What’s Right With the UN?

The Purposes of the United Nations are:

  1. To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;
  2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;
  3. To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and
  4. To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends

UN Charter, 1945

When I was in grade school back in the 1950’s, the ideals of the United Nations were one of the most noble and important elements of the post-WWII vision for the world.  We talked about the purpose of the UN in almost every civics class, we even had mock-UN meetings and debates.  Many schools from across the US organised field trips to visit the UN.  Many of the kids in my class wanted to work for the UN.  Hope was in the air.

“The UN is faced with a financial and constitutional crisis which must be solved if the Organization is to continue as an effective instrument.  The Charter cannot be ignored.  Faith cannot be broken. Commitments must be met.  Bills must be paid.”   ~Adlai E. Stevenson, U.S. Representative to the UN, 1964

1964 seems like a long time ago, and I guess it was.  Stevenson must have been vilified for his critical remarks about such a noble institution as the United Nations at that time, but today his concerns seem highly prescient.  The UN is definitely broken and no one seems to much care.

How can I say it’s broken?  Here, for me, are some clues:

  • The 193-member UN assembly unanimously passed a resolution declaring that March 20th each year will be the UN International Day of Happiness. That alone tells me the UN is totally irrelevant in the modern world.
  • Yet on real issues of life and death (and wholesale slaughter) in Syria,  they can’t agree on whether or not to impose sanctions or order military intervention against a government wilfully killing it’s own unarmed citizens with tanks. Instead the UN issues a “statement of disapproval”. We pay money for that?
  • The UN failed miserably to halt the genocide in Rwanda, in which nearly 1 million innocent people were slaughtered. The UN issued statements of “deep regret” at its inaction, as if that helps or will change their behaviour next time.
  • The annual budget of the UN is well over $2 Billion, not including international peacekeeping activities, which boots it up to nearly $20 Billion a year.
  • Many nations cannot or refuse to pay their dues to the UN, either out of true poverty or as a political protest statement.
  • Currently the US is over $1.5 Billion in arrears in its payments, with little intention to pay. (Another reason many nations of the world don’t like the US)
  • Even if countries don’t pay their dues, they still get to come and participate.  There is a condition for blocking the votes of those who don’t pay, but that also is largely ignored.
  • Numerous reform attempts, like the 2005 attempt to reform the Security Council, have all failed. Soon, Colombia will take the chair as the Head of the UN Security Council. Colombia?
  • Member states vote according to their own self interests, not the interests of the collective world they are supposed to represent. You can count on one hand the number of times Russia and China have voted the same as the US and UK. Well, maybe for International Happiness Day!
  • Those being appointed to UN posts take full advantage of the “New York lifestyle” and freely spend on entertainment and clothes.  Have you seen the $1,000+ suits these guys wear? This isn’t Hollywood or Cannes, it’s world affairs.
  • And they are protected by diplomatic immunity for any crimes.  Good job if you can get it.
  • The elected UN Secretary Generals for the past several terms have been rated from “weak to totally ineffective”.
  • An obscene amount of UN money spent on economic development in third world countries, food for starving nations and money for rebuilding efforts after wars or natural disasters goes into the pockets of local government officials, who see the UN as their own personal “gravy train”.

I could go on, but I’m getting slightly depressed.  I really do think the need an international body like the UN.  No matter how ineffective the UN, it does serve an important function:  It gives nations of all sizes and status a place to debate serious issues and thus reduce the tendency for them to go to war.  The UN also is the one platform we have for defining international law, again helping to reduce the likelihood of conflict. And some of the development activities actually work to help people help themselves.

But is there a way to improve the functioning of the United Nations? I’d really like to hear any and all suggestions on how to more effectively use the time and money spent on the UN to get a better outcome.  So far, bailing out big banks looks like a better investment than bailing out the UN. Thoughts?

John R Childress


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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2 Responses to What’s Right With the UN?

  1. mimijk says:

    I share your view that the world needs a body that parallels the original intent of the U.N., and that now it has become a fashion haven with international interpreters debating the least objectionable day for World Happiness.
    I return to what has become a boring mantra of mine – the absence of accountability results in failure. An individual, organization, committee, etc cannot succeed without being held to a standard and articulated objectives for which s/he and/or they will be held accountable. They failed in Rwanda because they weren’t held accountable for some significant, stated expectation – and their failure or success would be measured. When in doubt, throw money, issue a strong statement to the media that feels sincere – but with no real responsibility and ownership. I liked Adlai – I liked his passionate belief that commitments are not spoken and then lost in the ether and that someone has to be responsible for the checks the UN was intended to write.


  2. Steve Borek says:

    Stevenson was a leader. Saying what needed to be said. Saying what everyone else was thinking.

    I wish I had some ideas for the UN. I don’t.

    I do remember the first time I went to visit this wonderful place. I was enamored with the cultures, dress, etc. of the various countries.

    I can’t wait to go back again.


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