The conscience of the world

seinakirjoitus“The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.” This quotation from Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the UN, is written on the wall of the United Nations’ headquarters in New York.

“The UN has tried to accomplish at least this latter mission on a relatively small budget,” says Tarja Seppä, a university lecturer of international relations and peace research at the University of Tampere. She is a specialist on the UN, conflict issues, human rights and the responsibility to protect.

According to Seppä, the UN faces unreasonable demands. This might be because few people know how the UN system operates as a whole. If one only looks at the Security Council’s failed attempts to resolve the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, it may indeed seem that the UN is powerless to solve such crises because of its internal disagreements.

However, the UN is much more than just the Security Council: its special organisations – such as the WHO, UNESCO and ILO – and the different programmes and research institutes contribute to the protection of human rights and human dignity and the advancement of sustainable development for all on both the national and international levels. The UN offers a global forum for collective discussions on shared issues.

“I think matters would be much worse without the UN. It serves as the conscience of the world, as a global dimension that allows us to work together,” Seppä argues.

Seppä thinks that the focus has lately been on European Union issues rather than on the activities of the UN. Current issues tend to be increasingly global in nature, and therefore the UN is needed to discuss and solve them.

“Our University also mentions sustainable development goals in its new strategy. These goals have been agreed upon and negotiated at the UN, and the member states carry them out both nationally and locally.”

“No one individually would be able to reach such normative goals and convince the whole world to go along.”

The UN headquarters in New York

The UN headquarters in New York

The UN’s activities are inevitably characterised by controversies. The member states have contradictory goals and views about different conflicts, and this is reflected in the Security Council’s capacity to operate.
The United Nations’ Security Council has the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and the member states are bound to carry out the Security Council’s resolutions. In addition to the non-permanent member states, there are five permanent members that each have the right to veto the Security Council’s decisions: China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

China and especially Russia have often used their right to veto in regard to recent conflicts.

According to Seppä, there have been long-standing attempts to reform the Security Council. However, it is unlikely that the permanent members are willing to give up their right to veto. It is also probable that the situation would not improve with the addition of new permanent members or by increasing the total number of members in the Security Council.

“The Security Council’s actions are far from ideal, but the situation is not hopeless,” Seppä says.

When such themes as human rights and the protection of civilians are on the Security Council’s agenda, they become significant regardless of whether the resolutions can be fully carried out.

“The resolutions of the Security Council enable new possibilities for action and the construction of a new normative reality.”

YK-patsas-300x170UN Peacekeeping has changed because conflicts have become more complex. It is hard for the UN’s peacekeeping force to place itself between two hostile parties, as used to be the norm in traditional peacekeeping. Today’s wars are most often civil wars involving multiple national and international parties. Depending on how they are counted, there are over a thousand armed groups in Syria, for example.

Seppä considers UN peacekeeping to be a brilliant invention, but the peacekeeping operations are bound by the member states’ interests. The peacekeepers cannot overstep the mandate given to them by the Security Council, and such mandates may turn out to be too limited in relation to the missions at hand.

While the resources for peacekeeping are scarce, the need for the peacekeeping operations is great. The aim of every ongoing peacekeeping operation is to protect civilians and uphold human rights.

“That is a difficult task. Sometimes it feels like civilians have become the main targets of war, which is a very serious issue.”

At the moment, few Finns are involved in UN peacekeeping, but over the years approximately 33,000 have participated in the peacekeeping and crisis management forces.

The UN will appoint a new Secretary-General at the beginning of next year.

At the moment, there are eight official candidates for the position. The process of electing the Secretary General has been criticised for being cryptic and opaque, but it has recently been reformed. Both the member states and non-governmental organisations have had the chance to interview the candidates.

The Secretary-General can be a person of great eminence. He or she is an international civil-servant appointed by the General Assembly and the spokesperson of the world’s peoples.

“It is said that Kofi Annan was a strong Secretary-General. Some say that Ban Ki-moon has not been that strong in the role,” Seppä says.

“So far, every Secretary-General has been a man, so hopefully now it is time to find a suitable woman for the position. Such women certainly exist.”

The United Nations

  • The world’s largest global organisation was established in 1945.
  • The three pillars of the UN’s operations are peace and security, human rights and sustainable development.
  • A new UN Secretary-General is currently being chosen, and he or she will take office at the beginning of 2017. The current Secretary-General is the South Korean Ban Ki-moon.
  • This year is the sixtieth anniversary of Finnish peacekeeping.

The human face of the United Nations

Anna Tervahartiala

Anna Tervahartiala

Trust and respect, but frustration at the same time. This is how Anna Tervahartiala – a Master’s student of visual journalism and a freelance photojournalist specialising in themes related to human rights and international relations – describes her thoughts about the UN.

“The UN is involved in several issues, but what is the impact of the resolutions when conflicts and human suffering are prolonged?” she asks.

Matti Pihlajamaa

Matti Pihlajamaa

Tervahartiala and Matti Pihlajamaa, a Master’s student of international relations, attended the University of Tampere’s study trip to New York to see how the UN operates.

A lecture by Antti Pentikäinen, executive director of the Network of Religious and Traditional Leaders, made a strong impression on Tervahartiala. One of the issues Pentikäinen brought up was the lack of urgency at the UN.

“I came to New York almost straight from Bethlehem and the occupied territories of Palestine. As the conflict continues, generation after generation, one cannot help but wonder whether there is any urgency in finding a fair and just resolution,” Tervahartiala says.

The issues and suffering in the world’s various areas of crisis are at the grassroots level, far away from the conference halls of New York where the resolutions concerning them are made.

“Still, we need both grassroots expertise and an international forum for discussion,” both Tervahartiala and Pihlajamaa agree.

Students of international relations, public law, journalism, and those in the Master’s Programme in Peace, Mediation and Conflict Research participated in the study trip. The students produced coursework on UN related themes and presented their efforts at the “UTA goes UN” seminar in May. Many will also continue the theme of UN studies in their Master’s theses.

Matti Pihlajamaa considers it a matter for optimism that the UN is not the only player in resolving conflicts. The resolution of a conflict is a multi-layered, cooperative effort requiring many parties.

“The UN is a big and difficult organisation with big and difficult tasks. No wonder, since its mission is to ensure world peace, human rights and sustainable development. I am now better able to understand the complexity of the organisation and what this complexity means for those working in the UN,” Pihlajamaa explains.

Both Pihlajamaa and Tervahartiala think it is of the utmost importance that there is a space where the parties of a conflict are obliged to face each other and discuss the matters at hand in the presence of other nations.

The human face of the UN was revealed when the students met Finns and other professionals working at the different parts of the UN organisation.

“Because the UN is based on human actions, the possibility to negotiate, develop and change always exists,” Pihlajamaa argues.

“People are selfish and emotional, but sometimes also smart and ambitious. The UN is a human creation, in both its good and bad aspects,” Tervahartiala adds.

“Maybe one could say that the UN is a state of mind.”

Text: Tiina Lankinen
Photographs: Katja Palokangas
Translation: Mariia Haatanen