to do more to promote peace and security, sustainable development and human rights.”
Throughout the UN system, the importance of human rights protection is stressed. The history of the UN indicates, however that there was not, at the beginning, a general acceptance of the importance of human rights protection as a function of the UN.
Javaid Rehman, in International Human Rights Law, said that during the drafting of the Charter:
“The major powers, predominantly the United States and Britain, had been reluctant to uphold the cause of complete equality and non-discrimination. A Chinese proposal to uphold the principle of all States and races proved unacceptable to the US, Great Britain and Soviet delegates at Dumbarton Oaks and hence, was eliminated.”
There are, however, several references to human rights in the Charter, for example the preamble which states that “We the peoples of the United Nations determined…to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small…”
Those references have been used to build a system in which protection of human rights is now unquestionably a key focus of the UN.
It is also without question that the UN has had spectacular and very public failures in rights protection within its stated mandate to “unite our strength to maintain international peace and security.” The 1994 genocide in Rwanda would probably be at the top of most lists, with Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stating last year that the UN was still ashamed of its failure there. It is estimated that 800,000 people died in what has been termed 100 days of slaughter.
There are many more failures that can be listed.
But on balance, with all its flaws, the UN system is of tremendous importance to the world. Multilateralism is crucial to the process of expanding human rights across borders. Treaties promulgated under the banner of the UN have thrust issues like the rights of children, women and the disabled into the forefront of national and international dialogues, and helped spur the creation of national legislation on critical rights issues.
Have these led to immediate improvement in rights protection? In many cases no, as women’s rights advocates in Pakistan are quick to point out.
But it is because we expect so much of the UN and understand its importance and potential that its failures and shortcomings – which are legion – are so frustrating.
Seventy years on, the world is a different place. Many countries which were colonies in 1945 are now politically independent. In 1945 the US Supreme Court had not yet ruled in the landmark case that outlawed segregation in public schools and South Africa was three years away from implementing its apartheid laws.
The problems of 2015 are just as pressing as those of 1945, and we need an improved, stronger UN to help us tackle them head-on. We must re-double our efforts to press for reform. The failures of yesterday must become catalysts for more effective interventions of today and tomorrow if the UN is to truly assert with conviction the determination of member states to:
“to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights… and
to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”