75 Years of Keeping World Peace
By Sanuj Hathurusinghe
World War I came to an end in 1918 and the world got to witness a glimpse of what damage and devastation could befall if measures to stop another war from happening weren’t taken. Thus, an international group of countries called League of Nations was developed post the First World War in hopes of maintaining world peace but before the League could grow to be strong enough to have an impact, World War II started, resulting in the failure of the League.
Perhaps the damage World War I caused wasn’t enough for world leaders to realise that ‘war is not the answer’ but the devastation of the World War II on the other hand, definitely did the trick. Even before the end of World War II was officially declared, then US President Franklyn Roosevelt and British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill met in secret and discussed the possibility of starting an international peace effort. What they came up with was called the Atlantic Charter and this ultimately paved the way to the birth of the United Nations (UN).
The United Nations
The term ‘United Nations’ was first adopted in 1941, soon after the United States joined World War II. It was used to identify countries that allied against Germany, Italy and Japan. In 1942, representatives from 26 allied countries gathered to sign the Declaration of United Nations which essentially described the war objectives of the allied nations led by the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union. Over the next few years the allied nations met several times to draft a post-war charter that definitively described the role of the UN.
The hugely underestimated devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombing (August 1945) promptly put an end to World War II and convinced 51 member countries to ratify the UN Charter in San Francisco on 24 October, 1945.
Purpose of the UN
24 October marked 75 years since the formation of the UN. What started as a union of nations to maintain world peace and basically stop another world war from happening, has now grown into an intricate web of numerous organisations, reaching every corner of the world, addressing many a different matters. What started with just 51 nations has now grown into a union of 193 member states.
From sustainable development and environmental conservation to refugee protection, disaster relief, counter terrorism, disarmament and non-proliferation, to promoting democracy, human rights, gender equality and the advancement of women, governance, economic and social development and international health, clearing landmines, expanding food production and many more, are the objectives of the UN in current context diversify vastly.
According to the UN Charter, the organisation has four main purposes which are;
- To keep peace throughout the world
- To develop friendly relations among nations
- To help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease and illiteracy, and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms
- To be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations to achieve these goals
Due to the large number of members and the amount of workload, the operations of the UN are handled by six main Bodies which specialises in different matters of interest.
- General Assembly – the main policy making body of the UN which takes votes on decisions taken by the UN. All 193 member states take part in the General Assembly.
- Security Council – the 15-member council (five permanent members with Veto Power and 10 non-permanent members selected every two years) oversees measures that ensure the maintenance of international peace and security.
- Economic and Social Council – makes policies and recommendations regarding economic, social and environmental issues. It consists of 54 members who are elected by the General Assembly for three-year terms.
- Trusteeship Council – was originally created to supervise the 11 Trust Territories that were placed under the management of seven member states. By 1994, all the territories had gained self-government or independence, and the body was suspended. But that same year, the Council decided to continue meeting occasionally, instead of annually.
- International Court of Justice – is responsible for settling legal disputes submitted by the states, and answering questions in accordance with international law.
- Secretariat – consists of the Secretary General and thousands of UN staffers. Members of the Secretariat execute the daily duties of the UN and work on international peacekeeping missions.
Achievements and failures of the UN
What fundamentally drove nations to form the UN, as aforementioned, is to prevent another world war from happening - despite there being multiple examples of civil wars around the world - it could be argued the UN has so far been successful in that regard, as none of the past or present conflicts resulted in an international war, involving multiple countries. The most recent and most noticeable success of the UN came through one of its umbrella organisations - World Food Programme - when it won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Throughout its missions the UN has so far provided food to over 90 million people in over 75 countries, aided more than 34 million refugees, provided vaccination for nearly 58 per cent of the children in the world, and ensured human rights in different parts of the world with 80 treaties and declarations. Currently, the UN is helping about 30 million women a year with their maternal health needs, working with 140 nations to minimise climate change effects, assisting 50 countries per year with their elections, and authorising 71 peacekeeping missions worldwide.
Despite the seemingly positive outcomes of the UN initiatives, the organisation still faces huge criticism, especially with regard to numerous conflicts in the world. Article 2(7) of the UN Charter states, “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorise the UN to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the members to submit the matters to settlement under the present Charter.....” However, the Security Council is responsible for preventing war and maintaining peace in disputed areas such as the Gaza Strip. Although it seems like the hands of the UN are tied by its own definitions when it comes to internal conflicts, the world seems to not think twice to point fingers at the UN as the guilty party.
One of the best examples of UN failures is the Israeli occupation. Since the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948, Palestinians have been fighting with Israel for their lands. Today, Israel controls 85 per cent of ancient Palestine and continues its construction of illegal settlements on occupied lands in defiance of several UN resolutions. Although the UN Security Council did try to condemn the acts of Israel through some resolutions, the United States has used its Veto Power on several occasions to counter UN resolutions.
The ongoing Somali Civil War has claimed over 500,000 lives and many blame the UN for failing in its peacekeeping mission to facilitate humanitarian aid to people trapped in civil war and famine. The failing could be pinned down to the lack of a government to communicate with and repeated attacks against UN officers, ultimately failing the 1992 UN peacekeeping mission.
The Rwandan Civil War which took place between 1990 and 1994 is considered one of the worst ethnic genocides since World War II. The Hutu-dominated regime first killed 10 UN officers essentially silencing them and continued to kill 800,000 people and rape 250,000 women in only three months.
Although, the UN justified the US invasion of Iraq via UN Resolution 1483, under the assertion that the Saddam regime was in possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction, many opine that this is yet another incident where the UN was rendered powerless by the US and UK Veto Power. According to research conducted by one of Britain’s leading polling groups, more than one million Iraqis died during the invasion.
The way forward
For the most part of the latter half of 20th century, the UN had to deal with decolonisation and the Cold War. After that came a period of consolidating cooperation and liberal values and currently, the UN is facing new threats such as pandemics and adverse effects of climate change, and striving to promote sustainable development. While the concerns the UN have over the future of the word is legitimate, the solutions it has suggested in terms of sustainability are somewhat idealistic, according to many parties. Some even complain that the goals the UN has set are unachievable. This could boil down to the fact that UN goals are long-term and requires commitment to achieve.
It requires all the member states coming together and committing long-term, something which might be a bit too hard to achieve considering the political realities of many countries. Take Paris Agreement for an example. The long-term sustainable development plan which required powerhouse countries to commit to it, looked a success initially. However, when President Trump came into power, succeeding President Obama, the United States withdrew from the agreement, rendering it a failure.
While assuring the commitment of developing states, the UN must try to secure continued support of powerhouse nations if it is to implement long-term sustainable development goals in the world.