RIO DE JANEIRO — This year marks the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. Amid the major economic and geopolitical effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is a time to reflect on the successes and failures of the UN system, Brazil’s role in its story and what needs to be done to improve the world body.
Brazil was a founding member of the UN. Its delegation to the San Francisco Conference, held in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II, helped to ensure that the new organization served the interests of all member states, rather than just those of the major global powers. For example, Brazilian and Chinese representatives proposed that an international health organization be established. Based on this proposal, the World Health Organization was created in 1948.
Bertha Lutz, one of Brazil’s representatives at the San Francisco gathering, fought successfuly to have the preamble to the UN Charter include explicit mention of the equal rights of men and women. This wording was essential for the creation, in 1946, of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, which became the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality.
Since then, Brazil — now a country of 209 million — has contributed to the UN in many other ways. First, it has actively participated in the major debates shaping global norms; namely, how countries should behave to maximize the well-being of populations, promote human rights and peacefully resolve disputes. Under the leadership of a Brazilian diplomat, Osvaldo Aranha, the UN General Assembly took the historic step in 1947 of approving the creation of two independent states in the Middle East. Although not respected by all member states, this decision later was the basis for peace negotiations aimed at establishing a Palestine state existing side by side in peace and security with Israel. (Palestine has nonmember observer state status in the UN.)
Historically, Brazil has helped to lead environmental debates and initiatives at the UN. In 1992, it hosted the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Eco 92) and, two decades later, Rio+20. More recently, Brazil was an active negotiator of the Agenda 2030 for sustainable development, which sets specific goals for poverty reduction and reducing inequalities, among 17 other objectives. Brazil’s active role also extends to nuclear nonproliferation, development, human rights and humanitarian issues.
Second, Brazil has contributed to the UN by providing resources and personnel. For the last seven decades, Brazil has participated in 46 UN peacekeeping missions; for 13 consecutive years, Brazilians led the military component of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Minustah), involving more than 37,000 soldiers and police officers. A Brazilian lieutenant general, Ricardo Costa Neves, is the current force commander of the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco), a position previously held by two other Brazilian army officers.
And third, Brazil has historically contributed ideas and solutions during several waves of reform of the UN system. For instance, it backed the 2005 formation of the Peacebuilding Commission, which helps post-conflict countries to become more peaceful. Brazil has also traditionally used its diplomacy to oppose maneuvers that go against the UN Charter, including speaking out against the use of military force by UN member states that later proved disastrous, such as the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011. That year, Brazil proposed the idea of Responsibility While Protecting (RWP), to try to limit the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine being used as a green light for military interventions.
In turn, Brazil has also benefited from its engagement with the UN. Currently, through Operation Welcome (Operação Acolhida), UN agencies are providing essential support, such as helping to provide access to housing, food and employment, while working alongside Brazilian entities in responding to the Venezuelan refugee crisis, which has brought more pressure on scarce public services at the Brazil-Venezuela border.
More broadly, the UN enables collective action against pressing issues in areas where, if acting alone, Brazil would be unable to pursue its goals. For instance, a World Trade Organization dispute settlement case on unfair subsidies on cotton resulted in the US paying $300 million to Brazil’s Cotton Institute in 2014. Brazil used the UN to take action after documents leaks by the former NSA agent, Edward Snowden, revealed that the US was spying on key Brazilian companies and the private communications of former president Dilma Rousseff. With Germany, Brazil sponsored a General Assembly resolution reaffirming the right to privacy in digital communications.
Despite the tangible benefits of Brazil’s membership in the UN, since the country’s current, extreme-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, took office in January 2019, the UN has been attacked by his government and its backers. Bolsonaro and some of his closest allies view the UN as a “Communist meeting room.” The UN is, in fact, the only space where dialogue and cooperation are possible among 193 member states, governed by leaders from all points along the political spectrum. It is at the UN that former and current geopolitical rivals often put their differences aside to negotiate landmark arrangements, including the Paris climate agreement.
Recent criticisms of Brazil’s engagement with the UN also revolve around the idea that the country’s participation in the world body threatens Brazil’s sovereignty. The exact opposite is true. It is worth remembering that the expansion of Brazil’s national territory into the ocean, known as the “Blue Amazon,” is a result of decisions made in the UN. The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf allowed Brazil to add 935,000 kilometers to its maritime territory, significantly increasing the area in which the country can exercise sovereign control over the exploitation of natural resources.
The 75th anniversary of the UN is accompanied by dialogues around the world on how to improve the system, enhance governance and human rights and promote peace and sustainable development. Some ideas include finding more reliable, effective ways for participation by nonstate actors; strengthening the Peacebuilding Commission; and reinforcing the role of regional organizations. The Together First Campaign, a movement of global citizens, experts and activists, is a prime example of an initiative dedicated to making the UN more relevant.
Brazilian voices, including regional and local governments, civil society groups and corporations have much to add to the debate. The 75th anniversary offers a unique chance to reflect on how — despite huge geopolitical rifts and the challenges posed by the pandemic — the UN can be a better place by opening more space for the voiceless and fulfilling its commitment to leave no one behind.
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