Keeping the U.N. Relevant by Appealing to the Young

<i> Giandomenico Picco, former U.N. assistant secretary general, is the author of "Man Without a Gun."</i>

The Kosovo crisis may have prefigured how the international system will work in the future. The West takes its decisions within the Group of 7 or within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. If Russia needs to be brought in, decisions are taken within the Group of 8. If China needs to be brought in, the U.N. Security Council becomes the venue of decision-making. To escape life on the margins of diplomacy, the United Nations may have to create a constituency among the world’s younger generations. As conflict resolution moves outside the world body, the U.N.'s last appeal may well be its ethical values.

Over the last few years, two major developments have weakened the U.N. Security Council as a decision-making venue. The first was the failure to reform the Security Council. During the 1990s, attempts to restructure the face of the council to more accurately reflect today’s world, rather than that of 1945, have led to naught. Regrettably, reform was couched in terms of adding members to the council’s existing 15. Some proposals called for including Germany, Japan and three other nations, one from Asia, one from Africa and one from Latin America. If the criteria were economic status, Italy claimed that it should also be added. After all, its economy ranks sixth in the world.

Another idea called for a common European seat as a way of dealing with diverging German and Italian requests. But France and Britain, the current European powers on the council, opposed the idea. There was concern that an “over large” U.N. Security Council would be unyielding as a decision-making body, thus defeating the purpose of expanding its size. It’s interesting to note that the Western countries seeking membership in an enlarged Security Council, as well those that are current members, have a seat at the table of the G-7 (Japan, Germany and Italy, together with Canada, the United States, Britain and France).

The second development that has contributed to marginalizing the United Nations as a venue to resolve conflicts is Russia’s successful campaign to be included alongside the G-7. Ironically, Russia’s pursuit of a role in the Western club paralleled years of futile debate over enlarging the Security Council. Since the G-8 also takes up political issues as a matter of course, it now offers an alternative forum to deal with international problems.

In a way, then, the G-8 is, in practice, a reformed Security Council. Some may say that a smaller body better representative of today’s world has come into being without years of inconclusive committee discussions. Clearly, the presence of Russia has transformed the G-8, as the Kosovo negotiations proved, into a defacto international or at least East-West security council.

It is entirely possible that China, following its admission into the World Trade Organization, would ask to join the group. What would then remain of the Security Council if all its current five permanent members, along with a few other large economies, belong to the same club--the G-9--outside the United Nations?

True, the U.N. was given a major role in postwar Kosovo, and time alone will tell how the international organization carries it out. But of greater importance is the role the United Nations will play in resolving world conflicts.

In contrast to NATO, the G-8 and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has become more relevant in the Balkans because of its monitoring role there, the United Nations has much more to offer to the world community. It has a moral foundation well-suited to the world of the 21st century, in which we will all unavoidably be in closer contact and affected by what happens to others. The U.N.'s ethical foundation is the acceptance of diversity as a positive part of life, not as a threat, and the belief that hope for justice is an indispensable component of what we call peace. It also identifies intolerance as the real enemy to all. It is intolerance that breeds ethnic cleansing.

Ethnic cleansing is not an unavoidable consequence of history, religion or culture, because history does not kill, religion does not rape and culture does not destroy buildings. Only individuals can do that. Accordingly, the United Nations must rediscover its ethical foundations, have the courage to offer a moral and philosophical response to those who define their enemies in terms of religion, culture, language or, worse yet, “blood.” That response must be heard and understood by all.

Younger generations in all countries and across all boundaries need to hear a message of hope and courage coming from the United Nations, not lectures on bureaucratic reforms. This message must capture their imagination, perhaps enabling them to realize that identity does not necessarily entail enmity. Diversity is not a threat; it is the beginning of life. The United Nations thus needs to create a constituency not so much among the world’s governments as among its younger generations. If these young people do not see a reason to believe in the United Nations, why would their elected representatives believe otherwise?

This is what will save the U.N. from marginalization. This is the challenge facing U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and his staff. He opened the way when he said that national sovereignty cannot be an excuse for massive violation of human rights. I only hope that his bureaucracy will not tar his wings.