Magazine edition: 2-2014

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Natalie Samarasinghe, UNA-UK’s Executive Director, on improving public debate

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Natalie Samarasinghe, UNA-UK’s Executive Director, on improving public debate

A hundred years ago on 28 June – the date of our UN Forum – the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set in motion events that put Europe, and through its empires the world, on a path to two devastating wars. Just as our landmark birthdays provoke self-reflection, this anniversary has challenged us to consider whether it could happen again.

Recent events certainly give cause for concern. Japan’s Prime Minister has compared tensions between his country and China to the rivalry between Britain and Germany before the First World War. Others see China as the challenger to a declining US. Europe has been deeply unsettled by the annexation of Crimea (a phrase that takes me straight back to history class). In Syria regional powers are erasing the lines put in place after the Great War. It is not hard to imagine an assassination in that region, or indeed another, fuelling a wider conflict.

The main difference today is our international system. It connects us, with increasing technological ease, diplomatically, economically and culturally. I often declare: “The UN is needed more than ever.” Perhaps I ought to say it’s needed as much as it was when it was founded. Instead of using the UN’s frontline agencies as my response to those who question its value, it might be wise to pay tribute to the UN’s original purpose as a global forum. At the UN, rival states don’t just rub shoulders. They discuss problems, create laws and agree joint programmes of work.

Our Forum event will consider the health of this system, and Britain’s place within it, as the UN approaches its 70th birthday – another opportunity for soul-searching, with plenty of ideas included in this New World. Our editor set outs the common fate that befalls these ideas in the “cycle of reform”.

This shouldn’t stop us from thinking about what we would change if we had a magic wand (see our '10' feature). UN veteran Sir Brian Urquhart has told us of his wish to see a UN standing force. John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN, famously said the UN Headquarters could lose 10 floors without much impact. Nor should we let lack of progress temper what we push for. (Currently, UNA-UK is supporting campaigns on Security Council veto restraint and a better process to select the Secretary-General). But we must remember the UN’s political limitations, which Bolton so admirably embodied.

This is the UN’s built-in catch. There is an inherent tension between its collective, long-term aims and the narrow interests of its member states, who set its agenda and budget, and decide what it can and cannot do. To truly transform the Organization would require changing the fabric of international relations and recognising that national and global interests have converged. A flood in Bangladesh can affect European jobs and food prices in Africa. We can no longer say: these things don’t concern us.

Across the world, the political mindset is overwhelmingly – and increasingly – inward-looking and short-term. How many politicians speak plainly about the depth of the challenges facing the world, or what is needed to overcome them? No wonder people switch off.

But we cannot afford to do so. If there is a silver bullet, for UN reform and the global solutions we need, it is public engagement. We need to demand more from our governments. We must show them that we value our institutions and want them to be more effective.

The Forum will provide an opportunity to do just that – come along and stake your claim. Visit

Natalie Samarasinghe is Executive Director at UNA-UK. 

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