Sunday, October 7, 2012 | Categories: Michael's Essays
noahg / photopin
John Peters Humphrey was one great Canadian. Odds are few other Canadians have ever heard of him.
He was born in 1905 in Hampton, New Brunswick. In his childhood years, both his parents died of cancer and he lost one of his arms while playing with fire.
It was that accident and the subsequent teasing from playmates about it that gave him a strong sense of moral fortitude.
He became a lawyer, taught at McGill and in 1946, joined the fledgling United Nations human rights division.
In December, 1948, as its principal author, Humphrey presented the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It was called " the international Magna Carta of all mankind."
That was the illustrious beginning of Canada's deep relationship to the United Nations.
It has lasted decades and given Canada a well-earned reputation for effective diplomacy and commitment to international cooperation.
When the Korean War broke out, Canada sent troops in support of the UN action.
A few years later, in 1956, Lester Pearson settled the Suez crisis by inventing the idea of peacekeeping and won a Nobel Peace Prize in the doing.
Canadian peace keepers have served in Cyprus, the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans.
They have been praised universally for their restraint, compassion and commitment to their mission. All of which has reflected well on Canada itself.
A lot of Canada's relationship with the UN has deteriorated, been downgraded, in the past few years.
Various elements of the media have grumped about its lack of determination to confront evil. We've complained about bloated bureaucracy. Even Stephen Lewis, our eminent former ambassador, has voiced his complaints.
Every September as the General Assembly assembles in New York we hear
more and more about the crackpot and tin pot tyrants and devilish
dictators parading their arrogance and ignorance across the world
Last month was no exception only this time, Canada played the role of spoiler.
In a stinging criticism, Foreign Minister John Baird blasted the UN for its failure to do anything about the butchery in Syria.
His rant took place, in a largely empty hall, after the prime minister became the only head of government in New York to not address the assembly.
Mr. Baird pulled no punches.
"The United Nations must spend less time looking at itself and more time focused on the problems that demand attention," he said.
It wasn't entirely clear what he meant by "looking at itself."
Over the years, the Harper government has made clear its feelings about the UN----it is not a fan. Which is puzzling.
What do governments, what does this government expect of the UN?
Yes, there are dictators and mad men who make speeches heavy with threats. But that's the real world; how it is, not how we would like it to be. There are many bad people running countries. And they are members of the UN.
People think the UN is the Security Council and the General Assembly. It is, only partly.
The agencies of the UN do marvelous work, something that became clear to me as I toured a refugee camp in the Middle East.
It occurs to me that often it is only the agencies of the UN that care about the wretched of the earth.
In 1946, the essayist E.B. White wrote a little book called The Wild Flag in which he called for a working world government; not a Utopia but something like the UN. A few years later, he pronounced on the new organization.
This is what E.B. White said.
"Confronted with its unsuccess, confronted with its frauds and it
tricksters and its interminable debates, we yet stand inside the place
and feel the winds of the world weeping into our own body, feel the
force underlying the UN, the force that is beyond question and beyond
compare and not beyond the understanding of children."
That's the thing, you see.
The United Nations is not them. The United Nations is us.