Sunday marks 71 years since New Zealand’s then-Prime Minister Peter Fraser signed the founding charter of the United Nations.
Fraser felt so strongly about the need for an organisation that promoted peace in the world that he led the New Zealand mission to the founding meeting in San Francisco himself.
He was forward thinking: even back then he argued vigorously against the veto for the five big member states. How prescient his concerns have turned out to be. In the decades since, the veto has been used to serve the interests of a few, powerful countries often at the expense of peace for many others.
Ever since then, New Zealand governments, irrespective of persuasion, have carried forward Peter Fraser’s vision of a more inclusive and active Security Council.
The UN often deserves criticism. But some of it is unfair. Ultimately, it is a creature of the nation states. If it fails, it’s a failure of states as much as a failure of the UN itself.
And too often we focus on areas of the world where there is critical conflict, condemning the UN’s inaction, when it’s the member states themselves that are ignoring the UN’s resolutions.
If the UN had not been invented – if those like Peter Fraser gathered in San Francisco had not succeeded in their mission – we would undoubtedly be hard at work trying to create it today.*
It’s also worth remembering all the crises that didn’t occur, because of the UN, where tens of thousands may have perished, if not for the UN. There are currently more than 100,000 UN troops, for example, keeping the peace across the world. That’s why it’s so often said that for all its faults, if we didn’t have the UN we’d have to invent it.
Nevertheless, reform and modernisation are necessary to make the UN fit for purpose in the world we now live in. It’s my hope that this reform will be approached in the same spirit of idealism that Fraser and others took to the table 71 years ago.
It won’t be easy, because the UN is a complex beast: it’s a place where countries meet - such as the 15 that sit around the Security Council and the 192 that join the General Assembly to decide on global matters of peace and development.
Simultaneously it’s a myriad of other organisations too, including the World Health Organisation, the World Food Programme, and the UNHCR, the refugee organisation that is trying to cope with a caseload of more than 60 million – the most since World War II.
So we acknowledge Fraser’s foresight in seeing all the good things the UN could be – and we hope that others of his calibre can make the changes to the UN that will bring greater effectiveness in the challenging times of the 21st century.
*Helen Clark, speaking on the UN, New Zealand and Peter Fraser’s Legacy in Wellington in 2010.
David Shearer spent 20 years working for the UN in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan. The photograph was taken in 2007/08 at a military base north of Baghdad. He is with his bodyguard Peni Tukutukulevu