When the world goes into crisis, the United Nations, despite its sometimes fitful reputation, magically reappears as a place of last resort for solving its most pressing problems. In the two major crises that have faced the planet over the last few weeks -- the tragedy of the Malaysian Flight 17 explosion and the Israeli invasion of Gaza -- the UN has both times assumed a prominent role. First, on Monday, the UN Security Council unanimously demanded that international investigators have unhindered access to the site of the Malay aircraft's crash and that "those responsible for this incident be held to account." The resolution also called for an end to the fighting in the area.
That is the UN Security Council acting properly under the UN Charter, reflecting the views of the world community which has been demanding a fully transparent investigation into the horrific shoot-down of the plane. The very fact of the vote now also gives legitimacy to a probe that will be genuinely independent of outside pressures through the International Civil Aviation Organization. The Council decision has forced Russia, which is under suspicion for having a role in the aircraft's destruction, to give into global pressure and support the Council's decision, even as it loses control over the findings of the investigators. Finally, it has provided the US envoy to the United Nations, Samantha Power, a platform on the world's greatest public stage to present evidence of possible Russian complicity in the tragedy. As she observed at Monday's meeting: "There is one party from which we have heard too little condemnation (of the downed plane) and that is Russia... If Russia is not part of the solution, it will continue to be part of the problem."
Second, at the same time in the Gaza fighting, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has used his moral authority to demand a cease-fire in the Israeli-Palestine war insisting that "Israeli military operations in Gaza must end" and condemning Hamas, in particular, for continuing to fire rockets into Israel -- even as, simultaneously, the UN is providing safe enclaves for Palestinians in Gaza fleeing from Israeli attacks. While Ban's words may not stop any further clashes, he echoes the concerns of an alarmed world -- and that may have some resonance with the combatants. All of these UN activities demonstrate in myriad ways the importance of the organization in ameliorating the dangers of spiraling crises and arriving at solutions that can help tamp down conflicts and stop escalation.
Admittedly, the UN presence has not always worked well, as, for example, at times in Syria, Libya and Iran. Often countries under duress will evade UN edicts or denounce UN interventions. But, just as often, intense UN attention on a conflict can have an impact beyond what might be expected, bringing to bear world-wide opprobrium on situations of great peril and, in turn, compelling settlements. There is no other body that can play this role these days.