Today is UN Day, which commemorates the 75th birthday of the United Nations, a deeply flawed and troubled organization that is nonetheless more indispensable than ever—and has accomplished a lot more than most people think.
It was on this day 75 years ago, just months after the end of humanity’s bloodiest war, that the UN Charter came into force after being ratified by fifty countries. The Charter established the organization along with the framework of the international system. An audacious and idealistic document, it articulated a commitment to uphold the human rights and wellbeing of all citizens, addressing “economic, social, health, and related problems,” and “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. The organization now counts nearly four times as many members, at 193.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, far from a bleeding-heart globalist, once said that the UN “represents man’s best organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield”.
If nothing else, the organization has served as an outlet for frustrations and rivalries that would otherwise manifest on the battlefield. The constant grandstanding between the U.S. and Russia may be frustrating—and has often led to devastating deadlock during crises—but imagine the alternative course of action without an international platform? Many countries on the verge of open conflict have opted instead to take diplomatic shots at each other at the UN—an often sordid display, to be sure, but obviously better than the alternative.
Of course, we Americans know full well how hard it is to get even our one country to work together—imagine close to 200 countries spanning eight billion people and a multitude of languages, religions, cultures, types of governments, and levels of development. The UN is only as effective as its members allow it to be, and its failures and limitations are a reflection of our own as a species.
Moreover, it is worth considering the context of its emergence: A war that had killed over 60 million people (three percent of all humans at the time), following a millennia of endless conflict where violence was the norm and enslavement, rape, looting, and other things we now call war crimes (courtesy of the UN) were just the way of things. For most of our quarter of a million years of existence, we rarely knew about, much less cared, for anyone outside our immediate tribe or band. Human rights and civil liberties were alien concepts that would not have made sense to anyone. The vast majority of people lived in grinding poverty, oppression, fear, and ignorance.
From the ashes of the worst conflict in history emerges an organization trying to cultivate peace, progress, and unity among our species—not just out of idealism, but also based on the sober realism that some problems are too big for any one nation to handle. Needless to say, it has failed in its lofty aspirations time and again, as most of us know all too well—but that’s to be expected given just how bold of an undertaking it is. And for all the failures, there are plenty of successes we take for granted.
Given that most Americans do not even know how their own government works, it stands to reason that few know the workings and complexities of the international system, either.
Few people know that it was the UN Secretary-General, U Thant of Burma, who played a key role in the Cuban Missile Crisis; JFK admitted that the entire world was in the UN leader’s debt, though Thant is scarcely known today.
Many of us take for granted the modern amenities and benefits, let alone realize their origin in the UN. The ability to mail and ship things globally; to access goods and products from around the world; and to travel anywhere with relative ease are all due to UN organizations, treaties, or conferences that established uniform standards and rules for airlines, companies, and governments. Even seatbelts became widespread through deliberate UN policy.
Few know the work of UNICEF, one of the oldest UN organization, which in 2018 alone helped care for 27 million babies born in places with high infant and maternal mortality; treated four million children in 73 countries for severe acute malnutrition; and provided over 65 million children with vaccines against common killers like diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (half the world’s children get their vaccine through UNICEF). Over the last thirty years, it has saved over 90 million children.
The much maligned WHO helped eradicate smallpox, which once killed millions annually throughout history, and is on the verge of eradicating polio as well. It has helped most people with HIV/AIDS get access to treatment, and is currently working on making insulin more available, too. With respect to the recent pandemic, it also used its diplomacy to get China to finally open itself to an international team of scientists—which included two Americans. It recently helped stem the second largest Ebola outbreak in Congo, to little fanfare.
A 1987 conference convened by the UN Environment Programme helped lead to an international treaty that has successfully repaired the ozone layer.
The World Food Programme, along with the Food and Agriculture Organization, provides food and assistance to 90 million people in 88 countries, keeping them from the brink of starvation (and getting a well deserved Nobel Peace Prize for it). FAO also eradicated rinderpest, a deadly livestock disease that is only the second infectious disease in history (besides smallpox) to be eradicated. It also maintains the world’s largest and most comprehensive statistical database on food and agriculture.
The UN Population Fund helps an average of two million women a month with their pregnancies, which could be deadly in most countries.
The UN regularly monitors elections in about fifty countries, which not only ensures a free and fair political process but has prevented numerous civil wars and conflicts.
All these achievements do not undo the very real and tragic failings of the organization, from the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, to the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. But 75 years is not a long time to undo over 200,000 years of tribalism and disunity. As one UN chief put it, “the United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell”.
Considering that the average American pays less than two dollars a year to cover the U.S.’ regular dues to the UN, I think it is a bargain worth supporting and improving upon.