‘‘We the peoples of the United Nations,’’ begins the United Nations Charter. It goes on to list four principal aims for the global organization. First, the UN was to safeguard peace and security in order ‘‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.’’
Second, it was ‘‘to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.’’ Third, the UN was to uphold respect for international law. And fourth, the new organization pledged ‘‘to promote social progress and better standards of life.’’ In the summer of 1945, the founders of the United Nations thus vowed to make the world a better place.
Has the UN been able to achieve all, some, or any of the worthy goals established in United Nations Charter over more than six decades of existence? This is the major question. Accordingly, it will assess the successes and failures of the United Nations as a guardian of international peace and security, as a promoter of human rights, as a protector of international law, and as an engineer of socioeconomic advancement.
This is not an easy task, for throughout its history the UN has been a controversial institution. Admired by many and reviled by others, the world’s only truly global international organization has had a bumpy ride. It has received Nobel Peace Prizes and other awards for saving lives and easing suffering. But it has also been a favorite target of politicians who suspect-or claim they do in order to curry favor with certain groups of voters-the UN of trying to become a global government. Yet others, such as Henry Cabot
Lodge Jr., the U.S. ambassador to the UN from 1953 to 1960, have taken a more sober view, recognizing the inherent limits of an organization that, in theory at least, represents the interests of the entire world. As Lodge succinctly put it in 1954: ‘‘This organization is created to prevent you from going to hell. It isn’t created to take you to heaven. ‘Indeed, if there is one theme running through this book it is the simple fact that the UN’s greatest challenge has been an impossibly wide gap between its ambitions and capacities. A quick look at the key areas of UN activities should make the case evident.
First, the founders of the UN pledged to make the world a safer place. In order to avoid the sort of carnage caused by World War II, they created a structure and instruments designed to address threats to international security. Most obviously, the UN Security Council was awarded almost limitless power when it came to dealing with violations of peace. Its resolutions were to be binding on all member states. Its underling, the Military Staff Committee, was to plan military operations and have at its disposal an air force contingent ready for immediate deployment. Never again, the founders seem to have hoped, would the world stand by and watch as aggressors violated international borders and agreements.
The design was flawed. The Military Staff Committee did not get its air force or the bases envisioned. Thus, UN military operations could not be deployed rapidly; indeed, the UN was not to have a military arm of its own. The UN Charter also contained in it the seeds of the Security Council’s immobilization: by granting the veto right to five countries (China, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States), the charter allowed this select group to prevent action that they viewed as being antithetical to their national interests. As a result, the UN may have had a positive role in preventing the outbreak of another world war, but it could not prevent or stop a series of regional conflicts (from Korea and Vietnam to the Middle East and Africa). The peacekeepers sent to the world’s trouble regions tended to arrive long after the worst hostilities had ended. Sometimes, as in Sudan’s Darfur region after 2003, their arrival was delayed while genocide progressed.
The basic problem for the UN as the overseer of international security was and remains simple: how to deal with conflicts-be they between or within states-without offending the national sovereignty of its member states. It is a riddle that continues to affect the UN’s international security functions. Peace is still waiting to break out.
The UN’s second goal was to highlight the importance of human rights and respect for international law. To accomplish these objective, treaties, declarations, and legal instruments multiplied. The most important of these documents was undoubtedly the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Others were added to the human rights canon in the 1960s, thus producing the International Bill of Rights. By the twenty-first century, the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and other
bodies were busily reporting abuses around the world, while the International Criminal Court and special tribunals were prosecuting the worst human rights abusers at The Hague. But the capacity of these bodies to implement some form of universal jurisdiction remains limited by the very same factor that hampers the UN’s role in international security: the prerogative of the nation state. The High Commissioner and the Council cannot give ‘‘orders’’ to sovereign states. The special rapporteurs who investigate abuses on behalf of the international community have to be ‘‘invited’’ by the host government that, in many cases, is the very same government that is being investigated. All too often deadlock has been the end result.
Finally, the UN pledged to promote social and economic progress. To accomplish this, such institutions as the World Bank-linked to but not technically part of the UN system-were set up to assist countries in need of assistance. By the 1960s, as the UN’s membership was rising with the proliferation of newly independent and often underdeveloped countries (mainly from Africa), the organization responded by creating additional structures, of which the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the UN Development Program (UNDP) are probably the best known. Two problems, still evident today, emerged as early as the 1960s.
On the one hand, there was no agreement on how to promote progress. Economists and social scientists argued over the desirability of giving economic aid as opposed to allowing the market to take care of the work. On the other hand, the different organizations had different resource bases and organizational structures. For example, because the World Bank has been funded mainly by the United States, its policies have been heavily influenced by Washington. But the United States was, for more than four decades, engaged in fighting the Cold War and promoting capitalism over communism as the correct way to organize economic life. In that context, development aid often, too often, became a political tool unrelated to the real problems of real people in the developing world.
Add to this a number of other elements-corruption; interagency competition, and lack of resources-and the reasons why development aid has not been a resounding success become clearer. But neither has it been a complete failure as some of its detractors would have it. Indeed, the so-called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) unveiled in 2000 called for halving global poverty rates by 2015. By July 7, 2007-the UN’s official halfway point for meeting this target-it seemed that Asian countries were on track toward meeting this goal. But sub-Saharan Africa was lagging far behind its targets. It is no accident that the current UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has followed in his successors’ footsteps in calling for the rich countries to get serious about development aid.
The United Nations may not have lived up to all the ambitions of its founders, yet one fact remains clear: it is the only truly global organization in the history of mankind. With 192 member states as of 2008, the UN covers the entire globe. In its six decades of existence it has almost quadrupled its original membership of 51. The meetings of the UN General Assembly, the forum where all member states are represented, are a true gathering of the proverbial ‘‘family of nations’’ or ‘‘the parliament of man.’’
What lies behind the founding of such a seemingly all encompassing and potentially all-powerful global organization? Why did its membership increase so dramatically? Why, despite much criticism, does it continue its work around the globe? And what does that work actually involve?
Geneva, the city that is both the original seat of the League of Nations and the current host of the UN’s European headquarters. On the one hand, many of us think of the UN as a bizarre bureaucracy filled with highly (over)paid international civil servants with little else to do with their time but hold conferences in nice cities (such as Geneva) located far away from the world’s trouble zones. And yet, on the other hand, we also seem to be of the opinion that the UN helps millions of people around the globe to live better lives or, in many cases, to just hang on to life. Make sense these widely disparate views of the UN and its role in the modern world? The UN is an indispensable organization that has made the world a better place, as its founders hoped. But it is also a deeply flawed institution, in need of constant reform.
This, it seems, is not a revolutionary argument. Rather, it reflects the views of most people around the globe. As a 2007 global opinion survey indicates, giving the UN additional powers are a popular proposition around the globe (three out of four of those polled supporting the idea of increasing the powers of the UN Security Council to authorize the use of force). This not only reflects the general dissatisfaction over the way in which the UN is often sidelined by strong countries-the 2003 intervention of Iraq being a high-profile case. It is also indicative of the continued hopes that most people in most countries place on the United Nations. That, alone, makes trying to understand the UN in all its manifold complexity a worthy task.