The UN - an improbable success story by Andrew Mack
The UN - an improbable success story by Andrew Mack
October 21, 2005
It was trumpeted as the biggest-ever talkfest of the world?s leaders, a global summit to celebrate the United Nation?s 60th birthday, to review progress toward meeting the vaunted Millennium Development Goals and to mark a new beginning for the world
organization. As the meeting came to an end on September 16th, critics of every persuasion were in rare agreement: The UN had failed - yet again. The ambitious summit reform agenda proposed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan had been gutted of much of its
substance with vague promises replacing concrete commitments.
In the days following the summit the critics had a field day. There were plenty of targets. Commentary after commentary invoked the UN?s failures to stop genocide in Bosnian, Rwanda and - most recently - Darfur. The scandal-ridden Oil for Food Program
was taken as evidence either of the incompetence and corruption of the secretariat, or the cynicism of the major powers in the Security Council, who knew what was going on but did nothing to stop it. If ever an organization appeared to have lost its way,
it was the UN.
And yet ...
Improbable though it may seem, the UN is also a real success story. Over the past 15 years there has been real progress toward realizing the organization?s core mandate - spelled out in its 1945 charter - "to save succeeding generations from the scourge
of war." The just-released Human Security Report, an independent study funded by five governments and published by the Oxford University Press, draws on a wide range of little-publicized scholarly research, plus its own specially commissioned studies, to
present a portrait of global security sharply at odds with conventional wisdom (see: www.humansecurityreport.info).
The report reveals that after five decades of inexorable increase, the number of armed conflicts started to fall worldwide in the early 1990s. By 2003, there were 40 percent fewer conflicts than in 1992. The deadliest conflicts - those with 1,000 or more
battle deaths - fell by 80 percent. Cases of mass slaughter of civilians also dropped by 80 percent, while core human rights abuses have declined in five out of six regions of the developing world since the mid-1990s.
Why have these extraordinary changes attracted so little attention? Part of the reason is that the global media give far more coverage to wars that start than to those that quietly end. Equally important is the fact that no international agency collects
global or regional data on any form of political violence.
If these changes run counter to the conventional wisdom that we live in an ever-more violent world, the most compelling explanation for the surprising decline is even more counterintuitive. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the UN Security
Council was liberated from the paralysis of Cold War politics and spearheaded a dramatic upsurge of security operations around the world. The UN did not act alone, of course. The World Bank, donor governments and thousands of NGOs were also actively
involved in a growing range of efforts to stop existing wars, prevent new ones from starting, and reduce the risk of peace agreements breaking down. But it was the UN that took the lead.
As this explosion of international activism grew in scope and intensity throughout the 1990s and beyond, the number of armed conflicts declined. No single explanation can account for all cases, of course, and in different regions different factors have
been more or less decisive.
In the Middle East and North Africa, for example, political violence began to decrease at the beginning of the 1980s. In part this was because the "frontline" Arab states had recognized that fighting wars with a conventionally superior and nuclear-armed
Israel was a fruitless endeavor, and in part because ruthless state repression was succeeding in crushing domestic insurgencies in the Arab world.
But in most of the rest of the world it was the end of the Cold War that triggered the changes that have driven the number of wars down. There were, of course, some horrific UN failures - Srebrenica, Somalia, Rwanda. But these were not surprising for an
organization whose missions are rarely funded adequately and whose peacekeepers are often poorly trained and equipped. But the media have focused almost exclusively on the failures, with the quiet successes − in Namibia, El Salvador, Mozambique,
Eastern Slovenia, East Timor and elsewhere - going largely unheralded.
The evidence that the UN has made a difference is compelling. A recent major study by the RAND Corporation found that UN peace-building operations had a two-thirds success rate. They were also surprisingly cost-effective. In fact, the annual cost of all
17 peace operations the UN runs around the world is less than 1 percent of what the world?s governments spend on defense each year - and less than the United States spends in Iraq in a single month.
With more resources, with better trained and equipped personnel, and with a Security Council willing to act to stop genocide and other mass slaughters the UN could do far better.
Prof. Andrew Mack is director of the Human Security Center at the University of British Columbia in Canada, and former director of the Strategic Planning Unit in the Executive Office of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan from 1998 to 2001.