On the 3rd day of our UN study tour we were briefed by Mr Peter Jackson, Chief Editor of the UN Yearbook. Mr Jackson’s bright and open-minded way of briefing us, was a really great conclusion to our extraordinarily enriching UN Study Tour.
Since our faculty advisers offered Mr Jackson to choose the topic freely, he talked about the UN system and made us see the Organization from a different, more critical, point of view hinting at some actual problems the UN suffers from.
The first topic he addressed was the critique the UN often faces during times of conflict: its value and validity in these situations are put into question, complaining about the fact that the UN’s agenda seemingly did not change during the last decades. But topics which repeatedly are on the agenda, such as the fight against poverty, were important topics and still remain issues of actual importance.
Moreover, crucial changes have been made. For example, in the early days of the UN, only a few African countries such as Ethiopia, South Africa or Egypt were Member of the UN. Today, every African country is a UN Member, which is quite important since conflicts in Africa as well as the general situation of African countries regarding issues like health, education or poverty are often key targets of the UN agenda. Thus, the presence of many African countries guarantees a more effective co-operation between Africa and the UN due to joint agreement on the UN Charter and regular meetings to talk and negotiate.
Another example of a long debated topic which has been the cause for major critique of the UN work, Mr Jackson mentioned, was the question of development assistance and why there has not been too much progress in eradicating poverty so far. An example of this, he said, was that the first four UN decades were called the ‘Development Decades’, while the 5th decade was called the ‘Millennium Development Goals’, which did not really change too much of the content of the debate but merely modified its title.
Moreover, the issue of donor fatigue is also a much discussed UN related topic since many organisations are asking for money to provide aid in inter alia developing countries. But as money is getting scarce and people are wondering about the efficiency of long term initiatives, such as in many African countries, donations have severely decreased.
During his briefing, Mr Jackson also hinted at the ongoing discussions about the reform of the Security Council. An argument for a reform is that for instance Japan as the second biggest financial contributor should have a permanent seat in the Security Council to have a bigger say in UN policy. But the consequence of such a reform that would be beneficial to Japan might be ‘vetoed’ by other Members. Those veto rights used, are often to the detriment of future-oriented and effective changes, thus making UN reform very hard to accomplish since they require a large consensus.
Mr Jackson then made a very alarming point: the problem that recently there is the scary development of more and more UN staff being the target of violent attacks. It therefore seems as if the UN is currently not offered the appropriate respect and thus their staff lack protection in the field.
Related to such attacks is the fact that so much attention was drawn on Darfur that people stopped looking at the deteriorating situation in Somalia.
As a response to those developments, Mr Jackson mentioned the concerns of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan about the effectiveness of long-term mandates. Annan therefore proposed a mechanism to profoundly test each UN initiative after five years on its necessity by analyzing its results, how realistic it is and how it contributed to achieve the objectives pursued. The consequence of negative results would then bring about the closure of the initiative.
Furthermore, the Oil-For-Food programme partly degraded the UN image, since UN staff members were said to be corrupt. But that opinion does not consider the fact that only very few personnel was involved in the affair and therefore the general suspicion of UN staff being corrupt was unjustified.
All the aspects mentioned make it necessary to reflect the work of the UN, its legitimacy and effectiveness.
But again and again there are examples which show that the UN is a unique and indispensable tool to restore peace and assure security.
Mr Jackson then gave the example of Charles Taylor, former President of Liberia and responsible for crimes against humanity, who was served with an arrest warrant by the Special Court for Sierra Leone and taken into custody by UN Peacekeepers and flown to the detention facilities in Sierra Leone, which symbolised that the UN is actually on the premises when the chips are down.
Mr Jackson also used a comparison to underline the importance of the UN: in his view the UN oftentimes serves in a similar function as firemen do. In times, when there is no fire, the workers only cost money and you are wondering why you even spend it on them, for just being there.
But whenever there is an emergency situation, they are right there and you are happy to have them. This is the same with the UN in a way – it costs money, but the UN is still the only option to solving international problems in an enduring way. The UN is charged with a number of decisive tasks, such as to rescue failing states, assisting States in times of conflict or finding solutions to climate change-related problems. Moreover, it develops and puts forward important ideas and gets countries together to talk to each other.
After the briefing we had the opportunity to ask Mr Jackson questions.
One of the questions raised was whether there are feasible alternatives to the UN.
Mr Jackson answered that there were everyday situations, which show the need to have the UN. It is easy to criticise but hard to find better approaches. The UN, due to the expertise it gained in conflict situations, remains indispensable.
For instance, the US invasion in Iraq in 2003 that was meant to free the Iraqis by bringing democracy to them in only a couple of months, proved to be more difficult than anticipated. The UN experience in such situations should have been sought as the Organization has had to handle similar situations and use its patience to work over a period of years to gradually establish long-lasting peace and security.
Mr Jackson concluded his informative and inspiring briefing by saying that the UN remains the only option we have. It is the only organisation which brings together 192 Member States and encourages regular meetings and dialogues among the Members, thus encouraging the opportunity to enhance mutual respect and co-operation.