The United Nations is perhaps the only organization in the world that can claim to be well and truly global in an altruistic sense. The institution is comprised of numerous world countries, including big ones like the United States, Russia, and China, and the small ones like Spain, Turkey, and Switzerland. With the goal of global peace in mind, the United Nations has a presence all over the world, particularly in conflict laden places like Congo, where U.N. peacekeepers have their largest presence. Despite bringing together so many different and often opposing countries to share their views and work cooperatively, the United Nations’ global goals face obstacles that go beyond international politics and stem from within the organization itself.
On one hand, the U.N. with its headquarters in New York City, is the key player in many good ideas. For instance, a focus on globally responsible investing has created a contract called the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). The goal of this pact is the create more socially conscious investing for businesses all over the world and emphasize the environmental, social, and governance considerations in business decision making. Most recently, the Harvard Management Company, which operates the famed Harvard University’s financial assets, has signed onto the PRI, as well as the Carbon Disclosure Project’s climate change program. These two programs, the PRI and the climate change program, represent a global initiative designed to bring ethics to the fore in international business. Harvard’s joining of these programs is a big step since it represents one of the most respected financial management companies in the world.
The PRI may be part of the United Nations’ private sector goals, but it is more famous for its political goals. In 1994, the U.N. hosted its International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) to examine how better access to basic human needs such as healthcare and education, as well as basic human rights, could bring about a better future for the world. This week, member states will be joining together to look at how much progress has been made in 20 years and see what ways there are to continue moving forward.
It may seem a simple thing to determine that treating people with basic human dignity and providing for their most foundational needs would be a good thing, but the role the United Nations plays in making these issues a priority cannot be underestimated. By having conferences and forums like the one going on this week, the U.N. is doing the almost mundane task of regular maintenance, ensuring that countries are still thinking about the good of people and not just the good of institutional government interest. This task is so obvious that it occasionally does not get the respect or notice it deserves. Nevertheless, the U.N. and the states that are a part of it are participating in a global form of good citizenship, which will matter far more in the long run than perhaps it seems to today.
Nevertheless, even good citizens can make mistakes and the United Nations, being the cooperative organization that it is, has made its own share of them. That has created the constant need to reassess how the U.N. operates beyond concept and in actual practice. For instance, one in four out of every U.N. peacekeeper in the world is stationed in Congo, an area of Africa that has been called “the open wound at the heart of Africa.” The country is located almost in the center of the continent and its history as of late has been one of the most violent in the world. There are estimates on the amount of people who have died in this country, whether violent death or from other causes like famine or disease, is between four and six million. Those estimates, it should be noted, are only based on the time between 1997 and today, a mere 17 years.
With this situation still ongoing, the United Nations’ presence in that area has been seen as one of the stabilizing influences, in some ways the only consistent one that many Congolese have had. The current mission there is the biggest the U.N. has undertaken and the most expensive. But despite this positive presence, there have been problems with the actual day-to-day aspect of having peacekeepers stationed there.
Among the Congolese, the peacekeepers have a reputation for being bystanders to much of the violence that goes on. They were called “tourists” and civilians have yelled at them to “get out” of the country. Instead of being wanted, they are seen as just a fly on the back of the cow that is the current situation of violence in Congo. This has led to a re-evaluation of the role of the U.N. peacekeepers in that area and has presented a huge ethical question: does the U.N. keep peace or does it enforce peace?
The answer to that question is difficult because very often the issue is one of national sovereignty. The United Nations cannot simply go into a country with national sovereignty and play around in its problems simply on the basis of human rights. To do so would be to stretch the U.N.’s mission as a cooperative venture and set itself up as a ruling power over all. That is not something the United Nations seems wont to do, but at least for the Congo a solution has been found.
In 2013, the U.N. peacekeepers had launched an offensive against the hostile forces in Congo and won a major victory. Not only did this win them the respect and love of the people they protected, but it created a situation in which the U.N. had to revise the mission of the peacekeepers themselves. After the passage of Resolution 2098, in which the creation of a Force Intervention Brigade was provided for. This unit’s mission would be to act to protect civilians from violence before the violence actually happens. As one observer put it, the United Nations has come to realize that sometimes to keep peace, preemptive action is necessary.
Nevertheless, this move creates even more thorny ethical problems, not the least of which is, how will this affect the U.N.’s role in the world? Will it now have to act preemptively everywhere or only in places like Congo? Despite praise from English diplomats and United States’ envoys, these issues will have to be addressed either for good or ill. It may well be that the U.N. is an entity that will someday be going to war as a distinct force or it may not. Time and the answers to these ethical dilemmas will tell, but for now it is certain that the United Nations is facing many obstacles to its positive global goals and that aspect of its mission, at least, is not about to change any time soon.
Opinion By Lydia Webb