Roger Iredale: the Friend, 21 October 2011
The organisation was born of the idealism of the eccentric pacifist Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and his Bloomsbury circle, who began to create the League of Nations even before the First World War ended. While that organisation failed to prevent the next war, it created many agencies later inherited by the UN and provided a template for the present structure of seventeen elements, including UNESCO, the International Monetary Fund and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
It is a pacifist concept born of a profound objection to war as a means of resolving disputes. That it is empowered to sanction military action in response to emergencies is a constant source of tension and contradiction.
The General Assembly and the Security Council are central to the UN. The latter is an absurd historical anomaly, with France and Britain occupying permanent seats – while India and Brazil have to take their turn with the rest of the world.
Does this jealously guarded status quo contribute to the belief of the British political classes that they have a right to fight other people’s wars? Did Tony Blair’s military adventures arise from Britain’s self-importance because it sits beside China, the USA and the Russian Federation at the top table? Is it fair that this small island can wield such influence over global decision making? Indeed, is it right that any country, particularly the USA after it misled the General Assembly on Iraq, can veto crucially important world events? Everyone agrees that there is a need for change, but then the Tower of Babel takes over.
So, we have this valued, ubiquitous entity embracing the globe and trying to spread flowers of peace in dangerous places, tackling poverty, refugees, health, agricultural, economic, cultural, scientific, financial and social issues.
Though it works from a script that was written some sixty years ago, in a very different world, it was conceived by people of peace and it remains the only sane barrier to the opposite.
Roger Iredale is a member of Mid-Somerset Area Meeting. His work has involved close collaboration with UN agencies across the globe. He is emeritus professor of international education at the University of Manchester and former chief education adviser to the Minister for Overseas Development.