Does the UN still represent the best hope for mankind to peacefully resolve problems of violence, injustice, inequality and poverty or has the UN strayed from its original mandate, become saddled with impossible tasks, and is now careening toward abject irrelevance?

Recently the UN has come under criticism, accused of inefficiency, waste, and fraud and inept handling of peacekeeping missions. Let’s not dwell on these failures or shortcomings for too often the UN has been deprived of the necessary resources and executive power to carry out its mandated missions to successful conclusion. The UN has received scorn and condemnation for failures not of its making, but virtually foreordained.

The UN came into existence out of fear and hope; fear that the world would explode into nuclear conflict and the hope that the future could be brighter than the past. The issue of security will always preoccupy states and their peoples. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have led states to improve their level of security and their preparedness in case of new attacks. The UN can play a constructive role in the worldwide campaign against terrorism. However, even in this sensitive and very critical situation the UN cannot aspire to establish itself as the central authority of a new international order of global laws and global governance. Any such pretension would meet the stiff resistance and mistrust of nation states.

U.S. Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) made it clear that the great powers “will never accept claims of the United Nations to be the ‘sole source of legitimacy on the use of force’ in the world.” He said that no UN charter, claim or treaty would ever supersede the supreme law of the land in the United States, i.e., the U.S. Constitution.

Canadians should be as adamant in protecting Canadian national sovereignty. Our government has complied too easily with various UN treaties and protocols involving the environment, children’s rights, education rights, trade agreements and the International Criminal Court.

Although more than 180 nations are UN members, many of them exhibit deep distrust of it, for a host of reasons. UN-sponsored global conferences are often seen as encroachments on national sovereignty and assaults on national value systems. The agendas of UN-sponsored conferences and the importance given to NGOs (Non-government Organizations) at those conferences give many states cause for concern. Some even suspect a hidden agenda to establish the UN as a supreme central authority which would be elected by no one and responsible to no one.

Also disconcerting are the assumptions and principles which inspire these NGOs and which find expression in documents like the Earth Charter which calls for a litany of questionable objectives including the following: nations to adopt sustainable development plans and regulations; UN to manage the use of renewable resources such as water, soil, forest products and marine life to protect the health of ecosystems; that every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings; that nations ensure universal access to health care that fosters reproductive health and responsible reproduction; that states integrate into formal education the skills needed for a sustainable way of life; that nations demilitarize their national security systems. Imagine a UN which worked to realize these objectives.

In September 2000, another troubling declaration was developed by 1,000 UN-accredited NGOs entitled Strengthening the United Nations for the 21st Century This Declaration called for similar action but went much further including the redistribution of wealth and land; disarmament of all conventional and nuclear weapons; prohibition of unilateral deployment of nationwide missile defence; establishing a standing UN peace force; peace education covering all levels from preschool through university; political control of the global economy so as to serve the global vision; integration of the World Trade Organization under UN control; elimination of the veto power and permanent membership in the Security Council; implementation of all UN treaties, protocols and conventions; and the right of the UN to impose direct taxes such as fees on foreign exchange transactions. The scope is truly breathtaking; what a nightmarish vision.

The language of documents, though important, is often ambiguous. Hidden meanings promote a hidden agenda without recourse to open debate. This has plagued the many UN conferences dealing with social and economic development issues.

One can appreciate the difficulties which the UN and its agencies face. If national sovereignty stands in the way of effective intervention in intractable conflicts like those of the Middle East and if the UN’s lack of finances sharply curtails the work of the many agencies involved in promoting social, economic, and cultural development, is the UN still relevant and of value to the world community?

The UN should focus on being the world facilitator, presiding over more signings like the “global compact” between 50 multinational corporations (e.g., Royal Dutch Shell, Nike, Daimler-Chrysler) and 12 labour organizations and watchdog groups. The signatories committed to support human rights, eliminate child labour, allow free trade unions and avoid polluting the environment wherever they do business. If implemented, this UN-brokered agreement could mitigate the worst effects of globalization as multinationals shop around for the “best” economic environment in which to conduct business.

Similarly, the UN can help create and support “global public policy networks”, (coalitions for change bringing together international institutions, civil society and private sector organizations and governments) which would allow states to achieve cooperatively what is impossible to do unilaterally, such as combating diseases like malaria and AIDS. In concert with public policy networks UN agencies could cooperate with other international organizations to provide needed leadership and expertise regarding peace and security, globalization, air transport, disease control, climate change, labour rights, refugees, tobacco and drug control, human rights and the protection of all human life from conception to natural death, the new fields of stem cell research, cloning, and DNA discoveries. These demand international agreement to avoid harmful actions or practices. With proper focus and proper motivation the UN could be a real force for good in this “non-political” field.

As to international security issues, wars will continue to plague our planet. The nature of war is changing. The tactics are evolving. The targets are no longer strictly military combatants. The adversary can be elusive and virtually invisible. The weapons can be crude but devastating. The winning strategies will make greater use, likely decisive use, of intelligence and surveillance. International cooperation will be a must both in winning the new wars and in winning the peace which will follow. The UN should play a vital role.

If we value the UN in any way we need to be vigilant and prevent its being hijacked by groups with a totalitarian, relativistic and materialistic view of mankind. But ultimately the success or failure of the UN simply reflects the strengths and weaknesses of imperfect human beings.