A preacher friend once gave me advice about preparing a sermon. He said that a sermon should consist of three parts: First, tell them what you’re going to tell them. Second, tell them. And third, tell them what you told them.
So, first, what am I going to tell you? I’m going to address some widespread myths about the United Nations and then I’m going to talk about how many of the UN’s objectives and activities are consistent with several of our Unitarian Universalist principles.
Why am I doing this now? Why today? Yesterday was the UN’s 70th birthday -- the 70th anniversary of the date in 1945 on which a sufficient number of nations had ratified the UN Charter to bring the UN into existence. Many churches, schools, and organizations around the country are this week focusing on the UN system from their pulpits and in their meetings and classrooms. So today is a 70th birthday party. It is worth noting that the UN has existed almost three times the 26 year existence of its predecessor, the League of Nations.
Second, now that I’ve told you what I’m going to tell you, I’m going to tell you.
First, some myths.
Myth 1: The United Nations acts as a single entity. We are often told that “The UN did this … or the UN did that.” Not true. That is too simple. The UN does not act as a single unit.
In assessing the United Nations, it is important to look at the institution as a system -- a system composed of six principal organs and dozens of subordinate organizations. While the media focuses its attention on two organs -- the Security Council and the General Assembly -- dozens of other agencies and organizations make up the UN system: the International Court of Justice, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who was just in the Middle East to address the violence connected with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the World Health Organization which has dealt with the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the UN Children’s Fund, the UN Commissioner for Refugees who is dealing with the massive migrations in northern Africa and Eastern Europe, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Universal Postal Union, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and many others.
In fact, it is the activities of these other bodies that constitute the largest share of UN expenditures, that employ the greatest number of UN professionals, and that perform most of the work of the UN system. So the UN does not act as a single entity.
Myth 2: The UN agencies and organizations have their own independent power and act on their own. Not true. There are 193 member nation-states in the United Nations -- virtually every nation-state in the world. Today’s UN is almost four times larger than the 51 states that were original members in 1945. The various UN bodies are made up of or are controlled by the 193 member states. UN bodies don’t act unilaterally -- they act at the will of the member states. They do not have independent powers. In most cases they can only recommend, not require. They operate on the basis of one state-one vote. UN bodies are only as strong or as weak as their member states allow them to be. If you think that getting agreement in a committee of UUs is difficult, think about getting 50 or 100 or 193 countries to agree on something.
Myth 3: The UN makes international law that binds the United States and other states. Not true. Most international law is made by states in the form of treaties. And in virtually all cases, states are not bound by treaties to which they are not a party. Various organs of the UN often propose treaties -- like the Law of the Sea Treaty which was the result of several international conferences over many years -- but unless a state ratifies that treaty (which the US has not) it is not bound by the treaty.
Myth 4: The UN makes decisions about the use of military force that override our Constitution and commit the United States to enforcement actions. Not true.
The General Assembly and other UN bodies can only make “recommendations” for voluntary compliance. The UN Security Council is the only UN body that can make binding “decisions” on enforcement actions. Member states are required by the Charter to “accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council.” But the United States is one of the five members of the 15 member Security Council that has a veto -- it can be a 14-1 vote in favor of taking action, but if the United States is the “no vote” no action can be taken. We have a “veto” over enforcement actions by the UN Security Council. So there is no violation of US “sovereignty” by the UN.
Myth 5: The UN spends an exorbitant amount of money, largely from the United States. Not true.
Total UN system expenditures are running about $30 billion per year. That is less than 40% of Florida’s current budget of $78 billion.
Of that $30 billion about $23 billion (or 77%) goes to economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian activities of the UN system.
The US contribution to all UN operations accounts for slightly over 20% of UN expenses or about $22/yr/US citizen for an annual total cost to the US of about $6-7 billion.
In many cases these are operations that, if the UN didn’t undertake them, the US might consider it to be in our national interest to do it ourselves. Since the US contribution is only 20-25% of the cost, it means that other countries are contributing 75-80% of the cost that we would likely pay 100% of if it were not for the UN.
For us here in the United States, we need to recognize that the UN system does a lot of things that the US would otherwise want to do or would feel obligated to do. By getting other nations to contribute, it is less costly for us.
So much for a few myths.
Now I want to suggest that the purposes and activities of the UN system are compatible with the Unitarian Universalist principles.
You have an insert in your service program this morning -- with the UU principles on one side and some excerpts from the UN Charter on the other.
