THIS month marks the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the United Nations Charter. While some of the problems that spurred the UN's creation in 1945 have been resolved, many remain. And new global challenges have arisen.
In areas such as health and environment, human rights and peace-building, the world still needs the UN. The difficulty lies not in recognizing the importance of its efforts, but in ensuring it performs its tasks effectively.
Among the UN's main achievements are the process of decolonization, promotion of a universal declaration of human rights, provision of emergency humanitarian relief, technical monitoring and cooperation in health and agriculture, and active global efforts to promote child survival and set environmental and labor standards.
The post-cold-war years have led to an explosion of demands for UN action in response to international problems including the extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; peacekeeping in Somalia, Bosnia, Cambodia, and Mozambique; emergency, humanitarian, and refugee relief in Rwanda and elsewhere; election monitoring in South Africa and Haiti; and programs targeting overpopulation, environmental degradation, and more.
These increased demands are being made on an organization that has been neglected, misused, and excessively politicized by its member governments for years. It is showing the strain. The UN must be renovated and strengthened if it is to respond effectively and maintain member countries' support. Essential functions and agencies need bolstering; overlapping functions and programs need streamlining; and those activities and agencies that have not worked or are no longer necessary need to be terminated.
In addition, system-wide improvements are needed to reduce bureaucratic inefficiencies and raise personnel standards.
Member governments should consider consolidating the UN's emergency, humanitarian, and refugee relief efforts into a single emergency relief organization that would work closely with other nongovernmental organizations active on the ground in emergency situations. Changing needs and circumstances create a case for eliminating programs no longer essential, such as the UN Conference on Trade and Development and the UN Industrial Development Organization.
The UN, however, is only as good as its member governments make it. High-quality government representation and ongoing attention to UN activities and operations are necessary. Both have been sorely lacking. Reform is only possible if a solid core of UN member governments is prepared to push for it.
Such reform is in America's best interest. Recent polls show the public wants a foreign policy that serves the domestic agenda of the United States: stanching the flow of drugs, strengthening the economy, halting the flood of illegal aliens, and protecting the global environment. Achieving these objectives requires cooperation among nations. Full US engagement in an effective and responsive UN is at the heart of this cooperation. If the US is to play an active role in reforming the UN, funding levels must be maintained. In return, the UN administration must - like private corporations - improve services and control costs.
The entire UN system got 0.7 percent of the $285 billion the US spent in each of the last two years on international security. That translates to a price per US citizen of less than $7 a year. In this new era we have the opportunity to witness movement toward higher standards of international behavior and cooperation. International organizations, especially the UN, are central to this effort.