THE BLOG
02/28/2008 06:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Billion Lives at Stake

It is not true that the world is getting worse. It is getting better for a clear majority of us. In my 30 years of visiting and working in disaster and war zones around the globe I have seen how slowly, but surely there is 50 percent less war and half the number of refugees in 2008 compared to when the Cold War ended twenty years ago.

Last week a permanent cease-fire was signed between the Ugandan Government and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), hopefully ending one of the cruelest wars of our time and age. When I came on my first visit to Northern Uganda in 2003 it was a forgotten emergency where 20 000 kidnapped children had been forced by the LRA to attack, mutilate and terrorize their own people. It was not easy to wake up the international community, but facilitated by South Sudanese mediators and the UN, peace is now breaking out and two million civilians can leave their horrible camps and return to rebuild their homes.

The bad news is that the privileged majority we belong to seems to accept that a billion fellow human beings still go to bed hungry every night, do neither have safe drinking water nor a minimum of sanitation, and just barely survive on less than a dollar a day. For them it is no consolation that hundreds of millions elsewhere have been lifted out of poverty in China, India, South-East-Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and even parts of Africa. They feel trapped in growing city slums and in destitute, disaster prone areas. They are increasingly angry, because they know how rich we have become in our fortresses in the North and the West.

It will take a more concerted, multilateral effort to lift the poorest and most vulnerable out of their vicious cycle and the international organizations must be empowered to lead the global effort.

Every year since the invasion in 2003 America has spent six times more in Iraq alone than the United Nations system has had to invest on all peace, human rights, relief, development and environmental efforts around the globe. The annual 120 billion dollars spent in Iraq is nearly twenty times more than the cost of all the successful UN humanitarian and peace-making operations in Angola, the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Burundi, Ivory Coast, Northern Uganda, the Middle East and East Timor combined. The cost of unilateralism and effectiveness of multilateralism is not known to the American tax-payer, or to UN member states.

The next US administration may change this. As a UN official I had good meetings with Senators McCain and Obama and worked closely with President Bill Clinton on tsunami relief. I believe the benefits of global partnerships will be very clear to the next administration.

In 2006 senator Obama came to my Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs at UN headquarters in New York to discuss how the UN and the US together could do more for the besieged civilians in Darfur. I had brought the atrocities in Sudan to the Security Council and the world media, and my humanitarian colleagues had, against all odds, delivered life-saving relief to more than three million victims of war and ethnic cleansing. But we had not, as I told Mr. Obama, managed to convince Sudan's main trading partners, China and India, nor their Arab political allies, that massive pressure had to be born upon the regime in Khartoum to stop the killings of women and children and allow a UN force to substitute the African Union observers. It was already then clear that the laudable efforts of the Bush Administration and the Blair Government had limited effects on the radical Arab regime due to the US-UK debacle in Iraq. The UN could only succeed if Asian and Arab League Nations did the right thing.

As the envoy of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to war-torn and drug-infected Colombia in 2001 I was invited to Senator John McCain's Capitol Hill office to discuss how the 40 year old civil war could end. The UN was facilitating peace talks between the democratically elected President Pastrana and the leaders of the left wing guerrillas, the FARC and the ELN. In the shadow of the cruel internal war the production and trafficking of cocaine and heroin was booming, causing great pain also at the receiving end in North America. The UN had effective projects in Colombia, but there was, I told Mr. McCain, nowhere near an adequate international investment in ending the biggest war, human rights crisis and drug problem in the Western Hemisphere.

The United Nations need the United States to wholeheartedly support its mission as much as the US needs the UN to advance its ideals globally. During my years in the UN we lead massive international relief efforts for the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, the South Asian earthquake of 2005, the droughts of the Horn of Africa, the hunger of Southern Africa, and the ethnic cleansing campaigns in Darfur. In all of these emergencies hundreds of thousands of lives were predicted to be lost. These somber predictions were all averted, because multilateral action that builds on local capacities is effective.

The United Nations must be reformed as Secretaries General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon have proposed. It must go from today's old-fashioned model to a more operational structure. The UN cannot any more reflect the international order after World War II. Today Japan, Germany, India, Brazil and Nigeria are as important as some of the current veto holding permanent members of the Security Council. The UN system is today effective not because of, but rather in spite of the bureaucratic and slow procedures of the multilateral system.

A billion lives are still at stake. The US and the UN can together change their future. What I learned from my international work is that our generation has the resources, the technology and institutions to end the massive suffering that is still taking place on our watch. It is a question of will.