How To Reform UN

Emerging Survival Crisis

Bharat Dogra

In the middle of several problems which need attention, it is necessary not to lose track of what is most urgent. It should be possible to build a broad-based consensus that those factors which threaten the life-creating, life-nurturing conditions of the planet earth deserve the most urgent attention. The most defining feature of the 21st century is the existence of such human made threats to earth's life-nurturing conditions.

Such threats are related to climate change, crossing of other 'planetary boundaries' and 'tipping points' of life-giving conditions (including water and land use) accumulation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction as well as rapid spread of highly hazardous technologies and products particularly those capable of inflicting irreversible damages.

Edward Goldsmith and his co-authors warned in the widely discussed report 'Imperiled Planet' (MIT, USA),"The danger is that we have gone beyond simply damaging ecosystems and we are now disrupting the very processes that keep the Earth a fit place for higher forms of life. For life as we know it to continue, the balance of gases in the atmosphere must remain within certain limits. ...Beyond a certain point, the system may 'flip' to an entirely new state which could be extremely uncomfortable for life as we know it".

The concept of a tipping point argues that global warming beyond 20°C can result in irretrievable drift towards disasters and adverse weather conditions. In its Emissions Gap Report of year 2010, the United Nations Environment Programme concluded that the currently forecast 2020 emission levels were consistent with pathways that would lead to a likely temperature increase of between 2.5 to 5 degrees celsius by the end of the 21st century.

Even a 20°C change in temperature will cause very large-scale disruption in several life-sustaining activities apart from leading to the loss of vast low-lying areas (related to rise in sea-level) and worsening 'natural' disasters. But beyond 20°C, the earth's natural processes begin to break down and cause more warming.

The United Nations Secretary-General's High-level Panel on Global Sustainability (UN SHPGS) which drew pointed attention to the Emissions Gap report mentioned above has also highlighted the work of a group of scientists from the Stockholm Resilience Centre based on a framework of 'planetary boundaries'. These scientists have said that once human activity has passed certain thresholds or tipping points, defined as planetary boundaries there is a risk of "irreversible and abrupt environment change". Nine such boundaries have been identified. These scientists have said that human activity appears to have already "transgressed the boundaries associated with climate change, rate of biodiversity loss and changes in the global nitrogen cycle". Further the world may soon be approaching the boundaries for interference with the global phosphorus cycle, global freshwater use, ocean acidification and global change in land use. There are strong inter-linkages among these boundaries, so that crossing one affects others.

In the last decade of the 20th century the world had accumulated nuclear stockpiles which added up to a destructive potential nearly 700 times that of all the explosive power used in the three major wars of this century, enough to kill all human beings (as well as most other forms of life) many times over.

Use of CFCs and related chemicals over a period of just 5 or 6 decades was enough to endanger the protective layer of stratospheric ozone which had evolved over millions of years to create those conditions in which life could flourish on this planet.

A significant aspect of modern life is that new products and technologies which yield high profits can spread very quickly all over the world. Very few people stop to ask whether any hazards associated with new products and technologies have been suitably assessed. Corporate interests intervene frequently to prevent available information on hazards from reaching people. The result is that the risk of the very rapid spread of hazards has increased very significantly.

Russell Train, former chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, USA said, "There are today more than 30000 chemicals in actual commercial production. Every year, this list grows by some 1000 new compounds. Of the more than two million known chemicals, only a few thousand have been tested for carcinogenicity and—aside from those used in food additives, drugs and pesticides—only a few hundred have been adequately tested. We know, in fact, very little about the health effects even of the 30000 chemicals already in commercial production. We have no way of systematically screening the chemicals that go into production, we have no way of knowing precisely which chemicals go into production every year. In other words, we not only don't know whether what's going on out there is dangerous—we don't even know what's going on out there. We have, however, learned one thing: it's what we don't know that can really hurt us, even kill us".

