The Once and Future UN


The United Nations is not going to be transformed by the election of a new secretary general, as Barbara Crossette writes, no matter the transparency of the process [“In 2016, the UN Will Be Transformed,” Jan. 11/18]. It is the other election in the autumn of this new year—the election of the president of the United States—that has that possibility. Ban Ki-moon is a noble leader, a man of decency, ideals, and judgment, but he cannot force the Security Council after four years of slaughter and anguish to place the Syrian war on its priority agenda. His predecessor, Kofi Annan, was and is a man of “dignity, confidence, courage, and compassion.” He could not stop the American invasion of Iraq despite mighty efforts.

Terrorism is an international enemy against which the strongest military force in history has only limited effect. It is an enemy that can only be defeated by the universal coalition that the UN represents.

The structure is in place to allow and cause the needed transformation of the UN, whose basic mission is defined in its charter as saving “succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The year 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. The General Assembly should act now to designate 2020 as UN/75, a year to confront “the scourge of war.” The intervening years could then demonstrate the possibilities of bringing peace on earth by mobilizing the public and private sectors, by organizing the new energy of social media, by recognizing the extraordinary groups that have carried the struggle for peace against the seeming inevitability of violence, and by inviting “the peoples of the United Nations,” in whose name the charter was adopted, to find their voice in supporting what has to be done. If the new president of the United States and the new secretary general of the United Nations welcome and encourage such a movement, the needed transformation of the UN will be well under way.

William vanden Heuvel
Former US representative
to the United Nations
new york city

Barbara Crossette was the best UN reporter, but it is not helpful to leave Nation readers without a strong reminder of the accomplishments of the world’s premier multilateral institution. Yes, the UN has many deficits. But a list of what it could accomplish in this new year would have been very much appreciated.

The UN’s progress in 2016 will build on its record of feeding 100 million people in 73 countries, vaccinating children, assisting millions of refugees, organizing elections, working with countries to prepare their climate-action plans, serving as a universal presence in developing countries, promoting maternal health—the list goes on. We need to be reminded that 193 member states have representatives who sit down together in one room where no guns are permitted and agree on life- and planet-saving policies. This results in treaties and resolutions to protect children, secure women a place at all levels of decision-making, protect the environment, promote nuclear disarmament, put the force of law ahead of the law of force, and more. A big nod to the purpose of the UN—to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war—along with recognition of some of its achievements would have helped readers.

To say that the UN Development Program (UNDP) is invisible is to ignore the world press and social media. To single out one of the last remaining female heads of an agency who is careful not to “one-up” the secretary general in the media ignores her remarkable accomplishments. These include international advocacy for ambitious efforts and public engagement through countless speeches in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The UN is only as good as its 193 parts. Our world would be immeasurably worse without it.

Cora Weiss
United Nations representative, International Peace Bureau

new york city

It was good to see The Nation highlighting the United Nations. The challenges and opportunities the UN faces in 2016 are of enormous consequence, and Barbara Crossette has raised a number of issues I hope your readers and editors will continue to address. The appointment of the next UN secretary general is among the most important decisions that the international community will make this year.

As Crossette noted, the five “permanent members with veto,” especially the United States, Russia, and China, all want a secretary general who will take their orders, allow their nationals to run the UN, and not make waves. The test in 2016 will be whether the other 188 member states will insist on a new, merit-based selection process that identifies a number of highly qualified candidates. If the Obama administration were not only to accept but also to support this reform—as well as relinquish the terrible misuse of the veto in this appointment process—that action alone could benefit the entire UN system for decades to come.

Even with major powers and government groupings constantly fighting each other, the UN has achieved major advances in its 70 years—not the least of which are its continued existence and the prevention of World War III. The assessed and voluntary budgets of the UN system—more than 30 agencies and programs—add up to less than one-third of the New York State budget! Could the UNDP, UNICEF, and the World Food Program do much, much more? Yes, but what they are achieving with small budgets is indispensable. The failures of the Security Council are the UN’s most awful shortcomings, but again: How much worse would the effects of war and terrorism be without the 16 peace operations that operate for a tiny fraction of worldwide military budgets?

William Pace
Executive director, Institute for Global Policy

new york city

No Contradiction Here


Thank you, Elias Muhanna, for introducing me to Shahab Ahmed and his work [“Contradiction and Diversity,” Jan. 11/18]. As a Muslim Syrian American who has been studying Sufi scholars for many years, I thank you. It is the work that we have all been waiting for.
Tarif Bakdash

Painful Question


In the absence of certainty, Joseph LeDoux holds that the only responsible course of action is to proceed as though “the capacity to consciously experience emotions is unique to humans” [“Fear Itself?,” Jan. 11/18]. Is pain a “consciously experienced emotion”? Is the claim here that we should assume that nonhuman animals cannot feel pain? If that is the claim, then I think this is a terrible assumption. If not, then I wish a distinction between pain and emotion had been made, so as not to confuse simple people such as myself.
Stephen Warren