I would highlight four of these principles that I find very compatible with and supportive of the purposes and activities of the United Nations system -- principles 1, 2, 6, and 7
1 - the inherent worth and dignity of every person
2 - justice, equity, and compassion in human relations
6 - the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
7- respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part
On the other side of your insert is the Charter of the United Nations. The Charter of the United Nations is the Constitution of the UN system.
The Preamble to the UN Charter reads: “We the Peoples of the United Nations Determined
- to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war
- to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women…
- to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom
And for these ends
- to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors
- to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples
Article 1 of the Charter states the four Purposes of the United Nations:
1. to maintain international peace and security
2. to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples…
3. to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion [remember this was 1945 -- 70 years ago -- years before we here in the United States had taken steps to implement equality of race, sex, or religion],
4. to be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in the achievement of these common ends.
If we were to take a quick survey of UN system activities that are compatible with UU principles we would include:
- The World Food Program, one the most successful of UN programs, annually feeds 104 million people in 80 countries. The International Fund for Agricultural Development has provided micro-credit that has benefited over 230 million people in nearly 100 developing countries.
- the UN High Commissioner on Refugees since 1949 has helped over 30 million asylum-seekers and refugees -- we are seeing this currently as millions are fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
- UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, works to protect the rights of children and to enhance their living standards -- many religious and civic organizations here in the United States solicit contributions to UNICEF
- the UN Development Fund for Women has supported programs and projects that have improved the quality of life for women in over 100 countries.
- the UN Population Fund has helped drastically reduce infant and maternal mortality in over 100 countries.
- the World Health Organization has led the global battle against HIV-AIDS and Ebola; smallpox was eliminated from the planet in 1990 and WHO is on track to wipe out polio across the globe. It has achieved an 80% immunization rate against polio, tetanus, measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, and tuberculosis.
- and dealing with that UU principle “interdependent web of all existence”: The UN Environmental Program and the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change are researching and making recommendations on climate change. It is hoped that a major UN-sponsored conference in Paris in December will result in a global commitment to combat climate change.
And then there are the peacekeeping activities of the UN -- which constitute less than 25% of the expenditures of the UN system. Pursuing its primary objective of maintaining international peace and security, the UN has fielded 69 peacekeeping operations since 1948. It has also been key in the negotiation of 172 peaceful settlements ending regional conflicts.
There are currently 17 active UN peacekeeping missions with over 98,000 police, military, and political individuals contributed by 123 member states. Eight of these missions are in Africa, six in the Middle East and South Asia, and Haiti in the Western Hemisphere and Cyprus and Kosovo in Europe. The top 15 contributors of personnel for these missions are Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Nepal, Jordan, Ghana, Senegal, Egypt, Tanzania, South Africa, China, and Uruguay. Note that they are primarily Third World and relatively neutral countries -- China is the only great power among them. The cost of these operations is borne by all member states based on a formula that asks more of the prosperous nations and the Security Council powers, recognizing that the Security Council has the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. Thus, the 5 permanent members pay 52.07% of the cost of peacekeeping missions -- the addition of Japan, Germany, and Italy ups that to about 75% for these 8 countries.
These 17 active missions are budgeted for about $7.83 billion in the current year. This is less than one half of one per cent of world military expenditures. This is slightly less than the current annual $8.2 billion budget of the NY-NJ Port Authority. It is meager compared to the current US defense budget of $632.8 billion -- or the $2 billion a week that we spent on Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of those operations.
Those are just a few of the activities of the various agencies and organizations of the UN system that are in line with UU principles.
Larry has posted on our Facebook page information on the long history of UU support for both the League of Nations and the United Nations. Since 1962 there has been a UU UN Office at the Church Center across First Avenue from the UN. Stop in the next time you’re in New York.
I would encourage your understanding and support for the UN system and again I urge you to recognize that the UN system does a lot of things that are beneficial to the United States and supportive of US foreign policy and interests. These are activities that the US would otherwise want to do or would feel obligated to do -- by getting other nations to contribute, it is less costly for us.
As Unitarian and US Ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson said, “If the UN didn’t exist, we would have to create it.”
So, third part of a sermon: what have I told you?
I have told you why we are marking UN Day today.
I have rebutted some myths about the UN system.
I have cited some of the similarities between our Unitarian Universalist principles and UN purposes and activities.
So, Happy 70th Birthday, United Nations – and I’m done.
UU Principles and the UN at 70, a sermon delivered by Dr. Allen Maxwell at 1stUUPB on Oct 25, 2015.