The Changing Face of the United Nations

Activists meeting with U.N. representatives find the organization warming to their concerns.

By Shirley Farlinger | 1992-11-01 12:00:00

Every year the Department of Public Information of the U.N. hosts a conference for non-governmental organizations. This year 1136 people representing 562 organizations came from 44 countries. As Ann Gertler, one of Canada's Non-Governmental reps, put it,"This time we heard from the guys who really do the work."

Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali gave the opening address on the topic "Regional Conflicts: Threats to World Peace and Progress." Admitting that the U.N. cannot step into every conflict, he pointed out that we need new standards of judgment to decide when chaos in one country threatens others. Without specifying the Gulf War, he viewed it as a case of one U.N. member being threatened by another. He commended the stronger role of regional associations such as the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia and the Organization of African Unity, the League of Arab States, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Somalia, and other groups in Yugoslavia. The Secretary-General reminds us that modem warfare has eliminated the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, with some wars having a 9 to I ratio of civilian to military deaths.

Finally, he admitted that peace requires action from the earliest signs of conflict to the reconstruction of society at war's end. The NGOs in the audience felt that this U.N. head understands our work.

James Jonah, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs and special envoy to Somalia, stressed that the U.N. should be a neutral third party able to bring all sides of a dispute together. The U.N. has no payoff, no military assistance to offer, and is seen as the most impartial peacemaker so far. He noted that the U.N. has been shut out of the negotiations on the Middle East which are still going on.

Next spoke Kumar Rupesinghe, Secretary-General of the Standing International Forum on Ethnic Conflict, Genocide and Human Rights, International Alert-truly a global citizen, the Sri Lankan mediator works with the International Peace Research Institute in Norway and the Carter Center in Atlanta. He noted that most wars today are internal, not interstate, and he predicted that by 2000 A.D. there will be 46 civil wars and 100 million refugees. He advised peace groups to focus on conflict resolution, transforming military conflicts nonviolently. "In an orderly divorce people leave the house, but in national conflicts they have to live in the same house." Our challenge is to evolve a system of prevention, not just deal with the refugees.

Down the ladder a bit is Benon Sevan, Assistant Secretary-General in the Department for Political Affairs. He was my hero. Greying and plump, Mr. Sevan is a veteran of Iran-Iraq negotiations and has spent four and a half years in Afghanistan. It is a land at war with itself: there are two million dead, two million disabled, five million refugees, and two million displaced. The country is desperately short of money yet the Security Council daily passes resolutions to help other countries while "those who caused these problems have left them to the U.N. to fix" The conflict is tribal, ethnic, and religious. No side wants to think it has been fighting for 14 years for nothing. He called it a "humorless, lonely job" in a country where thousands of young men are trained only to fight. "Yet they are a wonderful, moderate people," he said. "Perhaps states should buy back the weapons that have been sold to these countries."


One of the speakers for the NGO community, John Hammock, Executive Director of Oxfam America, was critical of U.S. policy He noted that Somalia has lots of arms and that the bulk of U.S. aid is military. In addition, most governments follow the structural adjustment program that hurts the poor. And he noted a growing intolerance for diversity. "If Somalia were not in Africa we wouldn't have allowed it," he said. He urged the churches and schools to listen to the poor, to develop conflict resolution curricula, to accept diversity, and to work with women to enrich culture and create sustainable economic and environment practices. He praised the U.N. resolution on arms transfers (Yea, Ernie Regehr!) but said the arms trade will stop only if we pressure our own governments.

We got a break from speeches when five "U.N. In Action" videos were shown. These 7-minute videos are excellent and show the U.N. to advantage in Yugoslavia, Angola, Somalia, and Cambodia. Yet they are not propaganda stuff. The one on Somalia was heart-wrenching. One of the two on Angola showed the whole process of ending a war, demobilizing the armies, helping the people, running an election-and it was all headed by a woman! For more information call 212-963-6939 at the U.N.

My afternoon workshop was on "The Consequences of Conflict:

Humanitarian, Environmental and Economic" and Christine Durbak of the World Information Transfer urged the New World Order to develop 2 conscience. Jerry Genesio, Executive Director of Veterans for Peace, quoted a 1989 study noting that in this century 147 million have died in war and 83% were civilians. One of the worst effects is the landmines-4 million in Cambodia, 10 million in Afghanistan and 120,000 in Nicaragua.

He says the U.S. dropped 500,000 planeloads of bombs over Laos. Shiploads of chemical weapons were sunk by the Allies in Nordic seas after World War II. Barrels of radioactive material have been dumped off California; 51 nuclear warheads and 9 reactors lie at the bottom of the sea; one-third of Vietnam's forests were destroyed by war; and uranium 238 has permanently contaminated the Persian Gulf from depleted uranium material. He cited Taking Stock, the publication on militarism and the environment by Canada's Science for Peace.

