116. The UN at 75: Jesus Christ, Mother Teresa, and Adebayo Adedeji

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 14 September 2020
Publication: The Guardian (Nigeria)
Image courtesy of: Mat Reding via Unsplash

The 193-member United Nations (UN) commemorates its 75th birthday this month. The world body emerged, with 51 members, like the mythical Egyptian phoenix, from the ashes of the Second World War in 1945 to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” But as Portuguese UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, recently conceded: “Today we have a multilateralism that has no teeth.”

The multilateral system is under severe strain from the headwinds of the populist nativism blowing from Washington D.C. The UN’s work is being bankrupted by its largest donor behaving like a deadbeat dad. America has irresponsibly withdrawn from the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the middle of a global COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration has also waged perpetual trade wars and wielded a wrecking ball through the dispute resolution mechanism of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Three historical figures are depicted here as symbolising the faltering pillars of multilateralism involving peace and security, human rights, and socio-economic development: Jesus Christ, Mother Teresa, and Adebayo Adedeji.

Kenyan scholar, Ali Mazrui, described Jesus as “The Prince of Peace at the UN.” The world body’s 1945 Charter was drafted largely by Christian powers who insisted that only “peace-loving” nations could be members, and pushed Christian concepts of “just wars” and peace and love as the antidote to conflict. Mazrui noted the paradox of these belligerent Christian nations pacifying and colonizing much of the world. The powerful 15-member UN Security Council has five anachronistic veto-wielding permanent members (P5) – the United States, China, Russia, Britain, and France – who still reflect the alliance of victors 75 years ago. France and Britain may have been Great Powers then, but certainly are not today. While the Council represented 22% of the UN membership in 1945, it accounts for just 8% of today’s members. This body’s legitimacy has therefore become threadbare. It is no longer fit for purpose, and must include countries such as Brazil, India, Nigeria, and South African to regain credibility as a truly representative body.

The UN Secretary-General has often been described as “the Pope on the East River.” Two Africans headed the world body in the critical post-Cold War years. Egypt’s Coptic Christian scholar-diplomat, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, crafted the 1992 An Agenda for Peace that still guides much of the UN’s work. The “Pharaoh” deployed 75,000 peacekeepers to 17 trouble spots by 1994.  During the previous four decades, the UN had deployed just 13 peacekeeping missions. Ghana’s Kofi Annan was perhaps the most proselytizing UN Secretary-General: an irony for a self-declared Christian “pragmatist.” UN peacekeeping succeeded in Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Cambodia, El Salvador, and East Timor, but failed spectacularly in Rwanda, Angola, and Bosnia. Out of the nearly 95,000 peacekeepers deployed to 13 current global crisis zones, 80% are deployed to Africa.  The UN, however, damaged its reputation in Haiti during its peacekeeping mission (2004-2019) by spreading cholera which killed 10,000 Haitians, and through sexual abuses perpetrated by its peacekeepers.

The UN Human Rights Council, created in 2015, remains as ineffectual and politicised as its discredited predecessor. Abuses continue from Congo to China to Belarus to Palestine, and from Saudi Arabia to Kashmir and Myanmar, even as black citizens continue to be maimed and murdered by white policemen across American cities. The Calcutta-based Albanian-Indian Catholic nun and Nobel peace laureate, Mother Teresa, spent a lifetime promoting the rights of the poor and down-trodden, with 4,500 nuns across 133 countries. These holy sisters worked in soup kitchens, clinics, orphanages, and schools. Mother Teresa can thus be seen as the embodiment of global human rights. Critics have, however, argued that the canonised nun believed that “the sick must suffer like Christ on the cross,” noting that she failed to provide proper health care in her clinics, as some rich countries like the US similarly neglect universal health coverage. She was also accused of hypocritically perpetuating the status quo by indulging the rich, while threatening the poor with hellfire. Mother Teresa was further condemned for opposing the empowerment of women: widespread discrimination that occurs across many countries.

The global South has sought, since the 1960s, to push the UN and its agencies to move away from the security interests of the powerful to focus more on the socio-economic needs of the poorest.  But despite these efforts, powerful Western governments continue to exert their influence through the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the WTO which they effectively control, rather than through the UN, which plays only a minor role in development. To this day, an American always heads the World Bank and a European the IMF, as if by some natural genetic disposition.

The UN’s 54-member Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) still lacks the authority and resources of the Bretton Woods institutions. The UN development system has thus produced “Lords of Poverty” committed to bureaucratic inertia and allergic to innovation. Despite the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ending in 2015, more than a billion people still live on less than $1.25 a day. Few rich countries are contributing 0.7 % of gross national income to development assistance, a target set 50 years ago, while environmental degradation continues unabated. The current Sustainable Development Goals are accompanied by a quixotic 169 associated targets, and, like the MDGs, represent pure alchemy.

The most recent embodiment of global socio-economic development is Africa’s Prophet of Regional Integration, Adebayo Adedeji. In his youth, he converted from Islam, completing our trinity of global Christian figures. The Nigerian scholar-administrator led the building of regional trade blocs across Africa as head of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) between 1975 and 1991. He also used the ECA to launch the most sustained assault on the Structural Adjustment Programmes implemented from the 1980s by the World Bank and IMF across the developing world. These programmes involved large enforced cuts in health, education, and employment, often conducted in an utterly unaccountable manner. Adedeji consistently argued against the Bretton Woods institutions’ approach of “growth without development” and export-led integration of developing countries into the world economy on massively unequal terms. Like Argentina’s Raúl Prebisch in Latin America two decades earlier, Adedeji urged developing countries instead to use their own resources to promote greater intra-regional growth by prioritising agriculture, industry, and regional integration.

The UN’s 75 years have seen some progress in the area of peace and security, but also massive disappointments in human rights and development. South African president, Nelson Mandela, commemorated the world body’s 50th anniversary in 1995 by noting that: “The youth . . . are . . . bound to wonder why it should be that poverty still pervades the greater part of the globe; that wars continue to rage; and that many in positions of power and privilege pursue cold-hearted philosophies which terrifyingly proclaim: I am not your brother’s keeper!” These words continue to ring true 25 years later, rendering the UN’s 75th birthday a rather sombre affair.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.