Posted at Americas Quarterly online on September 26, 2011
The middle of September is always a tumultuous time of year in New York City, where traffic comes to a standstill as heads of state arrive to promote their views at the United Nations General Assembly. This year, long-term issues and complex debates such as those concerning Palestine and Israel dominated the media coverage, leaving the impression that speeches—not results—emanate from UN deliberations.
The UN has its detractors. This was most evident during the buildup to the war in Iraq last decade. For many, there has also been a credibility gap. Who can forget that Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya was actually elected to chair the UN Human Rights Council in 2003—and continued to hold a seat in the commission until quite recently? As a result, the UN is often portrayed as a forum for political posturing where national interests will always supersede the legitimate concerns of the wider international community.
In Canada, the view on the UN has also been complex. Canada was an original founder and has played an important role in numerous peacekeeping ventures. In 1957, former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, a strong advocate of Canadian involvement in UN stabilization missions, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his groundbreaking work on the Suez Canal Crisis.
In recent years, however, Canadians have been more critical and skeptical about the UN especially following the Rwanda Genocide. Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, who led the UN force in Rwanda, has since become an important voice in our country in informing us of the challenge and limitations of the international body.
Despite its flaws—some would say failings—is the UN still viable? True, the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council can be a recipe for paralysis. Yet notwithstanding such systemic obstacles, the UN on many occasions has provided a worthwhile forum for dialogue, debate, peacekeeping efforts, mobilization against transgressors of the UN Charter, and initiatives to combat future emerging problems.
Among the numerous successful examples of leadership—many with Canadian involvement—the MINUSTAH initiative comes to mind immediately. MINUSTAH, an acronym for the French translation of the “UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti,” has helped provide much-needed security to Haiti following the devastating earthquake of 2010. Other successful UN initiatives include the UN Women agency, chaired by former Chilean President Michele Bachelet, as well as the endorsement of the UN Security Council for intervention in Libya. Overall, I submit that unsafe elements of our world have been pacified by the existence and presence of the UN.
The UN was originally an ambitious attempt to address the ineptitude of its failed predecessor, the League of Nations, which was limited by its inability to prevent a world war once an aggressor decided to ignore the international body. Today, the UN, with the continued backing of its founding nations as well as new, post-World War II emerging powerhouses, seems more necessary than ever. There will likely be a need for reform down the road in terms of the Security Council, but the UN still remains a necessary institution 66 years after its founding.