Argus title : We have to tell children of the UN’s importance
Last Sunday I went to St Bartholomew’s Church to hear the Tallis Scholars perform a programme of 16th century choral music. It was the final event in Brighton’s Early Music Festival.
As a child I discovered that Renaissance choral music helped me to think. In a packed church, as my neighbour snored gently behind me, I realised it had lost none of its power.
I had been worrying about this week’s column. A few days earlier, Peace Campaigner Eileen Daffern had asked me to write something for United Nations Day on 24th October. It is 60 years since the U.N. was founded.
I agreed, but with trepidation, because to my shame I realised I knew very little about the U.N. and its history. Like so many people, I had absorbed far more about its weaknesses and failings than its achievements. I didn’t know how I could possibly write adequately about it.
So I sat there and cogitated about how to approach it, listening to the music and wondering what Eileen would feel if I let her down.
I’d wanted to come to this concert particularly to hear Thomas Tallis’ 40 part motet “Spem in Alium”. I first heard it when I was 12 years old and have never forgotten the effect it had on me.
It’s an extra-ordinary piece of polyphonic music. Forty different ‘voices’ combine to create a sound which is both ethereally beautiful and so powerful that it can seem an assault on the senses.
At times the complexity of sound becomes almost unbearable, as if the conductor must lose control and the music tear itself to pieces in discord and violence. But then, at the point that it seems the listener can bear no more, order is restored, chaos retreats and a sublime voice which seems more than human prevails. One moment we are on thin ice with a torrent beneath us, the next we’re flying fearlessly far above the earth.
Suddenly, the difficulty of writing the column receded. It was as if Tallis reached down through the centuries and said “You want to understand the United Nations? Listen to the music”.
It may seem fanciful, but as I sat in that vast church, it made sense to me to understand the huge malfunctioning structure of the UN as a kind of polyphony, a drawing together of many different voices to create a whole greater than its constituent parts. It may be flawed like a half written piece of music, but it aims at perfection.
It is that drive for perfection, that commitment to strive for justice and peace and for the highest standards of rectitude in international affairs which Eileen Daffern wanted me to stress. At 91 she has every bit of faith in the ideals of the U.N. that she had 60 years ago.
“The United Nations Charter” she said “is a very radical document. It reflects public opinion at the end of World War 2 and the readiness of nations to put the interests of humanity before their own national self interest and ambitions. It was a people’s Charter.”
It is tragic that so few people know the content of the Charter and that issues relating to the U.N. are so rarely taught in schools. The Preamble to the Charter – not unlike the music of Thomas Tallis – has the power to make the hair on the back of one’s neck stand up.
The 51 nations represented at the founding of the United Nations organisation in San Francisco, spoke with one voice through the Charter:
“We the people’s of the united Nations determined
• to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
• to reaffirm 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, and
• to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
• to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, “
“and for these ends
• to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
• to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
• to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
• to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,
“have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.”
There are now 191 signatories to the Charter all at least nominally committed to these aims.
The weakness of the UN has always been the disproportionate power afforded to a few member states. Countries have used their power to block or undermine decisions which they consider to be against their national interest or the interests of their allies. Examples are failures to ratify the Kyoto Agreement and adequately implement the Millennium Goals agreed in 2000 and renewed in 2005.
The USA, the one remaining superpower, both dominates and undermines the UN, delaying payment of its financial contribution, aggressively pursuing its foreign policy goals and national economic interests and latterly mounting a sustained assault upon the organization and its General Secretary, Kofi Annan.
It is obvious that there do need to be changes. It is an obscene irony that the organization which seeks to protect children by means of commitment to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and through the offices of the Children’s Fund, also deploys ‘peacekeeping’ forces which have been implicated in rape, sex trafficking of women and girls and sexual abuse of minors.
The U.N. has at times been scandalously unwilling to recognize genocide as what it is or to act to protect populations. The most notorious instance of this was in Rwanda when U.N. forces failed to prevent massacres of Tutsis under their protection.
Despite this, the UN has achieved much. Most nations accept that through such mechanisms as the UN Development Programme; the World Food Programme; and the Environment Programme, the U.N. does, on balance, make the world a better place. Despite its inability so far to eradicate AIDS and female genital mutilation and to reduce maternal deaths and infant mortality, the U.N. has had significant successes in the area of health care. It has all but eradicated smallpox and leads the fight against Malaria.
The positive political and social impact of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. in December 1948, is incalculable.
Many civil conflicts have been averted by negotiation. And though the disastrous invasion of Iraq was not averted, it is clear that most member states view the U.N. as the only international body with the potential to place a brake on aggression by the USA and other powerful nation states.
Despite its many criticisms of the U.N., of recent years the USA has undermined all attempts to properly reform it in a way that would require nation states to adhere to international law.
In 2005, Kofi Annan, the present UN General Secretary, presented a report “A More Secure World: Our Shared responsibility”. This set out a comprehensive reform package supported by many member states. However, at the September 2005 Summit, the US’ new delegate – appointed by President Bush despite (or perhaps because of) his known hostility to the U.N. – proposed a series of wrecking amendments. Few of the original recommendations were passed, despite widespread support by other member states.
Shortly before his death earlier this year, the late Robin Cook MP wrote of the US administration’s stance: “The suspicion must be that they would rather have a creaking, ineffective UN to treat as a coconut shy rather than a modern representative forum that would oblige them to respect collective decisions.”
Eileen Daffern believes that the only way that the U.N. will be protected and reformed is if ordinary people want it to be. “We can’t just leave it to politicians. We have to demand of our governments that they defend the guiding principles of the U.N.. We need to teach our children about its importance.”
In the face of my ignorance, she was too polite to say that we as adults must also educate ourselves about the U.N., if we wish to have any hope of peace and justice in the world. So I freely acknowledge this.
A branch of the United Nations Association exists locally. It meets regularly and, Eileen tells me, will welcome additional members (telephone 683699).