United Nations

New relevance of the world body

Print edition : November 29, 2013

The U.N. General Assembly meeting held at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris on December 10, 1948, at which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. Photo: AFP

U.N. peacekeeping soldiers near the Quneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria, on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, on June 12. Photo: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

With the failure of market ideologies to provide solutions to the pressing problems of our times, the world needs a new mode of governance based on consensus and coexistence, not competition and conquest.

THE individual man strives to belong to larger and larger collectives, and seeks to achieve a sort of invincibility and immortality by transcending time and space. People instinctively want to build communities, improve their quality of life and provide security for their offspring with the help of science and technology. Mankind was evolving along these lines for millenniums, culturally and spiritually: It is now organised under some 200 nation states that are being unified by a United Nations Organisation, founded on the principles of peaceful coexistence of diverse cultures, after tens of thousands of wars, big and small, including the two devastating global wars.

The world observes October 24 as U.N. Day: the United Nations Organisation (UNO) was founded on that day in 1945 by 51 countries, soon after the Second World War ended. The U.N. was the successor to the League of Nations, founded after the First World War with the primary objective of sustaining international peace and security. It was Emperor Asoka (268-232 B.C.) who first launched a global campaign for peace, and theorised that war was no solution for conflicts among nations.

Peaceful coexistence of diverse cultures and nationalities was the fundamental objective of the U.N., which was an entirely new historical experience for humankind. The organisation has been helping resolve complex problems arising out of uneven development across the globe. According to its founding Charter, the U.N. has four main purposes: (i) to keep peace throughout the world; (ii) to develop friendly relations among nations; (iii) to help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people and to conquer hunger, disease and illiteracy and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms; and (iv) to be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations to achieve these goals.

Owing to its unique international character and the powers vested in its founding Charter, the U.N. can take action on a wide range of issues and provide a forum for its 193 member states to express their views, through the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council and other bodies and committees. The organisation chart and activity chart extracted from the website and reproduced elsewhere are indicative of the diversified capabilities of the U.N. The work of the U.N. today “reaches every corner of the globe. Although best known for peacekeeping, peace-building, conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance, there are many other ways the United Nations and its System (specialised agencies, funds and programmes) affect our lives and make the world a better place.”

“The U.N. works on a broad range of fundamental issues, from sustainable development, environment and refugees protection, disaster relief, counter terrorism, disarmament and non-proliferation, to promoting democracy, human rights, gender equality and the advancement of women, governance, economic and social development and international health, clearing landmines, expanding food production, and more, in order to achieve its goals and coordinate efforts for a safer world for this and future generations.” The most recent U.N. initiative on the destruction of chemical weapons is in perfect harmony with the mood of the contemporary world and its desire to pre-empt another nuclear holocaust.

The present status and structure of the U.N. is a product of technological evolution through more than a century and a half of global cooperation on specific sectors after the Industrial Revolution. Several of its specialised agencies were created even before its own birth. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was founded in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union, and the Universal Postal Union was established in 1874. Both are now specialised U.N. agencies. As early as in 1899, the International Peace Conference was held in The Hague to elaborate instruments for settling crises peacefully, to prevent wars and to codify rules of warfare. It adopted the Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes and established the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which began work in 1902.

The League of Nations, the U.N.'s forerunner, was an organisation conceived in similar circumstances and established in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security”. The International Labour Organisation was also created under the Treaty of Versailles as an affiliated agency of the League. The League of Nations ceased its activities after failing to prevent the Second World War. Unlike the short-lived League of Nations, the U.N. has served the cause of human development for nearly seven decades and had even drawn up, in 1990, the ambitious Millennium Development Goals 2015 (MDG).

On several fronts, the achievements under the MDG are far below its ambitious targets, and it is difficult to say whether a qualitatively different world has really arrived, as anticipated by its protagonists. The institutions, numbering around a hundred, created under the U.N. banner as specialised organisations, regional commissions or fund-raising agencies, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), were all partners in this ambitious programme. However, the world had undergone a fundamental change, in the meanwhile, with the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the disintegration of the Socialist camp. The Cold War climate giving way to the so-called unipolar world, dominated by market ideologies, had a negative impact on the MDG strategies.

But even before the onset of the unipolar world, there were numerous hurdles which were blocking the optimum use of the organisational and technological resources commanded by the U.N. Developed countries, under the leadership of the United States, were not prepared to share their technological resources with developing countries on an equitable basis. For them, global market and global capital were the sole objects of global relations; global cooperation and global welfare were of no consequence. For example, the U.S., the leading country in nuclear power generation, had no interest in using the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for global cooperation in nuclear energy. It has only been using the IAEA for global policing and implementation of its own ill-conceived nuclear proliferation programme.

The WHO could have made great contributions in the health sector but global monopolies in drug research and drug manufacture in developed countries had their own priorities, dictated by global monopoly capital. Similar statements could be made with regard to the FAO as well as other U.N. agencies like the UNIDO and the UNDP for mutual cooperation in energy-related technologies as well as industrial and transportation technologies. The UNEP and climate change studies were the chief receivers of grants and donations from the U.S. during the two decades starting from the first Rio Summit in 1992. The massive global campaign on climate change has now ended up as a fiasco, and the Rio+20 programme has been drawn up on a more realistic basis, drawing inspiration from the quarter-century-old MDG 2015.

It appears that the big victory registered by market ideologies towards the end of the last century was rather short-lived. It is now widely accepted that there are no solutions for the numerous problems that have come up in recent years within the framework of global economics based on the competition model among nation states. The argument that only a free market could promote innovations on the science and technology front has been demolished by the experience of not only the USSR and other socialist countries, including China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea, but also the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries that have adopted different models of state monopoly capitalism, where the state plays a crucial and dominant role in developing and operating infrastructure and also organising and managing education and research and development. Professor John Kenneth Galbraith had, long ago, correctly theorised on the converging tendencies in the development of contemporary capitalist and socialist economies.

Einstein’s view

Albert Einstein concluded his celebrated essay “Why Socialism?”, published in the inaugural issue of Monthly Review (May 1949), with the following words:

“This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

“I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilised in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

“Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralisation of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?”

Humanity has, by now, accumulated substantial experience in the building of socialism in a single country, an issue of big debates during the Bolshevik revolution. True, the USSR has disintegrated and the Socialist camp and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) have disappeared, but they have left behind a rich experience of nations working together based on mutual cooperation and planned economic development based on consensus. These experiences are qualitatively and distinctively different from those of the European Union and the several free trade zones set up with the support of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The rhythm and tempo of globalisation being decided by consensus and mutual cooperation and not through competition and conquests is now a definite possibility, and the U.N. could be fine-tuned towards this objective.

The massive organisational resources and expertise the U.N. and the Bretton Woods institutions have built up over the past seven decades give humankind the confidence to collectively launch a bold and innovative project for global governance, based on the principles of peaceful coexistence of diverse cultures. The recent UNESCO document on the Internet as well as the deliberations and resolutions of the global meet in Dubai (WCIT-12) organised by the ITU last December are indicative of the growing faith of global communities in the U.N. instruments for global governance. Despite the hostile stand by the U.S., the E.U. and the OECD countries in general, and the global campaign unleashed by Google and other corporate giants against any sort of Internet regulation by the ITU, a new global telecom treaty enabling the same was agreed upon at the Dubai conference.

The recent revelations by Edward Snowden, a former contractor engaged by the National Security Agency of the U.S., have simply demolished the massive propaganda build-up against Internet regulation by the U.N., in the name of protecting individual freedom from state oppression. The ITU and the U.N. getting involved in Internet regulation is a bold step towards global democracy and global governance.

It will be appropriate to end this essay with a reference to the great Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and his classic play The Bedbug, written for the first anniversary of the revolution of 1917, and a landmark in the history of Soviet theatre. Mayakovsky created in this play a prototype of what is known today as social media network, in order to condemn the bedbug and the exploitative character of the insect, a specimen of which had survived long years of revolutionary progress by humanity.

K. Vijayachandran is Chairman, Cochin Centre for Policy Initiatives. This article was presented as a paper at the U.N. Day seminar held in Kochi this year.