It has become a doctrine in many Jewish political circles that the U.N. is an ineffective and antisemitic organization. I do not agree. The U.N. is both important and good. There are many reasons why I have held this conviction for my entire life.
What does the U.N. do? Well, first let’s admit that it’s primary concern and function are not the state of Israel or the question of Palestine. We in the Jewish community are understandably neurotic about our past, our present and our future. The world does not share our neurosis, nor our preoccupation with Jews and Judaism. That is not to say that there isn’t a lot of Israel focused activity out there, or even that it isn’t out of proportion with reality, but the perception that we are the center of everything good and evil in the world’s imagination is simply wrong. The amount of time spent on Israel and the Palestinians is a tiny fraction of what the U.N. is involved in. Judging the U.N. by its effectiveness or accuracy in our troubles would be an inaccurate lens for the organization as a whole.
The U.N. exists to maintain international peace and security, to promote sustainable development, to protect human rights, to uphold international law, and to deliver humanitarian aid. The U.N. has several bodies: The General Assembly, The Security Council, The Economic and Social Council, The International Court of Justice and the Secretariat. Each has a positive role to play in making our world a better place.
In its political body, the General Assembly of 193 member states exists as the main deliberative and representative body of the U.N. Anything can be said or proposed here as a statement of policy, requiring merely a majority of nations (97) to be passed. Questions of membership, peace and security, budget, and other important matters require a 2/3 majority (129) to pass. Here everyone must be heard. While we may be appalled at an anti-semitic diatribe from those who both oppose Israel in the U.N., that same freedom of expression gives us a voice there that we did not have in 1939. The safe place to express and debate is a tremendous foundation for International Peace and Security.
In its security arm, the Security Council, The Security Council takes the lead in determining the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression. It calls upon the parties to a dispute to settle it by peaceful means and recommends methods of adjustment or terms of settlement. In some cases, the Security Council can resort to imposing sanctions or even authorize the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security. The 5 permanent members (USA, Russia, UK, France & China) each have a veto power in any vote. The 10 other members are elected by the 193 members, according to a regional allocation. Contrary to Israel’s umbrage of unique exclusion from the Security Council, 60 of the 193 nations have never been elected to the council, and never one that is party to a dispute which the council is considering. The Security Council’s resolutions, unlike any other body of the U.N. are absolutely binding on all member states, and the Security Council has the power to assess threats to peace, name them, and if necessary deploy troops to hold the peace. Without the Security Council, the U.N. would be a toothless tiger.
The International Court of Justice’s role is to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies. The ICJ does not try war crimes, as these fall under the completely separate purview of the treaty-based International Criminal Court in the Hague. Without the ICJ, the world would be left to “might makes right.” Most of its cases are territorial in nature, but some are economic, environmental or military.
The Secretariat is the civil servant arm of the entire U.N. and is led by the Secretary General, at this time Ban Ki-Moon. As he entered his second year in office, he outlined 5 priorities for his work:
- Sustainable development
- Building a safer and more secure world by innovating and building on our core business
- Supporting nations in transition
- Working with and for women and young people
Perhaps most important for the U.N.’s good work and reputation, however, is The Economic and Social Council - the principal body for coordination, policy review, policy dialogue and recommendations on economic, social and environmental issues, as well as implementation of internationally agreed development goals. It serves as the central mechanism for activities of the UN system and its specialized agencies in the economic, social and environmental fields, supervising subsidiary and expert bodies. It has 54 Members, elected by the General Assembly for overlapping three-year terms. It is the United Nations’ central platform for reflection, debate, and innovative thinking on sustainable development.
It is in the ECOSOC that the U.N. makes the greatest impact on the largest number of lives. Humanitarian assistance, agricultural development, regional economic councils, standing commissions for the status of women, standards of transport, labeling of chemicals, controlling narcotics, protecting forests, and a broad and constant series of forums and plenums among nations, academics and economic entities all provide dynamic interchange in a fast developing world.
Within any of these areas are scores of commissions and countless committees and forums held on regional sites around the globe. Since the 54 nations of the ECOSOC, and the 193 nations of the GA all have their own political slants, the more political an activity is - such as human rights - the less often it will follow some “objective” view of the topic. And since most decisions are arrived at by a vote, Israel is often vilified and voted on in some of these forums. When Malaysia was the president of the ECOSOC in 2010, many such examples occurred. With Republic of Korea ambassador Oh Joon at the helm today, many fewer such things have occurred.
The truth is that the world needs the U.N. areas of expertise, as in matters of territorial dispute, human rights, women’s equality, hunger, sustainable agriculture, clean water and more. These all demand an international forum of cooperation, and the U.N. is good at this. Never before in human history has such a large percentage of the planet had representation in a common forum, and the reasonable right to expect care and concern from the international community - especially in matters that are larger than one’s own national borders.
Israel and the Palestinians both will use, and have used the political process of the U.N. when it suits us/them. And when the politics go against us we cry out how biased and unjust the organization is. The truth is, most of the U.N. really isn't about us - and most of it is really, really good.