In the 20th century, international organisations greatly gained in importance as a result of economic globalisation, which increased the interdependence of States, and because of the limitations of traditional diplomacy, which had been unable to prevent two devastating world wars. In the immediate post-war years, it was felt to be essential to reaffirm legal and moral principles common to all humanity.
The legacy of the League of Nations
The United Nations Organisation was not the first permanent multilateral forum. The International Telegraph (now Telecommunication) Union was established in 1865 and the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 1899. But the immediate reason for creating the United Nations was the failure of the first similar experiment, the League of Nations (LoN).
The atrocities of the First World War led to an ambitious project for a multilateralism that could counterbalance the ravages of nationalism. President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” speech in January 1918 introduced the idea of a League of Nations intended to ensure peace by collective security and disarmament. For the first time, the head of state of a major country sought to base international relations not on power and force as before, but on law and morality.
The League was formed in 1919, supported by a massive popular demand for peace. Its Covenant was incorporated in the major post-war treaties. It was the first international organisation with a general purpose and a permanent structure. But the League was doomed to failure. The enthusiasm that had given birth to it, the “spirit of Geneva”, evaporated because of a major weakness: the League of Nations had no international armed force to enforce its decisions. Only a mechanism of economic sanctions had been provided for, which was only used once (against Italy after the invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935) and was a complete failure. Moreover, the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and the League Covenant by the United States Congress reduced the League’s legitimacy and condemned it to impotence. Not least, successive withdrawals (first Latin American countries, then the future Axis powers) turned it into an empty talking-shop. The League of Nations slipped into a coma in 1940 and was officially declared dead six years later.
For all its failings, the League’s crucial achievement was the principles it enshrined: sovereign equality of States; permanent, institutionalised, multilateral dialogue among them; the principle of collective security replacing the traditional power games; subordination of national interests to an abstract, long-term general interest; peaceful settlement under international law of disputes between nations; recognition of the rights of minorities. These made the League of Nations the forerunner of the organisation that was to succeed it.
Early steps towards the United Nations
At a time when the Axis powers appeared to be winning the war on all fronts, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill met off Newfoundland and on 14 August 1941 published a joint declaration known as the Atlantic Charter. They hoped “to see established a peace which [would] afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries”, based on a few major principles: disarmament, self-government of peoples, abandonment of the use of force. The Charter, which did not have treaty status, was intended primarily as a joint profession of faith and a message of hope for the enemy-occupied countries.
Not until two years later, at the Third Moscow Conference in October 1943, did the United States of America, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China recognise “the necessity of establishing at the earliest practicable date a general international organisation, based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all peace-loving states”. The principles behind the future world organisation were now laid down. Its operating mechanisms were defined on 7 October 1944 in the Dumbarton Oaks mansion in Washington, D.C., in the presence of representatives of the four powers. It was decided that the new body would have four main organs: a Security Council, a General Assembly, a Secretariat and an Economic and Social Council.
The founding event: the San Francisco Conference
Within a few months, the San Francisco Conference met from 25 April to 26 June 1945 with delegates from 50 countries representing some 80% of the world’s population. On 25 June 1945, they met in plenary session at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House and unanimously adopted the United Nations Charter.
The Charter entered into force, as stipulated, once China, France, the Soviet Union, United Kingdom and United States and the majority of the other signatory States had ratified it. The legal and practical existence of the United Nations Organisation dates therefore from 24 November 1945.
The United Nations and the Cold War
The new institution made a promising start. The opening of the first General Assembly in January 1946, the adoption of the first resolution on the peaceful use of atomic energy and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, and the election of the first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, appeared to announce the emergence of a more peaceful world under the aegis of the United Nations.
In 1947, the Cold War put paid to this initial period of hope. The UN’s institutions were virtually paralysed by the US-Soviet confrontation. Hopes for global cooperation between equal partners were replaced by a bipolarisation that made multilateral forums impotent.
The United Nations became the target of recurring criticism for its overstaffed, inefficient bureaucracy cut off from reality. In his annual report in 1982, the Secretary-General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, denounced the “crisis in the multilateral approach in international affairs and the concomitant erosion of the authority and status of world and regional intergovernmental organisations”, which seemed to him to come “perilously near to a new international anarchy”.
Return of multilateralism?
After this long period of marginalisation, the UN regained some room for manoeuvre with the ending of the Cold War. The end of a bipolar world, success in settling a number of crises (Afghanistan, Iran-Iraq, Central America, Namibia) and, not least, the response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait seemed to herald a new international order guaranteed by American power operating in the name of the UN and principles recognised by all.
However, these hopes for a “new world order” rapidly faded in the face of new crises that the UN was unable to settle, as in Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The bipolar world, which provided some sort of equilibrium, had been replaced by a multipolar world, fluid and uncertain.
The sidestepping of the Security Council in 2003 at the start of the US intervention in Iraq and the bombing that caused the death of Sérgio Vieira de Mello in Baghdad were traumatic events for the United Nations. Similarly, the scandals in the “Oil for Food” programme were bad for its image.
Despite these reverses, the United Nations’ activities and scope for intervention have continued to develop significantly. Peacekeeping operations (PKOs) mandated by the Security Council have expanded unprecedentedly since the early 1990s. Their mandate has also become more ambitious, with PKOs in countries suffering from civil war.
The United Nations has also seen its jurisdictional function extended by the establishment of international criminal tribunals (first for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and then Cambodia and Sierra Leone). The creation by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which is not part of the UN system but cooperates with it, has complemented this international system of jurisdiction.
Update : July 2010
- Guide to the United Nations
- Download the guide to the United Nations
- Current United Nations peacekeeping operations
- Main United Nations sites
- The United Nations in films