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Spectator Op-Ed: The UN at 75: Flaws and all, its work still is essential

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

By Anne M Pearson and Joy Warner; printed in the Hamilton Spectator, Sat., Oct. 24, 2020

Recently the 2020 Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to the UN’s World Food Program, calling attention to a worsening global hunger crisis due, in part, to the pandemic, to the need for more international response and solidarity, and to the vital role that the WFP has played over the decades in alleviating hunger and food insecurity.

The awarding of the peace prize to this UN agency allows us to reflect on the significance of the United Nations, this month marking its 75th anniversary, at a time when, yet again, it has come under fire from various quarters.

Canada has been a member of the United Nations since it was established in 1945 in the wake of the terrible consequences of the Second World War, with a primary mandate to prevent further war. Canada’s 14th prime minister, Lester Pearson (who spent part of his childhood in Hamilton) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his work helping to avert a war during the Suez Crisis, and for helping to establish the UN’s first Peacekeeping missions. Canadian legal scholar John Humphrey was the principal author of the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a declaration which represents an extraordinary accomplishment in world history, and that has served as the basis upon which numerous human rights conventions and laws have been built. Canada was also instrumental in the establishment of the 1997 convention abolishing the production and use of landmines which have been responsible for killing or maiming hundreds of thousands of people. One of the UN’s many specialized agencies is the International Civil Aviation Organization headquartered in Montreal.

Shortly after the formation of the UN, national UN Associations were created in countries around the world to enable citizens to participate in the work of the United Nations on global issues that affect us all. The United Nations Association in Canada, based in Ottawa, was one of them. This association also has branches in many Canadian cities, including Hamilton. In fact, the Hamilton branch is one of the oldest, being originally formed as a branch of the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations. Over the decades, our Hamilton branch, whose volunteer membership is open to all, has partnered with numerous local organizations to raise awareness of such issues as climate change, food security, the status of the girl-child, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted by the General Assembly in 2007. Our branch has also been instrumental in encouraging the City of Hamilton to be declared a nuclear-weapons-free zone, and to create a “peace garden” behind city hall.

One of our branch members, Hayat Rushdy-Hanna, was herself a direct beneficiary of another UN agency, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, based in Geneva. Hayat was born in Ethiopia of Egyptian parents and grew up in Burundi. Her family suffered persecution because of the fact that they are members of the Baha’i Faith, a persecution that resulted in their losing their citizenship. Eventually they were placed under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Thankfully, Hayat and her family were accepted as landed immigrants in Canada, and she went on to complete studies at the École de Droit, Université de Moncton, graduating with an LLB. Hayat’s personal experience as a convention refugee while living in Central Africa increased her determination to join others in their efforts to highlight the need to respect the rules of international law and to support the valuable work of the United Nations around the world.

Despite its flaws, the UN remains the only organization able to convene the whole world under one roof, to discuss issues of common interest to all humanity, and to sustain the norms that make peace, security, and environmental protection possible. It provides essential services and resources in some of the world’s most inaccessible and dangerous regions. As former UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjold said, “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.” On this United Nations Day 2020 we call on Canadians to continue to support the UN.

Anne M Pearson is the current president of the United Nations Association in Canada Hamilton Branch (and granddaughter of Lester Pearson). Joy Warner is justice peace and integrity of the environment co-ordinator for the Spiritans in English Speaking Canada.

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