No one felt like celebrating at the UN's 50th anniversary last year - the wounds of Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia were too raw. David Hannay, formerly British ambassador to the UN, says its failings are overstatedby David Hannay / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
The dust is beginning to settle after the 50th anniversary of the United Nation’s founding. It is time to take a cool look at the UN’s role in achieving international peace and security.
Much of the public comment which accompanied that anniversary last year was disappointingly short term in its outlook and unjustifiably negative in content. There was an obsession with Bosnia, almost to the exclusion of everything else the UN has done in recent years. There was a failure to recognise that the UN will never be a complete success story-but that its failures and its weaknesses do not discredit its successes and its strengths. Above all, there was a singular absence of ideas on how to learn from the experiences of the past few years and ensure that the UN works better in the future.
My criticism of the 50th anniversary comment merely illustrates a paradox of our times. While politicians and policy makers are increasingly aware of the need for co-operative international action-on armed conflict, trade and investment, or drugs and terrorism-they find it hard to overcome the difficulties of organising such action.
What has come to be known as the “CNN factor” plays a damaging role in almost everything that the UN does. If the spotlight of publicity is not on a particular international problem, it is hard to get the attention and effort needed to address it. But when the spotlight is on it, two contradictory forces apply. First, the cry goes out when faced with horrendous television images of suffering that something must be done. Then, when intervention turns out to be messier and more costly than expected, the cry to “bring the boys home” quickly follows.
The “CNN factor” reinforces the shallowness and fickleness of support for international action, stemming from a lack of public understanding of what international organisations can hope to achieve. The UN’s multiplicity of agencies and alphabet soup of acronyms is certainly confusing and not conducive to enlisting the sustained support required for complex and risky peace-keeping operations. But for all the UN’s organisational faults, its secretary general and its secretariat are international civil servants and cannot be expected to bear the main burden of what is essentially a political task. This can only be done by the political leaders of the UN’s member states explaining to their publics why it makes sense for their troops and their tax-payers’ money to be used in the common service. Every time the UN becomes a scapegoat, or is treated as some amorphous and disembodied entity whose activities can be disavowed, the task of rallying political and material backing for the UN is made more difficult.