At 70, UN has a mixed record

Seventy years ago today, the United Nations came into being. It provided hope for a world that was emerging from the ashes of the Second World War, struggling to free itself from the shackles of colonialism and staring at insecurities posed by threats from nuclear weapons, a looming Cold War, disease and poverty. The UN has played a stellar role in conflict resolution, peacekeeping and reconstruction and is credited with negotiating 172 settlements to end regional conflicts. It is under the UN’s leadership that member-states took more seriously the need to fight poverty, chronic hunger, malnutrition, gender discrimination, etc. In defence of human rights, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The UN agencies have sought to improve survival of infants and children by working towards universal immunisation. While WHO’s efforts resulted in the eradication of small pox in 1980, UNICEF’s dedication to fighting polio could see the eradication of this disease soon. The UN has extended immense support to people fleeing war zones. Since 1950, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has sustained four generations of Palestinians with free schooling, health care etc.

However, the UN has failed on several counts. Its resolutions on the creation of a Palestinian state are yet to be implemented. Besides, several UN peacekeeping missions have ended in failure and may have even fuelled violence. Although the UN was aware of an impending genocide in Rwanda, its peacekeepers did not stop the Hutu majority from slaughtering almost a million Tutsis there. In 2008, at the height of the war in Sri Lanka, the UN staff withdrew and left thousands of Tamil civilians at the mercy of government troops and rebels.

However, the UN cannot be faulted for the small-mindedness of its member-states especially the big powers that continue to dominate and direct its agenda and actions. Veto-wielding powers like the United States owe the UN billions of dollars in arrears, leaving the UN a severely cash-strapped body with little money to fund its humanitarian work. If the UN Security Council has been reduced to a debating club, this is because its permanent members are misusing the veto power to further their individual interests. The UN could be a more effective body if it is sensitive to the needs of the vast majority of people living in Asia, Africa and South America rather than the interests of a handful of rich powers. Radical restructuring and democratisation of the UN will make it more effective as it looks towards its centenary year.

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