The birth of the United Nations, and its growth in 75 years

The birth of the United Nations

The UN was born out of the ashes of yet another international organisation created with the intention of keeping war away. The League of Nations was created in June 1919, after World War I, as part of the Treaty of Versailles. However, when the Second World War broke out in 1939, the League closed down and its headquarters in Geneva remained empty throughout the war.

Consequently, in August 1941, American president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill held a secret meeting aboard naval ships in Placenta Bay, located in the southeast coast of Newfoundland, Canada. The heads of the two countries discussed the possibility of creating a body for international peace effort and a range of issues related to the war. Together they issued a statement that came to be called the Atlantic Charter. It was not a treaty, but only an affirmation that paved the way for the creation of the UN. It declared the realisation of “certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they based their hopes for a better future for the world.”

The United States joined the war in December 1941, and for the first time the term ‘United Nations’ was coined by president Roosevelt to identify those countries which were allied against the axis powers. On January 1, 1942, representatives of 26 allied nations met in Washington DC to sign the declaration of the United Nations, which basically spelled out the war objectives of the Allied powers.

Over the next couple of years, several meetings took place among the Allied big four — The United States of America, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and China — to decide on the post-war charter that would describe the precise role of the United Nations.

The United Nations finally came into existence on October 24, 1945 after being ratified by 51 nations, which included five permanent members (France, the Republic of China, the Soviet Union, the UK and the US) and 46 other signatories. The first meeting of the General Assembly took place on January 10, 1946.

The four main goals of the UN included maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations, achieving international cooperation in solving international problems and being at the center for harmonising the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.

The UN headquarters is located in New York, USA.

UN’s Success Areas

While at the time of its formation, the UN consisted of only 51 member states, independence movements and de-colonisation in the subsequent years led to an expansion of its membership. At present, 193 countries are members of the UN.

The UN boasts of several significant achievements in the last 75 years. It has also expanded its scope to resolve over a large number of global issues such as health, environment, women empowerment among others.

Soon after its formation, it passed a resolution to commit to the elimination of nuclear weapons in 1946. In 1948, it created the World Health Organisation (WHO) to deal with communicable diseases like smallpox, malaria, HIV. At present the WHO is the apex organisation dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. In 1950, the UN created the High Commissioner for Refugees to take care of the millions who had been displaced due to World War II. It continues to be on the frontlines of crises faced by refugees from countries across the world. In 1972, the UN environment programme was created. More recently in 2002, the UN established the UN criminal court to try those who have committed war crimes, genocide, and other atrocities.

  • Increment in the UN membership: Post- 1960’s decolonisation, the membership of the UN expanded from about 50 members to double.
  • Decolonisation: It was the UN which played the lead role in the 1960 decolonisation and helped around 80 colonies in gaining their freedom.
  • Involvement with civil society: The UN is no more an organisation of nations only, more and more UN bodies have begun engaging with the people within the nations, experts, intellectuals and media with time.
  • Better sustenance: The UN has successfully sustained itself till now, as compared to the League of Nations, which is an achievement.
  • Peacekeeping: The UN has successfully prevented World War – III.

1960’s Decolonisation

  • In 1960, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV)), known also as the Declaration on Decolonization.
  • When the United Nations was established in 1945, 750 million people- almost a third of the world’s population then lived in Territories that were non-self-governing, dependent on colonial Powers.
  • About 80 former colonies had gained their independence.
    • At present, there are 17 only Non- Self- Governing Territories remaining and fewer than 2 million people live in such Territories.

The League of Nations

  • The League of Nations was an international diplomatic group developed after World War I as a way to solve disputes between countries before they erupted into open warfare.
  • It was established on 10 January, 1920 with its headquarter in Geneva, Switzerland.
  • A precursor to the United Nations, the League achieved some victories but had a mixed record of success, sometimes putting self-interest before becoming involved with conflict resolution, while also contending with governments that did not recognize its authority.
  • The League effectively ceased operations during World War II (1946).

UN’s Major Setbacks

The UN has also met with its share of criticisms. In 1994, for instance, the organisation failed to stop the Rwandan genocide. In 2005, UN peacekeeping missions were accused of sexual misconduct in the Republic of Congo, and similar allegations have also come from Cambodia and Haiti. In 2011, the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan was unsuccessful in eliminating the bloodshed caused in the civil war that broke out in 2013.

