Happy UN Day

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.

Signing of the United Nations Charter
The signing of a document like no other in human history.

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.

The World Food Programme

To many observers, especially in the United States, this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize may seem uninspired, if not unfamiliar. It is an organization, rather than a person, and its work is probably not as widely known and appreciated as it should be.

Yet the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is no less deserving of the honor (especially since over two dozens entities have won the Peace Prize before, including the United Nations itself). It is the largest humanitarian organization in the world, and the largest one focused on hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity, providing critical food assistance to nearly 100 million people across 88 countries. Tens of millions would starve without its fleet of 5,600 trucks, 30 ships, and nearly 100 planes delivering more than 15 billion rations, at just 61 cents each. Remarkably, WFP does all its work based entirely on voluntary donations, mostly from governments.

Laudable as all that might be, it’s fair to ask what this work has to do with peace? Two-thirds of WFP’s work is done in conflict zones, where access to food is threatened by instability, violence, and even deliberate war tactics. Amid war and societal collapse, people are likelier to die from starvation, or from opportunistic diseases that strike their malnourished immune systems. Since its experimental launch in 1961, WFP has delivered aid to some of the most devastating and horrific natural disasters in history, including the Rwandan genocide, the Yugoslav War and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. (It became a permanent UN agency in 1965, having proven its worth by mustering substantial aid to earthquake-stricken Iran in 1962, initiating a development mission in Sudan, and launching its first school meals project in Togo.)

As The Economist points out, the focus on hunger is a sensible one: Not only have famine and malnutrition destroyed millions of lives across history, but they remaining pressing concerns in the face of the pandemic, climate change, and renewed conflict.

Governments everywhere are desperate to bring an end to the pandemic. But hunger has been growing quietly for years, and 2019 was the hungriest year recorded by the Food Security Information Network, a project of the WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and other NGOs, which since 2015 has been gathering data on how many people worldwide are close to starvation. The rise was largely a consequence of wars in places like South Sudan, Yemen and the Central African Republic. This year, thanks to the covid-19 pandemic, things are likely to be far worse. Rather than war, this year it is the dramatic falls in the incomes of the poorest people that is causing hunger. There is as much food to go around, but the poor can no longer afford to buy it. The number of hungry people might double, reckons the WFP, from 135m in 2019 to 265m at the end of this year.

Unfortunately, despite the increased (and likely to increase) need for its services—more people face hunger than at anytime since 2012—the agency’s precarious budget, ever-dependent on the whims of donors, is declining. Again, from the Economist:

Last year the organisation received $8.05bn from its donors, by far the biggest of which is the United States. This year so far it has received only $6.35bn. Many countries, such as Britain, link their aid budgets to GDP figures which have fallen sharply. Britain provided roughly $700m of the WFP’s funding in 2019. This year its aid budget will fall by £2.9bn ($3.8bn). Under Mr Trump America had turned away from funding big multilateral organisations even before the pandemic hit, though the WFP has escaped the fate of the WHO, to which Mr Trump gave notice of America’s withdrawal in July. In Uganda food rations for South Sudanese and Congolese refugees have been cut. In Yemen the WFP has had to reduce rations by half.

WFP estimates that seven million people have already died from hunger this year, and will need almost seven billion dollars over the next six months to avert looming famines worldwide. WFP’s head, a former U.S. Republican governor, is using the agency’s higher profile from the Nobel Prize to urge more funding from governments and especially billionaires (whose collective health increased by over ten trillion this past year).

The Grand Coalition of the Korean War

Yesterday marked the 67th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement, which officially ended hostilities between North and South Korea and their allies. Up to that point, the three-year conflict had claimed 3-4 million lives, most of them civilians.

Unbeknownst to most Americans, the war was technically fought by the United Nations; the U.N. Security Council authorized the creation of “U.N. Command” that would lead a multinational force to repel the North Korean invasion of the South. To this day, recovered bodies of foreign troops (including from the U.S.) are draped in the U.N. flag. The U.N. Command remains operational, albeit mostly to observe the truce.

