The UN Forum 2014, orchestrated by the United Nations Association-UK on 28 June, was the largest public event on the United Nations in recent decades. UN representatives explained to the public how the international organisation attempts to grapple with the most formidable challenges of our time.
The first debate asked: why should anyone care about the UN? Empirical data provided by YouGov has recently indicated that the UK public is not engaged with foreign affairs: many considered foreign aid ineffective or a luxury that we simply cannot afford. A lack of efficient communication about the benefits of the UN’s work added to this general indifference.
But why should we care? Here’s one reason: global problems affect everyone locally to some extent. Floods on the other side of the world mean crops fail, and the price of everything goes up. People flee oppression in their own state and immigration rises elsewhere. People are too busy lamenting the symptoms and forget to look at the cause. These are transnational issues, requiring a transnational response.
Another trend revealed that the general public believes UK spending on foreign aid is too great, especially during a period of austerity. Many thought we spend too much, but few knew the statistics. The UK recently hit the Millennium Development Goal of spending 0.7% of the Gross National Income on foreign aid. But this achievement was kept quiet, lest it fuel the anger of introspective backbench politicians. We need to stop thinking about international aid as a luxury or a moral choice, but as a legal duty on wealthy countries and a good investment in the world’s future.
The puzzle of human rights universality was also briefly addressed. Some consider the UN’s global goals to be unattainable in the face of such diversity in norms and customs around the world. The argument that human rights standards do and ought to differ geographically, however tempting and easy it would be to accept, should not be our approach. The value which the UN brings to the problem of achieving universality is the collective global weight which it can lend to address a particular problem. Take a few examples: child marriage, child soldiers, forced labour – the UN is uniquely placed to set minimum international standards of human rights.
The three other debates varied in focus. One asked whether nuclear weapons keep us safe, or whether the catastrophic consequences of detonation around the world justify nuclear disarmament. There is no doubt that these weapons have the potential to decimate the planet. But the only real hope for disarmament is for the most powerful countries to disband their nuclear weapons programmes.
Another debate asked whether the responsibility to protect (R2P) is an appropriate means of response to humanitarian crises. All international uses of force, even those for ostensibly humanitarian purposes, must be viewed with deep suspicion and only ever justified in circumstances of the utmost necessity. The value of the R2P is that it is narrowly constructed and ought to remain so. It is submitted that the Permanent Members’ (P5) power of veto is also nowadays difficult to justify, and the P5 ought to reserve its application to the most fundamental questions of military intervention.
The final debate asked whether our approach to development is flawed. The majority of those present believed that the goal of addressing global poverty ought to be granted the highest priority. It must be borne in mind that by our inaction we condemn millions of people around the world to malnutrition, disease and death. We can remedy these dire straits by supporting the work of the UN and its associates, the World Heath Organisation and UNICEF. They provide famine relief, refugee aid and respond to health epidemics, most recently the Ebola virus outbreak in Africa. We are the first generation which could see an end to global poverty. It is a choice we make to allow it to continue, and that fact is difficult to live with.
It may not feel like the UN has an impact on your daily life, but it certainly has a part to play in your future, and the future of our planet. Let us reconsider our localised way of thinking and unite again in the common cause of enhancing conditions for all within our international community.