Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The sometimes United Nations

  • 22 October 2020
If you were to ask your partner, your friend, workmate or next-door neighbour just who António Guterres was, and what António did for a crust, how would they respond? How would you fare if you were asked the same questions?

The current head of the United Nations may not be a household name for many of us; perhaps name dropping his immediate predecessors as secretary general, Ban ki-moon, Kofi Annan or Boutros Boutros-Ghali, may ring more bells.

The UN has always been bigger than its titular head, of course, and its influence has waxed and waned depending on the willingness of its 193 member states to play nice. (To be fair, that point is more accurately made of the five permanent members of the UN’s security council — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.)

Especially in this time of COVID-19 and its aftershocks on the world population’s health and economies, the UN and its most hard-pressed body, the World Health Organization (WHO), play the most vital of roles in trying to share knowledge and resources. That the UN Food Program deserved Nobel Peace Prize also speaks volumes for its contributions.

This month marks 75 years of operations by the United Nations, which was officially convened for the first time in San Francisco on 24 October 1945 after VE Day, VJ Day and the end of the Second World War (8 May, 15 August and 2 September respectively). Australia was one of the founding 50 member states; we were on board also when the body was first announced mid-war, on 1 January 1942, as one of 26 nations scrapping against the Axis entente.

The UN describes itself as ‘a global forum where countries can raise and discuss the most difficult issues, including problems of war and peace’. Saving lives that would otherwise be taken in wars is the big-ticket item; the reason the body was formed.

'The greatest strength of the UN — the accommodating of the fallen, current and rising superpowers in the one body — is also its greatest weakness.'

So, 75 years on, how would the UN be graded in terms of achieving those five tasks? By any assessment, however harsh, I suggest it compares favourably with its predecessor, the ill-fated, ill-equipped League of Nations (formed by the victors after the Great War, the league failed to prevent ‘round two’). So far, we have not melted ourselves down into a thermonuclear puddle, and the