Saturday, November 14, 2009

The UN: Not perfect, but effective

From the Parkville Luminary

Can you name the organization that keeps the peace in 35 countries, has aided more than 30 million refugees fleeing war or famine, and has made safe drinking water available to 1.3 billion people during the last decade, yet is considered a failure by some Americans?

If you guessed the United Nations, you correctly pinpointed that most maligned and misunderstood of institutions.

A ballroom full of Kansas Citians, including a contingent from Park University, gathered last week to honor UN Day, and to celebrate the often-ignored contributions of the United Nations.

A list of the UN’s accomplishments is a mile long, but includes negotiating 172 peaceful settlements that have ended regional conflicts; facilitating free and fair elections in 45 countries; spending $800 million a year through UNICEF, primarily on immunization, health care, nutrition and basic education in 138 countries; alleviating chronic hunger and rural poverty in developing countries, providing credit that has benefited over 230 million people in nearly 100 developing countries; helping entrepreneurs in 25 countries find financing for new enterprises; pressing for universal immunization for polio, tetanus, measles, whooping cough, diphtheria and tuberculosis ­and achieving an 80% immunization rate, saving the lives of more than 3 million children each year; reducing child mortality rates (halved since 1960; promoting women's rights by supporting programs and projects to improve the quality of life for women in over 100 countries; and eradicating smallpox through vaccinations and monitoring. ( )

I have seen with my own eyes the tremendous contributions of the UN, and the brave sacrifices of its workers, in the Republic of Georgia, Moldova, and Uganda, among other places. In areas where there is hunger, like Uganda, the World Food Program is there to provide sustenance. In Moldova, I volunteered for UNICEF, which outfitted a youth media centre that gives kids a chance to hone their media skills while working for positive change in their society.

Of course, we seldom hear about these successes, but instead, only the UN’s failures. Yes, the UN has had its share of debacles, and they are often noteworthy, like inaction in the face of genocides in Rwanda and Sudan. The UN’s critics are quick to jump on these failures, or to highlight the corruption and inefficiency that undoubtedly exist within the organization’s ranks, and use them as a reason to marginalize the United Nations. Fix what’s wrong with the UN, certainly, but don’t undermine support for the million things the UN does well.

The UN’s American critics have been particularly vocal. Much of their criticism is founded on the spurious notion that the U.S. somehow loses sovereignty if it chooses to act as part of an international coalition, especially when those actions occur through the UN. This is nonsense, of course, and one need look no further than the Iraq debacle as evidence of the folly of unilateralism. Indeed, just the promise of an America that embraces multilateralism and respects international organizations like the UN was enough to fuel President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite the negative press, and the drumbeat of criticism directed at the UN from the right, “79% of Americans view strengthening the United Nations as a ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ important foreign policy goal, according to a 2007 poll. Indeed, 72% support ‘having a standing U.N. peacekeeping force selected, trained and commanded by the United Nations.’ There is currently no standing UN peacekeeping force, only ad hoc forces organized from scratch and donated by countries each time there is a need. (

If you agree that the United Nations is an asset that should be strengthened, there is a local organization, the United Nations Association of Kansas City, that is always looking for internationally-minded members. Go to for details. It’s time to spread the word about the good works, and unlimited peacemaking potential, of this most august of world bodies.

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