Douglas Roche


September 26, 2016

'We should never succumb to the intellectual temptation of allowing the perfect to get in the way of the good."

You don't find choice philosophical morsels in the average document dealing with United Nations' affairs, so I relished this one while reading a fascinating new report on an old subject: is the UN worthwhile?

With autumn, the UN General Assembly starts a new session and Canada is now more visible, especially with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau deploying his charm offensive to delegates struggling with how to make the UN more effective.

As Canada escalates its UN activities, particularly in rejoining peacekeeping or, more properly, peacebuilding missions, Canadians need to know if the financial and human sacrifices are productive or a waste of time and resources.

A new document, UN 2030: Rebuilding Order in a Fragmenting World, issued by the International Peace Institute, an independent think tank, spells out how the UN should be adapted to cope with the rapid pace of change.

Its lead author, Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia, knows how to turn a phrase. "The UN," he writes, "appeals to the better angels of our human nature, while also seeking to protect humanity from the worst."

His report is a balanced assessment of the UN's strengths and weaknesses and strikes a note of common sense: making the best of the institution we already have. "To think otherwise is to construct castles in the air in pursuit of a perfect order that could never exist."

After dismissing the perfectionists, Rudd gets down to business. "The UN is in trouble." Many fear it is starting to drift into irrelevance as states increasingly "walk around" the UN on the most important questions facing the international community.

The UN's failures include an inability to resolve the Syrian crisis because the veto-bearing members of the Security Council cannot agree on the formation of a peace force. The UN failed to prevent mass atrocities in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and South Sudan.

Its response to global terrorism has been weak. It played virtually no part in the Iranian nuclear deal. It makes inconsistent responses to human rights violations.

In short, the UN stands accused of not implementing the processes of multilateral diplomacy and action that are its core mission. Thus the institution's credibility as the world's essential peace instrument is in question today.


Against this indictment, Rudd says, we must weigh the UN's accomplishments. It has helped avoid another world war. It has amassed a body of legal norms; 560 international treaties have come into effect since 1945, covering issues ranging from telecommunications to terrorism.

The UN has completed 54 peacekeeping missions in its history, with 16 underway today. It has been the principal cause of the 50 per cent decline in extreme poverty in the past 20 years. It champions gender equality.

It has launched the Sustainable Development Goals, the most ambitious program ever attempted to lift up vulnerable people around the world. It is leading the way in stopping global warming.

So there's a mixture of accomplishments and failures.


Rudd wants to integrate the UN's peace and security, sustainable development and human rights programs to achieve full potential: "The United Nations calls us to defend the dignity intrinsic to all human beings by preventing war, building a sustainable peace, delivering fundamental social and economic justice to all, preserving the planet we share, and, in the event of natural or human catastrophe, acting with solidarity to save other members of the human family in need."

I have followed the UN for many years and am convinced that, while internal reforms are certainly necessary, the biggest reform needed is the attitude of the major states to the one institution that tries to gather together all humanity to build the conditions for peace.


The real failures of the UN lie at the doorsteps of the big powers, who under-fund UN programs and refuse to give the institution proper enforcement powers.

If the UN is to survive throughout the 21st century, states must re-commit themselves to multilateral cooperation as the only way to resolve the huge problem of weapons of mass destruction and climate change. The UN is a global public good of the highest order. It will never be "perfect," but it is holding humanity together.

As Canada raises its game at the UN, the public needs to see the many sides of this complex institution with 33 specialized agencies and world programs. Trudeau needs to tell Canadians why our involvement is so worthwhile.