UNA-UK Seminar, Guildhall, London Courtesy of the United Nations Association-UK
This year, 24 October 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the creation of the United Nations in 1945, when its Charter, drawn up and then signed in April and June of that same year, came into force. Last week, the UNA-UK hosted a commemorative event, a seminar for over 700 people, in the magnificent setting of London's medieval Guildhall, where Henry V and his Queen were once entertained by the Lord Mayor. It was, as Alderman Ian Luder said in his welcome, a "fitting backdrop" for a significant occasion. And it afforded an opportunity for presentations and panel discussions on the question of the United Nation's continued relevance and effectiveness, the need for reform, and important issues facing the global organization today.
Natalie Samarasinghe, Executive Director of the UNA-UK, in her introduction, spoke stirringly to the question of "why the U.N. matters", referring to its challenges and its failures but also the key role it has played in the positive changes and progress the world has seen over these last 70 years. That list is long. "To dismiss the UN", she said, "is to dismiss a lifeline for millions of people and a symbol of hope for all". The point was made that success always depends on states' willingness to work together, and the political will of the member countries. A panel discussion with former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland and Pakistani Supreme Court Advocate Hina Jilani, both members of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders working together for peace and human rights, highlighted specific areas where reform is needed. These include reform of the Security Council, the use of the veto and the urgent need to change the length of term and the selection process for the next U.N Secretary-General, "giving the rest of the world a real choice". These ideas highlighted the importance of the UNA-UK's 1 for 7 Billion campaign, supported by eminent groups and organisations from all over the world, in hopes to find the best way to select the best leader to represent our seven billion people, in the "world's most impossible job" and also one of the world's most important.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights lawyer Amal Clooney and colleague photo by Alex Ratcliffe
The highlight of the evening was a powerful and moving keynote address given by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein in which he reminded us that human rights must be the "top priority for every country". Those human rights and freedoms we take so much for granted today and are so valuable to be reminded of, including the right to life, liberty, privacy and security of person; the right to education, health and shelter; the right to freedom of expression, thought and religion; freedom from any form of discrimination, unlawful arrest or detention; freedom from torture.
He spoke earnestly of how damaging it would be if the UK government were to follow through on its proposals to "scrap" the Human Rights Act, and the possible consequences thereof, if for example, this were to set a precedent for other countries where civil rights are so threatened, to do the same. Listening to his personal accounts and what he referred to as the "disgracefully long list of violations of human rights" which have not been prevented over these seven decades, it would appear that the role of High Commissioner of Human Rights must be the world's second most impossible job. "Has the UN failed?" he asked. "Many times". "But", he said, "there is still no shadow of a doubt in my mind that the UN has been a great deal better than the alternative, which is, to put it plainly, nothing."
And here's the rub and why the U.N. matters: Even a cursory glance through the special issue of New World will illustrate how far the world has come through efforts of global diplomacy since 1945 when "we the peoples" referred to only 2.35 billion. But what does it all mean to the man on the street and to our everyday lives today?
In the words of Natalie Samarasinghe: "When disaster strikes, the UN is often the first to respond and the last to leave. It goes where others cannot or will not. And it remains the pre-eminent forum for states to come together to resolve their differences and find global solutions."
In the long history of the world, seventy years is not much time to achieve freedom and cooperation throughout a global community. But in 1945 the seeds were planted for a world plan which could eventuate in peace, security and right human relations on this planet. The United Nations represents man's aspiration to be greater, to employ right thinking, good will and concern for their fellow man. It's a practical attempt to express our better part, on a worldwide scale. The United Nations represents Hope. The Dalai Lama said recently in London, the 20th century was the century of war; the 21st should now be the century of peaceful dialogue, of constant efforts to seek cooperation. Don't give up on dialogue, he said, bring the adversary to the table.
The United Nations brings everyone to the table, and asks the world's representatives to go beyond personal, sectarian and nationalistic concerns to realize the greater good. If we are not vocal, affirmative and practical in our support of this institution, then as Sir Jeremy Greenstock said, "we are not looking after our world or our children's world". A stronger UN has to mean a better world.