Dag Hammarskjold’s Question

As the United Nations General Assembly discussed and debated the fate of the world over the past several days, the world had reason once again to ponder the fate of the United Nations.

Presidents and prime ministers from the 193 member states took turns in addressing a formidable range of issues — climate change, antibiotic resistance, wars in Africa, strife in Kashmir, and of course, Israel and the Palestinians. All of these are important matters affecting the lives of millions of people, and they were all worthy of discussion.

Nor was it all just talk. In some cases, there were pledges of action, such as British Prime Minister Theresa May’s commitment of billions of pounds to combat terrorism, including a specific plan to send soldiers to Somalia to train local forces in their struggle to put down al-Shabaab. While Britain under her leadership exits the European Union, it has no intention of abandoning its global responsibilities, was the message.

But when it came to the most urgent issue of all, which has been debated and discussed ad infinitum, the time for action never came.

To be sure, the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis were much on the minds and tongues of the distinguished speakers, and some were scathing in their condemnation of the U.N.’s inaction:

“It’s time to recognize that we cannot go on as before,” declared Italian diplomat Filippo Grandi, High Commissioner of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Liechtenstein’s Foreign Minister Aurelia Frick accused the Security Council of “shameful indifference” and “failure” in stopping the mass atrocities being perpetrated in Syria.

The rhetorical high point arrived when U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Powers accused Russia of “barbarism” in Syria, and then (perhaps to demonstrate that actions speak louder than words) she led a walkout of the Security Council when it was the Syrian representative’s turn to speak.

But for all the high-minded, self-flagellating rhetoric and a dramatic gesture here and there, nothing was done. The bloodbath and the worst refugee crisis since World War II rage on unabated.

In fact, the U.N. all but guaranteed that it would continue like this — in lieu of a peace settlement — with the so-called New York Declaration, which calls for a “global pact” on refugees — in 2018! The desperate flood of more than a million refugees into Europe in 2015 alone does not seem to have concentrated the minds of the official humanitarians sufficiently to frame a more urgent timeline.

The question inevitably arises: Whither the U.N.? Do we need an organization like this? Are the billions of dollars spent on it and by it justified, when it fails so miserably to address the most burning issue of our time?

Might it not be better to close down the talk shops of resolution and condemnation (read: Security Council, General Assembly) and let those agencies (the World Health Organization, say) proceed with their good works less attached to politics? Of course, the Israel-bashers in Tehran and Ramallah will lose the best forum for their hatred; but for the rest of us it would be a welcome respite.

We realize, of course, that the question of whether we need a United Nations has been asked countless times before. And it has always been answered in the same way, more or less.

It was none other than that hero and martyr of U.N. history, secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold, who posed the embarrassing question in a speech on May 2, 1959, titled: “Do we need the United Nations?”

Then, too, it was prompted by a crisis — the Berlin crisis — when the U.N. was sidelined and seemingly irrelevant as the U.S., the Soviet Union and Western Europe fought out the Cold War without help from the Security Council or the General Assembly.

The USSR’s Nikita Khrushchev had urged the U.N. to intervene to end a dangerous standoff and secure the withdrawal of Western troops from West Berlin.

Hammarskjold answered with what became the classic rationale for the U.N.’s existence:

“We need the Organization… for the negotiating possibilities it opens up. We need it as an executive organ. We need it for the constructive additions it offers in international attempts to resolve conflicts of interest. And we need it as a foundation and a framework for arduous and time-consuming attempts to find forms in which an extranational — or perhaps even supranational — influence may be brought to bear in the prevention of future conflicts…

“To write it off because of difficulties or failures would mean, among many other things, to write off our hope of developing methods for international coexistence…Therefore, the work must go on.”

Not all were persuaded then, and we are not persuaded now, that the U.N. is the hope of the world. As we have seen time and again, wars are fought despite the U.N., and peace can be made without it.

But if the work must go on, let it go on with less talk, fewer declarations and resolutions, especially against Israel. It is not too much to ask of diplomats. Their profession is essentially talk, but even they must also recognize the need for timely, concrete action.