George Hepburn: We've got more sway over Comet 67P than we have over our own planet

Journal columnist George Hepburn laments the decline of the UN - good at picking up the pieces, less good at peacemaking

PA Wire The combination photo of different images taken with Philae's CIVA camera system
The combination photo of different images taken with Philae's CIVA camera system

Rosetta and Philae: you could not make it up. Until the middle of last week, I did not know the couple were on a journey to Comet 67P. Ever since, I have been on the edge of my seat, awaiting the latest news.

When after twenty years planning and ten years in space, a landing craft finds a piece of rock only 2.5 miles wide and sets down only two minutes late, I raise a smile that so much still depends on luck and improvisation.

The whole expedition becomes incredibly fallible and human when the harpoon fails, the spindly leg topples and the solar panel cannot get enough sunlight. That is when the boffins come into their own and make the best available decisions. It is straight out of the Boys Own Paper.

In a lecture at Newcastle University on Thursday night, Sir Jeremy Greenstock said that three qualities make the human being successful.

Not the strongest creature in the jungle, homo sapiens bring intelligence, adaptability and teamwork to the watering hole.

He could have been talking about the European Space Agency which exemplifies these qualities and where no one is claiming the glory or planting the flag. However Sir Jeremy, retired diplomatic and strategic thinker, was talking about the problems of our own planet, which seem far more intractable than conquering outer space.

His thesis was that the world is fragmenting into smaller units – 25 new countries set up since 1990 – and stronger tribes who, like ISIS, move into any empty space. Even the developed world seriously considers breaking apart, as in Scotland or Catalonia, to find a comfortable shape that supports its own beliefs and lifestyle.

This poses a challenge for governments and for international institutions who, he felt, suffer from signs of old age and fixed thinking. Sir Jeremy spoke as Chairman of the United Nations Association in the UK and with some affection for the United Nations whose corridors he had patrolled on our behalf around the turn of the century.

I spent a few moments trying to recite the line of Secretary Generals from Dag Hammarskjold onwards without much success.

Hammarskjold’s death in a mysterious plane crash in 1961 whilst trying to mediate in central Africa was my earliest memory of the United Nations. Khrushchev famously banged his shoe on the podium and McNamara dramatically confronted his opposite number with photos of missiles in Cuba but all that was a long time ago.

Sir Jeremy spoke highly of the constituent agencies that make up United Nations, dealing with disaster relief, refuges and climate change.

In the last year, UN has supported the massive rise in the numbers of refugees, now running at 32,000 a day, displaced through conflict in Syria, Libya, Iraq, South Sudan and Central African Republic. Without a UN force to police the world or any real control on weapons sales, armed conflict breaks out only too easily and continues unabated.

The United Nations is good at picking up the pieces but sadly not so smart at peacekeeping. It was charged, in the words of the 1945 Charter, “to pursue diplomacy and maintain international peace and security” and “to save succeeding generations form the scourge of war.”

That is how I learned it as a schoolboy.

Sir Jeremy admitted that there have been too many recent failures, notably Syria, at an inter government level.

He regretted that Obama had not talked to the Iranians earlier and that governments did not speak more to each other – apart from the futile playground exchanges with President Putin this past weekend before he set off for his warship. Posturing may play out well back home but diplomacy it isn’t.

Most commentators lay the blame for the United Nations’ demise as a peacekeeper on the so-called superpowers. The five victors of the second world war, United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom hold the permanent seats at the Security Council and have power of veto.

Russia blocked resolutions over Afghanistan and United States ignored the UN over Iraq.

The big and ageing powers should play a global leadership role and restrict their use of the veto to their clearly national interests.

The quietly seething dissident friend in the next seat to me muttered that international law is of no use at all if it continues to be implemented selectively by the five members of the Security Council, all major arms manufacturers by the way, who represent less than a third of humanity.

Sir Jeremy defended the United Kingdom’s place at the table when the likes of Germany, Japan, India and Brazil are left out. He did argue for a more open process to elect the next Secretary General when Ban Ki Moon retires in 2016 to provide leadership that was for “more general and less secretary.”

This was one of ten ideas for UK foreign policy in a radical and well argued manifesto from UNA, pressed into my hand on departure.

They include a clear pathway to eradicate nuclear weapons, robust policies to control arms, drones and ‘killer robots’ and a strong commitment to safeguard human rights at home. (Read them on line at

They may lack the force of Nicola Sturgeon’s welcome promise to only party with anyone who removes the submarines from the Clyde but they were specific incremental steps and a valuable briefing on often neglected issues for the coming election.

I doubt whether the United Nations can recapture the power and idealism it held in the sixties. But only binding international agreements can address global challenges like poverty, climate change and the arms trade. The United Nations may still be our only hope.

By the end of last week, we were closer to knowing the secret of the universe but no closer to solving our own global problems.

Daj Hammarskold said that “he who wills adventure will experience it”. That might be the motto for world leaders as much for mission control at Darmstadt.


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