Canadians need not be dismayed by their country's failure to win a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. Billions of people around the world have been increasingly dismayed by the failure of the UN to live up to the lofty ideals set out in its Charter in 1945 following the Second World War.
It's useful to recall these ideals: "To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war …; to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights …; to establish conditions under which justice … can be maintained; and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom."
Sixty-five years later, the UN has scored some successes, and Canada has often acted decisively at the world body for good causes. But the UN has not prevented - and could not prevent - many more wars. The UN has made a cruel mockery of human rights. It has done little beyond grand proclamations to promote the rule of law. And - with the notable exception of Unicef - its economic aid to poor countries has often been more corruptive than constructive.
The most defining single moment in the UN's history came in the fall of 1960 when heads of government gathered in New York for a General Assembly session. John Diefenbaker, then prime minister, representedCanada. As a UN correspondent at the time, I was sitting nearly alone in the press gallery perhaps 30 metres behind Nikita Khrushchev, who, because of the regular seat rotation, was at the back of the chamber. While Britain's Harold Macmillan was speaking at the podium, Khrushchev suddenly banged his shoe on his desk and shouted that the Russians could sink Britain with one nuclear attack.
His startling deliberate outburst was aimed not at the West, of course, but at those small nations that had started to unite behind Dag Hammarskjold, the only effective secretary-general the UN has ever had, to save The Congo from chaos. Hammarskjold himself took the podium to plead that the UN belonged to the small nations. But the only small nation to stand up to Khrushchev was Nepal.
Khrushchev did not achieve his declared objective of a UN troika, with the West, the Soviet bloc and the "third world" equally represented at the top. But nearly three decades before the end of the Cold War, he succeeded in making sure the UN would not be an effective force for human freedom.
Today, China is the most important power preventing the UN from practising its ideals and fulfilling its potential. Since the People's Republic replaced the Republic of China - Taiwan - in the UN in 1971, with Canada's support, Beijing has made common cause with the majority of UN members whose governments are not democratic and routinely violate the human rights of their peoples.
A small but revealing example of Chinese Communist clout in the UN passed quietly in Montreal in early October. The 11-day annual assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization - the only UN specialized agency based in Canada - adjourned without heeding Taiwan's plea for observer status. The ICAO has become more important since 9/11 because it works to ensure not only global airline safety but also internationally agreed measures against terrorism. Taiwan is part of the increasingly dense air traffic in the western Pacific. But just as Beijing has kept Taiwan out of the World Health Organization, it blocks access to the ICAO because it has cowed most UN members into recognizing only one China.
The evidence over many years is overwhelming: The UN has simply not lived up to its billing. Peacekeeping, for which Canada can rightly take credit, has become a largely discredited thing of the past. This doesn't mean that Canada should stop working for a better UN. And it doesn't mean that failure to regain a Security Council seat isn't a setback. But it does mean that the vote was blatantly political, that it didn't take due account of Canada's roles in Afghanistan - a UN-authorized mission - and Haiti relief, and that the UN more than ever needs to get its act together.
David Van Praagh, a professor of journalism at Carleton University, is author of The Greater Game: India's Race with Destiny and China .
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