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A brief history of the UN


Early signs

In the 16th century the ‘known’ world came to be dominated by violent, seagoing and increasingly nationalist European empires: Spain, Portugal, France, Britain and the Netherlands in particular. They attempted to carve up the planet into colonies that would replicate the rivalries and fuel the wealth of European rulers. The idea of a supranational ‘plurality’ of sovereign (European) nation-states that might prevent constant wars between them was first set out at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. It was developed by a ‘Holy Alliance’ following the final demise of Napoleon’s imperial ambitions in 1815.

First steps

The lethal results of industrialized weaponry led to the foundation of the Red Cross at a conference of 16 countries in Geneva in 1863 – the first Geneva Convention of 1864 sought to protect the sick and wounded in time of war. As international trade and communications grew, commercial interests led to the foundation of the International Telegraph Union in 1865 and the Universal Postal Union in 1874 (both survive today as ‘specialized agencies’ of the UN). In 1899 an International Peace Conference was held in The Hague. It adopted a Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes and established the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which began work in 1902.

War means peace

Nonetheless, in 1914 the Great War – ‘to end all wars’ – began in Europe. Once the carnage was complete in 1918, the Treaty of Versailles was imposed on Germany by the victors, including Britain, France and the US. The Treaty brought the League of Nations into being on 10 January 1920 ‘to promote international co-operation and to achieve peace and security’. Though US President Woodrow Wilson had been an architect of the Treaty, Congress refused to ratify it, on the grounds that it would intrude on its own power, and as a result the US did not join the League. Defeated Germany was excluded and so was revolutionary Russia. Britain and France, still with their colonies in tow, were the only ‘Great Powers’ left.

Rogue states

In 1921 the League successfully brokered an accord – which is still in force today – between Finland and Sweden on the disputed Åland Islands. But in 1923 it failed to prevent France from invading the Ruhr region of Germany in search of unpaid war reparations. Work had begun on the vast Palais des Nations in Geneva (now occupied by the UN) in 1929 when the economic Great Depression struck worldwide. It was exacerbated by ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ national trading policies. A long-delayed World Disarmament Conference failed almost as soon as it began in 1932. The League again proved impotent when Japan invaded Chinese Manchuria in 1931, and when Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935. In 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany and in 1938 invaded Czechoslovakia. The League’s doctrine of ‘collective security’ between sovereign nation-states translated into the appeasement of expansionist fascism in Italy, Germany and Japan. No concerted attempt was made to forestall the impending Nazi genocide of the Jews in Europe.

Peace means war

A Second World War began in Europe in 1939 when Germany went on to invade Poland. As early as August 1941 – even before the US had joined the war – US President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill met on a warship ‘somewhere at sea’ to sign the Atlantic Charter. It proposed a set of principles that became the basis for all future discussions. On 1 January 1942, 26 nations – in fact, the Allies – met in Washington DC to sign the ‘Declaration by United Nations’. The first blueprint of the UN was prepared at a conference organized by the US at the Dumbarton Oaks mansion in Washington DC in 1944. It was attended by Britain, the Soviet Union (which had lost upwards of 20 million people in the war) and China – the ‘four horsemen’ who would later be joined by liberated France in declaring themselves the Permanent Five members of the Security Council.

We, the rulers

Delegates of the 50 nations that had declared war on the fascist Axis were invited to San Francisco on 25 April 1945. The UN logo incorporated a map of the world reputedly designed to obscure Argentina, which had not declared war on the Axis but was invited nonetheless. On 28 April Mussolini was shot while attempting to flee Italy, and on 30 April Hitler shot himself in Berlin. The UN Charter, substantially unchanged from Dumbarton Oaks, was adopted on 25 June in the San Francisco Opera House. On 6 August the US detonated one atomic bomb over Hiroshima and on 9 August another over Nagasaki, Japan, bringing the war in the Pacific to a devastating end. The UN was officially founded on 24 October, when its Charter was ratified by the five permanent members of the Security Council and the majority of other signatories. The document – which began: ‘We the Peoples of the United Nations...’ – was flown to Washington DC in a fireproof strongbox with its own parachute.


The League of Nations finally expired at a requiem Assembly on 18 April 1946. Unlike the League, the UN would be controlled by the Permanent Five of the Security Council. The Soviet Union conceded US pre-eminence – and the location of UN headquarters in New York – in exchange for Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe and veto rights for the Permanent Five. However, after the revolutionary People’s Republic of China was declared in 1949, the Republic of China (Taiwan today) continued to occupy the ‘China’ seat until 1971 – so one of the Permanent Five was effectively absent. Another, the Soviet Union, was ‘diplomatically’ absent in 1950 when the Security Council endorsed the invasion of Korea by US troops – at least two million people died in the three-year ‘forgotten conflict’ that followed.

