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United Nations not a relic of times past

When the United Nations is mentioned lately, it usually isn’t in a positive way. The organization has been accused of being ineffective, ignorant, naïve, or altogether redundant. Saturday I had the chance of touring its main building in New York City, and it reaffirmed my long held belief that the U.N. is well worth keeping and should under no circumstance be abandoned.

The U.N.’s main building sits nestled on Manhattan’s East side, bordering the East River. The entire compound is considered international territory and no nation, not even the United States, has jurisdiction over the territory. This gives the U.N. autonomy and offers a forum for international relations and debates that exists nowhere else in the world.

The main building seems like it’s out of a different era. Erected in the early ’60s, the building may have once been state of the art as far as its architecture and interior design is concerned, but now it seems like the set of a James Bond movie (not a coincidence, I guess).

Seats in the General Assembly hall, in which the number of member states has grown from its 59 founding members to 191 countries, are taped together with duct tape and some of the areas once intended to be accessible to the public even while the councils are in session are now off limits during business hours due to security concerns.

But while the building itself may be dated, it stands almost defiantly for a cause that has remained the same: Solve international discourse through open debate. What could be a nobler cause?

Some may call this outlook naïve, but if it is naïveté, then maybe the world could use more of it.

To chastise the U.N. for being ineffective, for once, is itself a circular argument. As our tour guide put it best when explaining the General Assembly, in which every member country has one vote, “the U.N. is as effective or ineffective as the member states want it to be.”

Even resolutions by the Security Council — an important body of the U.N. as it can be called within hours to discuss arising crises — are non-binding, as the U.N. has no jurisdiction over its members. It operates rather on mutual respect and the understanding that actions have consequences.

One of the more controversial resolutions coming out of the Security Council, for example, was Resolution 1441. It called for “serious consequences” if Iraq did not comply. It did not state, however, what those consequences would be and how long a time frame had to pass before such consequences were to be imposed.

The Bush administration even claimed that the war in Iraq was in full compliance with this resolution and strengthened the U.N.; instead, the war undermined the U.N.’s authority. The international outcry that followed did have the administration back off from this claim quickly.

This is, of course, only one of many historic incidents that have happened in the chambers of the Security Council. Others include the presentation that Adlai Stevenson, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., gave that averted a nuclear standoff between the Soviets and the United States, as it proved the Soviets indeed deployed nuclear arms to Cuba. The whole affair, now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, was a close call and would probably not have gone over so well if the U.N. hadn’t existed at the time.

Naturally, the Cold War has since ended (although certain members of the Bush administration apparently didn’t get the memo prior to Sept. 11), but instances such as the recent events in Haiti have proven that an international forum such as the Security Council is still of value. And as the war on terror is depending on international cooperation, relations formed through the U.N. can only help, even if they are not declared as openly as they had been in the Cold War era.

A “permission slip,” as President George W. Bush suggested, is not needed from the U.N., but to ensure the continuing guiding influence that the organization has had in the past, the U.N. should be respected, as it has proven its value. It should be a forum for open discussion more than a body that is only called upon when dirty work is needed. And maybe somebody should give them funding for new chairs while they are at it.

Sebastian Meyer is a junior majoring in environmental science and an Oracle opinion editor.