Nearly 2 million troops from 21 countries participated in the U.N. operation, with dozens more providing support of some kind. Participants ranged from major powers like the U.S., U.K., and France, to Colombia, Ethiopia, and Turkey. Nevertheless, 90% of foreign combatants were American, and the U.S. doubtless played the leading role, though troops from other countries are known to have performed well and decisively. When one includes financial and material support, two thirds of all U.N. members at the time participated.

No photo description available.

South Koreans remain grateful to the nations that came to their aid, as evidenced by yesterday’s U.N. Forces Participation Day, which coincides with the commemoration of the armistice agreement. A Korean honor held the flags of each country that sent combat troops; to this day, they enjoy heightened diplomatic and commercial relations, and their nationals (especially descendants of Korean War veterans) are eligible for a special work and student visa. Korean legislators recently passed the Act on the Dignity and Honor of U.N. Korean War Veterans to further “enhance cooperation and friendly relations” with these nations.

Kim Jong Gun: North Korean generals pose like gangsters alongside ...

The War Memorial of Korea even revamped its Korean War exhibits to provide a “grander highlight” the role of the U.N. and all 63 countries that assisted the South in some way. A sample uniform of India’s medical corps is displayed with equal prominence to their American and Korean counterparts. Every nation that assisted in some way is given credit.

Korean War Memorial exhibit

Having begun in 1950, the Korean War became overshadowed by the Second World War, and just years later by the Vietnam War. There is still no peace treaty between the two sides, as the agreement merely called for a ceasefire “until a final peaceful settlement is achieved”. But as the Wilson Center points out, this “forgotten war” and its uniquely multinational nature has left legacy on the world:

The necessity for reexamining the composition, duration, and the impact of the Korean War UN coalition is more apparent when we consider that it was the first UN peace enforcement operation, the aggressive and muscular counterpart to peacekeeping operations. Its importance lies in its success. As Jiyul Kim stated in his Ashgate chapter, “the perception lingers that the UN coalition was more a political symbol of international solidarity than of a substantive military organization…the UN coalition played a key role in the outcome of crucial battles and campaigns and thus the course of the war…but…the greatest legacy of the UN coalition was its impact in resolving conflicts after the Korean War, for it established the enduring principle that the UN has a key political and military role in resolving conflicts through peace enforcement and peacekeeping operations.

The Thankless Work of the WHO

Despite having one-fourth the budget of the American CDC—and a host of structural problems owed to being governed by nearly 200 countries—the WHO does quite a lot of good work, most of it behind the scenes and thus unappreciated—hence most Americans being indifferent, if not supportive, of our recent withdrawal.

➡️ It helped eradicate smallpox, a scourge of humanity throughout history that used to kill millions annually, even into the mid 20th century. This was accomplished partly by getting Cold War rivals the U.S. and Russia to consolidate their scientific and technological resources. In 1975, less than a decade after launching this effort, smallpox was vanquished.

➡️ It is close to eradicating polio, another horrific infectious disease that was once widespread, but now lingers in only two or three countries. Rates of polio infection dropped 99% since the global campaign was launched in 1988.

➡️ HIV/AIDS is no longer the death sentence it used to be, thanks in large part to the WHO, which reduced the cost of HIV medication by literally 95.5%. Over 80% of people with HIV/AIDS use drugs backed by the WHO; consequently, AIDS-related deaths have declined by over half since their peak in 2004.

➡️ The WHO is currently working on reducing the cost of insulin as well, as nearly half the world’s 80 million diabetics cannot afford it (including in the U.S.). It hopes to achieve the same results as with HIV/AIDS, through the same process known as “prequalification” (in which cheaper drugs, mostly from developing countries, are approved for safety and efficacy, allowing them to enter the global market).

➡️ In 2017 alone, it helped stem a yellow fever outbreak in Brazil (by providing 3.5 million vaccine doses), provided vaccines to nearly five million children in Yemen in the midst of its civil war; expanded mental health support to Syrians affected by their civil war; and provided new healthcare support (such as ambulances) in places like Iraq and South Sudan).

➡️ With respect to COVID-19, the WHO has shipped literally millions of items of personal protective equipment to 133 countries. It has launched a global trial involving the world’s top medical experts to find the most promising treatments and vaccine. As of now, 5,500 patients have been recruited in 21 countries, with over 100 countries joining or expressing interest in joining the trial.

