Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The United Nations: A Global Institution Still Worth Engaging?

Kathryn Yarlett


By Kathryn Yarlett

May 4, 2015


The global landscape is increasingly connected – both in its opportunities and its challenges. The world now has more mobile devices than it has people, and more than 50 percent of people in developing countries are expected to be using the internet by the end of the year. Technology has transformed access to information and communication across the globe. Borders have become more porous; from tourists to refugees, millions of people move across national borders each day. Financial markets in one country determine the economy in other.

As we have become more connected, so have the challenges that face us. By 2050, the global population is projected to increase to 9.6 billion and the demand for food will increase by 70 percent. In only fifteen years, 47 percent of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress. While advances in technology and connectivity have created new opportunities for human flourishing, they have also opened the door for cyber and trans-national crime, including people trafficking, drugs, and small-arms trafficking. Inter-state wars have been replaced by protracted intra-state conflicts, destabilizing regions for decades and creating havens for violent extremists that have devastating impacts across the globe.

This increasing interconnectedness has led to the expansion of international institutions and forums that seek to address issues of mutual concern, to establish standards, and to regulate conduct. From the Universal Postal System and the International Telecommunication Union to the Geneva Conventions and the G20, nations have a long history of creating regional and global institutions, recognizing that certain opportunities can only be realized and challenges addressed by a collective of countries.

One of the most well-known and, at times, publically divisive of these global institutions, the United Nations, will mark its seventieth anniversary this October. The majority of Americans (66 percent) see the UN as having a necessary role in global affairs, but only 35 percent believe the UN is doing a good job in trying to solve the problems it has to face. This upcoming anniversary provides a good opportunity for us to consider the importance of Christians being involved in developing and strengthening global institutions - such as the UN - and how we can be a part of shaping and promoting them.


Who Is My Neighbor?

The question of engagement must first begin with asking “who is my neighbor?” In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite saw the man beaten on the side of the road, but not knowing if the man was one of their own, they did not stop. The Samaritan not only stopped, he did not ask the man who he was or where he was from.  He did not ask what the man’s intentions were once assistance was provided, nor did he tie his assistance to changed behavior or beliefs. He simply saw the man in need and did all he could to bring him back to health. He saw a neighbor.

Christians believe that in the New Jerusalem “the kings of the earth will bring their splendor…and the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.” (Revelation 21:26) While we do not know what this will look like, the Bible makes clear that the nations of the world have an interconnected future. If we have an interconnected eternal future, then we must look beyond the success of our own nation now and ask what it looks like to bring about the flourishing of others. And if we consider this at an individual level, shouldn’t this also shape the way we live this out publically through the structures of our society? In this interconnected world, what role do international institutions like the UN have, and how do we shape and strengthen them?

In wrestling with this, we can be helped by asking the following questions: For what purpose was the institution created? What is the good that it seeks to achieve? How do the different policies and mechanisms in place both contribute to and hinder the flourishing of nations? And what policies, practices, and mechanisms need to be developed or changed so they can have more impact?


The Good Intentions of the United Nations

Following World War II and the death of fifty million people, the UN was founded to stop wars between countries and to provide a platform for dialogue. After the failure of the League of Nations – considered by many to be too European-centric - the UN sought to be a truly global body where each Member State was given an equal voice. With fifty-one signatories, the UN was formed. To date, 193 Member States have signed onto the UN Charter.

The UN Charter was groundbreaking and aspirational. The “peoples of the United Nations” were determined to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Its goal was to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and equal rights of men and women, and in the equality of nations large and small. It also determined to promote social progress and better standards of life. To accomplish this, the UN declared an intention to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as “good neighbors,” and to “unite our strength to maintain international peace and security.”

Seventy years later, the UN now provides food to ninety million people in eighty countries every year; vaccinates 58 percent of the world’s children, saving three million lives a year; assists over 38.7 million refugees and people fleeing war, famine, or persecution; has 120,000 peacekeepers in sixteen operations on four continents; fights poverty; helps to improve the health and well-being of 420 million of the rural poor; mobilizes $22 billion in humanitarian aid to help people affected by emergencies; promotes human rights through some eighty treaties and declarations; and assists sixty countries a year with their elections. The UN remains the only global institution that brings together almost every nation to discuss matters from terrorism to climate change, development to human rights. 

The UN was created to see all nations large and small flourish and to reaffirm the worth and dignity of all people without distinction by race, sex, language, or religion. It affirmed the sovereignty of nations and their ultimate responsibility toward their citizens, but recognized that collective action may be required to prevent acts of aggression and to maintain peace. It sought to achieve international cooperation to resolve international problems and to promote a legal and diplomatic approach to solving them.


