Happy 74th Birthday, United Nations
Happy 74th Birthday, United Nations
Photo of the General Assembly Hall inside United Nations Headquarters in New York City

Over the past 74 years the United Nations has kept the world in relative peace.  There’s been no Third World War and other conflicts have been somewhat mitigated.  Human Rights have expanded enormously over the past 74 years.  It would be unimaginable in 1945 that respect for diversity and inclusion would be as widespread as it is now.  The United Nations has addressed countless natural disasters, helped refugees, handled serious epidemics, and expanded access to education and health care globally.  We celebrate these and many more UN accomplishments over the past 74 years. 

Today, the UN works hard to convene member states to solve the planetary issues of climate change, the threat of nuclear war, global migration, and expanding flows of refugees.

At this moment, when we need planetary consensus and action to solve existential threats to our existence, the UN is crippled as never before.  Following the American example, some 40 member states have not paid their UN dues.  In violation of the UN Headquarters agreement with the United States, the USA has not issued visas to people who have official business with the United Nations.  Some nations have withheld their UN dues until their nationals can attend official UN committees.  This protest by member states who cannot influence the issuance of American visas, have vented their anger at the UN which they feel should hold the United States as the host country for the United Nations Headquarters responsible to ensure that people with valid reasons to come to UN meetings get American visas to come to the UN. 

Let me give you one example.  Fatou Bensouda is the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).  I know Fatou and I was very good friends with her husband, Phillip, when I was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in The Gambia (West Africa).  According to the Rome Statute which established the ICC, the UN Security Council has a role to play in the workings of the ICC, even though it is not part of the UN.  Fatou needs to come here to the UN frequently.  One way that Fatou has been able to get around not obtaining a visa is through video conferencing.  The United States denied her a visa, presumably of her investigations into war crimes in Afghanistan. 

As the host nation, the United States is obligated to allow officials to come to the UN and deliver their reports, even if they are critical of the United States.  That is part of the obligations to which the USA agreed in 1947 when it became the host country for the UN Headquarters. 

We need the United Nations now more than ever.  Just as in the period from 1929-1939, the world struggled under economic hardships due to the 1929 stock market crash and many nations turned to ethnocentric authoritarian government; we see similar patterns today.  As global stresses increase due to climate change, migration, and refugees, we see nation after nation turning toward ethnocentric, isolationist, authoritarian governments.  These governments shun concerted global action to solve global problems.  When this happened in the 1930s, it came to a bad end with the Second World War.  We can already see dark clouds on the horizon with the rise of far-right governments now and the weakening of the United Nations.

The Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg (r) pictured with UN Secretary-General António Guterres (l)

The Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg (r) pictured with UN Secretary-General António Guterres (l) attended the Climate Action Summit aimed at tackling climate change. UN Photo/Mark Garten

Many critics of the United Nations cite its inability to make meaningful change beyond simply talk. We can look to numerous examples of the UN’s impact around the world to see the clear falsehood of this sentiment. The UN has recently been able to convene nations, business leaders, and activists to coordinate global efforts to address climate change. UN Secretary-General António Guterres instructed countries attending the Climate Action Summit in September to bring a plan not a grand speech – and they did. Yet, it is true that the United Nations is not as effective as it could and should be. One big reason for this is efforts by the United States, Russia, and other superpowers to block meaningful progress from being made. Instead of refusing to fully fund the UN because it is ineffective, the United States and its kind should be investing more into the UN system and work to energize it instead of getting in the way of progress.

So, we celebrate the United Nations at 74 and congratulate its many accomplishments.  However, we need to support the United Nations now more than ever.  The United States of America as the host of the UN Headquarters bears a particular obligation to support and strengthen the United Nations, even at times when if faces criticism from member states or human rights officials and advocates.  Criticism offers an opportunity to improve, and it should not be used as a pretext to refuse visas or withhold financial support.

About the Author

  • Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...

For more information contact international@uua.org.

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