Do articles about the United Nations really have to be relentlessly depressing? Over the past six months, this column has dwelt on such bleak topics as the Security Council’s failure to halt the Syrian crisis and the mounting dangers of peacekeeping in trouble-spots like Mali and Lebanon. Yet despite all the bad news, it is arguable that the U.N. has had rather a good year on many other fronts, and focusing solely on its problems is unfair. So this column sets out to celebrate some of the organization’s successes in 2013 so far, and asks whether they might ultimately outweigh its failings.
The first major piece of good news to come out of the U.N. this year was the General Assembly’s adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty in early April. The treaty, aimed at obstructing the flow of conventional arms to terrorists and repressive regimes, is relatively weak. Powers including China and Russia abstained on the resolution approving it. But it is a solid step toward regulating arms deals, and the fact that the General Assembly reached an agreement at all was a relief. After frequent setbacks in large-scale negotiations on issues such as climate change and global trade, the arms trade talks were a timely counterexample of multilateralism working decently.
A second bit of good news is that the U.N. could be on track toward a potentially even more important agreement on the future of international development. The Millennium Development Goals, which have helped guide the fight against poverty since 2000, come to term in 2015. Many observers feared that negotiating new goals would be extremely difficult. A summit on “sustainable development” in Rio in 2012 was an ominous mess, as 10,000 officials gathered to produce an excruciatingly vague set of principles.