Hit by corruption scandals and accused of failing to prevent genocidal wars, the United Nations (UN) has little to celebrate on its 60th anniversary.

What is the UN?

The UN brings together 191 countries in allegedly shared aims: ’to maintain international security, to develop friendly relations between nations, to co-operate in solving problems and promote human rights’.

In June 1945 representatives of 50 countries met to draw up a United Nations charter. The UN officially came into existence on 24 October 1945, with 51 member states.

The major powers wanted a controlled form of international co-operation in order to ensure their world dominance, while at the same time avoiding the scale of destruction of property, wealth and lives brought about by world wars.

The ill-starred forerunner of the UN was the League of Nations, established in 1919, which failed to prevent World War Two.

Is the UN independent?

Many people, including those on the left such as Tony Benn, see the UN as an independent body rising above the interests of different nations. Some raised, for example, a UN intervention as an alternative to US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Although, in the early years, the UN forums were dominated by the ’cold war’ clash of interests between the Soviet Union and the United States, from its inception the UN has been a tool of imperialism. The right to own, trade and dispose of property (ie capital) freely is actually enshrined in the charter on human rights.

Capitalism was restored in the Soviet Union 15 years ago and China is now increasingly a capitalist system.

The UN is now dominated by the only world superpower, the United States, and thus also by the interests of the multinational companies that it represents. The US will use the UN where useful and ignore it where necessary. Where the UN frustrates the US, for example voting against war in Iraq, they simply circumvent it.

Peace-keeping

There have been more wars in the world since the founding of the UN than ever in previous history. Most parts of the world have been riven by war - Africa, the Middle East, Asia and even Europe (former Yugoslavia).

The UN’s weakness is illustrated by the fact that it has passed more than 50 resolutions against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and yet the US veto on the security council means they are never acted on. Secretary-general Kofi Annan was awarded the Nobel peace prize just before 9/11. Since then, the UN has failed to prevent war on Afghanistan and Iraq.

The UN is currently engaged in 15 peace-keeping operations around the world. But it is famous for disastrous operations, such as in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, where thousands were slaughtered while UN peace-keeping troops stood by.

Human rights

A commitment to human rights was essential following the atrocities of World War Two. The Declaration on human rights (1948) enshrines the right to life, liberty, and freedom of movement, freedom of opinion and expression, and so on. It forbids torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. It upholds the "inherent right of all people to enjoy and utilise fully and freely their natural wealth and resources."

Yet half the world’s 6 billion population are poor, and over one billion live on less than $1 a day. There are around 15 million refugees and a further 20 million "displaced persons" (refugees within their own country). Freedom of movement is denied the hundreds of thousands of people deported from countries all over the world.

According to The Independent, there is barely any part of the world where there is not extreme abuse of human rights, from mistreatment by the police to extra-judicial executions.

US torture and inhuman treatment at Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay have been exposed. Recently it has been shown how the CIA kidnaps ’terrorist’ suspects and sends them to countries like Syria and Egypt to be tortured. And yet the US simply refuses to agree to an International Court and so avoids any action against it.

The Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959), like many other pious UN ’declarations’, stands against the abuse and exploitation of children and for resources to be devoted to the education and welfare.

Yet 80% of the world’s refugees and displaced people are women and children. There are 300,000 child prostitutes in the US alone - the richest country in the world. There are around 300,000 child soldiers, a third of whom are in Africa.

Humanitarian assistance

The UN claims that humanitarian relief is one of its major functions. Just this year shows what a sham that is!

A new UN emergency fund was established this summer to respond to natural disasters. A total was envisaged of £280 million a year. But just days after this fund was agreed, 1,000s were killed or made homeless by the failures of the US government to prepare for or respond to Hurricane Katrina. This new approach has now been put to the test in the earthquake in Pakistan and Kashmir, where the death toll is higher than necessary because of the appalling rescue and relief effort. Only £90 million has been pledged of the £320 million the UN says is needed.

Why this failure?

Essentially the UN is a capitalist institution. No matter the protestations of the smaller powers who try to assert their authority, the success or failure of the UN depends on the interests of the major imperialist powers and the greedy multinational companies they represent.

This is shown by the weaknesses of overtly benevolent organisations such as the World Health Organisation, part of the UN, whose programmes include the provision of essential drugs. It has failed to fight the profit-seeking greed of the multinational drug companies when it comes to providing drugs to the 40 million people in the world living with HIV and AIDS.

The UN’s ’autonomous organisations’ also include the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), both of which are directly responsible for a third of the debts of the world’s poorest countries, and insist on economic programmes which have led to large-scale privatisation, slashing of public spending and the enforced opening up of markets to multinational vultures.

And the UN is not immune from the methods of capitalism’s underbelly as the recent scandal involving the UNs Oil-for-Food Programme to Iraq shows. More than 2,200 companies were involved in the programme who illegally paid $1.8 billion to Saddam Hussein’s regime in kickbacks. Now there are new allegations of malpractice in the awarding of UN contracts relating to the company Compass.

60th anniversary summit.

In September, leaders of 150 countries took part in a summit to mark 60 years. The summit was originally called to measure progress on the ’millennium goals’, the pledges made five years ago to tackle world poverty. But instead the main issues were the so-called war on terror and the rejection of attempts by smaller powers to expand membership of the UN security council.

The leaders of India and South Africa called for reform of the UN Security Council to address "the gross imbalance of power". South African president Thabo Mbeki criticised "rich and powerful nations" for blocking reform. But therein lies the rub. The "rich and powerful nations" - essentially the US backed up by Britain and the rest - have no intention of losing their grip.

Voices were raised in protest at the failures on such fundamental issues as world poverty, nuclear weapons and the environment. But in fact goals on all these issues were watered down. It was only after hard lobbying that the US agreed that the millennium development goals would even be mentioned in the final declaration.

Nonetheless, the UN proclaims that it is "working to make the world a better place". Kofi Annan calls for reform of the UN and says: "The lives of millions and the hopes of billions rest upon leaders’ pledges to fight poverty, disease and inequality".

But these hopes won’t be addressed by reforming the UN. Capitalist interests inevitably mean the exploitation of billions for the profits of the few. The breakdown of ’friendly relations’ and their replacement by trade wars or real wars is equally inevitable in the pursuit of profit, power and prestige.

The "lives of millions and the hopes of billions" can only ever really be solved when those millions and billions take their destinies into their own hands.

Socialists are in favour of international co-operation - the sharing of resources, technology and expertise on a scale inconceivable under this present system. This is impossible unless the world’s wealth and resources are owned and controlled democratically by the majority in society.

On that basis we can truly unite nations in the pursuit of security, freedom and the full enjoyment life for all.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

Committee for a workers' International publications

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