Every few years, the United Nations is declared dead. The reality, however, is that I cannot remember when the UN has been more in the center of the news and public debate. The need for the UN is felt the most when there is a crisis that goes beyond national boundaries, and you would all agree that we have had no shortage of those in recent times, whether it is 9/11 or Iraq or the tsunami.
The facts are in. The UN has fed more than 100 million hungry people in the past five years. It has saved millions of lives through its response to deadly diseases such as AIDS and malaria. It averted a much bigger humanitarian disaster after the 2005 Pakistani earthquake. It works to ensure that women have contraceptives, healthcare and, most important, dignity. It takes care of millions of refugees. It has improved agriculture and food security. And it has boosted global literacy levels.
Above all, the UN provides the guiding vision, framework, and peer pressure in implementing public policies for the global good. Take the Millennium Development Goals. The world is united around these eight goals – to be achieved by 2015 – to combat poverty, disease, illiteracy, and environmental degradation.
And then there is the much more difficult work the UN does to protect and promote human rights and to improve governance and democracies. UN peacekeeping forces are working in some of the most difficult settings across the world, from Lebanon to Haiti. And don't forget what the UN has done to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
How much does all this cost? Less than $1.5 billion per year – less than the cost of the New York Police Department.
Let us not forget that the UN was built on the debris of two world wars that took millions of lives in the first half of the 20th century. The second half of the 20th century was not without problems, but we have had far fewer conflicts. Consider this: There were 40 percent fewer conflicts in the past decade alone, life expectancy has gone up everywhere, diseases such as polio have virtually disappeared, and we have more democratically elected governments than ever before. Has this all happened because of the UN? Of course not. But the UN has played a crucial role.
This has happened in spite of the fact that the UN has no real power. The UN cannot tax, regulate, or arrest, and it has no army.
Nobody would suggest that the UN is perfect. But we have to remember that the UN is a club, and, like any club, it is as strong as its members want it or allow it to be. As clubs go, it's a pretty attractive one. Every country in the world that could become a member has become one.
If you ask indigenous people or the lowest caste groups, they would say that without the UN and its human rights instruments, they would be decimated. If you ask the people or leaders in poor countries, they will tell you that despite all its imperfections, the UN is the only international institution where they have at least some voice.
The need for the UN is only growing. Unilateralism is increasingly recognized as a recipe for disaster. Global challenges need multilateral global solutions.
Of course, there are many things that need to be fixed in the UN. Citizens must be more directly represented by the UN. We cannot have veto powers and permanent representation in the Security Council for World War II victors. A lot of administrative reform is also required. We have to stop the bullying and systematic undermining of the proceedings in the UN by major powers and some minority outliers. Discussions on radical reforms to the UN are at an advanced stage. This is the time for all those who believe in multilateralism and the role of a democratized UN at the center of it to support this process.
• Salil Shetty directs the UN Millennium Campaign.