Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter. Bruce Kent considers whether it has been a success.
ON 26 JUNE 1945, an historic event took place in San Francisco. The representatives of 51 countries came together to put their signatures to one of the most impressive documents ever drawn up by the peoples of the world. They signed the Charter of the United Nations.
The Charter of the United Nations was the great sign of hope after a war which had cost 50 million lives. The countries of the world were promising to work for the common good and to ensure that "armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest..." That phrase comes from the preamble to the Charter.
"We the people of the United Nations," it starts off, "determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war... to reaffirm faith in fundamental humah rights... to establish conditions under which justice can be maintained... to promote social progress and better standards of life... to practise tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours... have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims."
We Christians, who have as our central prayer the "Our Father", are committed to the idea that the human race is one family. That is exactly the vision which inspired those who drew up the Charter 50 years ago. But the history of those 50 years will be read rather differently by pessimists and optimists.
The great hopes of 1945 have been so often dashed. Another 20 million people have died in the many wars since then. The world, even in post Cold War days, annually spends £500 billion on war and the preparations for it; over 20 civil wars are raging now; wider all the time. Fifteen million children under the age of 6 die every year as a result of starvation and preventable disease.
So, the pessimists ask, hasn't the United Nations been a total failure? I don't think so. The United Nations is no more or less effective than the countries that make it up want it to be. Its annual budget of £5 billion is about one hundredth of the amount spent on war. The New York Fire Brigade and Police Force cost about the same. Far from being a bloated bureaucracy, there are fewer civil servants working for the United Nations than are engaged in the administration of the city of Stockholm. We cannot expect from the United Nations what we arc not prepared to support and pay for.
There are great UN success stories. The World Health Organisation has, for instance, transformed health care in many countries and removed forever the scourge of smallpox. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has coped magnificently with the care of the 20 million people who have had to flee their countries. UNESCO, the educational and scientific organisation, has brought literacy to millions who were without basic education. The Trusteeship Council, on the whole without bloodshed, has brought country after country from colonial rule to independence. That is one reason why there are now over 180 UN members. UNICEF has improved conditions for children in many parts of the world.
These are encouraging stories. Much humbler, but just as important, is the work of bodies like the Postal Union, the international Labour Organisation, and the Civil Aviation Authority. The UN is today most famous for the blue berets and helmets of the UN Peacekeeping Forces. Such forces have behaved with great courage, but my own view is that the UN should only have a military presence in situations where the parties in conflict accept a neutral force, as, for instance, in Cyprus. As it is at present structured and funded, the UN is not in a position to impose solutions by military power and should not pretend otherwise.
This 50th anniversary is a great moment for constructive thinking about reform. Let's start with ourselves. Ignorance about the Charter is widespread. It rarely gets a mention in our schools or in our churches. Few parishes, dioceses or religious orders are members of the United Nations Association. Britain is not even a member of UNESCO.
The UN itself badly needs reform. The Security Council is now dominated by the one remaining superpower, and the veto is still in the hands of the five countries who won a war 50 years ago. The legal structure is feeble. There is no obligation to accept judgements of the World Court and non-governmental organisations have no access to it. The financial organs of the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund , are not under the control of the General Assembly. No sanction withdrawal of the vote is applied to those countries who do not pay their dues.
On 24 October 1945, the charter that was signed in June came into force..Pax Christi is to help parishes wishing to mark the anniversary with a UN event in the spirit of the commitment made by Pope Paul VI many years ago. Addressing the General Assembly in New York, he said that he wanted our Church to serve the United Nations with "disinterest,