The Failings of the United Nations

While the UN Charter was aspirational, the mechanisms it was given to achieve these lofty goals were flawed from the outset. The organization was given a mandate to run a marathon, but was given a body that would never allow it to cross the finish line. All countries would be given an equal voice and vote in the General Assembly, but only the UN Security Council could make binding decisions on matters of international peace and security – and five permanent members of the Council (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, the former Soviet Union (now Russia)) were given the power to veto it. The sovereignty of nations was to be a foundational principle but it became a “trump” card over all others – including and especially over the dignity and worth of the person. 

While no single war on the scale of either of the two world wars has taken place since the establishment of the UN, more than fifty million lives have been lost through conflict. The scourge of war the UN swore to prevent and the dignity of human life it endeavored to protect have made the Charter’s declarations sound like “clanging symbols” in the wake of Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Kosovo, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria. Time and again, the UN has failed to intervene and put an end to the atrocities. The use of the veto by the permanent members and the national interests of a powerful few have made UN political and diplomatic missions and efforts largely ineffective.  

At the same time, the UN has expanded to cover every facet and issue of national and global interest with little questioning of whether it “should.” With protracted conflicts and the increase of failed and weak states, and in the absence of political solutions, the United Nations has become a de facto government and provider of basic services for many year after year. These services, while essential, have too often replaced the national and local capacity that does exist. The United Nations has in too many instances become a substitute for national governments – a role it was never intended to play. As its scope and mandate have grown, so has its machinery and bureaucracy. This has led to slow and cumbersome processes and the creation of parallel mechanisms that can too easily replace rather than support national governments.


Engaging with the United Nations

In the face of such failings, coupled with the horrors we witness around the world each day, we can easily become disillusioned or cynical and withdraw from or dismiss such international organizations. Our Christian faith requires that we don’t. We are called to engage, to enter into the messiness, to discern and seek the creational good, and to be part of the work of redirecting the policies, programs, and structures of the organization toward the common good.

The United Nations has played a critical role in providing humanitarian and development programs to millions of people. Its global reach, high-level advocacy, and ability to raise funds are essential for the lives of many. Nevertheless, we must assess how these programs are overextending and taking the place of national and local actors (governments, civil society organizations, faith-based organizations). We must discern how international programs are enabling and supporting local communities, governments, and civil society to fulfill their distinctive functions in serving their unique populations. Nations flourish when they have their own healthy justice systems, political, educational and financial institutions, and when their people have the ability to work, build homes, and provide safe and stable environments for their families. International institutions and programs can support this, entering in more dramatically perhaps during times of crisis or the failure of existing systems, but they cannot and should not replace them. 

However, we have seen many national governments fail in their basic and most important responsibility to protect their citizens, with no repercussions or accountability, as in the case of Syria. There may be times that call for international institutions to intervene for the protection of citizens in the same way that a state may need to intervene to protect the well-being of a child who parents have failed to do so.

In sensitive matters like this, we need to examine the mechanisms of the UN – including the use of the veto – that would enable it to truly serve the interests of all nations and not protect the power of a few, particularly in situations of mass atrocities. The realpolitik of foreign affairs expects that global leaders will make decisions based on what is best for their national interests and their own political viability. As Christians, we need to challenge this and discern where appropriate limitations on national sovereignty should lie. There may be occasions where we need to advocate for limits on certain national interests so that international institutions are better able to stop or alleviate suffering, or to provide frameworks that truly allow the political, economic, and societal structure of different nations to flourish.  

How Christians shape and strengthen international institutions should be tailored to the individual institution and the context and culture of the nation. In this short space, I can only offer some preliminary considerations. Ultimately, engagement requires people, Christians and non-Christians alike, to work together in development, peace building, human rights, climate change, and law and governance with the ultimate goal of upholding human flourishing and advancing the common good. 


Questions for Reflection:

  1. How has this article challenged you to think about people of other nations as being “your neighbor” regardless of their ethnicity or religion?
  2. International institutions can seem overwhelming, impenetrable, and too hard to engage with. How can you best engage – whether through your own work or with those you may know in government and non-profits – to consider what would it look like for people and societal structures in a certain country to flourish and how should we advocate for policies that are directed toward that end?
  3. How should we as Christians take a nuanced view to national sovereignty – recognizing its critical importance while at the same time the need for limitations so people in all countries can thrive?


- Kathryn Yarlett is an international civil servant, with a background in law and diplomacy. She is an alumna of Redeemer Presbyterian Church's Gotham Fellows Program.


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