  • Arm races and Cold war: Although, the WW-III has been successfully prevented till date, violence, arm races, nuclear races and cold wars still occur among nations.
  • Power suppressing principles: The world body still continues to see a tussle between ‘principle’ and ‘power’.
    • While the hopes of a peaceful and just world are represented by the UN, the most powerful states are privileged by granting them commanding heights over international politics via the undemocratic instruments of veto power and permanent seats in the UN Security Council (UNSC).
  • Not a multipolar organisation: The UN has been unable to present itself as a multipolar and multilateral organisation.
    • At the time of formation, the UN had 5 permanent members with a total of 51 members, presently, it has 193 members but permanent members in the UN General Assembly are still 5.
  • Laggard in holistic growth: The organisation had not been able to cope up with the increasing globalisation.
    • The UN has been a laggard in overall development; no institutional arrangement is there to deal in particular with Pandemics or new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence.

Significant Role of India

  • India and the UN: India is one of the founding members of the UN.
    • Since its independence and even before that,India has been an active participant in all initiatives undertaken by the UN like Millennium Development Goals, Sustainable development goals and various UN summits, including on climate change.
  • Maintaining peace: As far as the peacekeeping ambit of the UN is concerned, India has performed quite well in maintaining peaceful and friendly relations with most of the nations.
  • India and UNSC: India has been recently elected as a non permanent member of the UNSC and will be joining the latter from 1 January, 2021.
    • The non permanent membership of India can be taken as an opportunity to convince the like-minded nations for fighting international terrorism.
    • Moreover, India should also focus upon sitting upon the apex body in future; becoming a permanent member of the UN.
  • Raising concern over need of reforms: India has realised the urgent need of reforms in the UN specially at the UNSC and has raised concerns over the issue.

What can India do?

  • Perseverance: India must persevere and be determined about its position rather than bringing it out only on occasions.
  • Alliance: It should make other allied nations that have ties with India realise its value and the power they can all gather together once India gets a permanent seat at the Security council.
  • Balance its international and internal responsibilities: India must also see the added pressure it might receive if it becomes a member on the Security council and not have to compromise with its own internal issues.
  • Principles over power: India’s tilt towards principles is what is appreciated and shall be continued to maintain its goodwill.

Road ahead

  • Reforming the UN charter: The UN charter talks only about the rights but not duties and responsibilities. The duties and responsibilities at individual, community, global and national level need to be emphasised too.
  • Reforms in the UNSC: The UNSC should be expanded in terms of its core members, only five permanent members with a total of 193 members does not provide justice to the others.
  • A more multilateral organisation: The UN should engage strongly with multilateralism and harness the capabilities of all those who matter, not just the P5.
    • What is needed is a multipolar and multilateral approach rather than autocracy of the P5 countries.
  • Choosing principles over power: If the principles are written by the most powerful states, then it cannot create any difference; the unequal and iniquitous structure will remain the same.
    • The salience of power is what is needed to be reduced.
    • This is where India can take up the lead and may start a dialogue with the like minded countries first about the same.
  • Judging the elements of power: It is needed to be looked upon what elements of power need to be appreciated- the crude, military power or the soft, economic power.
  • Principles for the powerful too: The other members need to make sure that the powerful members are made to work within the framework of principles so the balance between the power and principle is maintained.
  • Specialised agencies: The need for specialised agencies dealing with specific affairs such as Artificial Intelligence, Information Technology, Pandemics etc shall be looked and acted upon.

P5 Countries:

  • The P5 refers to the UN Security Council’s five permanent members; namely China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States plus Germany (making it P5 +1).
  • The P5+1 is often referred to as the E3+3 by European countries.

Summing up

  • The UN has survived and thrived and has certainly seen incremental changes over the last 75 years but the time has come for the UN to change and change for the better.
  • UNSC is in desperate need to undergo reforms, the sooner the better, the later the more redundant.
  • In a nutshell, as far as the whole UN is concerned complete reform is needed with principles not to be written by the most powerful anymore.
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