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Some Olympic Lessons for the U.N.

By Neal Asbury
Thursday, 02 Aug 2012 09:18 AM Current | Bio | Archive

As I watch the Olympics and marvel how nations around the world can compete in peace and without rancor, I wistfully begin to imagine what would happen if the Olympics and the United Nations traded places.

The U.N.’s General Assembly meets in regular session each year from September to December. Over the past years, the U.N. has become hyper-politicized, attacking nations they don’t like and ignoring their charter to forge peace and end poverty around the world. It has become an impotent body that only highlights their inability to become a model of civility.

So the question becomes, do they really need to meet each year? How about meeting every four years, like the Olympics? Would anything less get done?

Besides less hostility, it would also save the American taxpayers’ hard-earned cash.

The United States is assessed 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget for 2010, 2011 and 2012 (the total U.N. budget approved by the General Assembly for the biennium of 2010 to 2011 is $5.4 billion). The U.S. share of the Contributions to International Organizations account alone is estimated at $1.5 billion. Of course, it could call emergency sessions, when required, but when it meets so often, it seems to bring out the worst in everybody. Regrettably, the U.N. has lost its way.

For example, I came across an article by Alex J. Bellamy, writing for the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. In it, he proposes that The Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), which was adopted unanimously by heads of states and governments at the 2005 U.N. World Summit and reaffirmed twice since by the U.N. Security Council, is an abject failure.

“The principle of RtoP rests on three equally weighted and nonsequential pillars: (1) the primary responsibility of states to protect their own populations from the four crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, as well as from their incitement; (2) the international community’s responsibility to assist a state to fulfill its RtoP; and (3) the international community’s responsibility to take timely and decisive action, in accordance with the U.N. Charter, in cases where the state has manifestly failed to protect its population from one or more of the four crimes.”

The U.N. has sat on its hands while millions of people have been killed. Syria is becoming a morgue, while the U.N. squabbles with each other as bitter political relationships take precedence.

But the issues run deeper when you consider the U.N.’s inability to address issues relating to ruthless and corrupt governments, environmental destruction and subjugation of the citizens of the U.N. nations. Such inactivity contributes to world unemployment, dooming billions of people to hopeless, life-long abject poverty. This destabilizes the world economy.

The U.N. needs to act to fulfill its mission in creating a world of “Conscientious Equity”: Conscientious, because it is the right thing to do, and equity, because we all have ownership in doing the right thing. Instead of a beehive of political showboating, they could be helping people around the world make gains in their self-esteem and standard of living

Now look at the founding of the Olympics, which originated in ancient Greece as an Olympic Truce, dating back to the eighth century B.C. During this time, wars were suspended, armies were prohibited from threatening the games, legal disputes were stopped and death penalties were forbidden. Today, the Summer Olympic Games feature more than 27,000 elite athletes from over 200 countries competing in 26 sports.

Which organization sounds like it is more effective in dealing with international disputes? Which organization unites countries so its citizens can enjoy a feeling of hope and a temporary respite from the burdens they face?

Not that the games are free of politics, but since French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin revived the modern Olympics, some real movement has occurred in addressing difficult relationships.

During the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Cathy Freeman, an Australian Aborigine track and field athlete, received wild adulation from Australians when she won the 400 m race, a sign that the country was trying to heal after the long history of the country’s indigenous people being treated as second-class citizens.

During the 1992 games in Barcelona, Germany competed as a unified nation for the first time since 1964, and post-apartheid South Africa was finally invited back to the Olympics after a 30-year absence. From 1996 to 2006, at the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, North Korea and South Korea marched together, even though they competed separately in the sporting events (they now march separately).

Taiwan boycotted the 1976 and 1980 Olympics. Since 1984, Taiwan has participated under the name Chinese Taipei, with the People’s Republic of China refusing to participate if Taiwan was present under the name “Republic of China.” A compromise with China, not known for compromising on anything, was peacefully accomplished.

That’s not to say that the Olympics are free of international disputes.

The 1980 games in Moscow and the 1984 games in Los Angeles were marred by each country boycotting the other’s Olympics. Or the Beijing Olympics in 2008, with protesters calling for boycotts of Beijing due to China's involvement in Darfur and Sudan and ongoing tensions in Tibet.

Or the ultimate Olympics politicization, which occurred in Berlin in 1936 when Hitler tried to use it as a forum for showcasing his Nazi superiority only to see his Aryan propaganda defanged when Jesse Owens, an African American, won four gold medals.

The Olympics isn’t perfect, and its atmosphere of peace and non-violence was forever shattered during the 1972 Munich Olympics when terrorist killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and a West German police officer. When this heinous act occurred, the world came together under the Olympic banner to condemn those responsible.

That never seems to happen at the U.N.

But by and large, every four years the nations of the world can work together for a common cause. Perhaps the U.N. can learn something every four years when they sit together to truly promote peace, freedom and equality. It can be done. The Olympics proves it.

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