The First 70 Years of the United Nations: Achievements and Challenges

©UN Photo/Stephenie Hollyman

The Cold War Period

Perhaps inevitably, the United Nations started on a steep downward trajectory from the high expectations that surrounded it at its birth. The global security organization envisaged in the Charter of the United Nations, based on a perpetuation of the victorious alliance against Nazi Germany, was stillborn because of the rapidly developing rift between the Soviet Union and its Western allies. The Security Council of the United Nations, entrusted with the maintenance of international peace and security, was soon paralysed by the inability of its permanent members to take decisions on any issue where they perceived their interests to be in conflict.1 The fact that this “cold war” did not develop into a hot one is generally attributed not to the United Nations, but to the “balance of terror” between nuclear-armed super-Powers, both of which were likely to be destroyed by any direct conflict. The role of Secretary-General U Thant in helping to prevent such a conflict during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis has been too widely overlooked, even though at the time both super-Powers acknowledged it in writing.

The development of the role of the “good offices” of the Secretary-General in preventing conflict through quiet diplomacy—not mentioned in the Charter, though perhaps implicit in Article 99—was certainly one of the achievements of the United Nations during the cold war period, although by its nature, it is seldom publicized, and its efficacy is hard to measure or even prove. Prevention can never be proved, since counterfactual outcomes are inherently uncertain. Another was the improvisation of the peacekeeping role of the United Nations—often an important element enabling warring parties to agree and observe a truce or ceasefire, since it built confidence on each side that the other could not launch a new attack without being detected.

The super-Powers were also able to agree, from time to time, on Security Council resolutions aimed at stabilizing parts of the world where they could not be confident of controlling their respective allies, notably the Middle East, where such resolutions enshrined the terms of ceasefires, and laid down the principles for an eventual political settlement, in 1967 and again in 1973.

Another widely cited achievement of this period is decolonization, although arguably this owed more to the determination of the colonized peoples, and to the colonial powers’ gradual acceptance that the physical and moral price of continued dominion was too high to be worth paying. What is certain is that United Nations membership became an important badge or certificate of a country’s independence, and a valuable diplomatic card in the hands of any State whose territorial integrity was threatened, whether by external aggression or internal secession (or indeed a combination of the two). This was made possible by a prior agreement, reached in 1955, on “universal membership”, which effectively protected candidate members from seeing their applications vetoed on ideological grounds by either super-Power. As a result, by the 1970s the great majority of the world’s peoples were represented in the United Nations by independent Governments, and developing countries formed a large majority of the membership. As an indirect consequence, communist China took its place as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Finally, there were significant achievements outside the immediate domain of peace and security: notably the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, followed by the two international covenants of 1966 (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights); and the creation of funds and programmes specialized in various kinds of humanitarian and development work (the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Population Fund, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Development Programme, etc.).

The Post-Cold-War World

In the late 1980s, the charm offensive of Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union, heralded the end of the cold war and a brief period in which great hopes for a peaceful and stable world were again placed in the United Nations. In 1998, United Nations peacekeepers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1990 the Security Council adopted a series of resolutions in response to the seizure of Kuwait by Iraq, culminating in the authorization of “all necessary means” (i.e. including the use of force), which led to the restoration of Kuwait’s sovereignty and integrity by a United States-led coalition in February 1991. This appeared clearly within the spirit, if not the letter, of the Charter, and inspired United States President George H. W. Bush to proclaim a “new world order”. Meanwhile, many postcolonial conflicts which had been kept alive by super-Power rivalry were wound down, usually through negotiated agreements which involved the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping missions—no longer as passive monitors of a ceasefire between two regular armies, but rather as partners under- taking a wide variety of tasks (disarmament, demobilization, reintegration, election monitoring, judicial and security sector reform, etc.) in the context of complex peacebuilding operations to which the parties (usually rival factions within a single Member State) had agreed in advance. The Security Council also showed impressive flexibility in this period, allowing the Russian Federation to take the place of the Soviet Union among the five permanent members, and increasingly accepting its responsibility to deal with conflicts within Member States as well as between them.

The 1990s witnessed a series of impressive global conferences which agreed on norms and targets in many areas of social and economic development, from human rights through population to the status of women, culminating in the Millennium Summit in 2000 and the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals. But in the peace and security domain the record was much more mixed, as the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a “unipolar moment” in which the United States was increasingly reluctant to pay attention to the views of other powers. The Security Council, no longer stymied by antagonism between super-Powers, struggled to contain ethnic conflicts in various parts of the world, often passing unrealistic resolutions which assigned ambitious mandates to United Nations peacekeepers with- out providing the necessary resources. This led to a series of disasters in Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, which badly tarnished the image of the United Nations. The “new world order”, in the opinion of many, had proved in fact to be a “new world disorder”.

Yet after a brief eclipse United Nations peacekeeping again came into its own in 1999, when two territories—Kosovo and East Timor—were actually placed under temporary United Nations administration, pending a resolution of their political status. And the following year a thorough review of United Nations peacekeeping operations, chaired by Lakhdar Brahimi, provided a more robust and realistic basis for the future mandates of such operations, as well as their organization and rules of engagement.

Undoubtedly the worst setback in the recent history of the United Nations was the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, together with its sequel, the destruction of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003, in which several outstanding international civil servants lost their lives. The decision of two permanent members of the Security Council to take military action without due authority, ignoring the views of their colleagues and indeed of the vast majority of States, has led not only to an ever-deepening crisis in the Middle East, characterized by venomous sectarian conflict, but also to lasting mistrust between “the West and the rest”—which, while not as structural or systemic as the cold war, has brought about a similar inability to act decisively in crises where global Powers take sharply differing views of local actors. The permanent member attracting most opprobrium may vary from case to case (in Gaza, the United States; in Syria, Russia), but the feeling of mistrust and acrimony is omnipresent. Meanwhile it is clear that the United Nations flag no longer adequately protects those serving the Organization, whether as peacekeepers or humanitarian workers. A range of non-State actors—mainly but not exclusively in the Islamic world—now see the United Nations as part of the unjust world order against which they have taken up arms, and have no compunction about targeting its representatives.

Ways Forward

All is not lost. The five permanent members of the Security Council remain willing to work together in areas where they perceive a common interest—for instance, in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, or in sub-Saharan Africa, where United Nations peacekeeping missions continue to be set up by unanimous Security Council resolutions, many of which continue to invoke the Responsibility to Protect, despite the acrimony that followed the NATO action in Libya, perceived by many as abusing the authority given under this heading in Security Council resolution 1973 (2011).

The humanitarian challenges continue to be daunting, especially with the rising number of people displaced not only by conflict, but by a complex range of factors including climate change. Yet, whatever their criticisms, few see any body other than the United Nations capable of leading and coordinating the response. Similarly, while humanity as yet has by no means found an adequate response to the threat of climate change itself, the United Nations is still generally seen as the inevitable forum within which such a response must be hammered out and coordinated. Furthermore, the sustainable development goals due to be adopted in autumn 2015 will provide the essential framework for the world’s joint efforts to achieve economic and social progress over the next 15 years.

It is in the peace and security field that the need to strengthen the Organization is most glaring. The agony of Syria especially, continuing year after year, makes a mockery of the founders’ determination “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”; and the role of the five permanent members seems increasingly anachronistic to the vast majority of other Member States, and indeed of the world’s people. Reform of the Security Council is a more urgent matter than many inside the New York “bubble” seem to realize. However, given the difficulties that the founders put in the way of Charter amendment, it cannot be achieved without a compromise, which will involve painful concessions both by those who aspire to become new permanent members and by those who seek to deny them that status.

Such a compromise will need to be negotiated by Heads of State and Government, and will therefore take time. Meanwhile, as suggested by The Elders, the membership can make small adjustments which do not require Charter amendment. The existing Permanent Five can resolve to work harder for agreement on effective action, in cases where the lives and well-being of entire populations are at stake. The members of the Security Council can give a hearing, at the highest level, to representatives of civil society in countries or regions directly affected by its decisions. Perhaps most important, the General Assembly can insist on a fairer, more transparent method of choosing the next Secretary-General, on whose leadership the success of the United Nations in the years ahead will crucially depend.   


1    The main exception to this—the decision to use force in response to aggression by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea against the Republic of Korea in 1950—was an anomaly, made possible only by the absence of the Soviet delegation from the Security Council at the time.