Volume 4 Number 3
The UN Can Do More Still
01 March 1991

For once we have seen the United Nations act decisively in the way its founders meant it to. The five Permanent Members - USA, USSR, Britain, France and China - have been at one in their approach to a grave international problem.

As the Gulf crisis deepened a letter reached me from a Japanese friend. He had been trained as a human torpedo in World War II, and was deeply perturbed that the Diet had refused to allow Japanese troops to be sent overseas into danger zones. His people's self-centredness, he said, `was stronger than the Berlin Wall', and they were glad to `accept peace which has been created by other nations. As long as we are comfortable, we do not want to pay a price. However we cannot get peace for free.'

Here, I felt, was real honesty. But in how many other countries are the same sentiments at work? Solving the crises of 1991 - so different from those of 1990, when walls tumbled - is going to demand greater honesty from all of us. What are our hidden agendas, our real motives, our highest loyalties?

For once we have seen the United Nations act decisively in the way its founders meant it to. The five Permanent Members - USA, USSR, Britain, France and China - have been at one in their approach to a grave international problem. The Charter was searched for ways to find a peaceful solution. In the end the UN resorted almost unanimously to the `international police action' of which President Roosevelt spoke, though on a scale far beyond his imagining.

But will we summon the same willpower to deal through the UN with other problems? The future of the Palestinians is the first that springs to mind. But it is by no means the only item of unfinished business on the UN's agenda. And should we prepare to expand UN activity into areas so far excluded from it?

Human rights
The famous - or infamous - Article 2.7 says: `Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state'. At the San Francisco conference establishing the UN in 1945, which I attended, feelings about sovereign rights were strong. In fact it was the small countries, fearing interference by greater powers, who favoured this article. But the word `essentially' was inserted in it so that it should not unduly limit UN action and become a cloak for chicanery.

Yet what does `essentially' mean? `Exclusively'? So what is exclusively the concern of only one country in the shrunken world of the 1990s? Very little. The denial of human rights in Burma? Or in the Baltic countries? Or for the Kurds? Or in Northern Ireland? Is drought in the Sahara merely a domestic problem? Or a nuclear accident in the Ukraine?

The UN has been trying to adjust to the dramatic changes in the world's structure since 1945, but much too slowly. It now needs active moral support from us all so that our governments do not hide behind Article 2.7 when inconvenient issues arise; so that problems get dealt with in their infancy, before they have grown into mind-boggling disasters; and so that the same standards are applied to all. We need not so much to change the Charter as heighten our commitment to it.

Could this be our response to the sacrifices in the Gulf?

After the current enforcement measures are completed, it will be time for the UN to show its other face - to be a 'centre for harmonizing the actions of nations'. Can we recapture the outlook of the late 1940s which made the aftermath of World War II so different from that of World War I - a combination of enlightened statesmanship and inspired private initiatives which healed hates, turned enemies into friends and paved the way for the new Europe?

At that moment, Eduard Shevardnadze will be much missed. When he was elected to the 28th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, he sounded an important note: `We are a great country, but great in what? A country which is feared or a country which is respected? What is true patriotism? Satisfying the arrogance of statehood or having the courage to recognize mistakes?'

We need fresh thinking about the concept of sovereignty: what is good and valuable about it, and what is negative and backward-looking. The recovery of freedom in different areas has brought an outbreak of dangerous ethnic tensions, concealed but not cured by the imposition of centralist rule. Unless we sanitize sovereignty we may atomize society.

A Hungarian Foreign Ministry official said to me recently, `We have a vacuum of values. The old order has gone, but we don't quite know what will take its place. It would be tragic if we went back to the concepts of the 19th Century. We need new values for all of Europe.'

But where to find them?

Adam Smith, who became the unexpected guru of the 1980s, was a moral philosopher before he became an economist. The yuppies have picked out those parts of his thinking that suited their purposes. But to make the free market fair, he said in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, all of us need to accept the judgments of an `impartial spectator' as a guide to our conduct, personally and nationally.

This impartial spectator could take the form of an external judge such as UN enquiry or peacekeeping force. But in Adam Smith's thinking the spectator is ultimately a phenomenon inside each one of us - the inner voice of conscience or, in his 18th-century language, `the viceregent of the Deity'.

President Havel would not agree with Adam Smith on all points, but he does on this. In his historic address to the US Congress last year he said, 'If I subordinate my political behaviour to the imperative mediated to me by my conscience, I can't go far wrong. If I were not guided by this voice, not even ten presidential schools with two thousand of the best political scientists in the world could help me.'

We need to drink deep at such wells of wisdom if we are now to find humanity's way forward.

Archie Mackenzie is a retired British Ambassador who has known the UN at first hand since its inception.