At the close of the Second World War in 1945, the world had never seen destruction on such a scale, with the estimated death toll in six years of fighting ranging from 40 million to as high as 85million people, most of them civilians, and two continents left in post-war ruins. By some estimates, a further 60 million people were made refugees, almost 3% of the global population at the time.
After years of negotiations, as one of the most brutal wars in human history raged and finally came to an end, on 24 October 1945 the United Nations was founded, creating a Charter that is still resonant today and which Member States are beholden to observe. The first task of the UN in the wake of the war was to rebuild, reconstruct, and lay the foundations for international cooperation and peace so that a war of such magnitude could be avoided in the future.
The UN has sometimes been described as a “tiger without teeth”. While the nature of the UN as an inter-governmental organisation means that no single country can determine the agenda, it also means that there are often competing agendas that are negotiated in this forum. Consensus, above all, is more productive to collective peace and security than unilateral action. Indeed today, unilateral action is often perceived to be an affront to global peace and security, such is the norm that multilateral organisations like the UN have created.
Political realities can sometimes mean that international agreements are not always observed. However, their existence creates a normative environment in which international cooperation can take place. The various UN bodies, conferences, councils, and the General Assembly itself, allow countries to have a voice on the principle of “one state, one vote”, while treaties, agreements, and resolutions over time create the environment which influences the conduct of States and are often adopted as customary law.
Change often happens by design, and can move in imperceptible increments. The UN's role is to assist governments to implement their commitments and to ensure that required changes are carried forward and sustained. And although progress has been made, the world has radically changed from what it was when the UN was founded in 1945. Global politics and development cooperation is now increasingly multi-polar. It is no longer necessarily based on an East-West or North-South dynamic, exemplified by the rise of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), and how those countries have not only taken ownership over their own development but are now helping other nations along the way.
In order to tackle global challenges such as poverty, climate change, and the proliferation of arms, along with mediating conflicts that, while no longer played out on the same global scale as the Second World War but are often just as devastating, other forms and modes of working can be effective moving into the future. The scope for regional cooperation and regional organisations to have more of a role in the articulation of the goals of the UN is being demonstrated not just by entities such as the European Union, but coalitions such as the Group of 77.
Measures have been taken by the UN as an institution to be more flexible to the environment it works in, to adapt to the shifting context, and to strengthen accountability. Some of these include the “Rights Up Front” initiative, which enables the UN to take early and effective action in times of crisis and to implement the necessary measures before the situation worsens. This allows the UN to enforce the breadth of its mandate, and was used recently at the end of 2013 when thousands of those feeing conflict fed to UN compounds in South Sudan. Responding to calls for the UN to work better together and to avoid duplication, UN Reform is a continuous process that enables more effective and efficient delivery systems in development assistance by having UN Agencies,
Funds, and Programmes work together in a more coherent and cost-effective manner, maintaining the expertise and mandates of each one, but strategically unified in approach.
Bangladesh continues to play an important role in the UN as a leading Troop Contributing Country to UN Peacekeeping Missions. The country's importance to the UN has also been demonstrated by its national development progress. Bangladesh was selected to receive UN support to undertake national consultations as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) process due to the country's impressive development gains and attainment of many of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This leadership was further recognised by Bangladesh's recent election as Chair of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group at the last meeting of the UN General Assembly.
The partnership between the government of Bangladesh, development partners, international and national NGOs, Civil Society Organisations, and the UN, reflects how different actors can work together to fulfill common development objectives, whether it be a universal immunisaton programme enabling Bangladesh to eradicate polio before its neighbours, or increased resilience and fewer deaths in times of natural disaster. It also demonstrates how a global agenda such as the MDGs is translated into a country context given the right partnerships. This partnership augurs well as we begin to look at implementation of the SDGs over the next 15 years.
On this UN Day, I have highlighted the origins of the UN, its role, and how its relevance and efficacy can depend as much on the organisation and its institutional arrangements as it does on the Member States that comprise it. Perhaps it was the first UN Secretary General, Trygve Lie, who described it best at the end of his tenure in 1953 when he said that:
“Our organisation reflects the imperfections of our time, but it is also an expression of the most constructive forces of our world and a symbol of hope for the future... I see in the UN a practical approach to peace and progress, not by any quick and easy formulas, but by wise, loyal and persistent use of its institutions by Member States over many years.”
The values and principles of the UN remain the same 70 years after the organisation's founding, but how they are implemented, observed and upheld require adaptation, vigilance, and inclusiveness. This is also a time to recognise that the UN continues to use the UN Charter to guide itself, and its 193 constituent Member States, to reinforce our shared duty of ensuring peace and security for all, observing human rights regardless of race, religion, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation, and to collectively alleviate human suffering.
The writer is the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh.