UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Born out of World War II’s devastation to save succeeding generations from the scourge of conflict, the United Nations officially marked its 75th anniversary Monday with an appeal from Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to preserve the longest period in modern history without a military confrontation between the world’s most powerful nations.
The U.N. chief told the mainly virtual commemoration that “it took two world wars, millions of deaths and the horrors of the Holocaust for world leaders to commit to international cooperation and the rule of law,” and that commitment produced results.
“A Third World War — which so many had feared — has been avoided,” Guterres said. “This is a major achievement of which member states can be proud — and which we must all strive to preserve.”
His appeal came at an inflection point in history, as the United Nations navigates a polarized world facing a pandemic, regional conflicts, a shrinking economy and growing inequality.
Looking back over the past 75 years, Guterres cited other major U.N. achievements: peace treaties and the U.N.’s far-flung peacekeeping missions, decolonization, setting human rights standards, “the triumph over apartheid” in South Africa, eradication of diseases, a steady reduction in hunger, development of international law and landmark pacts to protect the environment and planet Earth.
But today, he warned, “climate calamity looms, biodiversity is collapsing, poverty is rising, hatred is spreading, geopolitical tensions are escalating, nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert” and technologies have opened huge new opportunities “but also exposed new threats.”
In an AP interview in June, Guterres said the U.N.’s biggest failing was its inability to prevent medium and small conflicts.
And 25 years after world leaders meeting in Beijing adopted a 150-page platform to achieve equality for women, he said Monday that “gender inequality remains the greatest single challenge to human rights around the world.”
Appealing for the world’s nations and peoples to work together, Guterres said, “the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the world’s fragilities” which can only be addressed together.
“Today we have a surplus of multilateral challenges and a deficit of multilateral solutions,” the secretary-general said.
Criticized for spewing out billions of words and achieving scant results on its primary mission of ensuring global peace, the U.N. nonetheless remains the one place that its 193 member nations can meet to talk.
And as frustrating as its lack of progress often is, especially when it comes to preventing and ending crises, there is also strong support for its power to bring not only nations but people of all ages from all walks of life, ethnicities and religions together to discuss critical issues like climate change.
The United Nations marked its actual 75th anniversary — the signing of the U.N. Charter in San Francisco on June 26, 1945 by delegates from about 50 countries — on that date this year at an event scaled down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Monday’s mainly virtual official commemoration will not be a celebration. It will include a declaration on the U.N.’s 75th anniversary, approved by diplomats from all U.N. member states after sometimes heated negotiations. Then, representatives from over 180 countries are expected to deliver pre-recorded speeches lasting three minutes.
“It’s very unfortunate that it’s going to be a pretty gloomy celebration for the U.N,” said Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.
Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, a longtime U.N. critic who previously served as U.N. ambassador, said the United Nations did not meet expectations at the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s “that with Cold War gridlock removed, it would once again be effective.”
Bolton said President Donald Trump isn’t going to tackle the U.N. reforms that he would like to see if he wins a second term. “I think he doesn’t fully understand it, doesn’t care about it, like much of the world of foreign policy,” Bolton said.
If Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins, “they’ll want to do more through the U.N., but I don’t think they’ve thought it through either,” Bolton said. “So I think you’re at a period of uncertainty that’s going to last for some time.”
To mark its 75th anniversary, the United Nations launched “a global conversation” in January using surveys, polls, online and in-person gatherings to find out what all kinds of people were thinking about the future. The results, which secretary-general called “striking,” were released Monday.
According to the surveys, over one million people from all 193 U.N. member nations took part, including 50,000 people in 50 diverse countries who were part of a scientific poll.
Fabrizio Hochschild-Drummond, the secretary-general’s special adviser on the 75th anniversary commemoration, said it was striking that against the backdrop of polarization, disagreement and deadlock, respondents across all regions, ages and social groups “were remarkably united in their priorities for the future.”
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, he said, the immediate priority for respondents is access to affordable health care, safe water and sanitation and education, followed by greater international solidarity and increased support to those hardest-hit by the pandemic.
Over 87 % of respondents “believe global cooperation is vital to deal with today’s challenges,” Hochschild-Drummond said, and 74 percent said they believe the U.N. is essential in tackling the challenges the world faces.
Guterres said the 75th anniversary is an ideal time to realize these aims.
“We face our own 1945 moment,” he said. “We must meet that moment. We must show unity like never before to overcome today’s emergency, get the world moving and working and prospering again.”
Longtime international correspondent Edith M. Lederer has been chief U.N. correspondent for The Associated Press since 1998. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EdithLedererAP