International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Now, more than ever, we need the United Nations

October 24 is United Nations Day.

On this day in 1945, fifty nations gathered in San Francisco to finalize the Charter of the United Nations. Little did they know that the United Nations would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize – seven times.

Although the United Nations offers no quick fixes, it is one place where all nations of the world can come together, set international standards, and take collective action.

The treaties and international agreements brokered by the United Nations make the world go round. The work of the UN has improved the international cooperation needed to allow ships and planes to cross borders; to regulate telecommunications, broadcasting, and postal service; to oversee international trade and labor laws; to coordinate response to epidemics; and to enforce court judgments across borders.

The United Nations helps to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms for all people, improve the standards of living worldwide, promote social progress, resolve conflict and prevent security threats, address climate change, and assist refugees and people uprooted by war and disasters. There is simply no other single global institution with a mandate as broad as this.

It is a cruel irony that at a time of the most monumental technological advances in the history of human civilization, we also have the greatest number of people who do not have enough food, water, medicine, and shelter. For addressing the worrisome mega-trends that the world faces, the United Nations might simply be one of the most important institutions we have.

It’s hard to imagine a global meeting place with a membership of 192 countries. This near universal representation encompasses a diversity which includes almost every political system, ethnicity, religion, race, and nationality in the world -- with more than half of the UN’s membership consisting of nations that have less than 10 million people.

But the United Nations is also a formidable implementer of programs on the ground. The UN conducts multibillion dollar peacekeeping missions, humanitarian relief operations, and countless other complex mediation and dispute settlement interventions.

Here in the United States, some of the biggest problems we face cannot be solved by our country alone. The global economic crisis, national security, global warming, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, migration, narcotics trafficking, organized crime, and the spread of diseases are problems that require intensive international cooperation.

Global problems require global solutions. If the United Nations didn’t exist, we would have to invent it.

The world is learning the hard way that we can’t innovate our way out of climate change, we can’t fund ourselves out of global poverty, we can’t legislate our way out of international crime, and we can’t fight our way out of extremism. For many of today’s conflicts, there are no military solutions.

Although it often seems like a bloated bureaucracy at times, the United Nations is actually a good value on the dollar. The UN has a smaller budget than the University of Pennsylvania and utilizes fewer staff than Disney World.

For every American, the United Nations only costs about two dollars of our taxes each year. And the United States derives significant economic benefit from the UN’s purchase of American goods and services and employment of thousands of U.S. citizens both here and abroad. Over 3.5 billion dollars is pumped back into the U.S. economy each year. For every dollar the U.S. invests in the United Nations, about $1.50 is returned.

But the United Nations cannot solve all the world’s problems. It is only as effective as its board of directors – the member states – allow it to be. Many countries will first act in their own national self-interest before taking the larger problems of the world into account. The term “international community” sometimes seems like an oxymoron. It is ironic that some of the world’s greatest democracies are also some of the greatest opponents to global democracy.

Each year armed violence costs the world up to $400 billion in lost productivity. And some of the worst of these situations arise from weak and ungoverned regions of the world. President George W. Bush recognized that America is now threatened more by failing states than by conquering ones.

United Nations Peacekeepers have been called on to intervene in some of the most intractable and unrelenting conflicts in the world. Since Peacekeepers were first conceived, they have been dispatched over sixty times to maintain peace and security.

UN Peacekeepers are currently deployed in fifteen conflicts around the world on four different continents. With over 100,000 troops, they are the second largest deployed military force in the world. And it is a relatively cost-effective intervention for maintaining peace and security. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, United Nations Peacekeeping is eight times less expensive – just 12 cents on the dollar – than deploying a comparable force of U.S. troops.

Like his predecessors, President Obama noted that the United Nations is imperfect but it is also indispensable. The UN is invaluable in promoting U.S. interests abroad. And the collateral damage from unilateral actions are just too costly.

Based on current trends, the world can expect to be confronted with a major emergency of human displacement every sixteen months and a massive emergency every two years. As the United Nations’ second secretary-general -- Dag Hammarskjöld -- once said, the UN wasn’t created to bring us to heaven but to save us from hell.

Now, more than ever, we need the United Nations.

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