Reclaim the UN

Mr. Sta. Ana is the coordinator of Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the Yellow Pad column of Businessworld, 10 January 2005 edition.

{mosimage}The worst natural disaster in modern times, the tsunami that has so far claimed 145,000 lives, has mobilized the global community. Prominent as well as nameless people, private institutions, and governments have
shown compassion and extended aid to alleviate the pain and suffering.
At the forefront of this global initiative is the United Nations (UN).

The UN is coordinating the global effort to generate resources and
deliver relief and emergency aid in the affected regions. The call for
support has resulted in pledges amounting to $4 billion.

It has not been easy for the UN to raise the funds. At first, donor
countries offered meager donations. The initial offer from the United
States, for example, was $15 million. This drew criticism from various
quarters. Sidney Blumenthal, a political commentator and former senior
adviser to President Clinton, sarcastically wrote that the amount of
$15 million was “$2 million less than the star pitcher of the Boston
Red Sox was paid that year.” The UN’s criticism was likewise pointed.
UN emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland decried the “stinginess” of
the donor countries.

A combination of the pressure from public opinion, the propaganda and
political value of aid, and a dose of humanitarianism prompted the rich
countries to increase their assistance.

US President George W. Bush raised the US commitment to $350 million.
Soon after, not to be outdone, Japan’s pledge went up to $500 million.

Whether the donor countries can fully deliver their commitments is a
different matter. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appealed to the
donors to honor their commitments and to immediately send the money.
“Pledges  to be converted into cash quickly… It is a race against time.” The record in this respect is discouraging. In 2004, for example, donor countries pledged $1 billion to Iran in the wake of an earthquake that killed more than 25,000 people. Only a fraction of this amount – $17.5 million – was actually disbursed.

Yet, the donor countries, together with the developing countries, have
taken determined efforts to address the catastrophe. The world leaders
declared in a summit that “this unprecedented devastation needs
unprecedented global response in assisting the national governments to
cope with such disaster.”

In this instance, the US, which dismissed and defied the UN when it
invaded Iraq, has allowed and encouraged the UN to take the lead role
in coordinating the global effort to extenuate the effects of the disaster and pave the way for recovery. {mospagebreak}

Of course, the UN’s orientation is much broader and goes beyond fulfilling the tasks of mitigating the impact of natural disasters or coordinating relief and rehabilitation activities. The UN’s humanitarian concern is important, but this is not its only mission. As stated in Article 1 of its Charter, the UN’s mission is “to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character.”

The UN was founded in the wake of World War II, precisely to prevent the outbreak of wars between nations. Its decision-making process is guided by the principles of collective actions to promote the global public goods, especially peace and human development. In a word, the UN is the institution for global governance.

In many issues and on many occasions, though, UN governance has become
ineffective. Powerful member countries have disregarded, if not violated, the Charter’s principles, General Assembly resolutions or international treaties. A few privileged countries have used the veto to protect narrow, selfish national interests at the expense of the global good. The US unilateral action of invading Iraq is the recent most striking example of how the UN has been sidelined as an institution for global governance.

The UN is now earning well-deserved praises for taking the lead in rallying governments and peoples in a common cause to provide relief and rehabilitation to the tsunami victims. An opportunity thus presents itself towards strengthening the UN system and global governance. This entails reforming and democratizing the UN.

Many scholars, activists, and reformist bureaucrats have taken on the perennial task of campaigning for UN reforms. In the autumn of 2004, the city of Padova, though not as famous as its neighbor Venezia, hosted an international seminar titled “Reclaim the UN.” It was quite appropriate to have the seminar at the University of Padova. Its motto “Universa universis patavina libertas” crystallizes what the UN should stand for: Freedom is universal and is for everyone. The hundreds of participants came out with a working document that asserts that the “UN is the only worldwide forum that can and has to be the instrument for the people to achieve a world of peace and social justice.” They lament that “the weakening of the UN and the failure of governments to fulfill their commitments taken at the UN” have undermined a “world order based on international law.”

The participants vowed to support the following objectives (taken from the seminar’s working document):

  • Oppose the strategy of “preventive and infinite” war, and unilateralism.
  • Reclaim and revitalize the UN system on the base of international law and human rights.
  • Democratize the UN system, opening its doors to local
    authorities, local governments, other decentralized governments,
    parliaments, civil society voices representing the plurality of social,
    ethnic, gender and other diversities.
  • Ensure that the UN has the resources for implementing its mandate.
  • Promote general disarmament and the ban of all nuclear arms and of all weapons of mass destruction.
  • Prevent conflicts, protect civilians, and react to humanitarian catastrophes.

All these objectives towards reforming and reclaiming the UN are desirable if not ideal. The goodwill that the UN is reaping from its painstaking effort to address the tsunami catastrophe can be a turning point to promote UN reforms.

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