Syed Badrul Ahsan
More than half a century ago, Dag Hammarskjoeld perished in the depths of Africa in his quest to bring peace to Congo. His sacrifice remains a supreme example of the lengths to which humanity can go in order to ensure the survival of the world it inhabits; and by doing so make certain that it can forge ahead in making life better, in that qualitative sense of the meaning, for itself. Hammarskjoeld was a dreamer, a near mystic who believed in the power of humankind to change the world. More importantly, it was his conviction that in a world constantly assailed by the inordinately ambitious and the plainly villainous, hope for a turn-around rested with and in the United Nations. He was not concerned that Nikita Khrushchev was unhappy with him, and being unhappy demanded that a troika take over the responsibilities of administering the global body. For Hammarskjoeld, the fundamental point was one of rising above petty squabbles brought on by the bitterness of the Cold War and moving on to reassure people that with the United Nations around, there was hope of a better world.
Dag Hammarskjoeld did not live to see the organization he loved and nurtured survive despite all the odds stacked against it through the decades since 1961. Had he been around, he would have agreed with us that the world, in line with the lessons of history, remains an imperfect place. He would have noted that the United Nations, for all the advances it has made through the lanes and alleys of what many would like to call globalization, has much more to do to ensure peace across the continents. He would have acknowledged, though, as we acknowledge today, that the United Nations has arrived at a point in time and history where its presence in guaranteeing a more secure world than the one we live in is a reality we cannot do without.
Our notion of the United Nations being a force for global stability and peace stems from a simple yet necessary study of the past in relation to the present. Do recall the time when Indonesia’s President Ahmed Sukarno took his country out of the United Nations in the mid 1960s. And recall too the twenty two years which went by before the People’s Republic of China could take its rightful place in the world body. And remember too, from the perspective of irony, the manner in which China prevented, for two successive years, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh from acquiring membership of the United Nations. If you recall irony, you will have occasion too to recall the bizarre. When Khrushchev banged the podium of the UN General Assembly with his shoe in 1960, it was not exactly an edifying spectacle. Decades later, when Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez sniffed the presence of the devil in the same hall where he had risen to speak, he scandalized even his well-wishers around the world.
The United Nations, ladies and gentleman, is much larger than the men and women whose pettiness has often tended to denigrate the organization. That largeness comes from the critical and crucial role it has played in keeping stable and steady a world that endlessly threatens to spill out into chaos. And therein comes the morality that the United Nations symbolizes through its presence around the world. If Rwanda 1994 was a terrible hallmark of failure, when the global body was found wanting in the task of preventing the country from collapsing into ethnic genocide, the readiness with which the United Nations went into the business of securing or enforcing peace in such regions as the former Yugoslavia, Timor-Leste and large parts of Africa is a strong hint of the moral role it can play in preventing the globe from sliding into disorder. The sensitivities of the times have decidedly had an effect on the way in which the United Nations has asserted, and means to assert, itself in a world that cannot do without it.
Which raises the interesting question: had the United Nations been asked to step into the long conflict that was Vietnam, would matters have been different? For three decades, a helpless world watched as the Vietnamese waged relentless, and justified, war against the French and then the American presence. The United Nations was nowhere around. The result was disaster, first at Dienbienphu in 1954 and then in Saigon in 1975. The French and American administrations, in that order, felt little compulsion to include the United Nations in the search for an honourable solution to the crises confronting them. The consequence was disaster.
Fast forward to more recent times. When Tony Blair and George W. Bush, determined that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that he needed to be punished, they cared little about the concerns expressed by Hans Blix and his inspection team, indeed had little inclination to take the global body seriously. The ramifications of ignoring the United Nations in Iraq were horrifying. A beautiful country was destroyed on the basis of a lie, on the assumption that the United Nations did not need to be around. A palpable absence of morality is what you detect in the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.
Of course, no one will argue that the United Nations is one organization that can restore absolute order in a fractured world. There have been all those times when the world body remained a mere spectator even as darkness overtook large areas of the globe. It had little or no role to play when Warsaw Pact forces invaded Alexander Dubcek’s Czechoslovakia in August 1968. When Soviet troops entered Afghanistan in December 1979, when first the Mujahideen and then the Taliban went cheerfully into the business of destroying that country brick by brick, the United Nations was forced to stay on the sidelines. The times were defined by the Cold War.
Today, it is a different though not ideal United Nations we observe asserting its authority around the world. If you observe such crisis-torn regions as Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the moral authority the United Nations wields in today’s world gives us hope that in good time, the organization will turn out to be an enduring benchmark of the limits to which human conscience can go in reaching out to societies around the world. The peace-keeping forces operating under United Nations command, drawn from diverse nations around the world, bring together not merely soldiers from various armies but, in a larger sense, are representative of the diversity of cultures that helps contain or defuse crises that, left on their own, could spiral out of control. When you have soldiers from Ghana, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other nations, all symbolized by the blue helmet of the United Nations, serving together in war zones, you realize how remarkably perspectives have changed.
The United Nations does not generate conflict. But when conflict threatens to erupt, or does erupt, it is the United Nations which is called upon to resolve the issue. That is the paradox. And, again, that is the opportunity, for the world body to inform the world yet again of its indispensability to nations and continents.
The United Nations has sensitized us all to the need for adhering to all those principles which go into bettering the quality of life for peoples and societies around the world. Its programmes on health, especially for children, have underscored the significance of a major area of social concern. Its relentless stressing of the urgency of safeguarding human rights around the world, an idea formidably espoused through the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, has in the past couple of decades been pursued with vigour across the globe, to the gratification of the international community. Its pursuit of an environment agenda has brought home to governments the risks the world is exposed to unless urgent corrective measures are taken.
And yet there is opportunity for the United Nations to take on a wider dimension for itself. While more internal reforms need pursuing, there is the paramount need for member-nations, especially those powers instrumental in the formation of the world body in the mid-1940s, to take a comprehensive view of a world that has changed, and continues to change. With such centres of power as India, Brazil, Japan and Germany takingcentre stage in the global scheme of things, the time has arrived for the United Nations to give these nations the places they deserve in such bodies as the Security Council.
The United Nations has weathered many a storm, been beaten about ruthlessly. And yet it has refused to go the way of the League of Nations. That is no mean feat. Because of the United Nations, we know the meaning of global cooperation today. Because of it, we know how important it is to promote internationalism as a core principle of life.
Let one go back to Dag Hammarskjoeld. “Life only demands from you”, said he, “the strength that you possess. Only one feat is possible — not to run away.”
(The United Nations was founded on 24 October 1945 to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war).
Syed Badrul Ahsan: Contributing Columnist, Shottobani. Editor in charge, The Asian Age.