The world organisation is turning out to be the ideal leader in combating climate change
When 50 countries came together in San Francisco in 1945 at the end of the Second World War to form the United Nations, and India was among them, the major preoccupation in the minds of the national representatives was how to prevent another large scale war like the one that had just ended. The United States dropping two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9 of that year was the culmination of the horrors of war. The UN was not the first of its kind. At the end of the First World War in 1918, United States President Woodrow Wilson through his famous 14 Points had mooted a world organisation to prevent war. It was called the League of Nations, and it was headquartered in Geneva in Switzerland. But the League of Nations turned out to be weak because even the United States did not become a member. The UN was started with the failure of the League of Nations on mind. No one wanted the UN to fail.
The United States had offered to house the UN headquarters in New York and marked out land, which is considered to be international treaty. Many leaders who do not have friendly relations with Washington attend the UN General Assembly annual meetings in New York. One of the examples was Fidel Castro, the communist leader of Cuba, who would visit the UN sessions in New York though the US and Cuba were at loggerheads and there were no diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The UN had intervened in all the conflicts that broke out after the Second World War, starting with the Israel-Arab war of 1948, the first India-Pakistan war of 1948, followed by the Korean War of 1953. The intervention was in the form of UN observers who were supposed to monitor the ceasefire. The critics are right when they point out that the UN has not been able to resolve the conflicts, and it has proved ineffective. The criticism is however unfair because the UN is only as strong as the member-countries want it to be. Many of the members are quite defiant when the UN decision goes against their own interest. For example, one of the conditions that the UN set for Pakistan should withdraw its troops from the territory it had occupied in Kashmir and that Indian troops will remain there before the plebiscite can be conducted. Pakistan refused to abide by the UN condition. But the UN has been successful in monitoring the armistice and there has been peace for 65 years in the Korean peninsula.
India has played a big role in the UN peace commissions, starting with Korea. Indian troops have been part of the UN peacekeeping forces in Africa, right from the Congo conflagration in 1961 to the Bosnia crisis in 1992. The UN peacekeeping troops, wearing blue berets, have become symbols of peace and reconciliation in a world divided by war.
An important task that the UN has carried out in different parts of the world in the last 60 years and more is to take care of the refugees, whether they be Palestinians who fled their homeland in 1948 and who have been living in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon since 1948, or the Syrian refugees in Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon since 2011, or the Afghan refugees in Pakistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has won laurels across the world for its admirable humanitarian work among the refugees.
There is the UN General Assembly, which now has members of 193 countries, from the very big in size to the very small, from Canada and Russia with their large land masses to the Vatican, which is a city representing the capital of the Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church to the tiny South Pacific islands. In the same way, there are the most populous countries like China and India to the most economically powerful countries like the United States. The UN holds them all together. There is also the UN Security Council, which have five permanent members, four of which were the victors in the Second World War – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union (now Russia), and Taiwan (now People’s Republic of China), as constituted in 1945. There are also 10 non-permanent members, who are elected every two years. All decisions are to be through consensus, and the permanent members enjoy the veto power. Any one of them can oppose a particular decision of the Security Council, and then it falls through. India has been a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), and it has been winning the election each time with greater majority than before.
For the last 20 years, there is pressure from India, Japan, Germany, Brazil for reforms in the UN and the expansion of the Security Council. India, Japan, Germany and Brazil have been demanding permanent membership for themselves, and there has also been talk about doing away with the veto power. Each member-country holds the office of the president of the UNGA, and it is by rotation. Though the resolutions passed in the UNGA are by majority vote and reflect the democratic opinion in the world, it is different in the UNSC where the power is with the Permanent Five with their veto power. India and other countries are pushing to make the UNSC democratic like the UNGA.
The UN has been most successful in dealing with the biggest challenge facing the world – climate change. This is something that no single country is in a position to handle on its own. It needed the coordination of all countries, and UN was the most suitable platform for it. For decades now it had been organising the annual climate summits and it has been achieving incremental success from the Kyoto Protocol limiting carbon emission to the Paris climate agreement of keeping the rise of temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally at 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The Paris Agreement of 2015 states:
•Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 Degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 Degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.
•Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low green house emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production; and
•Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low green house gas emissions and climate-resilient development.
•This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.
The Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, Patricia Espinosa, said at the opening ceremony of the New York Climate Week on September 24, 2018:
“Seventy-three years ago, nations – ravaged by war, weary of its costs – pledged to achieve what had, for the first half of the century, been impossible: a lasting peace.
The signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco was more than an agreement to get along.
It established a rules-based international order, championed multilateralism over self-interest, and clarified that the path forward was not through conflict but collaboration.
We bear the fruit of that work. Today, many are healthier, better educated, and more peaceful than at any point in history.
But humanity faces a new challenge; one that threatens current and future generations.
Climate change is an opponent we shaped with our own hands, but whose power now threatens to overwhelm us.
Throughout the world, extreme heat-waves, wildfires, storms and floods are leaving a trail of devastation and death.
Developing countries suffer the worst, but climate change affects all nations – directly and indirectly.
It’s a challenge that a rules-based international order is custom-designed to address …”
Espinosa is absolutely right that no single country can meet the challenge of climate change on its own. All the countries have to come together, form a common strategy and coordinate their individual efforts.
The UN is turning out to be the most effective organisation to deal with a common global problem like climate change, bring countries and governments and leaders on to a single platform and formulate a common action plan.
It seems that the UN has really come into its own, and it has assumed the global responsibility without much fuss, and even the most powerful leaders of the powerful nations have no option but to fall in line, sooner than later.
Idealists like the second president of India, Dr S Radhakrishnan, dreamed of a world government. There may not be a world government yet. But the UN has turned out to be the ideal organization to lead the world at a time of unprecedented crisis like that of climate change. It is functioning like a world government.
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