08/01/2011 12:39 EDT | Updated 09/30/2011 05:12 EDT

Time to Celebrate the UN's Hidden Victories

The real success of the United Nations can never be measured by what it's done or failed to do. I hearken back to former Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold's observation: "The UN was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell."


Critics of the United Nations just can't help themselves. In recent years, any time something goes wrong in a UN operation somewhere there are renewed calls for Canada to pull out of the international organization that it helped to found over 60 years ago.

A clear case in point was Michael Taube's article in the Ottawa Citizen, in which he acknowledged the UN's noble past but reasoned the time has come for Canada to strike out in its own independent direction.

Had Taube desired, he could easily have laid out a litany of UN failures since it's inception. Then again, other experts could have pointed out the many accomplishments that transpired under the Security Council watch and which the respected Canadian writer ignored.

The real success of the United Nations can never be measured by what it's done or failed to do. Those deeply involved in the world of diplomacy, with an experienced view of international complexity, hearken back to former Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold's cogent observation of the international body: "The UN was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell." This is a different measuring stick and tells a fascinating tale.

The High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change in 2005, concluded there have been fewer inter-state wars in the second half of the 20th century than in the first half. The UN helped to bring into being over many new states since 1945, most of them peacefully -- the most recent being South Sudan just a few weeks ago. Despite the brutal conflict in some wars, the Human Security Report of 2005 discovered that between the years 1992 and 2003, the number of armed conflicts globally declined by 40 per cent. The number of battle deaths per year, and per conflict, has dropped dramatically since the UN was created. In 1950, as an example, the average conflict killed 38,000 individuals. That has now dropped 98 per cent to 600.

As stated in an earlier post, participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions has never been higher, with around 98,000 men and women from about 115 different nations (Canada has only 210 contributors). It will take future research to determine just how many lives have been saved through the UN's preventive measures, but it will likely number in the hundreds of thousands.

It remains impossible to calculate just how many lives have been saved and empowered by UN-built schools, health clinics, women's programs, democratic training initiatives, peacebuilding in conflicted communities, water and engineering projects, and literacy training for indigenous leaders. My last post on the successful removal of the two devastating diseases, the Guinea worm and rinderpest, from the list of world dangers was another reflection of the tens of thousands of lives saved through UN oversight.

What the United Nations has prevented is significant, and those bashing its existence often overlook the peace it has preserved. At times the UN's caution has assisted Canada, as when, despite Stephen Harper's steady pressure to engage, the Chretien government opted to stay out of George W. Bush's Iraq war specifically because the United Nations refused to sanction it. It didn't provide this country just some diplomatic cover; it was, as we were soon to discover, the right thing to do.

Taube was correct in alluding to the organization's pitfalls, but it would have been helpful had he also spoken of the numerous conflicts prevented and lives saved by the prudent deliberations of the Security Council. In losing our chance to have a seat on that Council, we missed a golden opportunity to assist in the prevention of future wars -- hardly an exciting effect, but one highly characteristic of Canada, and certainly qualified to be a badge of honour had this country achieved it.

Like the governments that make up the United Nations, there is much that is contrary and frustrating. How the UN has failed has been well-documented. What it has prevented will never be fully known or appreciated, but millions of people are alive now because of its vast and effective preventive measures. It's time to stop grumbling and think of what the United Nations means to all those people.