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Motion proposed by Harold Beck

(Text of 15-minute speech delivered at St. Albans Debating Society, 14th November 1994)

Sir Edward Tompkins GCMG (Trinity College Cambridge), former Ambassador to The Netherlands & France, was to have opposed the Motion but on the day was indisposed. His place was taken by Tyrone Ward.

For over 20 years I have been an active supporter of the United Nations, particularly through a local Branch of the UN Association, which is a kind of supporters' club.

The Association does not give blind support to the UN; indeed part its work is to suggest improvements. Nevertheless when I was asked to propose a motion critical of the United Nations, it went very much against the grain - my initial reaction was that I would much rather be opposing it.

However, after some thought and a little persuasion, and with the opposer of the motion * already chosen, I accepted the invitation, thinking that in proposing something against the UN I could tortuously and with some semantic wizardry turn it into a statement in its favour.

Since accepting I have done a certain amount of research and am now convinced that the motion is entirely valid.

Looked at dispassionately from the point of view of the people of the world rather than the Councils and Committees of the UN, I think it true to say that the United Nations HAS failed the world. I therefore stand before you as no devil's advocate but as one who, while still a steadfast supporter of the UN, is putting forward the motion in utter sincerity.


The Charter of the United Nations was signed by representatives of 50 nations at San Francisco in June 1945 and came into force four months later, on 24th October, now commemorated annually as UN Day.

It provided for the setting up of a GENERAL ASSEMBLY, a SECURITY COUNCIL, a TRUSTEESHIP COUNCIL, an INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE, various Committees and a SECRETARIAT. The only changes to the Charter since its inception have been numerical - e.g. numbers of members on committees or voting, to reflect the increase in Member States - 184 at the last count.

The success or failure of the UN can be assessed in terms of those parts of the Charter which set out what it is supposed to do.

The first of the 111 Articles describes the PURPOSES of the UN. Among the most important statements are:-

Taking effective collective measures for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace.

Developing friendly relations among nations

Being a centre for harmonising the actions of nations.

Article 2 sets out some BASIC PRINCIPLES, such as:-

The sovereign equality of all members of the UN

That all members shall fulfil in good faith the obligations assumed by them in accordance with the Charter.


What is the UN? There is a widespread misconception about its nature. Numerous people and some sections of the media see it as a vast organisation, employing huge numbers of people, standing alone, with tremendous resources at its disposal. It is visualised as a kind of World Government, higher in the pecking order than any National Government.

This view of the UN Organisation could not be further from the truth. The number of staff employed by the UN - to cover all its world activities - is about the same as the number on the payroll of the NHS covering London.

The Secretariat is always strapped for cash, to a large extent because many countries do not pay their dues, or are very behind in their payments. The U.K., I am happy to say, along with 74 other countries, pays up promptly but others do not. For example the USA was 260m US$ in arrears at beginning of this year. When you consider that the Defence spending of the countries in default is around 100 times the amount they owe to the UN, you will get some idea of the small scale of the UN Organisation and the low priority given by some countries to its support. Clearly the countries which deny the Secretariat the funds it is due are not fulfilling in good faith one of the obligations assumed by them under the Charter.

Similarly with the all-important peace-keeping forces and skilled personnel (eg medical staff) for humanitarian aid - the Secretariat has none at its direct disposal - it has to beg the Member states on an ad hoc basis as each crisis arises. And, like payments for the Secretariat, many agreed contributions by Member States to the cost of the operations in the field have not been paid. The amount outstanding in this respect was nearly 1½ bn$ at the end of June this year.

From all this it can be concluded that the UN does not stand alone, "up there" in the hierarchy from Local Government, through National Governments to the UN. In essence the UN comprises the Nations which are its Members, with a small hard-done-by Secretariat trying to get them to work together in accordance with the Charter.


Winston Churchill once justified the existence of the UN by saying that it was far better for nations to "JAW JAW" than to "War War". As it has turned out there is an abundance of "Jaw Jaw" - but there is also plenty of "WAR WAR". There are almost daily reports of conflicts which the UN was brought into being to prevent.

In many cases the media have stirred consciences by indicating the realities of UN failures - I say 'indicating' because the media hold back on conveying the full horror of brutality, killings and other monstrous offences against human beings.

However, media coverage is rather spasmodic and the public at large lose sight of conflicts that continue unabated. Concern about the war in Chechen, the desperate plight of people in Afghanistan, and the resumption of bloodshed in Angola is soon superseded by news from other trouble-spots.