The 4,000 members of Veterans for Peace have devised the Pittsburgh Pact, which calls for a moratorium on all weapons sales, especially to countries that use torture or deny participation in government. Moreover the pact calls for a ban on landmines except in war zones where they must be removed by the soldiers after the war. Genesio also recommended an International Criminal Court for the trial of international criminals and a method for overruling the decisions of the Security Council. While these are not new ideas, they bear repeating.

Angela Raven-Roberts of UNICEF was one of the few women speakers. She noted the social impact of conflict, the competition for resources, the disruption of traditional markets and agriculture, traditional decision-making methods and the lapse of law and order. Pierre Pradier told us how Medecins Sans Frontieres began with a few doctors concentrating on the victims of war and guaranteed access by U.N. resolutions and through humanitarian corridors. He said that, ironically, the Security Council members produce 80% of the world's arms.

Many of the problems raised related to the structural adjustment programs of the World Bank which favors a market system that opens up the poor to exploitation. In the question period I asked about the U.N. Code of Conduct for Transnationals. The U.N. spokes-man said this had been on hold but that perhaps this is the time to work on it again.

There was more information on Somalia, the land where food shipments were held up while guns were unloaded, where one quarter of a million children have died. From the audience came the ghastly observation that in Somalia there is population control by famine. Huge women's protests for peace have been ignored by the press. But people have heard of the corridors for Days of Peace to allow children to be inoculated. "What happens when the kids are fed in the crisis? What is needed is tools and seed for the next crop, but UNICEF is bankrupt," said Raven-Roberts. The U.N. has responded by putting Jan Eliasson in charge of a new Department of Humanitarian Affairs with a $50 million emergency relief fund.

After all that it was party time, one of the few moments to talk to other NGOs-such as the Clinton supporter from Little Rock, Clinton's home, where the rightwing newspaper just killed the only other paper in town. Or Sr. Mary Alban Bouchard, author of Peace is Possible, and now living in Haiti in difficult circumstances. Or the woman who told me all about George Bush's paramour.

Then it was back to work for the last day of the conference and a session on Communication and the Role of the Media.

Majid Tehranian, Professor of Communication of the University of Hawaii, listed five megatrends:

"We can either continue to play cowboys or educate people in the race between civilization and catastrophe," he concluded.

Another fascinating speaker was Mayin Correa, mayor of Panama who said "We must encourage the media to be used for peace. Journalists' biases can worsen conflicts and prevent solutions. We need the broadest possible background information."

Bhaskar Menon was more outspoken. "Why do we have conflicts and why is the U.N. ineffective?" he asked.

"Two reasons: the media is part of the power structure reflecting the priorities of government and business. Second, peace is not a story. There is no such thing as a regional conflict-all are proxy wars. No Third World country could carry on a war for more than three weeks; they have no money for arms." He advised us to teach nonviolence, to resist the substitution of the Commies with new phantoms, to stop deregulation, to set standards on violence in the media, and to encourage people to judge for themselves.


I didn't know what to think of Harold Saunders, Director of International Affairs at the Kettering Foundation in Washington. He worked in the National Security Council (with Ollie North?) and the State Department (with Caspar Weinberger?). He listed four ways of changing conflicts: the addition of NGOs to the conceptual framework, changing the vocabulary to include economic and political power, finding new partnerships and new means of conflict resolution. He seemed to be too high on American negotiating skills, claiming the present Mid-East negotiators learned their craft from unofficial past dialogue. I was tempted to add that this could explain the endlessness of it all. When he said intervention must be appropriate, I felt tremors of the Gulf War. His big Jimmy Carter smile didn't help.

Olara Otunnu, president of the International Peace Academy in New York, was firm in insisting that NGOs must be non-partisan to be effective. In Cambodia it was the NGOs who met informally to lay a basis for U.N. negotiations. Eastern Europe and the former USSR were unaware of NGOs. Be sensitive and self-critical; sometimes we promote marginalization in other countries. He even said some of us are not always serious or expert and others see us as busybodies. We need to improve our image or help people accept the diversity of this group of orange-robed monks, bearded, caftan-clad holy men of India, the cover-up dress of Korea, embroidered caps, Sikh turbans and New York T-shirts with Clinton buttons.

The head of the International Red Cross, Peter Kung, described their work begun 133 years ago to bring humanitarian aid in wartime. In the Gulf crisis 80,000 POWs were returned safely. Since January 100,000 tons of relief has gone to Somalia.

Dr. Luc Frejacques of Doctors Without Borders described their 230 missions to 62 countries last year, including massive aid to the Kurds. They serve as witnesses to tragedies and can alert the media.

Dianne Nell of Save the Children was the last official speaker. She suggested a databank of NGOs and their expertise be given to each state.

The conference closed with 12 NGO speakers each allotted 4 minutes. My lasting impression is of energy and dedication to the point of life threatening interventions, both official and unofficial, by amazing people. How can we lose?

Shirley Farlinger is an editor of Peace Magazine.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1992

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1992, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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