“The vision and promise of the United Nations is that food, healthcare, water and sanitation, education, decent work and social security are not commodities for sale to those who can afford them, but basic human rights to which we are all entitled.” Those were the poignant words of the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, in a hard hitting speech on 18 July 2020 to mark Mandela Day.
For every staff of the United Nations family the Mandela speech by Mr. Guterres was powerful and inspirational. Speaking about the scourge of inequality, he said, “while we are all floating on the same sea, it’s clear that some are in superyachts while others are clinging to the drifting debris.”
For me, the United Nations (UN) is personal. Coming from a family rendered refugees due to the partition of India in 1947, as a child I benefited from its immunization programmes- I actually survived polio. The UN’s work with the Government of India helped to eradicate smallpox and polio in my home country, where these diseases used to take a huge toll on lives and livelihoods.
Although forged in the crucible of wars and crippling ideological rivalries between East and West, the United Nations has since managed to convince the world of the need to compromise and to take each other’s views into account and to listen to others while facing humanity’s enduring challenges. That this has been achieved in just 75 years is remarkable.
In the narrative of the period when humanity made great social, cultural, and economic advances, the UN takes centre stage. For more than two decades during my service in the UN system, I have been part of this story and am convinced that the UN still matters, perhaps now more than ever.
While the calamitous cost of two World Wars and subsequent ideological fault-lines convinced humankind of the need for a body like the UN, the challenges facing us today remain just as formidable. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, it does not take much to upend not only individual lives, but entire societies and economies. There are numerous reasons for people to feel insecure in today’s world.
Among these are strong indications of resurgent nationalism and warning signs of ethnic and religious isolationism that not only threaten states, communities and individuals. Combined with humanitarian and climate disasters, these challenges have been articulated and framed for action as the Sustainable Development Goals that the UN is spearheading everywhere in the world.
Just as diplomacy was the basis for the establishment of the UN, my experience in the frontlines of combat operations when I served in the Indian Army convinced me that there is a better way to solve conflicts. My early career in the UN was spent in countries almost defined by war and instability, such as Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Somalia. The images of men, women, and children driven from their homes by murder, rape, and the burning down of schools and homes is seared in my mind.
I am proud to have been part of the United Nations response to complex humanitarian challenges. In Indonesia, for example, an innovation by the UN called a “school-in-a-box” helped children return to their regular school routine as quickly as possible during the conflict in Aceh when schools were being burned down. We helped maintain immunization, reproductive health services, education as well as nutrition services, working in difficult and life-threatening situations in Darfur, Somalia, and Iraq. We demobilized child soldiers in the midst of a conflict in South Sudan.
With the Coronavirus pandemic raging, UN country teams all over the world are working tirelessly with their respective host governments to flatten the curve.
In various countries today, internecine conflicts, hunger, and disease continue to take a tragic toll, especially among the world’s children. The malignant neglect of our global environment threatens all of us. The UN retains unprecedented respect, acceptance, and mobilizing capacity to rally member states to act together to solve these problems.
The nature of today’s challenges compels us towards integration and collaboration. Humankind must find new ways to work together more effectively in pursuit of our collective interests and to think anew about how our institutions of international cooperation can be strengthened.
The UN has enabled many member states to embark on transformational journeys; life expectancy is rising, jobs being created, and people lifted out of poverty. Yet in many others, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, progress is fragile and unequal. The UN constantly seeking new models that are inclusive and sustainable, and is opening up new opportunities to harness big data, technology and innovation to leapfrog development, through ground breaking partnerships with the private sector.
Many factors have sometimes stymied the United Nations’ work. These range from reliability of funding to the difficulties of achieving consensus between diverse member states on complex topics. Such factors have sometimes made us slow and limited our impact.
Antonio Guterres has said that “worldwide consultation process around the 75th anniversary of the United Nations has made clear that people want a global governance system that delivers for them”. Therefore the bold reforms underway, led by Mr Guterres, will make the organization more nimble, better equipped and prepared to deal with contemporary challenges.
UN country teams are adapting to new realities in their programmes, reflecting the shifts (such as peacekeeping to peace-building) through social and economic development support and humanitarian relief.
In Kenya, the country’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta is spearheading the charge to eradicate female genital mutilation supported by the United Nations. I have seen firsthand the reduction in maternal and infant mortality due to complications at childbirth, universal access to primary education and better a collective push to achieve universal health coverage.
I continue to see the promise of peace and prosperity for the most vulnerable marginalized that comes with the UN’s work, such as the Kenya Uganda cross border initiative to promote peace and development in the Karamoja area, mired in rivalry over scant resources and experiencing the debilitating impact of climate change. Amina Mohammed the UN Deputy Secretary General said, “It’s exciting to see the new ways in which governments, communities and partners are coming together with UN teams to mobilize across borders especially when it comes to taking climate action”.
COVID-19 has confirmed that the era of national problems is receding fast, by revealing national and global fragilities to an invisible virus. The pandemic is a stark reminder of the need for cooperation across borders, sectors and generations.
Today we can see that most challenges are global and interconnected, and can only be tackled through global action coordinated through global institutions.
At the signing of the United Nations Charter, in San Francisco in 1945, the President of the United States of America, Harry Truman said, “If we fail to use it, we shall betray all those who have died so that we might meet here in freedom and safety to create it. If we seek to use it selfishly – for the advantage of any one nation or any small group of nations — we shall be equally guilty of that betrayal”.
Those farsighted leaders who founded the United Nations 75 years ago gave us the momentum to propel humanity to greater security and prosperity. Today, the UN continues to be a sound investment, a real beacon of hope.
Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya. He has served in various parts of the world with UNFPA, UNICEF, UNDP, UNOPS, UN Peacekeeping and the Red Cross Movement. A decorated Special Forces veteran, he is an alumnus of Princeton University. Follow him on twitter-@sidchat1