The Danish Peace Academy

Strengthening The Role Of The United Nations

John Avery, H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen

In 1945, the victors of World War II gathered in San Francisco to draft the United Nations Charter. The tragic experiences of two world wars, during which the lives of 26 million soldiers and 64 million civilians were lost, had convinced them that security based on national military forces must be replaced by a system of collective security. The first paragraph of the Charter states that the primary purpose of the organization is “to maintain international peace and security, and to that end to take effective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression and other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.”

In practice, the United Nations has developed several effective modes of action - peacekeeping, peacemaking, peacebuilding, preventative diplomacy and peace enforcement. Even though the organization has been hampered by Cold War tensions and frequently paralysed by vetos in the Security Council, it nevertheless has made substantial contributions to global peace by resolving small-scale conflicts and by preventing large-scale ones. The term peacekeeping, in its narrow sense, is applied to operations where U.N. military personnel, often unarmed or only lightly armed, form a buffer between hostile forces in order to maintain a cease-fire. Peacemaking refers to U.N. assistance in the settlement of disputes or the resolution of conflicts.

The term peacebuilding was coined in recent years, and it denotes broad and fundamental efforts to create global conditions which promote peace. Thus peacebuilding includes all areas of international cooperation, including economic, social and humanitarian concerns. For example, U.N. action on problems of poverty, population, pollution, human rights, and the control of terrorism, narcotics and infectious disease all come under the heading of peacebuilding. In addition, the U.N. sometimes acts through preventative diplomacy, an example being the Secretary-General’s recent negotiation of an agreement on arms inspection in Iraq. The term peace enforcement denotes active military intervention by the United Nations to stop aggression of one nation against another, for example in the Korean War or the Gulf War. During the half century which has passed since the founding of the United Nations, the need for effective government at the global level has greatly increased. Modern weapons have become so destructive that war is no longer an acceptable method for resolving international disputes. For this reason, and because of the enormous increase in global economic interdependence, we can no longer afford to have unlimited national sovereignty, with anarchy at the global level.

Looking forward to the 21st century and to the new millennium, we can clearly see that in the long run, security can only be achieved by an effective system of international law. The United Nations is the only institution whose authority and structure are suited to constructing and enforcing such a system of law at the global level. U.N. membership includes all nations; and the U.N. has had half a century of experience in addressing global problems.

The impartiality and neutrality of the Secretary-General are accepted and recognized, whereas regional organizations such as NATO cannot claim the same degree of impartiality. Thus it is urgent that the present U.N. Charter be made to function more justly and more effectively; and in the long run, the weaknesses of the present U.N. Charter must be corrected.

There are numerous reasons why, during the comming century, war must be abolished as a social institution; and a few of these reasons are as follows: It is extremely important that research funds be used to develop renewable energy sources and to solve other urgent problems now facing humankind, rather than for developing new and more dangerous weapons systems. In spite of the end of the Cold War, the world still spends roughly a trillion U.S. dollars per year on armaments. At present, more than 40 percent of all research funds are used for projects related to the arms industry.

Since the Second World War, in spite of the best efforts of the U.N., there have been over 150 armed conflicts; and on any given day, there are an average of 12 wars somewhere in the world. While in earlier epochs it may have been possible to confine the effects of war mainly to combatants, in recent decades the victims of war have increasingly been civilians, and especially children.

Civilian casualties often occur through malnutrition and through diseases which would be preventable in normal circumstances. Because of the social disruption caused by war, normal supplies of food, safe water and medicine are interrupted, so that populations become vulnerable to famine and epidemics. In the event of a nuclear war, starvation and disease would add greatly to the loss of life caused by the direct effects of nuclear weapons.

The indirect effects of war and the threat of war are also enormous. For example, the World Health Organization lacks funds to carry through an antimalarial programme on as large a scale as would be desirable; but the entire programme could be financed for less than the world spends on armaments in a single day. Five hours of world arms’ spending is equivalent to the total cost of the 20-year WHO programme which resulted, in 1979, in the eradication of smallpox. With a diversion of funds consumed by three weeks of the military expenditures, the world could create a sanitary water supply for all its people, thus eliminating the cause of more than half of all human illness.

It is often said that we are economically dependent on war-related industries; but if this is so, it is a most unhealthy dependence, analogous to drug-dependence or alcoholism. From a purely economic point of view, it is clearly better to invest in education, roads, railways, reforestation, retooling of factories, development of disease-resistant high-yield wheat varieties, industrial research, research on utilization of solar and geothermal energy, and other elements of future-oriented economic infrastructure, rather than building enormously costly warplanes and other weapons. At worst, the weapons will contribute to the destruction of civilization. At best, they will become obsolete in a few years and will be scrapped. By contrast, investment in future-oriented infrastructure can be expected to yield economic benefits over a long period of time.

It is instructive to consider the example of Japan and of Germany, whose military expenditures were severely restricted after World War II. The impressive post-war development of these two nations can very probably be attributed to the restrictions on military spending which were imposed on them by the peace treaty.

As bad as conventional arms and conventional weapons may be, it is the possibility of a nuclear war that still poses the greatest threat to humanity. One argument that has been used in favor of nuclear weapons is that no sane political leader would employ them. However, the concept of deterrence ignores the possibility of war by accident or miscalculation, a danger that has been increased by nuclear proliferation and by the use of computers with very quick reaction times to control weapons systems.

