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‘It’s time to breathe new life into the United Nations’

Historian Alanna O’Malley has been appointed to a brand-new Professorial Chair in United Nations Studies in Peace and Justice in The Hague. This extra attention for the UN comes at a significant moment in world history, she says.

Congratulations on your appointment

‘Thank you. I am both surprised and exceptionally pleased with the appointment. It is an extra privilege because the Chair is in honour of Jozias van Aartsen, former Mayor of The Hague. The Hague is an important city for the United Nations because it is the headquarters of different international courts of law and tribunals, as well as international organisations such as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.’

What will you be doing over the coming three years?

‘I will be doing research on various aspects of the United Nations, including the role of the Global South, women in peacekeeping and UN Youth. I will also be organising different activities for the residents of The Hague, especially for school children in deprived districts of the city, so that they get to know more about the UN. The policies of the UN aren’t as abstract as you might think. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, for example, include access to education across all levels. So this is very relevant to them and we will engage with ideas of global citizenship. The coming 75-year anniversary of the UN in 2020 is also something I will be working on with the City of The Hague.’

Why is that important?

‘The United Nations is going through a difficult time: not only does the organisation have operational problems, it also has an image problem among the general public. The UN is often associated with either armed peacekeepers or grey diplomats, fortifying the impression that it is a bureaucratic structure vastly removed from our everyday lives. However, the lives of millions of people also rely on the humanitarian assistance they receive through UN programmes such as the World Food Programme and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). We need to banish the outdated impressions of the UN by highlighting its achievements alongside its flaws in order to create ownership of the organisation among ordinary citizens. It’s time to breathe new life into the organisation.’

What is the role of a researcher like yourself?

‘A historian like myself can disseminate knowledge about the origin and functioning of the United Nations. By doing that, I hope to contribute to creating a positive but critical attitude towards the organisation. The United Nations was founded on Western ideas but, at the same time, the vast majority of the member states are non-Western. There are also people who do not believe in the idea of world government and we have seen a recent trend towards resisting international organisations. All these things cause friction. Critical engagement is important to have a meaningful public discussion about what the UN means to us and how, together, we can change it.’

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