Touching our Daily Lives… – ability of the UN and world community to achieve sustainable disarmament

Touching our Daily Lives… – ability of the UN and world community to achieve sustainable disarmament – Column

Ramesh Thakur


International organizations touch our daily lives in myriad ways. They are an important means of arranging the functioning of the state-based international system more satisfactorily than had proven to be the case in conditions of international anarchy. The United Nations lies at their legislative and normative centre. If it did not exist, we would surely have to invent it. Considering the illfated history of the League of Nations, the United Nations founders would have felt pride and satisfaction that their creation is still intact at the dawn of the new millennium, embracing virtually the entire international community. Yet, their vision of a world community equal in rights and united in action is still to be realized.

For romantics, the United Nations can do no wrong and is the solution to all the world’s problems. Its failures are seen as being really the failures of Member States. If only they had the necessary political will, the Organization would fulfil its destiny as the global commons, the custodian of the international interest and the conscience of all humanity.

Cynics question the respect paid to the United Nations by the credulous. For them, it exists so that nations, unable to do anything individually, can get together to decide that nothing can be done collectively. The price of inaction on a grand scale is paid by the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda and others.

In the midst of the swirling tides of change, the United Nations must strive for a balance between the desirable and the possible. The UN Charter was a triumph of hope and idealism over the experience of two world wars. The flame flickered in the chili winds of the cold war. But it has not yet died out. The Organization’s greatest strength is that it is the only universal forum for cooperation and management. The global public goods of peace, prosperity, sustainable development and good governance cannot be achieved by any country acting on its own. The United Nations is still the symbol of our hopes and dreams for a better world where weakness can be compensated for by justice and fairness, and the law of the jungle replaced by the rule of law.

The United Nations presided over decolonization–one of the great achievements of this century. The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights is both the embodiment and proclamation of the human rights norm. The 1966 Covenants added force and specificity, affirming both civil/political and social/economic/cultural rights without privileging either. Together, they mapped out the international human rights agenda, established the benchmark for State conduct, inspired provisions in many national laws and international conventions, and provided a beacon of hope to many whose rights had been snuffed out by brutal regimes.

Like the League of Nations in the interwar period, the United Nations embodied the idea that aggressive war is a crime against humanity, with every State having the interest, right and duty to collaborate in preventing it. The innovation of peacekeeping notwithstanding, the United Nations has not lived up to expectations in securing a disarmed and peaceful world. But it has helped States to behave less conflictually, form habits of cooperation, and develop shared norms and perceptions. While the United Nations cannot honestly be said to have kept the world at peace, the Security Council has played a peace-influencing role, and the General Assembly has undertaken a peace-shaping role.

As with sustainable development, which seeks to strike a balance between growth and conservation, the United Nations must be at the centre of efforts to achieve sustainable disarmament: the reduction of armaments to the lowest level where the security needs of any one country at a given time, or any one generation over time, are met without compromising the security and welfare needs of other countries or future generations. It is simply not acceptable that millions of people should continue to be condemned to a life of poverty, illiteracy and ill-health at a time of unprecedented economic prosperity and stock market boom in some parts of the world.

For the United Nations to succeed, the world community must match the demands it makes by the means it gives the Organization, which provides and manages the framework for bringing together the world’s leaders to tackle the pressing problems of the day for the survival, development and welfare of all human beings everywhere. It has to strike a balance between realism and idealism. It will be incapacitated if it alienates its most important members, in particular the United States. Its decisions must reflect current realities of military and economic power. But it will also lose credibility if it compromises core values.

The United Nations is the repository of international idealism. Utopia is fundamental to its identity. Even the sense of disenchantment and disillusionment on the part of some cannot be understood other than in this context. Kosovo captures the tension. From the critics’ point of view, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) unilateralism was a powerful threat to the prospects of a rules-based world order centred on the United Nations. Coalition might triumphed over international right, force over the rule of law. By retroactively legitimizing NATO aggression, the United Nations was subverted from a coalition to protect the weak into one to serve big-power interests. But NATO countries are not the usual suspect of rogue States. They include some of the brightest and the best of UN citizen States. For them, military action against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was an affirmation and materialization of an emerging new order that juggles geopolitical realism with normative idealism. Allowing a regime to get away with flouting the core ideals of the United Nations would have eroded the legitimacy of the Organization as the custodian of the world conscience. The war was the practical expression of the historic shift from old-style balance of power to the new-age community of power.

The fact that NATO sought and received Security Council endorsement, even if retroactively, is proof that many supporters of NATO strikes had remained troubled with the precedent of collective military action outside the UN framework. A UN role is indispensable even for the most powerful military coalition in history. NATO made war; it needs the United Nations to secure the peace.

The United Nations represents the idea that unbridled nationalism and the raw interplay of power must be mediated and moderated in an international framework. It is the centre for harmonizing national interests and forging international interest. The Kosovo learning-curve shows that the United Nations ideal can neither be fully attained nor abandoned. Like most organizations, the UN too is condemned to an eternal credibility gap between aspiration and performance. The real challenge is to ensure that the gap does not widen but stays dose. It may not take us to heaven; it must save us from hell on earth.

Ramesh Thakur, a distinguished scholar and commentator on international affairs, Is Vice Rector of the United Nations University In Tokyo, Japan. This article reflects his personal views.

COPYRIGHT 1999 United Nations Publications

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