Amid ongoing conflicts, catastrophe and an escalating refugee crisis, the United Nations' reputation is faltering. Can an image campaign create more trust in the organization?
At the Palais des Nations in Geneva, the second-largest seat of the United Nations after New York, a group of tourists follows the tour guide as she walks through the extensive building. The autumn session of the Human Rights Council is in full swing. The visitors stand in the glass public gallery, looking down on the assembly hall. A young Brazilian woman is moved by what she sees: "You can feel that we're part of something greater, that the UN protects us and the whole world," she says.
Not all the visitors are as enthusiastic, though. Observing the delegates, a Ukrainian tourist saw some of them playing games on their laptops and comparing car models during the human rights debate. "And I thought there were people here considering how to make the world a better place," he said, disappointed.
Reactions such as these come as no surprise to Michael Moller, the Director-General of the office of the United Nations in Geneva. The war in Syria is escalating week by week; it's becoming increasingly difficult to persuade countries to take in refugees and, faced with these crises, the UN appears to be powerless.
"The perception of the United Nations around the world overall tends to be a negative one, especially with regard to the Security Council," says Moller. "Primarily, what people see are the wars we fail to end, and the epidemics where we don't act fast enough."
However, Moller says that although some of the criticism is justified, we should not forget that in many areas the United Nations is doing a fantastic job.
Successes, and a new image
In future, Moller wants to direct attention to things the UN has already achieved, such as halving child mortality and poverty around the world. "Without the UN, the network the world has created for itself over the past 70 years, none of this would have happened," he says.
The old UN guidelines, such as promotion of world peace, respect for human rights and the right to development, have applied ever since the UN was formally established in 1945. Nowadays, though, the people in Geneva prefer to speak of "peace, justice and well-being."
Not fulfilling its potential
The "Perception Change Project" cannot disguise the fact that this negotiation venue is being used less and less. All around the world, there is little demand for multilateralism and international law. Innumerable conflicts are being fought with the utmost brutality at the expense of civilian populations, although warring parties will repeatedly feign willingness to negotiate. The former UN official Hans von Sponeck knows a thing or two about this sort of double-dealing.
Von Sponeck worked for the United Nations for 32 years, serving as assistant secretary-general. As Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, he was responsible for managing the Oil for Food Program. He resigned in 2000 in protest against the many American and British air strikes, and the harsh economic sanctions against Iraq, which primarily affected the civilian population.
Von Sponeck says that there is still an inability to find a common solution for conflicts, and a tendency by the major powers to instrumentalize the UN for their own interests. "What has repeatedly become apparent in recent years is that the Security Council representatives are incapable of taking off their national coat and putting on their multilateral hat," he says.
But the Security Council is not the only one to blame if the United Nations fails to fulfill its potential. Everyone agrees that a strong UN chief really could make a difference. Assessing the track record of the incumbent secretary-general, von Sponeck doesn't mince his words.
"Ban Ki-moon is a bit like a ping-pong ball on the sea of politics. He's being pitched to and fro, which is how it is for every secretary-general. But a secretary-general must try to equip his ping-pong ball with an engine, so he can at least aim for what he believes is the right direction to head in."
In all of his 10 years in office, Ban Ki-moon, elected as a compromise candidate, has never officially started an argument with anyone, not even with his own peacekeeping department. This has had dramatic consequences.
In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, a cholera epidemic broke out. Very early on, scientific studies indicated that the cholera was introduced by a contingent of UN peacekeeping troops from Nepal. Contaminated feces had found their way into the water system from the UN soldiers' camp.
Since then, more than 10,000 people in Haiti have died of cholera - a disease that was previously unknown in the impoverished country. Now, every time there is a new natural disaster - as now, in the wake of Hurricane Matthew - there is a danger that more people will become infected. Yet for years the United Nations, under Ban Ki-moon, denied any responsibility for the outbreak.
A similar thing happened with the documented cases of the sexual abuse of children by French UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. These were hushed up and played down by officials. Compared with the rules applied to nation states, such as accountability for human rights abuses and reparations for injustices suffered, the impression conveyed is one of double standards.
When DW asked Ban Ki-moon about these charges, he rejected them, saying: "I do not agree with the accusations that the UN has applied double standards." He did, however, admit that there were two things that happened during his time in office that he regretted: the events in Haiti and the Central African Republic. Of Haiti he said: "We should have done much more, irrespective of judicial immunity or who caused [the epidemic]."
Ban's tenure will now soon be history, and already expectations of a new beginning under his successor are high. Antonio Guterres has a good reputation within the UN. And according to Hans von Sponeck, he is said to have the necessary courage also to criticize countries on whose financial aid the UN depends.