THE UNITED NATIONS TODAY (OCTOBER 2007)
Notes by Sally Hollemon
Ramu Damodaran, who heads the Civil Society Service in the United Nations Department of Public Information, spoke in October 2007 to the Foreign Policy interest group and the local United Nations Association on Flying with its Own Wings: The U.N. Today.
Mr. Damodaran noted that the U.N., established October 24, 1945, is now 62 years old. It began with 51 nations and now has 192. The Security Council has ten members plus five with veto power.
The U.N. has come into its own, Mr. Damodaran said. We now have an organization that works on issues important to people, and the key member states are supportive of this. Nations have recognized that there are issues that one nation alone cannot deal with. Some issues are regional or global in scope. Among these are disease, poverty, lack of sanitation, child labor, environmental issues.
Democracy has spread widely enough that delegates know that, when they vote for a treaty at the U.N., their people expect their governments to follow the treaties. The U.N. takes complaints of individuals to their governments and tells the governments, “You signed this treaty; now deal with this person’s problem.” The U.N. can also send inspectors to see if a government is telling the truth.
The United States should be proud that it insisted that democracy be spread around the world even though other governments now pay more attention to what their own people want than to what the U.S. wants.
The U.N. gathers information–on climate change, for example, a new issue for the U.N. Resources include the intellectual and scientific communities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) whose workers have knowledge of the lives of peoples. The U.N. then disseminates that information to its member nations. This valuable service should not be underestimated.
The U.N. recognizes that a government that brutalizes its own people will eventually attack its neighbors, so the U.N. needs to get involved in protecting people. However, the U.N.’s role in resolving conflict is to make sure it doesn’t get involved too early. Regional players are depended on more and more to resolve conflicts because local people understand the situation better. The U.N. is most successful when it is least visible; it does behind-the-scenes work, such as the Secretary General making phone calls, sending emissaries, etc.
Q and A
In answer to a question about establishing a United Nations army, Mr. Damodaran said that most nations want a say in where their soldiers are sent. Further, how many U.N. troops would be needed to cover the number of places where conflicts might erupt? It’s a real problem, however, that when there is a U.N. call for troops, member nations often don’t contribute the number of troops needed.
The Human Rights Council now has a system by which people can challenge the nominees to the Council, so a country with a bad human-rights record is now less likely to have its representative appointed to the Council.
The United States has not ratified some treaties (for example, the International Criminal Court and the banning of land mines), but it has followed the treaties anyway. Mr. Damodaran pointed out that our ratification system is more complex than that of many other countries since the U.S. Senate has to approve treaties.
Veto power in the Security Council won’t change because it would be vetoed. The countries that have the veto power want to keep it, and these countries must not be driven away from the U.N. Further, since other nations influence them to not use it, the nations with veto power avoid its use as long as the issue is one that doesn’t hurt the nation with the veto power.
Everyone agrees that the Security Council should be expanded, but there are two main problems that have stalled expansion. (1) What countries should be added? (2) Many resolutions are passed in the small Security Council. Would a larger group work as well as the smaller one does? The permanent members cannot be removed. Two possibilities for expansion are to have regional members or quasi-permanent additional members.
Mr. Damodaran concluded that the U.N. has had success stories when it responded to crises and when it replicates solutions used in similar situations, such as furnishing micro credit in underdeveloped countries.