William vanden Heuvel | Print |

UNA-USA Leader

vanden_heuvel-3251. Why is the United Nations important to the world?

The big problems the world confronts today can only be resolved by all nations working together. The United Nations has extraordinary influence, and if this influence is properly used, it can help solve these problems. It is the only organization in history in which all countries are members. No one has resigned from the UN, as some did with the League of Nations. What was set forth by Franklin Roosevelt was an organization that required a commitment by governments to find a way to use the influence of this international institution most effectively. The UN has accomplished many great things, and it is an important institution; there is no alternative to it. For the nations of the world, there is nothing comparable to the network and opportunities for cooperation that the UN affords.

2. How do the UN and its work affect your work or life?

The UN affects so many people in so many ways. Take the work of the World Health Organization for example, it has been at the center of the battle against AIDS, and when I was ambassador in Geneva the WHO announced the elimination of smallpox. The UN is also largely responsible for the development of international law over past 60 years. When I see the work of the UN in drafting treaties and other similar achievements I know that it affects every life. The creation of a network of nations that respects the rule of law helps prevent violence and war, in addition to achieving some of the other less recognizable goals such as the regulation of international lines of communication,  economic development, refugee assistance and much else.

3. Why should Americans care about the UN’s work?

I would refer back to the achievement of smallpox eradication, which alone justified the truly small amount the world had committed to the UN at that time. Smallpox had been a plague for centuries, taking millions of lives. Now, we no longer needed vaccinations for smallpox, and the elimination of the need for the vaccine saved roughly $300 million, which was more than our contribution to the UN then.  We should care especially because the UN can, should, and has played a major role in preventing war and resolving international conflict.

4. In your opinion, what has been the UN’s best moment to date?

Certainly one is the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This was the first time in the history of world that nations succeeded in adopting a document outlining the human rights that everyone is entitled to. We’re a long way from achieving all that is laid out in the Declaration, but nations honor the Declaration, and it’s been an important part of ensuring that rights are respected across the globe.

I would also point to the Security Council’s handling of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf crisis, preventing  Saddam Hussein from conquering Kuwait.  It was a great example of nations working together to protect a neighbor. I was proud that President George H.W. Bush worked with the UN so that every nation joined the U.S. It was notably successful. We’ve seen times when involvement was done without the UN such as the second Iraq war \and it was a disaster. When it has been allowed to provide a coalition of forces to prevent violence, the UN has succeeded, and we should support the UN when those opportunities arise.

5. What do you think is the most exciting opportunity for the UN going forward?

There are many opportunities that are absolutely essential for the UN to seize, like a coordinated response to the Earth’s environmental problems. Additionally, the UN has a responsibility to prevent violent aggression and war. We live in a world constantly threatened by explosive events. The UN, through the International Atomic Energy Agency, has controlled the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which is a crucial achievement. It is essential that these efforts continue. For young people looking for careers, there is no more exciting thing than the opportunity to work at the UN itself. It reminds us of what our joint obligations are as citizens of the world.

6. What is the most effective element of UNA-USA’s work?

I was always enormously impressed after Eleanor Roosevelt retired as the U.S. representative to the Human Rights Commission, that she spent the remainder of her career as a volunteer at UNA-USA. This was an immense undertaking, emphasizing the importance of individual involvement in the UN’s work, and exemplary of a desire to educate Americans about the hopes for the UN moving forward.

UNA-USA has been the most effective exponent of the UN’s work to the American people. UNA-USA is not always uncritical of the UN, and has often talked about what the UN should do better. UNA-USA has engaged a dialogue about how important the UN is to Americans as individuals and as citizens of the world. From the beginning, grassroots support was an important part of the UN design. UNA-USA emphasizes this. The UN is an association of governments, and it needs to be reminded that its ultimate importance is to protect the interests of individuals. UNA-USA is well-respected at the UN; every poll shows more than 70 percent of Americans want the U.S. to lead at the UN, and that is a testament to the success of UNA-USA’s work. Americans want the UNA to be successful.  The UNA is the means to educate our people as to what they can do.