Jewish Journal

What grade would you give the United Nations?

by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

August 18, 2014 | 10:08 am

The United Nations headquarters building is pictured though a window with the UN logo in the foreground in the Manhattan borough of New York on Aug. 15,. Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters

The Tower of Babel was destroyed forever and any similar body acting as a global centralized authority will inevitably burn to ashes as well. However, ignoring the necessary collective efforts of our evolving complex global world is not an option.

The world is immersed in conflict right now (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Libya, South Sudan, Ukraine, Gaza, etc.). One would suspect that the globally appointed leader (the United Nations) would be able to make some progress addressing this intractable crises as they continue to spread, become more entrenched, and overlap in more complicated ways.

Perhaps the blame should not all be directed to the UN body itself. Many blame the fact that the fifteen members of the UN Security Council includes permanent member nations committing gross human rights violators like China and Russia. Similarly, others point to uncooperative member states: Richard Holbrooke, a former US ambassador at the UN, explained "Blaming the United Nations when things go wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly." U.N. Secretery-General Ban Ki Moon has suggested that nations are not cooperating during this fragile time with unprecedented levels of tense global conflict. Ban said that world leaders "have to sit down together with an open heart to negotiate in the interests of their people. The crises we're experiencing cannot be solved by one person..I can bring world leaders to the river but I cannot force them to drink the water." 

The UN has undeniably had successes: They have helped fund anti-poverty programs, been a convener and vital hub for international conversation, offered significant aid after natural disasters, and helped secure innocent civilians in wartime. The UN does not have the power to simply stop warfare, it can play a role in trying to cool aggression.

The UN has certainly outperformed its immediate predecessor, the League of Nations. The League was established as part of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, and was largely the result of the efforts of President Woodrow Wilson. Its stated purpose was to prevent future wars by having nations negotiate before conflict could commence. However, as President Wilson acknowledged, even in the event of a unanimous vote to employ sanctions against another nation that practiced territorial aggression, the vote was merely advisorial, not mandatory. Ironically, the United States Senate never became a member of the League, (the Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty).

Even without the United States, the League appeared to work at first, with minor disputes resolved during the 1920s. However, with the rise of nationalist fascism and aggression, the League quickly degenerated. Germany and Japan left the League in 1933, and the League proved powerless to establish sanctions against either, or during Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. Then, in 1939, the League expelled the Soviet Union, a final irrelevant act, after which the League literally faded until after World War II, when there was a consensus that a new organization was desperately needed.

The United Nations had the benefits and liabilities of its members. The five Permanent Members of the Security Council, whose "no" vote was effectively a veto that would defeat any resolution, comprised a disparate lot of allies, from the leading colonial powers (United Kingdom, France) to the leading democratic, if still segregated, nation (United States), to the leading communist nation, then led by its most paranoid leader, Josef Stalin (Soviet Union), and finally, the weak and corrupt Nationalist China (until being replaced by the People's Republic of China in 1971).

With such a group, it is a wonder that the UN has accomplished anything. Remarkably, one of it early successes was helping to form the state of Israel. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly approved Resolution 181, which called for the creation of "Independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem" out of the (British-controlled) Palestine Mandate. In order to pass the resolution with a 33-13 (with 10 abstentions) vote, none of the Permanent Members of the Security Council vetoed the resolution. Thus, in a rare move, the United States and the Soviet Union (along with France) voted in favor of the resolution, while the United Kingdom and China abstained. Although the Arabs in Palestine and the surrounding nations opposed the resolution and Israel had to defend its existence, the UN Resolution helped legitimize the new state.

Over time, of course, the composition of the UN has changed, reflecting the newly freed colonies and the Third World Movement, the end of the Cold War, and the post-Cold War realities of a continually fluid and dangerous political environment. While Russia (including its former Soviet state) has cast the most vetoes (119), the United States is firmly in place with 83; all of these have been cast since 1970, and about half have been to defeat UN resolutions critical of Israel.

While there is currently much distasteful rhetoric at the UN, we should also remember that the United Nations works directly or indirectly with many organizations doing arguably useful work. These include the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In addition, the UN currently has nearly 100,000 peacekeeping forces in sixteen countries mostly in N. Africa, Haiti, and the Middle East. That we do not hear much of this may indicate that at least some of the UN peacekeeping function has been successful.

The UN has an uneven history. It may be impossible to have people look beyond their nationalism to work for the good of the world, but the UN has at least shown more progress than the League of Nations, and its affiliated organizations have made a solid contribution, even if the General Assembly disappoints us so very often. 

As a Jew and citizen of America and the world, the conversation about the UN naturally leaves a bad taste in my mouth since the organization has been used to unfarily bully Israel and strengthen dangerous terrorist organizations, when it should be used more forcefully to condemn terror, combat anti-democratic activity, and support peace. On the other hand, there are many other global issues where we must embrace the crucial role the UN plays (or can potentially play). The UN must not merely be a vehicle to further our own self-interest. Rather, the agency will thrive when all parties see that the welfare of the world and the well-being of all humanity is our shared priority. This, of course, requires immense wisdom, humility, sacrifice, and conviction from all involved.

Imagine a world where we were left with no arbiter to govern nation-states. Even with all the troubling events occurring in the world, without the collective resources of the various sovereign nations, it is highly likely that there would be more conflict and at higher sustained periods. We must hold the UN accountable where it goes astray and celebrate its successes where they’re deserved. We cannot disengage but must proceed with caution. Striving to bring moral light to the world was never supposed to be easy.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz...

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