The extent of the UN's failure is clear from the fact, established by the Secretary-General, that since 1945 there have been over 100 major conflicts in which 20 million people have died.  A victim is just as dead due to internal war and genocide as he or she is from conflict between nations.

UN Not in Control

Many developments which are in accord with the UN Charter take place with little or no involvement of the UN.

The intervention by the US in Haiti was under a mandate of the UN but not under its control. The carrot and stick approach which the US adopted resulted in the unopposed landing of its forces in Haiti, and was probably far more effective than action by the UN itself.

It is quite understandable that some nations, especially those which differ in political ideology, are averse to placing their forces under UN command for the purpose of major peace-keeping operations.

Other developments where the UN is not in control are contrary to the provisions of the Charter. For example there are businesses, independently or with the open or covert support of their Governments, which seek to circumvent sanctions imposed by the UN, by supplying arms to parties in conflict.


This leads me to AOB. The acronym does not here refer to Any Other Business but to Advanced Organisational Behaviour - or behaviour which departs from the straightforward. AOB manifests itself in numerous ways, For example:-

First and most obviously the UN Organisation itself has been used as a battleground between nations, which is quite contrary to the purposes for which it was set up.

Secondly the UN has been used to bolster the domestic positions of leaders and political Parties in individual nations. It is possible that the recent interventions by Russia in Iraqi and Bosnian issues were for this purpose. Likewise with the visit by President Clinton to the Middle East just before an election.

Then there is the advantage taken of antagonism between superpowers - one foreign diplomat mournfully told me recently that it was not so easy now for his small nation to get help from outside because East and West could no longer be played off against each other.

Then again there are the events, including some in which lives are lost, set up as Public Relations exercises to influence world opinion through the media.

Yet again, it is often the case that one or more parties in a conflict endeavour to manoeuvre a UN peace-keeping force into fighting on its side - and when this does not happen they try to get the Commander of the UN Forces replaced.

Whatever is devised for the good of ALL peoples, as was the UN, is abused by relatively small groups serving their own ends to the detriment of others.

UN Family of Organisations

There are many organisations associated with the UN - coming under its umbrella but operating with a great deal of autonomy. Some of these, such as the World Health Organisation, have certainly done some very good work and can be considered successful. The same goes for many Conferences organised by the UN. However, success in these worthwhile but secondary activities do not adequately compensate for failure in peacekeeping. They are like the tail wagging the dog.

Recent Changes

Recent changes give some ground for HOPE that the UN is at last becoming more effective. The principle agent of change has been the East-West rapprochement. The UN has until recently been operating with its hands tied.

For example, the UN has moved from a strict basis of "only involved if the warring parties agree" towards "involvement if the international community agrees".

There were 279 vetoes in the Security Council between 1945 and 1990, ie 6/year. There has been only 1 in the 4 years since 1990 (Russia re Cyprus) and that was withdrawn 3 weeks later.

Another very recent and long overdue development is the setting up of a War Crimes Court. The first steps towards a trial were taken within the past month. In nearly 50 years of the UN those responsible for the most heinous crimes in that period, including genocide, have not been brought to trial.

There are also signs that a number of Member States may plan for UN contributions as they do for their own defence. It is particularly interesting to note the British armed services are now citing UN humanitarian aid and peacekeeping work in recruitment statements.

These and other desirable developments have only taken place very recently.

Agenda for Peace

The Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali wrote in AGENDA FOR PEACE, a report requested by the Security Council in Jan 92 and circulated in Jul 92:-

The adversarial decades of the cold war made the original promise of the (UN) Organisation impossible to fulfil. .....

an opportunity has been regained to achieve the great objectives of the Charter ....

The Organisation must never again be crippled as it was in the era which has now passed.

The manifest desire of members to work together is a new source of strength in our common endeavour. SUCCESS, however, is far from certain.


Over most of the past 49 years the Nations which comprise the UN have been anything but United. This is why the UN has NOT lived up to its most basic purpose, eloquently expressed in the Preamble to the Charter:-


In our very small way, we the people, here and tonight, can express our views on this vital issue.  A vote for the motion that the UN has failed the world will signify that the Nations must do far, far better than they have up to now.  It will be a proxy vote for those millions who in the last 50 years have lost their lives or who have been severely maimed AND for the thousands and thousands who if all conflict were to stop today will be killed and injured by the debris, such as mines, of past conflicts.  It will be a proxy vote for the innumerable victims of what the UN was designed to stop, because the UN has failed them.

I move the motion that:-




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