Peacekeeping UN fighting for its old relevance in new world
There are few better places to reflect on the trials and tribulations of the United Nations on its 70th birthday than Geneva, home to the largest concentration of UN personnel in the world. Some 9,400 staff work for the United Nations family in the Swiss city where many UN agencies are headquartered. The imposing Palais des Nations, formerly home to the UN's precursor, the League of Nations, has played host to decades of painstaking UN-facilitated negotiations to resolve conflicts across the globe.
When compared with its stirring founding principles - "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war", to "reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights", and to "promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom" - the UN has met certain expectations but failed others over the past seven decades. Its failure to prevent the Rwandan Genocide and the Srebrenica Massacre in Bosnia are among the tragedies that have blotted its record.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recently attempted to sum up its work: "Every day the UN makes a positive difference for millions of people: vaccinating children, distributing food aid, sheltering refugees, deploying peacekeepers, protecting the environment, seeking the peaceful resolution of disputes and supporting democratic elections, gender equality, human rights and rule of law."
This year's anniversary has yet again prompted the perennial question of whether the UN, in its current form, is fit for purpose in a rapidly changing world. Even its staunchest defenders admit it has struggled to adapt to new realities. Its most powerful body, the Security Council, still reflects the post-World War II framework into which the UN came into being. China, France, Russia, the UK and US are still the only permanent members with veto powers, a system that critics say too easily leads to paralysis when it comes to tackling crises like the wars in Syria and Ukraine.
Former Secretary General Kofi Annan recently argued that the Council must allow for new permanent members or risk becoming increasingly irrelevant in a globalised world. Calls for an African or Latin American country to sit at the Security Council table have been made for years to no avail.
Operationally, the UN is a lumbering beast with a staff of 85,000 and 20 specialised agencies, each with its own budget and no central authority to oversee the lot. This fragmented structure was recently blamed for the World Health Organisation's tardiness in acting on the Ebola epidemic. A decade ago, the UN's 60th anniversary saw a welter of pledges to overhaul the United Nations amid criticisms that it too often badly failed those it was meant to help. But structural and administrative reform has been plodding and critics say it hasn't gone deep enough.
Ireland joined the UN on December 14, 1955, and since then it has played a significant role in key parts of the United Nations family, particularly its peacekeeping arm, which currently deploys more than 120,000 personnel in 16 different conflict zones.
Irish Army forces have an unbroken record of service to blue-helmet peacekeeping since 1958, serving in various parts of the Middle East and Africa, most notably Lebanon and Congo. Ireland has also distinguished itself through its contribution to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation initiatives at the UN.
Its commitment to aid and development, particularly in Africa and when it comes to efforts to tackle hunger and malnutrition, is also highly regarded. As Ban Ki-Moon put it on a visit to Dublin earlier this year: "Ireland's imprint at the UN has been huge and historic."
Irish diplomats are hoping its record, most recently as a co-facilitator of inter-governmental negotiations to agree an ambitious set of global development goals, will help when lobbying for a seat as one of the 10 elected Security Council members for the 2021-2022 term. The resulting new development agenda, which aims to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030, was approved by the UN General Assembly in September. Ireland has twice served on the Security Council, from 1981-1982 and from 2001-2002. Its three-year term on the UN's Human Rights Council finishes later this year.
For all its flaws and frustrations, even critics of the UN often quip that if it didn't exist, we would have to invent it. Perhaps the most frequently cited observation on the role of the UN in the world is that of one of its most famous Secretaries General, Dag Hammarskjold, who died in a plane crash in northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, in 1961. The UN, he said, was created "not to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell".