Is the UN Worth the Effort?

By Sister Margaret Mayce, OP

By now I suspect that many of you have read the article in the March 20th  New York Times Sunday Review entitled I Love the UN, but It Is Failing, by Anthony Banbury, a former assistant secretary general for field support. He poignantly begins by saying “I care deeply for the principles the United Nations is designed to uphold. And that is why I have decided to leave.” He goes on to cite a number of significant deficits in the UN system, including the dysfunctional and inefficient personnel system, which is unable to attract and deploy the best talent to those parts of the world where it is needed the most – the Ebola crisis in Western Africa being a case in point; the incompetency of a number of international field staff members; the overall lack of accountability; and the fact that too many decisions are driven by political expediency, rather than by the principles upon which the UN was established and the facts on the ground. And most troubling of all is the fact that some members of the UN peacekeeping forces sent to protect civilians entrapped by conflict have been engaged in a persistent pattern of rape and abuse of women and young girls, most recently in Central African Republic.

I suppose there could be no better argument for dismantling the entire UN system and starting from scratch. But just what would that accomplish? Which begs the more profound question as to whether or not it is worth the effort to work to reform the UN in whatever ways we can, acknowledging full well that it is nothing more or less than a human institution fraught with incredible paradox, as is each one of us. The representatives of the Member States of the UN and those in its employ in UN agencies and peacekeeping teams carry within themselves the potential to do tremendous good and unspeakable evil. And the simple truth is that the UN can only be as good, as effective, as inspiring as its Member States, its agencies and peacekeeping teams allow it to be. So scrapping the UN is not necessarily the answer at all, because at the end of the day, it’s all about people – about us – and the importance of changing hearts and minds.

We must make the UN succeed

In his article, Anthony Banbury states his belief that all too often criticism of the UN comes from those who believe that it is doomed to fail. But he believes that “for the world’s sake, we must make the UN succeed.” And I stand with him. There is no other global venue in which every nation has a place at the table, from the smallest island state in the South Pacific, to the large industrialized countries. And we are living at a time in history when these small island states are finding a powerful common voice as they challenge the developed world to step-up-to-the-plate and do what needs to be done to effectively deal with the looming crisis of global climate change. Their growing influence has made a significant difference, and was quite influential during the Paris climate summit. Where would they be without the UN? As imperfect and dysfunctional as it may be, the UN is invaluable in terms of providing the space in which these countries can state unequivocally their precarious condition and demand accountability from those who are most responsible for the current state of affairs.

Latent potential as yet untried?

From its inception in 1945, the UN was meant to be the means through which succeeding generations would be spared the scourge of war, and where fundamental human rights, the dignity and worth of the human person, the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small would be affirmed and safeguarded. It was meant to be the means through which social progress and better standards of life would be promoted through the combined efforts of the Member States. This is the great, latent potential of the UN; it just hasn’t been fully tapped yet. I am reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s famous observation about Christianity: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”

While the representatives of UN Member States and those who work in its agencies and peacekeeping teams may have forgotten, or have chosen to ignore its founding inspiration and purpose, civil society throughout the world believes in its great potential to uphold the common good. And ordinary people have taken seriously their responsibility to hold Member States accountable in whatever ways they can. That has been very evident this past week during the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The Commission’s theme, empowerment of women and its link to sustainable development, has drawn women from around the world to share their experiences of oppression, violence and hope; to strengthen bonds of solidarity; and to train themselves to do the hard work of advocacy in their respective countries. Based on my experience of this Commission and the caliber of women who attend each year, it is clear that it will be women who will work tirelessly to bring about the shift in mindset so desperately needed in our world today. For Member States to ignore the message of women would be sheer folly.

The need to be re-grounded

As with the plight of women and girls worldwide, the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as the agreed to outcome of the Paris Climate Summit offer the UN Member States and the entire UN system an opportunity to become re-grounded in the UN’s founding principles, and to place the common good of people and planet at the center of its policy-making. Civil society knows that the stakes are far too high to let governments renege once again on their commitments. During the CSW, numbers of women spoke forcefully about the need for action in the advancement of women worldwide and the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. The same forceful message will be spoken to government officials regarding the SDGs. The time for negotiating is over; what is needed is implementation. And there is no one in a better position to pose this challenge to governments than the very people who are living in the shadow of development; the people at the base; the marginalized and most vulnerable in our midst, the majority of whom are women.

We must make the UN succeed

In his address to the General Assembly last September, Pope Francis spoke of the importance of the UN and the hope which the Church places in its activities. He described the UN’s achievements over the past 70 years as “lights which help to dispel the darkness of the disorder caused by unrestrained ambitions and collective forms of selfishness. Certainly, many grave problems remain to be resolved, yet it is also clear that without all this international activity, humankind would not have been able to survive the unchecked use of its own possibilities.”

So, for the world’s sake, we must make the UN succeed. Like any other human institution, including our Church, it can, and must be improved. And as Pope Francis has said, the UN

“can be the pledge of a secure and happy future for future generations. And so it will, if the representatives of Member States set aside partisan and ideological interests, and sincerely strive to serve the common good.”

 Dominican Sisters at the UN

 As I mentioned previously, civil society worldwide believes in the great potential of the UN to uphold the common good, and ordinary people have taken seriously their responsibility to hold governments accountable for their actions and omissions in whatever ways they can. Among these members of civil society are Dominican Sisters worldwide, some of whom have just participated in the 60th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. After having listened to Member States describe what they have tried to do for the advancement of women and girls; and after having heard personal testimony from women who continue to suffer all forms of discrimination and violence, these Sisters realize that much more must be done if women and girls are to prosper, and if we are ever to achieve a world in which all people can enjoy the fullness of their God-given dignity. In some way, our Sisters have been emboldened to return home to their respective countries with a deeper appreciation for the role they can play in helping to bring about a better world. The UN, with all its imperfections, still has the capacity to inspire. So for me, it is very important that we do whatever we can to make it succeed.

Group who attended CSW at the UN. From left to right: Sister Else-Britt Nilsen (Norway); Sister Elsie Bagaypo (Timor Leste); Sister Margaret Mayce, OP (Amityville); Sister Anjana Parmar (India); Cassie Vazquez (DSC/DomLife Editor); Sister Marcelline Koch, OP (North American Co-Promoter of Justice/Springfield); Sister Ana Belen Verisimo (Brazil); Sister Bernadette Mwita (Kenya); Sister Viviana Sisack (Argentina); Sister Julienne Nikiema (Ivory Coast); Sister Mary Alice Hannan (Hope).