‘Peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet’ is the official motto of the largest organisation in the world, the United Nations Organisation which was primarily formed for one cause: world peace. Over the seven decades of its existence, this organisation, the United Nations (UN), has evolved into a body that enforces international law, security, and human rights.
The United Nations was founded in 1945, after World War II, by 51 countries committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights. It was the second international organisation formed in the 20th century with worldwide coverage and membership.
Before the UN, there was the League of Nations, known as the ‘predecessor of the United Nations’. The League of Nations, created by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, had a similar founding objective. Even though World War I was called ‘the war to end all wars’, it was just the beginning.
Following the horrific chapter of World War I, leaders of nations wanted to avoid similar global conflicts in the future and desired world peace. However, the League of Nations failed in serving its purpose, and yet another catastrophic world war shook the world. This time the impact was even more disastrous.
The title ‘United Nations’ was first adopted to denote the countries which allied against Germany, Italy, and Japan, the Axis Powers.
World War II, which started on September 3, 1939, went on for six years until it ended on September 2, 1945. According to The National World War II Museum, an estimated 50,000,000 to 60,000,000 people died, and 25,000,000 others were wounded during the combat, making it the deadliest conflict ever.
Initial planning to establish a new global organisation to help manage international affairs happened during the last months of the war. In August 1941, United States President Franklin D Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill held a secret meeting in which they discussed the possibility of starting an international peace effort. They came up with the Atlantic Charter, which is believed to be one of the initial steps towards the formation of the UN.
The title ‘United Nations’ was first adopted to denote the countries which allied against Germany, Italy, and Japan, the Axis Powers. America was not involved in the war until 1941, which was when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. On January 1, 1942, representatives from 26 Allied nations met in Washington DC, to sign the Declaration of the United Nations, which defined the war objectives of the Allied Powers. The meeting was led by the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union – ‘the big three’ on the Allied side.
The final Charter of the UN was confirmed in the United Nations Conference on International Organisation (UNCIO), which met in San Francisco on April 25, 1945.
Over the following few years, several meetings took place to draft a post-war charter that would describe the roles of the UN. The Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which took place from August 21 to October 7, 1944, marked a vital step in the crafting of the United Nations. According to the official website of the UN, during the conference, diplomatic experts of the ‘big three’ powers and China – together known as the ‘big four’ – agreed on the general purpose, structure, and functions of the upcoming organisation, though the conference ended with continuing disagreement over membership and voting.
At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin defined the charter provisions, determining the authority of the Security Council. The final Charter of the UN was confirmed in the United Nations Conference on International Organisation (UNCIO), which met in San Francisco on April 25, 1945. The conference was attended by 51 countries, making it the largest international gathering till then. The final draft of the charter was a legally binding contract between all the countries involved, and a list of resolutions that the UN wanted to achieve. After two months of discussions, on June 26, the Charter of the United Nations was signed by the countries. Dr Wellington Koo, representing China, signed first, being the first nation attacked in the war.
During the telecast of the signing conference of the Charter of the United Nations, the television commentary described it as the “Magna Carta of the peace-loving humanity.” The commentary continued: “There are four main agencies, upon which the world now puts its hope. A powerful Security Council, having final military authority, a General Assembly representing all member nations, a Social-Economic Council to tackle the causes of war, and an International Court to judge any international disputes.”
According to the Charter, the United Nations works for four main purposes: to maintain international peace and security, to develop friendly relations among nations, to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems, and to be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends. The Charter came into force on October 24, 1945, and the United Nations was officially born.
The United Nations has six principal organs: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat.
The Security Council manages the UN and is the most powerful body. It consists of 15 nations, out of which only five remain permanent, and the others are elected in rotation. France, Russia, the US, the UK, and China are the permanent Security Council member-nations, which were the winning powers in World War II.
The General Assembly includes nearly all internationally recognised countries. It meets every September to discuss matters, including security, diplomacy and development.
Today, the General Assembly consists of 193 countries as its member-nations, South Sudan being the last nation to join on July 27, 2011. One country has only one vote in the General Assembly.
The Economic and Social Council works to improve the standard of living around the world, supports human rights, and helps developing countries. It works with a bunch of specialised agencies like the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations International Children's Fund (UNICEF).
The International Court of Justice is the judicial arm of the UN where international law violations are debated and prosecuted.
The Secretariat oversees the overall functioning of the UN and is headed by the secretary-general.
The Trusteeship Council helped developing territories and dependencies become independent countries. It was suspended in 1994 and is currently inoperative.
The UN headquarters is situated in New York City. It has regional offices in Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi. Its official languages are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.
According to Britannica, over the 77 years of its formation, the United Nations has succeeded in dealing with the issues of hunger, poverty, child mortality, health care, drugs, women’s rights, sustainable development and other global matters. It has helped provide aid and security for the underdeveloped and the needy.
Considering its contribution towards world peace, the UN was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2001, and its specialised agencies have won the Prize multiple times. The WHO’s contributions and role in tackling the recent Covid-19 pandemic is praiseworthy.
The United Nations has also been receiving lots of criticism. The use of veto power and the over-leverage of the Security Council have always been subject to objection. Insufficient effort in stopping the Ukraine invasion is the most recent complaint raised against the UN.
But as an international organisation functioning to maintain world peace, the UN will never lose its importance.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
Can you think of the reasons for the failure of the League of Nations?
Can you think of the reasons for the formation of the United Nations?
How would you describe the role played by the United Nations in keeping world peace?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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