➡️ Early on, the U.S. received vital early epidemiological data from China only because the WHO used its good relations to broker access. That’s the same reason the otherwise secretive Chinese eventually published the first genetic profile of the virus for the world to use. Against initial resistance, the WHO succeeded in making China allow observers into the country; in early February, an international team led by the agency visited Wuhan, including those from the CDC and NIH.

➡️In 2018, the WHO warned the world that it was not ready for a pandemic and needed to do more. It declared COVID-19 an emergency on January 30, when there were still relatively few reported cases outside China. World leaders still had the info and time to act, and some countries responded immediately; South Korea, New Zealand, and others implemented an effective blend of policies that made them one of the top success stories. The WHO cannot be blamed for our slow response.

➡️ Even Trump himself seemed to acknowledge the WHO’s work with gratitude. In late February, he tweeted “Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart…” In the weeks leading up to its withdrawal, the U.S. was still leaning on WHO experts for assistance, with even Secretary of State Pompeo trying to get the administration to soften its break up with the organization.

As always, I welcome any fact checking on these claims.

The Politics and Pragmatism of Progress

We might find the W.H.O.’s politics unseemly. At times they are certainly troubling, especially regarding Taiwan. (Though in fairness, most of the world, including the powerful U.S., has also officially shunted Taiwan in deference to China.)

But they are an inevitable, if not necessary, evil for an organization run by 194 countries full of rivalries, self-interests, and division. Its weaknesses very much reflect our own. International cooperation is not about singing kumbaya and getting along harmoniously; it is the sober and practical realization that, however divided the world is, there are problems bigger than any one country can handle (look at how the richest country in the world has struggled to contain this pandemic). That means making difficult, imperfect, and sometimes even maddening compromises.

It took working with a murderous bastard like Stalin to beat the Nazis in WWII, with the Soviets accounting for 80-90% of Axis losses at the cost of tens of millions of lives. (We also had to work with the bastard Nationalists and Maoists in China to accomplish the same feat against Japan, with the Chinese tying up most Japanese forces at similarly horrific costs.)

In the context of public health, this is nothing new. Even at the height of the Cold War, countries including the U.S. and the Soviet Union managed to set aside their differences and work through the W.H.O. to eradicate smallpox, a scourge of humanity that had killed hundreds of millions just in the 20th century.

With over 50 million cases and 2 million deaths annually, in 1958 Soviet virologist Viktor Zhdanov became the first to call on the W.H.O. to lead a global eradication effort. In 1966 Canadian-American epidemiologist Donald Henderson formed the U.S.-led Smallpox Eradication Unit to assist in this endeavor. A year later, the W.H.O. intensified global smallpox eradication with millions of dollars from around the world and a method developed by Czech epidemiologist Karel Raska. The Americans and Soviets provided most of the initial vaccine donations (no doubt, at least in part, to one up each other).

By 1980, the W.H.O. declared smallpox eradicated—the first human disease wiped off the face of the Earth, thanks to global cooperation.

Image may contain: people playing sports, possible text that says 'WORLD HEALTH THE MAGAZINE OF THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION MAY 1980 smallpox is dead!'

America’s Baffling Opposition to the WHO’s Breastfeeding Resolution

It seems that any institution that is global or multilateral in nature or name elicits visceral opposition by huge swathes of the American public. While there has long been an undercurrent of insularity and outright hostility in America towards the rest of the world, it goes without saying that under the present administration — which came to power on a platform of nationalism, protectionism, and revanchism against foreigners — the sentiment has been worsened to the point of absurdity.

The most salient recent example is our strange response to a sensible resolution at the World Health Organization (WHO) that no one would have imagined was controversial. Continue reading

Italy Launches Peacekeeping Force To Safeguard World Culture

Count on Italy, with its rich history and vast cultural heritage — including the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world — to spearhead the first “cultural peacekeeping force” of its kind.

