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United Nations caught in U.S. bind

The United Nations is in a bind. And the bind is the United States.

Not merely because the United States owes $1.5 billion (more or less) in back dues, and not just because there’s a proliferation of anti-U.N. feeling in the United States. In California, and perhaps elsewhere, fresh roadside placards urge motorists to “Choose” between two symbols: the Stars and Stripes and the U.N. emblem.

No, the bind stems from another reason. The United Nations cannot move without the United States. Illustrations aren’t hard to find. “Most frustrating was last Friday [Sept. 17],” explained Franciscan Br. Ignacio Harding. “The Security Council, with the United States in the lead, voted unanimously to send peacekeeping troops to East Timor. Sinful. If they’d done it Sept.1, they would have saved the whole country and everyone’s lives. But now the Americans can say the U.N. didn’t do anything.”

Continued Harding, co-director of Franciscans International -- the Franciscan nongovernmental organization (NGO) accredited to the United Nations -- “The U.N. cannot do anything without the U.S., without the U.N. countries,” which use examples of United Nations’ inaction “to make themselves look good.”

The United States has been a bind in other ways. Many professionals within the United Nations think the United States has jeopardized the world organization’s missions in both Iraq and Kosovo. In Iraq, U.N. workers complain privately that the organization was compromised when it became the principal agent of the horrible U.S.-inspired sanctions at the same time its humanitarian agencies are working to alleviate the effects of the sanctions.

In Kosovo, the United Nations was a glaring omission in the run-up to that war, kept out of the picture while the U.S. manipulated another international organization, NATO, into becoming, for the first time, an offensive war-making entity.

Americans who support the United Nations haven’t had much success in convincing Congress to pay the country’s back dues or in converting the views of those who are hostile to the United Nations as a matter of right-wing and conservative principle.

True, there have been a few successes. One high-profile addition to the supporters’ side is Ted Turner, who is currently flying the U.N. flag in commercials across U.S. television sets. Through Turner’s $1 billion-funded U.N. Foundation, and its action arm, the Better World Campaign, the major networks and CNN have depictions of the United Nations going about its humanitarian and peacekeeping work fluttering shadowlike through the evening news programs.

Catholics can take their cue from a far deeper understanding of the United Nations’ significance, for the church has accompanied the development of the United Nations in a generally favorable way since the beginning.

Popes love the United Nations.

John XXIII called the United Nations, “the last, best hope for peace.” Paul VI’s impassioned U.N. plea, “war, war no more” genuinely, if momentarily, caught the world’s attention. In 1995, John Paul II said the world does not need an organization of united nations; it needs “a family of united nations” where, as in a family, each member compensates to ensure the weaker members are cared for and loved.

The Vatican mission to the United Nations (not without its critics) is the leading voice for disarmament and a solid advocate on humanitarian issues. Catholic organizations are adding their weight in increasing numbers as nongovernmental organizations (see story). And well they might, for the United Nations and the world need all the help they can get. The suffering continues, and the developed world is increasingly stingy: Developed countries are giving less in development foreign aid than at any time in the past half-century.

In all this, the United States is leading by example. Bad example.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999