Reviving the Spirit of the UN Charter

Reviving the Spirit of the UN Charter
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By J. Ramos-Horta and Yasmine Sherif

Once more we are in a period of uncertainty, of danger, in which not only our own safety but that of all mankind is threatened. Once more we need the qualities that inspired the development of the democratic way of life.” Eleanor Roosevelt

At the end of World War II, much of the world had been directly involved in war or had felt its impact. War crimes, concentration camps, occupation on a massive scale and the use of the atomic bomb had become reality. Somewhere between 50 million and 85 million people had perished.

In an unprecedented collective resolve, a global will emerged, to elevate our world to a new level of humanity. The United Nations rose from the ashes of destruction, and created a magnificent vision for all of humankind: to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, and protect universal human rights.

Since its formation, there has been no World War III. Self-determination has replaced colonialism and millions have been freed. Diseases have been conquered, extreme poverty reduced. Today there is far more awareness about human rights and international law.

We have also failed in critical areas. We are far from global peace and security. We have not achieved universal respect for human rights. Since 1945, we have witnessed over two-hundred armed conflicts, with over twenty million lives lost. Ninety percent of those who lost their lives in post-World War II conflicts have been civilians.

In recent decades the United Nations and its Member States have made new collective efforts to implement the UN Charter and vision in today’s changing world. Substantial efforts have been made to reform the UN and other multilateral organizations to respond to evolving realities and threats. There have been a number of significant, insightful reports and recommendations put forth by qualified parties, based on accurate and exhaustive research. They generally point in the same direction for structural, operational and financial improvements to the UN.

The investment of knowledge, experience and commitment that has gone into these efforts have largely not been capitalized upon, so have not resulted in the desired dividends. A few examples:

· In the aftermath of the failure to protect the people of Srebrenica and Rwanda in the mid-1990s, a major reform was set in motion to mainstream human rights across the United Nations system. Shortly thereafter, the United Nations Security Council recognized that the mandate to maintain peace and security must include the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

· With the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the international community committed to deliver justice to those who had suffered gross violations of international law.

· In October 2000, the landmark United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 was adopted, calling on the inclusion, protection and leadership of women in all matters related to peace and security, including conflict prevention, peacekeeping, peace negotiations, peacebuilding and reconstruction.

· In November 2000, the Panel on Peacekeeping published the “Brahimi Report,” named after the panel Chair, Lakhdar Brahimi. The report called for stronger engagement in peacekeeping by Member States, and commitment of new resources to manage the threats and challenges in today’s armed conflict.

· More recently, in September 2014, the Secretary-General issued his Report to Strengthen Peacebuilding in the Aftermath of Conflict. It stresses inclusiveness, the role of women and state institutions, and local ownership of the process, supported by adequate financial resources to help rebuild after conflict to prevent relapse into war.

· From 2014 to 2015, the High-Level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, under the chairmanship of José Ramos-Horta, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and co-author of this article, conducted global consultations with UN Member States, civil society and academia in 18 cities on six continents, and received more than 80 submissions from 50 Member States. In its report, issued in June 2015, the High-Level Panel concluded that political mediation and solutions must primarily drive our collective commitment to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. The report called for a more inclusive approach to peace and security partnerships, and a stronger emphasis on the field and the needs on the ground to enhance the protection of civilians and address sexual abuse.

· One year later, in 2016, the World Humanitarian Summit launched the UN Secretary-General’s Report, One Humanity: Shared Responsibility. Again, a strong plea was made to exercise political and moral power to prevent and end conflicts, to respect international law, invest in peacebuilding and development in the aftermath of conflict, and to commit the financial resources required.

In parallel to these efforts, alongside a growing number of international conventions, commitments were made by the international community to eradicate poverty, ensure access to education and health, and attain gender equality. First came the Millennium Development Goals with a deadline of 2015, and then the Sustainable Development Goals, with a deadline set for 2030. All these goals were adopted by consensus by heads of the UN Member States.

Consensus-based conventions, reports, structures and processes, however, have not changed the world and will not change it without the political will to translate the UN Charter into action. When the will is there, they are there to be used. But it is the responsibility of the UN Member States and the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council to use them.

Dag Hammarskjold once said, “We often hear it is said that the United Nations succeeded here, or has failed there. What do we mean? Do we refer to the purposes of the Charter? They are expressions of universally shared ideals, which cannot fail us, though we, alas, often fail them. Or do we think of the institutions of the United Nations? They are our tools. We fashioned them. We use them. It is our responsibility to remedy any flaws there may be in them…”

In today’s world, commitments tend to fade, and lofty promises vanish bit by bit, as we defer and compromise, breeding new injustices that snowball into greater obstacles for future generations. The gap between the hopes reflected in the UN conventions, reports and structures, and the reality on the ground, where power prevails over humanity and violence begets violence, remains as wide as ever. That gap will only close to the degree that we close the gap between our universal values and our own political actions; when we refuse to abandon those ideals in the face of mounting obstacles. We will need to overcome fear in preventing war, and gain a true universal respect for human rights. We will need to be bold enough to make positive contributions to humanity that will remain long after we are gone.

The responsibility rests not only on the United Nations and world leaders. It rests on each of us.

The United Nations is not failing. We are collectively failing its Charter and ideals through the decisions we make or fail to make. When we are ready, and collectively decide to fulfill the ideals of the UN, we will see the conventions, reports and structures as invaluable tools for getting there.


José Ramos-Horta is the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, former President of Timor-Leste, and Chair of the High-Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations. Yasmine Sherif is a UN veteran and Author of “The Case for Humanity: An Extraordinary Session.”

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