With the end of the Cold War, the danger of a nuclear war between superpowers has diminished; but because of nuclear proliferation, there is still a substantial danger of such a war in the Middle East or in the India- Pakistan dispute, as well as the danger of nuclear blackmail by terrorists or political fanatics.

Recent nuclear power plant accidents remind us that accidents frequently happen through human and technical failure, even for systems which are considered to be very “safe”. We must also remember the time scale of the problem. To assure the future of humanity, nuclear catastrophe must be avoided year after year and decade after decade. In the long run, the safety of civilization cannot be achieved except by the abolition of nuclear weapons, and ultimately the abolition of the institution of war.

In the long run, because of the terrible weapons which have been produced through the misuse of science, and because of the even more destructive weapons which are likely to be devised in the future, the only way that we can insure the survival of civilization is to abolish war as an institution. It seems likely that achievement of this goal will require revision and strengthening of the United Nations Charter. The Charter should not be thought of as cast in concrete for all time. It needs instead to grow with the requirements of our increasingly interdependent global society. We should remember that the Charter was drafted and signed before the first nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; and it also could not anticipate the extraordinary development of international trade and communication which characterizes the world today. Among the weaknesses of the present U.N. Charter is the fact that it does not give the United Nations the power to make laws which are binding on individuals. At present, in international law, we treat nations as though they were persons: We punish entire nations by sanctions when the law is broken, even when only the leaders are guilty, even though the burdens of the sanctions fall most heavily on the poorest and least guilty of the citizens, and even though sanctions often have the effect of uniting the citizens of a country behind the guilty leaders. To be effective, the United Nations needs a legislature with the power to make laws which are binding on individuals, and the power to to arrest individual political leaders for flagrant violations of international law.

Another weakness of the present United Nations Charter is the principle of “one nation one vote” in the General Assembly. This principle seems to establish equality between nations, but in fact it is very unfair: For example it gives a citizen of China or India less than a thousandth the voting power of a citizen of Malta or Iceland. A reform of the voting system is clearly needed.

The present United Nations Charter contains guarantees of human rights, but there is no effective mechanism for enforcing these guarantees. In fact there is a conflict between the parts of the Charter protecting human rights and the concept of absolute national sovereignty. Recent history has given us many examples of atrocities committed against ethnic minorities by leaders of nation-states, who claim that sovereignty gives them the right to run their internal affairs as they wish, free from outside interference.

One feels that it ought to be the responsibility of the international community to prevent gross violations of human rights, such as the use of poison gas against civilians (to mention only one of the more recent political crimes); and if this is in conflict with the notion of absolute national sovereignty, then sovereignty must yield. In fact, the concept of the absolutely sovereign nation-state as the the supreme political entity is already being eroded by the overriding need for international law. Recently, for example, the Parliament of Great Britain, one of the oldest national parliaments, acknowledged that laws made by the European Community take precedence over English common law.

Today the development of technology has made global communication almost instantaneous. We sit in our living rooms and watch, via satellite, events taking place on the opposite side of the globe. Likewise the growth of world trade has brought distant countries into close economic contact with each other: Financial tremors in Tokyo can shake New York. The impact of contemporary science and technology on transportation and communication has effectively abolished distance in relations between nations. This close contact and interdependence will increasingly require effective international law to prevent conflicts. However, the need for international law must be balanced against the desirability of local self-government. Like biological diversity, the cultural diversity of humankind is a treasure to be carefully guarded. A balance or compromise between these two desirable goals could be achieved by granting only a few carefully chosen powers to a strengthened United Nations with sovereignty over all other issues retained by the member states.

The United Nations has a number of agencies, such as the World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization, and UNESCO, whose global services give the UN considerable prestige and de facto power. The effectiveness of the UN as a global authority could be further increased by giving these agencies much larger budgets. In order to do this, and at the same time to promote the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, it has been proposed that the U.N. be given the power to tax CO2 emissions.

The amount of money which could thus be made available for constructive purposes is very large; and a slight increase in the prices of fossil fuels could make a number of renewable energy technologies economically competitive. It has also been proposed that the United Nations should be given the power to impose a small tax on international currency transactions. The amount of money involved in these transactions is so large that even a few hundredths of a percent in tax on each transaction would be sucient to solve the financial problems of the United Nations. A United Nations tax on air travel has also been proposed.

The United Nations regular budget in 1992 amounted to 1.03 billion U.S. dollars. In addition, UNICEF, the U.N. Development Programme, and the World Food Programme used several billion dollars, but funds for these agencies were raised by voluntary contributions. Finally, in 1992, peacekeeping operations cost the U.N. 2.7 billion dollars. These sums seem very small when they are compared with the trillion dollars which the world spends annually on armaments; and the reluctance of some nations to pay their dues to the U.N. seems shortsighted. It may be that the nations which starve the U.N. financially do so deliberately, in order to make the organization easier to control. They can then give financial support selectively to those interventions of which they approve. For this reason, the provision of a reliable income for the United Nations would have the effect of freeing it from undue influence by any nation, making it more impartial. Impartiality may prove to be the key factor required to give the U.N. the moral authority needed to settle disputes and to maintain peace with a minimum use of force.

The task of building a global political system which is in harmony with modern technology will require our best efforts, but it is not impossible. We can perhaps gain the courage needed for this task by thinking of the history of slavery. The institution of slavery was a part of human culture for so long that it was considered to be an inevitable consequence of human nature; but today slavery has been abolished almost everywhere in the world. The example of the dedicated men and women who worked to abolish slavery can give us courage to approach the even more important task which faces us today - the abolition of war.


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