The United Nations as One Mind
Those who observe world events may perceive something higher than human logic at work
Dag Hammarshjold has written that the United Nations was “the beginning of an organic process through which the diversity of peoples and their governments are struggling to find common ground upon which they can live together in the one world which has been thrust upon us before we were ready.”
Basically, the function of the UN is to create consensus (being of one mind) on crucial world issues. Such consensus-building is slow, and it is done by repeating endlessly in resolutions of the General Assembly and other UN bodies, year after year, the same idea until it becomes common place. Slowly national governments align their policies upon this common core as non-governmental organizations and the media take up the issue — sometimes a little ahead of governments and sometimes only later.
Since 1945, there have been six issues which have moved from the stage of the ideas of a few to become common policy, the one mind of the UN. This is about one idea per decade, although often the idea was presented early, and it took more than one decade to build consensus. I see the six issues on which one mind was formed as follows:
1) Direct colonialism should end. From the idea of a few in 1945 until the mid-1960s, the idea grew that colonial administration had ended its usefulness as a form of government. The end of direct colonialism owes much to the UN system, though, of course, inequality and domination, the signs of colonial status, have not been overcome.
2) Apartheid was a bad structure for South Africa and for other countries tempted by similar structures of racial division. This idea was the theme of many resolutions and speeches. Slowly, the image of a multi-racial and multi-cultural society took hold, encouraged by enlightened leadership at the national level in South Africa.
3) There are basic human rights, and these should be respected. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948 — the ‘Magna Carta’ for all humanity. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Preamble to the UN Charter are the two inspirational texts out of the millions of words written in UN documents that are likely to last as guides for the future.
4) Closely related to the idea of human rights but needing a special effort at consensus building is the idea that women are equal to men and should be so treated. Although the idea is obvious, both the UN and national governments have found it difficult to put into place.
5) The ecological balance of the world is in danger and needs remedial action. The ecological efforts of the UN began in 1971 and are enshrined in the Covenant with Nature — a text of equal importance to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although not as well known. Current efforts to limit global warming are growing out of this basic ecological awareness.
6) There should be a Palestinian state. From the 1947 partition plan to today, this idea has been repeated. There is a broad consensus, but such a state has not been created. Without the constant discussion in the UN, the Israel-Palestine tensions would have become a bilateral issue of interest to few other states, as the issue of Kashmir, created at the same time, has faded from the UN stage to become an India-Pakistan issue.
Now there is a seventh idea developing, increasingly articulated but not yet manifested as consensus. The idea is that there is a relationship between security, development, and human rights. “It is clear that security cannot be enjoyed without development, that development cannot be enjoyed without security, and neither can be enjoyed without respect for human rights” as stated by the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Many of us as NGO representatives to the UN have tried to push other ideas within the UN system, especially disarmament and improved techniques of conflict resolution, without success. Today, the UN has little impact on issues of armed violence, but no other organization does either. Thus we have a world with a good deal of violence and tension areas where even greater violence may break out. Violence-reduction is probably the chief task facing the current Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. However, there is little common ground on what can be done to reduce violence and settle conflicts peacefully. We must not underestimate the time and difficulty that it takes to build consensus within the UN, but I believe that violence-reduction (sometimes called peace) is the next “big idea”, the eighth, whose time has come to the UN.
*Rene Wadlow, Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens