Exactly 75 years ago today, in San Francisco, 50 countries signed the founding charter of the United Nations (UN). The local paper described the moment in lyrical terms: “In the dining rooms and hotel rooms and fireplaces of San Francisco today, the structure of our world is being formed for tomorrow”.
And US president Harry Truman declared: “Oh what a great day this can be in history…(with countries putting aside differences in one unshakable unity of determination—to find a way to end wars”.
The UN hasn’t lived up to all the hype, of course, but has done pretty well if growth, reach and longevity are a measure of success.
It has grown to 193 members.
It is at the centre of a rules-based international order and its 15 specialised agencies (FAO, WHO, WTO, ILO etc) touch almost every aspect of every life across the world. It has taken on peacekeeping duties – something not originally envisaged in its Charter.
Unlike its precursor, the short-lived League of Nations, the UN has reached a venerable old age and rather than party at 75 it is busily planning for its 100th birthday.
#UN75 is all about the UN at 100.
With an online survey, polling across 50 countries and hundreds of “dialogues”, the UN is taking the international pulse. The focus is especially on the young because half the world’s population is under 30. #UN75 is meant to poll the planet on what should be the world order.
The results will be presented to the UN General Assembly in September. But preliminary findings released in April are just as bland as the usual fare served by the UN. Much of the world thinks the following are very important: environmental protection; human rights; less conflict; equal access to basic services and no discrimination. Much of the world also believes international co-operation is “essential” or “very important”. In other words, #UN75 makes a strong case for #UN100.
But is that wholly true?
The UN is certainly more trusted than many governments, according to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer (p. 22-23,43).
A 2019 Pew Research Centre survey of 32 countries found that a median of 61% had a favourable opinion of the UN and just 26% thought poorly of it. The organisation had rockstar status in three countries – the Philippines (86%), South Korea (82%) and Sweden (80%).
That said, not everyone is cheering the UN’s record on keeping the global peace.
There has been no third world war on the UN’s watch but far too many smaller ones.
The UN has become exceedingly bureaucratic, unable to make decisions quickly or to make haste on anything useful.
Since its founding, the UN has only been really reformed just once and that was a timid half-measure. Four non-permanent Security Council members were added on to a rotating group that is by no means as powerful as the P5, the five countries that permanently have a veto on UN resolutions.
The P5, incidentally, reflects the balance of power of 75 years ago.
If anything, #UN75 looks like the world in which it came into being rather than the one it serves today. As it looks resolutely ahead to its next big birthday, the UN will have to reinvent itself to be fit for purpose.
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