The United Nations has come under increasing fire in recent years.
It has been blamed for failing to prevent the U.S. invasion of Iraq and for its Iraq food-for-oil program being mired in scandal. Its peacekeeping efforts have proved impotent in the face of mass slaughters in several nations over the last 15 years.
As well, right-wing ideologues have long had a bone to pick with the UN for trying to develop some semblance of international order. Some would prefer, it seems, that the superpowers and multinational corporations unilaterally run the world.
Others note that the UN structure is severely flawed with the five big powers at the end of the Second World War – the U.S., Russia, China, France and Great Britain - have been granted a veto on the powerful Security Council in perpetuity. This freezes the power balance at the UN and makes serious reform of the organization well nigh impossible.
What can one say in defence of the UN?
One might begin with the view of the organization's second secretary general, Dag Hammarskjold, who maintained that the UN's role was not to create heaven on earth, but rather to save the world from turning into hell.
One cannot ignore the fact that over its 60 years of existence, the UN has brought humanitarian relief to millions in need and helped to rebuild countries destroyed by war. It has fought, with some success, against apartheid and poverty, and in favour of democracy, the rights of children and a better environment.
In a world dominated by large corporations and big power politics, the UN is the main global institution working for peace and human rights. At times, it may be misdirected, (such as in its efforts at population control) and at other times fail in the pursuit of good causes, but more than occasionally it does have some degree of success.
As for the war in Iraq, that war has demonstrated the failure of a unilateral approach to conflict. The U.S. has learned that while it may be able to win wars without the blessing of the UN, it cannot build peace without UN help.
Where would the world be without the UN? Well, it might not be at all. For certain, there would be much less dialogue among nations and much less emphasis on the pursuit of peace.
The UN's accomplishments are built on a total budget of US$12 billion a year. Compare that with world military expenditures that annually total US$800 billion. If the UN did not exist, someone would need to invent it.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church does not mention the United Nations by name. But it notes that the Church generally views international organizations in a positive light.
It also repeats the Second Vatican Council's call for "some universal public authority acknowledged as such by all and endowed with effective power to safeguard, on behalf of all, security, regard for justice and respect for rights" (n. 441).
This authority must arise from mutual agreement among nations and not be imposed by the stronger. Likewise, this global authority should not usurp the place of individual nations and communities. The international community is founded on the sovereignty of each nation state and the distinctive characteristics of all peoples must be recognized.
But national sovereignty is not absolute. Relations among nations should be governed by moral law, not power, and there should be an international agreement addressing the rights and responsibilities of nations.
Universal principles that stand above the rights of nations include such responsibilities as:
International law is the guarantor of international order. Pope John Paul II wrote that in individual states, "a system of private vendetta and reprisal has given way to the rule of law." The same thing should occur on the international level.
The UN was founded to put an end to the horrific inhumanities of the first half of the 20th century. It has not succeeded at that. Yet.
The journey to world justice and peace has turned out to be much longer than the idealists who founded the UN and who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights imagined it might be. One cannot even be certain that the world is moving in the right direction.
What one can be certain of is that the effort to foster a global community is far better than abandoning the quest. This is one journey that, simply by taking place, makes the world a better and more secure place than it would otherwise be.