Cold war

An undeclared Cold War had already broken out between the two post-war ‘superpowers’, the US and the Soviet Union. It was to cripple the UN for the next 40 years, even though many UN members, mostly in the South, formed a ‘Non Aligned’ group. The superpowers pursued the Cold War primarily through a nuclear arms race and by proxy in a plethora of conflicts elsewhere in the world. Only on rare occasions, such as the Berlin airlift in 1948 and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, were they in any real danger of direct military confrontation with each other.

Impotent assembly

Although every UN member had an equal vote at the General Assembly, it was left powerless. It adopted its first resolution on 24 January 1946, focussing on the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. But, unlike the Security Council, its resolutions were not binding on all UN members and had no legal force. It had limited membership and scope. Japan did not join until 1956; the two halves of divided Germany until 1973. Large parts of Africa and Asia (and thus of the world’s population) were still colonies. The economic and financial institutions thought necessary for post-war reconstruction, and to prevent a recurrence of the Depression, were hived off to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Here the US held an exclusive financial veto of its own – the Soviet Union and China did not participate. These institutions became economic weapons in the Cold War.

A third world

At the start of 1948 India became independent from Britain – and at the end of the same year the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These two events helped to reshape the dynamics of the UN. Decolonization became a priority. Newly independent countries eventually formed a ‘third world’ majority at the General Assembly. Hopes were high that a ‘new world economic order’ would bring prosperity and respect to impoverished former colonies. In 1964 the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) was set up, largely at the behest of these countries. UNICEF (children), UNESCO (education), UNHCR (refugees) and the World Health Organization (WHO) became more active – though they were reliant on voluntary contributions for funds. Concerted action prompted by the UN began to prove effective, such as in the fight against smallpox which the WHO eventually declared eradicated in 1980.

What peace to keep?

The first UN ‘observer mission’ was established in Palestine in June 1948. In 1956 the first UN peacekeeping force was formed following a disastrous attempt by Britain, France and Israel to occupy the Suez Canal. In 1961 UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld was killed in an airplane crash while on a peacekeeping mission to the Congo. In 1964 a peacekeeping force was dispatched to Cyprus. Without troops of its own, the UN was required to ‘keep’ rather than ‘make’ peace; a distinction that proved difficult to draw on the ground. The superpowers accelerated their nuclear arms race. A lucrative trade in conventional weapons was promoted by the Permanent Five themselves. No sustained attempt was made to act on Article 11 of the Charter, which gives the General Assembly powers to consider ‘the principles governing disarmament and the regulation of armaments’.

Lost decades

The emphasis shifted towards conferences and declarations. The first UN Environment Conference was held in Stockholm in 1972; the first conference on women in Mexico City in 1975. Some practical advances were made, like the Treaty on the Protection of the Ozone Layer – the ‘Montreal Protocol’ – in 1987 and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996. The UN became a skilful facilitator of elections, as in Cambodia in 1993 and South Africa in 1994. But hopes for greater parity between people and nations evaporated in a cloud of debt and economic orthodoxy. The ‘peace dividend’ anticipated with the end of the Cold War in 1989 was quickly spent by the US-led (and UN-endorsed) war against Iraq in 1991, followed by savage UN sanctions. Although the membership of the Security Council had been increased from 11 to 15 in 1965, any further attempt at significant reform foundered on the veto of the Permanent Five.

War without end

In 1995 world leaders gathered for the 50th anniversary of the UN under the slogan: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations... United for a Better World.’ The US had emerged as the world’s only ‘hyperpower’. Cracks in the theoretical inviolability of national sovereignty were opened up by moves to establish an International Criminal Court, partly in response to genocidal conflicts within rather than between nation-states, as in Rwanda and the Balkans.

After 9/11, the US (and UN-endorsed) invasion of Afghanistan was followed by the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. An apt slogan for the 60th anniversary of the UN in October 2005 will be hard to find.

Sources: Ian Williams, The UN for Beginners, Writers and Readers, New York, 1995. Danilo Zolo, Cosmopolis, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1997. Stephen Schlesinger, Act of Creation, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 2003. Thomas G Weiss et al, The United Nations and Changing World Politics, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 2004. www.un.org