The United Nations at 50 – Dead or Alive?

Malcolm Harper

Originally published in 1996/1997, Issue 1

When we commemorated the United Nations’ 50th anniversary last year, we all asked the question – what has the UN achieved and is it a living or a largely moribund organisation, buried by the bureaucracy and corruption which the media appear so willing to attribute to it?

The achievements of the United Nations since 1945 are quite remarkable – both in their extent and in terms of public ignorance of so many of them. Perhaps the most often quoted is the role which UN Agencies played in organising and implementing the eradication of smallpox. Now the Americas have been declared polio-free and the whole world is scheduled to be rid of that pernicious disease by the end of the century.

The work of such agencies as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the Universal Postal Union (UPU) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and all that they achieve are largely taken for granted and are rarely discussed in the public arena.

But, come some supposedly seductively attractive bestiality – whether in Angola, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or some such trouble-spot – and the appetite of the media is, at least in the short-term, insatiable. And what better than to berate the United Nations, either for sending in troops “who do nothing” or for failing to send in troops?

My own experience in different theatres is that the Blue Helmets often quietly contribute rather more than an all too often ignorant press corps understands. I recall once arguing with Douglas Hurd, then a Minister of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) had been given so weak and inadequate a mandate by the Security Council that it might be best for it to be withdrawn. Clearly he did not fully share that attitude; so I went to see the Lebanese Ambassador in London in order to seek his views. “Never,” he said to me, “ask for their withdrawal. Without UNIFIL, the ordinary civilian population, anxious for the violence to end, will have no hope left that a better life is still possible. UNIFIL is their only symbol of hope.” A viewpoint understood by that excellent journalist, Robert Fisk, but by sadly few others.

And in Bosnia-Herzegovina the UN, we were always being told, was a miserable failure. As Dr. Boutros-Ghali has said so often, he asked for 35,000 troops but never received more than about one-third of that number. 1,200 UN troops at Srebzenica might have made a preventive impact which some 400 could not. In Rwanda, several African countries offered troops for an enlarged UN presence but were hideously let down by the US and its NATO allies who declined to provide the logistical back-up which they required.

Oh! and part of the UN’s “failure” in Bosnia-Herzegovina included over 10,000 humanitarian sorties into Sarajevo over a three-year period and, by the time of the Dayton Peace Agreement, the provision of basic daily supplies to some 2.5 million people.

I am not saying that the UN is an untarnished success story. However, I do believe that the UN has achieved far more than we seem willing to admit and that its frustrations and failures are more a result of membership indifference than of basic flaws in the concept or broad structures of the organisation. Of course, changes are needed. The structure of the Security Council requires a radical rethink; the capacity of the Economic and Social Council needs to be enhanced; the strengthening of the UN’s ability to secure the implementation of the human rights standards which it has helped to set is an urgent need; the fuller support of the membership for poverty- focussed development strategies and for environmental protection are major requirements if Mother Earth is not to be raped still further; the list goes on and on.

In summary, the UN’s achievements are many and varied; members’ attitudes towards its fuller use in keeping with their Charter obligations vary considerably at different points in time and over different issues; and the world without the UN would be considerably less safe and more miserable for countless people than it is with it.

We need the UN for our survival; so let’s stop belittling it and being indifferent to it and start campaigning for its role to be more properly recognised and supported. When that happens, there is little doubt that the world will – at last – really start to become a more just and happy place for us all and not just for the lucky few.


At the time of writing, Malcolm Harper was the Director of the United Nations Association of the United Kingdom. After graduating from Cambridge in 1960, where he had been an activist on many international issues, he worked for a year in South Africa as a lay personal assistant to the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town before joining OXFAM, with whom he spent 18 years, including periods of service in Eastern and West Africa, Vietnam and Cambodia.

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