Since the end of the cold war, it has acquired new dynamism, but at the same time it has to be restructured to cope with an emerging complex world of nation-states, various movements, and unforeseen challenges like terrorism.
The United Nations, founded in the aftermath of World War II, was established at the San Francisco Conference in 1945 on the principle of collective security. It was the successor to the League of Nations, which had been established after World War I but failed to organize world order on the principles of universality.
The United Nations, therefore, took care to avoid the mistakes of its predecessor, and five major powers were given special power and responsibility through the mechanism of "veto" power in the most important organ of the United Nations—the Security Council.
The goals of the United Nations were enshrined in the Charter: to maintain international peace and security, to develop friendly relations among nations, to achieve international cooperation, and to work as a harmonizer among nations. Security was the principal goal of the United Nations.
Unlike in the league, however, security was not narrowly conceived in the United Nations but was broadened to include socioeconomic justice, human rights, and development. Like the league, the United Nations was based on the principles of collective security.
The new principle on which the league and the United Nations were based does not consider security as the individual affair of states or regions but as a collective affair of all states, and aggression against one state is considered aggression against all others. All states are obliged to take collective action against the aggressor.
From The League
The UN Charter provided for six major organs, four of which evolved out of the League of Nations. The General Assembly was based on the democratic principle of "one country, one vote", irrespective of size and power, and was essentially a deliberative organ.
The countries of the Third World used the body for organizing themselves and took up issues of colonialism and racialism. The Charter provided for some supervisory functions of the General Assembly. The council and assembly had joint functions as well.
The Security Council, the most important organ of the United Nations, reflected the reality of power. The United States, the Soviet Union, France, Great Britain, and China were the five permanent members with veto power and had special responsibility to maintain world peace and security.
However, veto became a mechanism of obstruction, and the Soviet Union frequently used it; while the United States did not use it in earlier years, the frequency of veto increased after 1970. The Security Council was based on the assumption that the major powers would agree on issues of war and peace, but the onset of the cold war around 1945 made the United Nations a helpless spectator.
The Charter provided for a mechanism of maintaining peace, whereby the council may call upon members states to apply sanctions against the aggressor and may form a Military Staff Committee consisting of the chief of staff of permanent members of the Security Council.
The enforcement of peace was possible in the Korean War, and a united command was formed under the United States. It placed an embargo on the export of strategic materials to China and North Korea. Subsequently the provision could not be replicated for a long time.
It was only after the closing stages of the cold war that the Security Council became effective again; consultations and coordination among the major powers in the council have been frequent, as in the Persian Gulf crisis and more recently over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
For about five decades of the cold war, the United Nations never appeared to play the role envisaged at San Francisco in the realm of peace and security; it was bypassed in major flash points across the globe, such as the Panama Canal crisis, Hungary, the Berlin blockade, the Cuban missile crisis, Arab-Israeli conflicts, the India-China border war, Vietnam and Indochina, and the Sino-Soviet border war.
The United Nations was a passive bystander as major powers professed to settle scores outside the United Nations. When the United Nations was hamstrung due to the use of veto, the General Assembly sought a way out through the Uniting for Peace Resolution to consider measures in a situation of breach of peace.
After the end of the cold war, the United Nations became more active again, although in the process it acquired new functions, in line with but not envisaged in the Charter. During the turn of the 21st century this function, known as peacekeeping—traditionally denoting acting as a buffer between contending parties or monitoring ceasefire agreements—expanded to other areas.
Now peacekeeping also means the provision of humanitarian relief, removal of mines, repatriation of refugees, and reconstruction of national infrastructure in devasted areas, such as Afghanistan.
The costs of all of these functions have been enormous, especially in recent peacekeeping operations: South Africa, Rwanda, Iraq-Kuwait, Mozambique, Somalia, Haiti, and Liberia. Sometimes the United Nations has drawn flak; the UN troops have also been targeted, as in Somalia and Bosnia.
Unlike during the cold war years, however, the United Nations finds cooperation among major powers to repulse aggression. In the First Gulf War, Moscow supported U.S. efforts to impose sanctions against Iraq, which had annexed Kuwait.
The machinery of the United Nations was used. Other major powers contributed troops, particularly France and Britain. Japan and Germany too accepted new security roles.
Besides war and peace, the United Nations has been instrumental in various humanitarian efforts. A large amount of credit must go to the United Nations for ending apartheid in South Africa, improving life expectancy in Africa, helping children suffering from malnutrition, and fighting diseases. It has not been as successful in the removal of global poverty, but it has launched efforts in that direction.
Now the United Nations finds itself playing a new role against international terrorism. It has not been as successful, and the United States acted unilaterally in 1998 when al-Qaeda attacked U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Subsequently, following September 11, 2001, the United States took drastic steps, and the United Nations was more involved than before; terrorism became a key issue of international and United Nations concern.
The United Nations has been moving into new, uncharted areas. In a world where millions of children die days after they are born, the issue of human rights has become a major arena of international attention.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, has been enshrined in constitutions of states. Now the United Nations has also been a force in expanding the frontiers of democracy worldwide, believing that democracy fosters world peace.
While the United Nations is engaged in redefining issues of war, peace, development, and freedom, reforming the world body has become a burning issue since the end of the cold war, and more particularly since 1998, when 185 states met to celebrate 50 years of the United Nations.
There is also demand to restructure the Security Council and to add new permanent members—with or without veto power. Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, and some African countries are key candidates demanding permanent places on the Security Council.
The major powers with vetos—the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France—themselves differ about who should be permanent members in a reformed council. Reforms are, however, necessary to make the United Nations more in tune with the changes of the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century.