The United Nations' 52nd birthday this past Saturday marked the end of an especially eventful year. The U.N. has struggled with crisises in Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kosovo. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's visit to Harvard last month underscored the University's global profile and the importance of the U.N. in responding to the changes in the international scene.
However, in reflecting upon the role and aspirations of this organization it is important to note that the U.N. faces a number of challenges. Most threatening is the prospect of bankruptcy.
Last week, the House of Representatives decided not to include our country's debt to the U.N. in its budget proposals, primarily because anti-abortion activists opposed U.N. family planning schemes.
Although this is an important issue, it seems a tragedy to block funding for the U.N. on this basis. The consequences of Congress' decision--increased conflict, disease and death--can be seen in any newspaper.
Other critics might argue that the inefficiency of the U.N. precludes the U.S. from paying its dues. However, most members of our government have been pleased with the results of the reforms thus far. Under U.S. leadership, the U.N. has cut more than 1000 jobs, stemming its ballooning budget.
Perhaps the argument gaining the most attention, though, is the oldest and simplest: Why should we pay money to solve other people's problems, especially when we have so many problems of our own? Although one could argue against this on the basis of a moral duty to help other human beings in need of aid, there are more prgamatic arguments.
The U.N., by helping countries develop, increases the markets for U.S. goods. A great deal of the U.N.'s expenditure returns to the U.S. in the form of procurements with U.S. companies. The U.N., by insuring global security and defusing crises, helps to secure U.S. investments around the globe and promote trade. The U.N. also offers a forum in which America can work in a multilateral environment to advance its policies and resolve disputes with other nations.
The U.N. will not solve all of the world's problems. But we tend to forget the remarkable achievements that have already taken place. We take for granted many things that 50 years ago would have been unthinkable: That almost all nations in the world would join in one forum to discuss conflicts; that the diseases that were endemic in many parts of the world no longer pose a threat to millions of people; that there are armed forces willing to stand between the opponents of peace.
The U.N. has a positive and long-lasting impact on the lives of millions around the world. It represents the aspirations of all peoples to pursue life, liberty and happiness. In the current age of "globalization," it is a forum for increasing the ties among nations. Documents like the Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (which the U.S. has not signed) contain the essence of doctrines which transcend political and national differences.
We should never underestimate the importance of ideals and continue to emphasize their implementation in the real world. It is in this realm that the U.N. and its member states have failed. Since the end of the Cold War conflict and famine have persisted--and in many cases even increased.
Let us not forget that recently we have witnessed famine in Somalia, North Korea and Sudan. We have seen the bloody ethnic conflict that occurred during the break-up of Yugoslavia and the continuing violence in the Middle East. And we have stood by and done nothing in the face of a genocide in Rwanda.
The U.N.'s failures--our failures--cheapen all of our great moral stands and principles. A strong U.N.--one that has both the efficiency and the funds to operate properly--is one of the most crucial elements in preventing terrible suffering in the world.
Sam L. Sternin '01 is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House. He is a member of the Woodbridge Society of International Students.