The UN celebrates its 73rd birthday this year. We take a look at some of its biggest successes and failures and ask the question, do we still need the United Nations?
The United Nations sent a peacekeeping force to aid with the implementation of the Lomé Peace Accord which heralded the end of the Sierra Leone Civil War. This peacekeeping mission took a more forward approach than others as United Nations personnel were allowed to protect civilians under threat of imminent violence.
The mission was widely seen as a success and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said, ‘Sierra Leone represents one of the world’s most successful cases of post-conflict recovery, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.’
He also said Sierra Leone represented many ‘firsts’ for the UN including:
- Disarming more than 75,000 ex-fighters, including hundreds of child soldiers.
- Destroying more than 42,000 weapons and 1.2 million rounds of ammunition – a potentially deadly arsenal that is now itself dead.
- Helping the government to combat illicit diamond mining that fuelled the conflict, and establish control over the affected areas.
- Assisting more than half a million Sierra Leonean refugees and internally displaced persons when they voluntarily returned home.
- Launching projects that gave jobs to thousands of ex-fighters – and basic services to communities. The UN staff built schools and clinics, funded farming projects and provided free medical services.
In 1995 during the Bosnian War, Serb forces led by war criminal Ratko Mladić killed some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims refugees and raped thousands of women who were meant to be under the protection of Dutch UN troops.
According to witness testimony, the Dutch troops did nothing as atrocities happened in front of their eyes. One said that when witnessing a rape, ‘A Dutch soldier stood by and he simply looked around with a Walkman on his head. He did not react at all to what was happening.’
The ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia was one of the darkest periods in recent history. UN Secretary-General at the time, Kofi Annan, called it ‘the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War.’ This genocide happening under the UN’s watch leaves a dark mark against them.
The worst genocide in recent history occurred during the Rwandan Civil War, at the same time UN Security Council members voted unanimously to reduce the number of United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) personnel in Rwanda from 2,500 to 270.
UNAMIR troops were reported as standing by and ignoring the genocide happening around them. In one instance, Belgian UN Troops were guarding an area populated by refugees who had come to them for protection.
After the murder of 10 Belgian soldiers a few days prior, the Belgian government ordered all of its troops to withdraw. After evacuating all of the white civilians, the Belgian soldiers began to slowly withdraw from a large technical school they used as a base of operations.
They abandoned 2,000 refugees who had gathered in the school for protection, knowing that by evacuating they were condemning defenceless people to their death. After they left the refugees were rounded up and massacred by militia. Today a monument stands in their memory.
An estimated 800 thousand to one million people died in the Rwandan genocide in just a few months. It was murder on a scale not seen since the Second World War as the rate of killing outpaced the Holocaust. It must serve as a reminder of the evil of inaction when people are suffering.
Do We Still Need It?
The UN, as its critics point out, is a bureaucratic behemoth with a budget of US$5.4 billion and a history of ignoring human tragedy taking place on its doorstep. Little wonder people ask if we really need it as an institution?
While critics have a point, and the UN’s past mistakes are indelible reminders of its failure to fulfil its founding principles, knowing of these inadequacies should motivate member nations to rectify the UN’s inherent faults by changing the mindset of ‘not our problem’.
The UN is far from ideal, but it is all that we have for now. It does a great deal of good in the world despite its failings. We should work together towards improving the United Nations, rather than abandoning it with no alternative to take its place.
Better still, we should make our world better so that humankind no longer needs the UN to police its tragedies