Dr Vyvyan Howard, former development toxico-pathologist at the University of Liverpool, UK, says in a paper published in The Ecologist, "Recent research has shown that the synergistic effect among chemicals used in different combinations is much more dramatic than was previously thought. Yet we continue to test chemicals for their possible carcinogenic or mutagenic potential in isolation from each other. This procedure can no longer be justified. We have in out bodies today what is estimated to be between 300 and 500 chemicals that simply would not have been there 50 years ago, because at that time they did not exist or were present in the environment at undetectable levels".

Attention may be drawn particularly to those hazardous technologies and products which can cause irreversible loss or loss which cannot be reversed, on a very large scale, this is particularly true of GM crops and GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).

An eminent group of scientists from various countries who constitute the Independent Science Panel have said in their conclusion after examining all aspects of GM crops—"GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. Transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, and hence there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture. Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment. GM crops should be firmly rejected now."

This threat becomes very serious and of a permanent nature when one remembers that it is almost impossible to fully recall GM crops which have been released once. As Professor Susan Bardooz has noted, "GM is the first irreversible technology in human history. When a GMO is released it is out of our control; we have no means to call it back.... Since GMOs are self-replicating, releasing them might have dire consequences for human and animal health and for the environment and can change evolution".

The World Health Organisation in its annual World Health Reports (WHR) has warned time and again about the seriousness of global health challenges. The WHR has warned, "We stand on the brink of a global crisis in infectious diseases. No country is safe from them.... Antibiotic resistance in hospitals worldwide threatens to leave medical and public health workers virtually helpless in the prevention or treatment of many infections. Various factors have combined, this report says, to create, perhaps the richest opportunities ever for the spread of infections". In particular this report has focussed attention on the threat of new emerging diseases—"During the past 20 years, at least 30 new diseases have emerged to threaten the health of hundreds of millions of people. For many of these diseases there is no treatment, cure or vaccine and the possibility of preventing or controlling then is limited. ...Any epidemic anywhere must now be seen as a threat to virtually all countries especially those that serve as major hubs of international travel".

The Global Environment Outlook Report (GEO-1997) prepared by the United Nations Environment Programme has said on a note of warning, "In the future, the continued degradation of natural resources, shortcomings in environmental responses and renewable resource constraints may increasingly lead to food insecurity and conflict situations. Changes in global biogeochemical cycles and the complex interactions between environmental problems such as climate change, ozone depletion and acidification may have impacts that will confront local, regional and global communities with situations they are unprepared for. Previously unknown risks to human health are becoming evident from the cumulative and persistent effects of a whole range of chemicals particularly the persistent organic pollutants. The effects of climate variability and change are already increasing the incidents of familiar pubic health problems and leading to new ones, including a more extensive reach of vector borne diseases and a high incidence of heat related illness and mortality. If significant major reforms are not implemented quickly, the future may hold more surprises".

These warnings from authoriatative sources clearly indicate the extent to which human beings as well as all other forms of life are threatened, and the reasons why such threats to all forms of life and to life-creating conditions is likely to increase in future.

Faced with such an alarming situation, what has been the response of the world leadership so far? In the context of the most critical problem of climate change the UNSHPGS has reported, "Despite the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol, annual global carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion grew by about 38% between 1990 and 2009, with the rate of growth faster after 2000 than in the 1990s".

The GEO is therefore quite justified in lamenting that "A sense of urgency is lacking. Internationally and nationally, the funds and political will are insufficient to halt further global environment degradation and to address the most pressing environmental issues even though technology and knowledge are available to do so... The gap between what has been done this far and what is realistically needed is widening."

Greenpeace leader Jeremy Leggett has rightly said, "…the uniquely frustrating thing about global warming—to those many people who now see the dangers—is that the solutions are obvious. But there is no denying that enacting them will require paradigm shifts in human behavior—particularly in the field of co-operation between nation states—which have literally no precedents in human history. This is the challenge. There is no single issue in contemporary human affairs that is of greater importance...."

The efforts to reduce the risk from nuclear weapons have not made any significant progress. In fact depleted uranium weapons are being freely used, and the chances of use of tactical nuclear weapons have increased. There is no guarantee yet that full-blown nuclear weapons will never be used. The nightmarish risks of terrorist groups gaining access to nuclear weapons have been discussed from time to time.

