PETER REILLY DECLARES: As long as we expect supergovernment from the UN, we’ll remain disillusioned over its “failure”
THERE WERE FOUR of them, on Court of Opinion, the CBC radio show, and they were talking about whether the United Nations was a success.
“No,” the lady writer said, “it’s a fake.” If the UN were doing its job, why wasn’t there peace and justice in the world? How could people be tortured the way they were in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic? Why didn’t China belong? She went on like that for several minutes. She didn’t want the UN abolished, though; voluntary agencies like the World Health Organization and UNICEF were awfully good.
The lady writer was only one of a four-member panel, but in her allotted minutes she contrived to blurt out nearly every naïve, misty little fantasy Canadians have about the UN. We have an almost proprietary feeling about the United Nations—perhaps a nostalgic glow remains from the days of Nobel prize winners, of international acclaim—but we also have, in my experience, as many misconceptions about the UN per capita, as you’d expect to find in Upper Volta.
We tend to idealize it into a supergovernment, capable of legislating world peace and morality, while on the side, from a giant outpatients’ pavilion by the East River, it dispenses medicine, bandages and children’s clothing. When it falls short of these expectations, our disillusionment is boundless. The UN has failed.
Quite apart from its role as social worker to the world, the success of which even the downshouters will concede, the UN has done a magnifi-
cent job within the limitations imposed on it twenty years ago in its primary field: the maintenance of peace. It has not prevented any wars, but it has shortened at least four of them: in Indonesia in 1949, in Palestine the same year, in Egypt in 1956 and in the Congo from 1960 to 1964.
It has provided the machinery for quiet diplomatic negotiation, the classic example of which was the resolution of the Berlin blockade crisis in 1948-9. It has acted as a buffer between hostile nations, as it is doing in Cyprus right now. These are solid, practical achievements, not wistful daydreams, and it took a United Nations organization to bring them off.
Undeniably, as the UN celebrates its twentieth birthday, it has troubles. A vicious war is being fought in Vietnam, and the UN is mute. In the Dominican Republic, its peace-keeping role was usurped by the United States and its creature, the Organization of American States. Indonesia chose this year to flounce out, consigning the UN to hell.
President de Gaulle sneers at the “Disunited Nations” and China long ago gave up clamoring for membership. On top of everything, the most recent session of the General Assembly was forced into a farcical, three-month fandango over who pays the bill for what peace-keeping operations. The Assembly finally adjourned early in total disarray and faces the same problem next fall.
These are grave problems—grave enough to justify fears that the UN might eventually go the way of the League of Nations. I’m not quarreling with Canadians who share those fears. But I am arguing that people who say the UN is finished should put the blame where it belongs.
There are only five things wrong with the United Nations: Britain,
France, the United States, Russia and what passes in the UN for China. All of them were given favored treatment at the founding conference in 1945: permanent membership on the Security Council, the UN’s governing body, and the right to veto any measure they didn’t like. It was assumed that the co-operation and comradeship forged in man’s bloodiest war would last, that the five countries would carry out their responsibilities in good faith. They have not done so, and their failure is reflected in the paralysis of the United Nations.
The UN has no peace force in Vietnam because the United States
doesn’t want one there; the primary goal of the U. S. in this area is not peace, but the containment of communism. In the Dominican Republic, where U. S. soldiers gave Gen. Antonio Imbert’s junta a lift into the saddle, then donned OAS armbands, the UN role is rigidly confined to observation and reporting.
American determination to prevent further UN involvement was made perfectly clear when the French delegate to the UN tried to persuade the Security Council to enlarge the observer team. U. S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson balked at even that mild proposal. He told the council debate on the idea was “a bit childish.” The OAS, he insisted, could do the job. Yet when I was in Santo Domingo in June, a top official of the UN team told me there was no doubt that the OAS was favoring the Imbert junta over the constitutionalist faction of Col. Francisco Camaano.
The reaction of the big powers to UN involvement or intervention in their spheres of influence reminds me of the shrill cries of “outsiders and agitators” which I heard from the white citizenry of Selma, Alabama, last spring. No one likes intruders in his own back yard, and the U. S. is not alone in this; Russia fought against a UN mission to Hungary, and the British and French tried to forestall the dispatch of a UN peace force to Suez.
What this all adds up to is that the United Nations is a dazzlingly bright mirror of the facts of international politics. To expect otherwise, in the light of the organization’s charter limitations, is the height of naïveté. And within the framework of those limitations, the UN has accomplished everything that could be expected of it.
But inevitably, because things aren’t going well, there is pressure to change the UN, to tinker with the machinery. I don’t think this is the answer, simply because it’s impractical. The big powers will continue under any circumstances to insist on their veto.
In my opinion, the hope for basic reform, and by that I mean the addition of a little old-fashioned good faith to big-power negotiations, lies
with the new members of the UN. Since 1955, membership has grown from fifty-one to 114 countries. With the sudden growth have come problems. But in compensation, the UN has a group of enthusiastic members, most of whom are not in the camp of any big power.
During the jittery sessions of the General Assembly last winter, it was the Africans and the Asians, often referred to contemptuously as “irresponsible” by longer-established countries, who prevented an ugly, and possibly disastrous, confrontation over finances. In the same crisis, the socalled “responsible” powers snapped and snarled from the sidelines, contributing nothing but ill temper. The patient conciliation of men like Chief S. O. Adebo of Nigeria and Afghanistan’s Abdul Pazhwak was striking, as was the cool, able handling of the assembly by its first black president, Alex Quaison-Sackey of Ghana. It is men like these who will ultimately make it possible for the big powers to talk reasonably.
Until then, the UN can be only as effective as the five great powers allow it to be. Meanwhile it is futile for Canadians, or anyone else, to blame the UN’s machinery—when it’s the operators who are really to blame.
In 1955, on the UN’s tenth birthday, a Canadian diplomat named Lester Pearson summed up the problem. “Improvements in the machinery,” he said, “can, of course, be made. But the remedy for our ills lies not so much in such improvements as in the desire and determination to make the existing mechanism function better.”
That was ten years ago, when Canada was a force to be reckoned with at the UN, independent in policy, resident in neither cold war camp, a widely respected conciliator. Perhaps our dwindling involvement over the past few years, and our apparent shift behind U. S. policy, with the inevitable drop in universal regard, is responsible for growing skepticism among Canadians about the value of the United Nations.
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