I’ve never been much into reading. I like pictures better. As a child, I was given an old book of black and white photographs. It was called The Family of Man. What an extraordinary and riveting collection of pictures - 503 in all! Some pictures of interesting and beautiful scenery; many pictures of people - children, babies, sad people, happy people, people working, people arguing, people in love, people at war, - people in various situations.
I pored over these pictures, which were taken by 273 photographers, from 68 countries. One photo seemed to bring all the themes together. It was a picture of the Council of the United Nations. There are few captions in this picture book, but this picture has a quotation from the Charter of the United Nations:
We, the peoples of United Nations.
Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small …
The idea of a “family of man” seemed to me so beautiful and sensible, and it still does. Yet, all we ever hear about, in history and in current affairs, is the struggle for supremacy between nations. What is left of the idea?
Well, I still look at this book. And, the United Nations is still there and still expressing this unfashionable idea. Its original 50 member states in 1945 have grown to 192 in 2007. Its member countries include just about every independent state on the planet. (The few exceptions include Taiwan, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.)
In the news, we hear about the UN Security Council, about UN peace-keeping and security successes and failures. Especially in the US and Australia, much publicity is given to the idea that the UN is ineffective, and that there are incidents of corrupt UN officials. Yet, for such a huge organisation, the minimal number of corruption scandals, and so on, is remarkable. Any major city's police force probably has a much thicker folder of scandals.
UN organisations work towards peace through development and education, not just through UN peacekeeping troops: that's the unifying strategy. Underlying social and environmental problems cause poverty and famine which lead to warfare (an example is Darfur). So some UN bodies use science (UNESCO, UNDP, MAB, FAO, IHP*) to fight climate change and desertification, and to aid economic development and growth through promoting sustainable agricultural practices and water resources management.
Education is a big part of many UN bodies for similar reasons. Education is used to fight epidemics such as HIV-AIDS and to empower rural and poor people and women. The UN aim is that they can then play a part in their own development and growth and help create sustainable communities that can live together in peace. Other UN bodies focus more on economic development (World Bank, IMF, UNIDO*).
UN and UNESCO recognise that culture is very relevant to global peace, and that clashes of culture cause conflict, so World Heritage is part of the UN's peace strategy and has been since 1946. Respect for other people, and their religions and cultures is one part of this. UNESCO promotes human rights, and understanding of our similarities and our difference, and learning to work together.
The UN’s work goes into many spheres - peace-keeping, disarmament, human rights, international law, humanitarian assistance, environment, education, refugees, children’s rights and well-being. The scope of its activities is enormous.