Letter From The U. N.

By Betty Reardon | 1985-11-01 12:00:00

Crisp autumn air and a rush of excitement: It's like the first day of school after the summer break. The United Nations is suddenly alive with activity, and delegates are arriving for the General Assembly.

In the area of disarmament, it's likely that these five items will be on the agenda of the General Assembly.

One: There's likely to be an agreement on chemical weapons during this General Assembly. The preliminary work has been done and all the signs are favorable.

Two: The Preparatory Committee has chosen a venue for a Conference on Disarmament and Development. They want it to take place in Paris this May and June and, although their proposal hasn't yet been approved, it probably will be. It promises to be a very serious study of the possibilities for converting the economy from military production to meeting human needs.

Three: There's the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It's bound to become a hot topic this fall because of the Soviet moratorium.The lack of serious response from the United States is discouraging, however.

Four: There will be the spillover from the Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which is in session as I'm writing this. We don't get optimistic messages from Geneva about the prospects of success there. But whatever comes out of that conference is bound to be on the U.N. agenda this fall.

Five: A discussion will take place concerning the "prevention of nuclear war, with a special item on outer space. The Soviets have requested this because of the U.S.'s insistence on pursuing its Strategic Defense Initiative.

It's easy to criticize the U.N. but, in my experience, the critics often misunderstand what it is actually accomplishing because they are contrasting it to what they suppose it should be. To be sure, it is a creature of the nation state system, and is limited by that circumstance. But that's only part of the picture. What it does best is serve as a catalyst, but to see that aspect, one needs to recognize that there are three different systems operating here - two United Nations and one emerging world movement.

First, there is the formal structure, which comprises nation states represented in the U.N.'s various standing bodies, such as the General Assembly and the Security Council. Although some delegates to groups of this sort are wonderfully visionary, they are usually political people who may not look beyond the immediate interests of the nations they represent.

But there are also other a number of specialized agencies operating within the formal structure that tend to be staffed with more globally conscious people. I'm thinking, for example, of Food and Agriculture (FAO), the Refugee Commission, the U.N. Development Program, and the International Labor Organization (ILO). These agencies are staffed by an international civil service - people who don't think of themselves as working for the Americans or the Canadians or the French, but as working for humanity. Their work really makes a difference, but they feel hampered in their global consciousness by working within the kind of formal structure that exists now. But of course the same constraints are felt by "global citizens" who work inside most nation-states.

Second, there is the U.N. that has come into existence without exactly being planned - the NGO domain. The charter didn't envision that citizens and their groups would need any agency through which to carry out the practical reality of their international life, but today they do. We recognize that multinational corporations have grown up to be a major force in the world, criss-crossing the boundaries of nations and creating an international business world that can't be contained within the system of discrete nation-states. What we haven't recognized sufficiently yet is that lots of other organizations have become supra-national in the same way. Millions of people belong to organizations that are international, or that are national but have global concerns, and these NGOs are a whole level of reality that has an impact in the world. Naturally, they attempt to express their concerns in an international forum, and in so doing they are what I call the "Second United Nations. A number of Canadian peace organizations are part of it - Project Ploughshares and Science for Peace, to name but two.

The third, and to me most promising, aspect of the U.N. is made up of emerging people's movements. The great majority of people on earth don't have ties to any structure that is represented at the United Nations, but they are looking to the U.N. anyhow. And the U.N. is serving as a catalyst for them to develop new forms and relationships. Take, for example, the women's conference in Nairobi. It was supposed to be a place for governments to send delegates, but that conference provided an opportunity for lots of other women to get together who were not officials at all. Thousands of women just went because it was where the action was going to be. There were 10 or 15 thousand women, and they put on workshops, panels and demonstrations for each other in the NGO forum, which was called "Forum '85."

There was a peace tent, which was open to everyone, where people could meet to talk and set up displays. That took place because it was a U.N. activity and people felt that they, as individuals, could be a part of the United Nations. Global peace networks were forged there that will endure.

Something like that happened on a smaller scale during the Second Special Session on Disarmament. It was a coffee house across from the U.N. which was organized by NGOs, who even got delegates to come over there, where people could talk to them. Substantively, that Second Session was a disaster, but the coffee house was a terrific catalyst. I met some educators there with whom I still keep in contact. We need to focus on the U.N. as a significant actor in more ways than through its resolutions and official acts.

I think this third aspect of the U.N. is where the real potential for system transformation exists. U.N. conferences, such as the Nairobi one and "Habitat," which took place in Vancouver, are more valuable, in my opinion, than the General Assembly itself. The United Nations is the only organization that provides a forum for confronting global issues, such as the universal need for housing and the problems of women. It is the one agency and structure through which we can exercise global citizenship. The voiceless people around the world pin their hopes on the U.N. even when they have no other political structure to identify with.

One constructive outcome of the Second Special Session on Disarmament was the World Disarmament Campaign.

The main thing that the campaign has done is sponsor conferences and seminars. The one in Africa resulted in a decision to set up a Disarmament Research Centre specifically for Africa. It will look for concrete measures that are required for the regional problems of disarmament in Africa.

Betty Reardon is Director of Peacemaking in the United Ministries in Education and Director of the Peace Education program of Teachers College, Columbia University. She is also the NGO representative for the International Council of Adult Education and the International Peace Research Association. El

Peace Magazine November 1985

Peace Magazine November 1985, page 5. Some rights reserved.

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