International Security

After 35 years with the UN, here's what I learned

A worker trims hedges outside the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, U.S., August 29, 2017  REUTERS/Andrew Kelly - RC15F3B5B210

At heart, the work of the United Nations depends on one powerful human emotion Image: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Yoriko Yasukawa
Senior Adviser to the Rector, University for Peace
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Over my 35 years of work with the United Nations, most recently as the Regional Director of the UN Population Fund for Asia and the Pacific, I have often said that the work of the United Nations is at heart about love.

The UN was founded on the ashes of two World Wars as an embodiment of humankind’s fervent hope to never again repeat those tragedies. To this end the UN Charter reaffirms ‘faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.’

The love that is needed to convert this faith into practice is a deliberate and reasoned effort to recognize all people as people, with the same right to a decent life. It is the arduous effort to understand the ‘other’, putting ourselves in their place, including those we don’t know, those we disagree with, even those who may have done us grievous harm.

It is a love that at times means ceding things that we cherish to an adversary, however painful it is, because the alternative is mutual destruction.

It is also love as a quest to build fair and democratic public policies, institutions, societies – and an international community – based on empathy and caring, that include everyone, ‘leaving no one behind,’ as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for.

No magic potion

And love defined thus is one of the most difficult things for us humans to practise. The catastrophic circumstances of the UN’s birth tell us as much.

And while we have thankfully avoided another world war since then, we continue to witness too many examples of the failure of love, and its brutal and tragic consequences: the savage conflicts that continue to rage in Syria, Myanmar, Central African Republic, and others, the 65 million people forced to flee their homes as a result of conflict and massive violations of human rights.

Over 800 million people are living in extreme deprivation around the world while, according to Oxfam’s study on inequality, eight men monopolize wealth equivalent to what the poorest half of humanity owns. And 830 women die every day from causes related to pregnancy and child birth, the great majority preventable.

There are no magic potions that we can sprinkle on people to get them to suddenly work together en masse to change the world for the better.

For the United Nations System, there is only the accumulation of dogged, tenacious and mostly unglamorous efforts to advocate, to dialogue, to persuade, combined with technical, financial and political collaboration to support the best possible decisions and actions.

Momentous accomplishments

These too are labours of love. Sometimes the best possible decisions, if they involve reconciling differing beliefs and interests, are flawed and frustrating compromises.

And yet we have made some impressive progress despite how deplorable the world may sometimes seem.

Deaths caused by warfare have been on a declining trend following the two World Wars and the number of armed conflicts has also tended downward since the Cold War.

Extreme poverty was more than halved between 1990 and 2015, as have deaths of those under-five years old. Maternal deaths have been cut by 45% and the number of out-of-school children of primary school age by over 40 million.

Image: Our World in Data

Nearly all the countries in the world signed on to a global agreement to reduce climate change – a momentous accomplishment despite the withdrawal announcement by the US.

The UN has participated in these advances in different ways.

My own experience has been principally in development cooperation at the country level, working hand in hand with national institutions and organizations both within and outside of government, bringing together diverse and sometimes conflicting actors, and helping them to agree on the right policies and programmes.

I have found that our national partners often value most the simple accompaniment by the UN system and the moral support this lends to important national endeavours.

Why talking matters

At the same time, the UN is first and foremost a forum of member states. This aspect of the organization is often derided as a talkfest that leads to very little in concrete results.

But the thing is, to generate and practice love, people – and countries – have to talk, because it is the only way to communicate, and to understand and learn to care about one another.

This is common sense. But there is also scientific evidence that this has worked in the UN context. A recent study done by Ohio State University and Dartmouth University, for example, found that ‘affinity communities’ of nations formed around voting at the General Assembly help to suppress conflict.

The Security Council is rightly criticized for its incapacity to reach agreements around the resolution of some of the most brutal conflicts raging in the world today. And its members, particularly the Permanent Five, must be pressured by their own and the world’s citizens to work better and harder. Yet one of the crucial endeavors under its responsibility – the Peacekeeping Operations – do help keep countries from falling back into war.

The dialogues carried out in the UN also build global consensus around common values and goals, such as human rights, combatting climate change, eradicating poverty and fighting inequality.

Concrete changes

In my work at country level, I saw how these were translated into concrete changes, for example how the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child led to a wave of legislative reforms in the Americas that recognized that children do indeed have rights, and established concrete systems for the protection of those rights, such as independent juvenile justice systems.

The global momentum generated around the Millennium Development Goals surely contributed toward the advances achieved in poverty reduction, health and education within individual countries.

And while the MDGs were very much focused on achieving targets expressed as statistical averages that left important segments of populations excluded, this led to serious debate about how to correct this injustice in the process leading up to the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with its clear focus on ‘leaving no one behind’ and ‘reaching the furthest behind first.’

These are victories for love and we should celebrate them.

Yet, they are not nearly enough, and the victories come too slowly and are too few for those who are left behind, leading many to choose the path of violent negation of the existing world order and of its gradual and peaceful change.

Martin Luther King once said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ We – all of us – need to love with greater determination, courage and generosity to bend that arc further and faster.

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