United in these troubled times
Seventy-two years since it officially came into existence in October 1945, the United Nations has seemingly come full circle.
When the group was first formed in 1942 by representatives of 26 countries, “United Nations” was coined by then US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to describe its singular resolve to fight off the looming threat of the Axis Powers—countries allied with Nazi-led Germany during World War II.
Three years later, on Oct. 24, 1945, the UN officially came to be with 51 original member-states, and has since carved out a role as international mediator between warring parties, a voice of reason in times of conflict, and a moral authority when it comes to controversial concerns, among them HIV/AIDS, refugees, migration, climate change, and human trafficking.
So lofty are these expectations that the UN itself has stumbled a few times trying to live up to them. The horrific Rohingya refugee crisis, for one, underscores how ineffectual its existing mechanisms are to stop the slaughter of an entire ethnic minority because of its religion.
To be fair, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its partners have been delivering food and water to the stranded refugees, while one of its officials met with Myanmar authorities to try to resolve the crisis.
But the UNHCR stopped short of condemning the Myanmar military’s atrocities that have driven hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees into nearby Bangladesh.
Critics are also quick to point out that the UN had made other major missteps in its checkered history, such as the sexual abuse cases in Cambodia, Mozambique, Bosnia and Kosovo after UN Nato peacekeeping forces moved in, as well as similar cases in Congo, Haiti and Côte d’Ivoire.
The UN also lost some of its shine when it refused to compensate the over 10,000 Haitians struck down by a cholera outbreak that was traced to Nepalese UN aid workers in 2010.
The UN’s supposed lack of resolve and the absence of sanctions for violating UN Security Council resolutions have been blamed as well for a number of high-profile cases that some describe as genocide and ethnic cleansing, including the mass rape and massacre visited by Pakistani soldiers on Bangladeshis in 1971, the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims in 1995, and the Syrian civil war of recent times.
Such misgivings have given rise to one overriding question: Is the United Nations still relevant at all? Can it cope with a world increasingly polarized by the rise of conservative and populist leaders and the vociferous voices that threaten to drown out reason and discourse? Can it find an acceptable middle ground between the fears of a host nation and the tide of desperate migrants seeking refuge from strife in their home countries?
As it did during World War II, the United Nations must face threats to world security — fascism in the 1940s, terrorism in contemporary days. The rise of religious extremists such as the Taliban and the Islamic State have drastically changed the global security landscape, as does the potential nuclear war between North Korea and the United States.
As it tries to navigate between powerful economic giants and puny countries selling their birthright to survive, the UN, too, must know to draw the line between mediation and respect for sovereignty. At the same time, it must wrestle with questions on how to divide limited resources among countries devastated by natural disasters and those wiped out by wars and civil strife.
As it treads this suddenly unfamiliar terrain mined with issues that straddle justice, economic survival, peace and security, it must contend with the mistakes of the past 72 years, not to mention the doubts of those who think it has become too bloated to move fast enough.
But it is precisely because it is weighed down by the shifting burdens of the world that the United Nations needs the vigorous support of its 193 member-states.
What other alternative is there but for all of us to pull together and make sure our voices are heard and considered in its decisions? Who else can decide each nation’s individual fate, after all? The United Nations might never be a perfect organization, but in these troubled times, its members can — and should, as a point of both necessity and honor — help it live up to its name.
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