Citing the Milan-based Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Worldcrunch’s Le Blog reports that the taskforce, which will operate under the auspices of the United Nations, will be comprised of both Italian military personnel and various experts in art history, antiquities, and restoration projects. Continue reading

World Humanitarian Day

It will come to know no surprise to regular readers that I have an avid interest in humanitarian issues, ranging from global inequality and poverty to human rights abuses and war. I have long had a keen interest in the United Nations as a mechanism for bettering the human species and facilitating the more positive aspects of globalization — illuminating and addressing these global problems in multilateral ways while promoting an ecumenical and unified global identity.

While I have no delusions about the U.N.’s vast flaws and shortcomings, I find it to be conceptually sound and an ideal start to a hopefully more effective international framework. One thing is for certain: whatever the institutional problems of this and other international organization, the everyday work done by its members is usually sound, well-intentioned, and altruistic — which is precisely what World Humanitarian Day is dedicated to highlighting.

This day pays tribute to the often unseen aid workers who carry out life-saving activities around the world, often in dangerous and difficult circumstances. It also celebrates the spirit of humanitarian work worldwide, work that brings communities together and alleviates the common human suffering that we should be concerned about.

It is observed annually on August 19, the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people, including U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. There will be a wreath-laying ceremony at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City to honor de Mello and other aid workers killed in the line of duty.

Unfortunately, such a commemoration is especially relevant today, as  aid workers are suffering at record numbers as of 2014:

The research shows that in 2013, 155 aid workers were killed, 171 were seriously wounded and 134 were kidnapped. Overall this represents a 66 per cent increase in the number of victims from the previous year. With 81 aid workers killed in 2013, Afghanistan is still the country with the highest number of attacks.

Preliminary figures show that as of 15 August 2014, 79 aid workers have been killed this year alone. The months of July and August saw a rise in the level of attacks and incidents involving aid workers including in Gaza and South Sudan.

Only these past few weeks, aid workers were killed in the midst of conflicts in South Sudan and Gaza, just two of many places that rely on their vital services. Such loss of life is a tragedy in itself, especially for the global community as a whole. As the world faces increasingly more difficult and existential threats, there needs to be a more concerted effort to address these matters and protect those who willingly risk their lives to dispense such solutions.

Happy Global Handwashing Day!

Happy Global Handwashing Day! It may seem strange to dedicate a day to such a seemingly mundane activity, but though we take it for granted, handwashing is quite underutilized around the world – observance rates run anywhere from zero to 34 percent , and millions of people – particularly young children – die from diseases that could be prevented by this simple practice.

Even in the developed world, a good proportion of people don’t wash their hands as regularly as they should. In many countries, particularly poorer ones, increased hand washing has lead to a reduction of several diseases by anywhere from 50 to 90 percent! It’s a simple way to save lives (but keep in mind, despite popular belief, washing your hands with water alone isn’t as effective as using soap).

Read more about this admirable effort at the official website, and do your part to spread the habit (and do it yourselves of course!).

Slideshow History of UN Peacekeepers

An interesting visual history of one the world’s most unique military forces, as always, courtesy of Foreign Policy.

For most Americans, U.N. peacekeeping is something the rest of the world does. Indeed, the U.N. monitoring mission that is currently in Syria to enforce a floundering ceasefire features blue berets from 35 countries — including Burkina Faso, China, Germany, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Russia, and Yemen — but none from the United States. The absence of American personnel partly reflects Syria’s antipathy toward the United States, which has called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. But it also reflects the fact that U.S. blue helmets have become an increasingly extinct species.

It wasn’t always that way, however.

In 1948, when the United Nations set up its first peacekeeping mission in the Middle East to monitor a truce between Israel and five Arab countries, it placed 21 American observers under the command of a Swede, Col. Count Thord Bonde. As the United Nations branched out into Africa and South Asia, the U.S. Air Force provided the airlift capacity, ferrying thousands of international peacekeepers to duty from Congo to the Sinai.

The United States still contributes generously to U.N. peacekeeping operations, paying for about 27 percent of the organization’s $8 billion budget, and European governments pay much of the remainder. But Western nations have withdrawn from the most ambitious operations, particularly in Africa. Where they remain, they serve alongside U.N. forces, as in the case of the French forces stationed in Ivory Coast.

A tour of the U.N. photo archives shows just how the complexion and nationality of U.N. blue helmets has changed over time.