By PATRICK HUNTER
The 69th General Assembly of the United Nations is underway at the UN headquarters in New York. One of the features of this Assembly, held annually in September, is the opportunity for the world’s leaders to take part in what is formally referred to as the debate. Usually, the heads of governments have an opportunity to state their philosophy and position about the state of the world, their region and their country and to urge greater unity and sense of purpose – you know, the usual type of appeals that rarely get much attention by anyone.
The high profile leaders – the U.S. president, the Russian president, perhaps the Chinese president –are the ones who usually get the media attention and quotes which outline their view of the world. Attention to the “lesser important” countries are few and far between, much of it dependent on what impact they may have had throughout the year that may set it on a course that highlights a key relationship with the developed countries.
But I love the UN, with all its warts.
The basis of its founding was to prevent wars, and world wars in particular. There have been some past successes in achieving that, but its failings are due in large part to the lack of support it receives from its foundational members – those that are permanent members of the Security Council.
One of the most important values of the UN is that it has helped to give voice to lesser-developed countries and oppressed peoples; it has helped to shine a light on some of the most egregious human rights violations, and it has, to some degree, marshalled support to ease some of the pain in those areas.
What it lacks is an enforcement mechanism – a way to ensure that countries do their part in fulfilling their pledges to their peoples. Most have ratified treaties or conventions, such as human rights, but leave a great deal to be desired in achieving the goals of these conventions.
Last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper opted not to address the UN General Assembly, leaving that task to his foreign minister, even though he was going to be in New York at the same time. Many suspect that this snub was in part due to Canada’s failure to be elected for one of the rotating memberships on the Security Council. It’s like a child who, not having got his way decides to “show them” by refusing to eat or some other lack of co-operation.
This week in New York, the UN hosted the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. To quote from the UN’s press release: “Indigenous peoples represent remarkable diversity – more than 5,000 distinct groups in some 90 countries, making up more than five per cent of the world’s population, some 370 million people. These peoples continue to self-identify as distinct peoples with strong links to traditional territories with their own social, economic and political systems as well as unique languages, cultures and beliefs.”
One of the expected outcomes of this World Conference is the adoption of an action plan that will work towards the full implementation of the rights of Indigenous peoples, an agreement that Canada was very slow in adopting.
The ground-breaking World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001 also produced an Action Plan. Much of the Conference’s outcomes were overshadowed by the September 11 events in the United States. However, one of the key outcomes of that conference was the recognition that the Transatlantic Slave Trade, slavery and colonialism were crimes against humanity. That recognition essentially puts these crimes in a class that does not recognize time limitations. It formed the basis, therefore, for people whose ancestors were enslaved to seek reparations.
There have been other significant world conferences – the Beijing Conference, for example, which focused on women.
What these conferences and the different agencies under the umbrella of the United Nations do provide is a sense of unity among oppressed and underprivileged people that heretofore saw themselves as alone. The UN, through its agencies, provides the statistics, the stories, the experiences – a compendium of information that strengthens the resolve of the disenfranchised. The goals may not be achieved overnight, and in some cases in a lifetime, but the facts provided can form the basis of an awakening – and they have.
So, I remain a big fan of the United Nations. Sure, like all large organizations it is bureaucratic; it is slow, and it doesn’t seem to have a lot of power and influence, particularly in its role as peacekeeper. It has flaws. But it’s good to know that we have their support when we challenge our governments on the denial of our rights.
One of the ways we know that we have their support is the fact that they have passed a resolution to focus on people of African descent over the next 10 years, starting on January 1, 2015. It is an opportunity to hold our governments’ feet to the fire in doing more to eliminate the barriers that racism and racial discrimination cause. Indeed, if nothing else, bringing back the long-form census, which would provide a more detailed look at our condition, would be an achievement. But we can do much more than that.
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