According to Time magazine, terrorist outfits, particularly when they have the help of a foreign government, can use nuclear weapons to kill around a hundred thousand people. The same magazine reported that the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan had accumulated material to manufacture chemical weapons which could kill 6 to 8 million people.

The US Air Force has estimated that in the event of a full-scale nuclear war between India and Pakistan, as many as 100 million people will die. The first hour of such a war itself would claim 17 million lives in Pakistan and 29 million in India. (Reported in the Statesman, 22 June, 1998)

Even without the wartime use of nuclear weapons, merely maintaining a huge nuclear complex either for direct military purposes or for supporting it can pose a threat to the health and well being of hundreds of thousands of people.

These various threats to earth's life giving conditions also cause massive distress to human beings as well as all other forms of life. The distress caused to other forms of life is not even mentioned even when countless birds fall dead in intensifying heat waves and prolonged droughts, or when millions of fish perish in rapidly drying and / or polluted water bodies. The fact that the extinction of species is now many times higher is absorbed just like that without any intense feeling or sensitivity for the massive distress (and the associated injustice).

Both due to the massive distress caused to various forms of life (including of course human beings) as well as (or even more) due to the often irreversible nature of the threat to life creating conditions on earth, the issues identified above should get the highest priority. While not many people question this, recent record confirms that effective and adequate remedial action is nevertheless very uncertain and in fact unlikely in the existing situation.

One problem is that decisions are taken at the level of various nation states keeping in view the perceived self interests of the country only. Secondly, the decisions within a country are often influenced too much by the powerful groups and strong lobbies keeping in view their own narrow interests. Quite often some powerful corporate interests have a dominant say. At the international level, in the prevailing distribution of power, it is often what the few rich and powerful countries say which is more crucial for decision taking regardless of how unjust this may be. The more urgent concerns of the poorer and less influential countries are invariably neglected, or accorded very low priority.

To what extent can the United Nations, as the most important international organisation of the planet, make up for these shortcomings in tackling the most urgent problems? The record so far is not at all an encouraging one, as is evident from the fact that remedial action on the most urgent issues has lagged far behind the real needs.

One serious problem of the United Nations is that in its General Assembly a nation which has a population of one hundred thousand has the same representation (one vote) as a nation whose population is more than a thousand times.

The only privileged nations to have extraordinary (veto) power are the five permanent members of the Security Council who include the worst pollutants and human rights violators in the entire world. Increasingly the form that the United Nations intervention takes in several crisis situations is closely linked to the foreign policy of the USA.

Unfortunately, narrow minded lobbies and vested interests have also become an integral part of the functioning of the UN, further reducing its ability to approach the most urgent issues in a non-partisan way which could get very widespread, broad based support. Due to its increasingly bureaucratic ways, the UN has not been able to create and motivate a very wide and strong network of volunteers and activists to work on the most urgent issues.

The record of the United Nations can of course be improved for tackling the most urgent issues by initiating long overdue reforms. It can be repositioned as a more volunteer based, activist driven international organisation dedicated above all to the more urgent 'survival' issues. It can set a clear time frame for urgent actions on these 'survival' issues. But before this can get wider acceptance the existing unjust structure of the United Nations (particularly the Security Council and the veto power for its five permanent members) must change. However as things stand today, this appears to be very difficult.

So the role of people's movements is a very critical one. Well organised social movements with clear aims can mobilise people on a large scale to pressurise their national governments, the world leadership and the United Nations to initiate justice based effective remedial actions on survival issues before it is too late. The movements for justice and equality as well as movements for peace and environment protection supported by movements for gender justice, animal rights movements and several other movements, all can contribute to this by better co-operation and integration with each other for wider objectives.

If such movements can create strong public opinion for justice based solutions to survival issues, then true and sincere internationalism, with the objective of saving the earth and uniting all people for this can progress much beyond limited reforms of the United Nations. It should be possible then to think of creating a world government with a mandate for initiating adequate and effective remedial actions on the most urgent survival issues.

Vol. 49, No.21, Nov 27 - Dec 3, 2016