2020 marks the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations
Anniversaries offer the same opportunities as do times of isolation. They encourage us to look around us, reflect on where we have come from, and correct the compass bearings that will guide us into the future. In the case of the anniversary of the United Nations, that opportunity is important to take. The time is right. Our continuing experience of COVID has reminded us of how our destiny as individuals, as well as societies, depends on our readiness to act together for the good of the whole society and its most vulnerable members. Our capacity to meet this challenge depends on the strength of the relationships and organisations that transcend our national and other boundaries.
The United Nations Organisation is often criticised for being messy, bureaucratic and impotent. These weaknesses have been present from the beginning. Coming out of President Roosevelt’s determination to institute a body that, at the end of the Second World War, would be able to resolve minor disputes and be a forum for negotiating wider ones, it was from the beginning limited by the diverse interests of the major powers and by the procedures they devised to safeguard them. This became more marked during the Cold War.
Despite this, however, it has provided a forum for smaller nations to publicise their own needs and grievances. Even more important, its commissions and other bodies have provided a framework for sharing information and coordinating action on central issues facing the world. These have included disarmament, economic growth, the movements of peoples to seek asylum, the environment and health. For all their limitations, these United Nations agencies were able to take a global view and to seek the good of people in every nation, and especially the most vulnerable. Like all such bodies, including the United Nations Organisation itself, they needed constant encouragement both to reform and to extend their valuable service.
Even before the beginning of the COVID crisis, international agencies had been under severe pressure. The policy of the United States, their previous main sponsor, to withdraw from international agreements and neuter international agencies had weakened them financially and had restricted their range. In particular, the World Health Organisation, which is charged to gather and pool information about threats to world health is indispensable, was made a pawn of the political rivalry between China and the United States.
The experience of COVID has brought home the effects of weakening international agencies and the United Nations. It has shown us dramatically that viruses do not respect national boundaries. Nor do economic policies based on narrow national self-interest offer protection from recession and depression. Within nations effective responses to the virus depended on the readiness to subordinate individual interests to the common good. This will be true of relationships between nations during the recovery.
As an Australian agency, Jesuit Social Services strives to build a nation in which we all work for the common good. We have been encouraged by the spirit with which our own staff and Australians generally have responded to the call to sacrifice our own freedom for the good of the whole society. We respect the United Nations whose goal is to shape a world that transcends narrow national interests.
Building a peaceful and prosperous world relies on cooperation between nations in trade, diplomacy and culture and the readiness to attend to the needs of the most vulnerable people throughout the world. A pandemonium of national leaders making and breaking deals in their own interest offers only a devilish future. For all their weaknesses the United Nations Organisation and its many agencies have embodied the hope for something better. They should be strengthened, not weakened.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.