The earliest concrete plan for the formation of a new world organization was begun under the aegis of the U.S. State Department late in 1939. The name United Nations was coined by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941 to describe the countries fighting against the Axis. It was first used officially on Jan. 1, 1942, when 26 states joined in the Declaration by the United Nations, pledging themselves to continue their joint war effort and not to make peace separately. The need for an international organization to replace the League of Nations was first stated officially on Oct. 30, 1943, in the Moscow Declaration, issued by China, Great Britain, the United States, and the USSR.
At the Dumbarton Oaks Conference (Aug.–Oct., 1944), those four countries drafted specific proposals for a charter for the new organization, and at the Yalta Conference (Feb., 1945) further agreement was reached. All the states that had ultimately adhered to the 1942 declaration and had declared war on Germany or Japan by Mar. 1, 1945, were called to the founding conference held in San Francisco (Apr. 25–June 26, 1945). Drafted at San Francisco, the UN charter was signed on June 26 and ratified by the required number of states on Oct. 24 (officially United Nations Day). The General Assembly first met in London on Jan. 10, 1946.
It was decided to locate the UN headquarters in the E United States. In Dec., 1946, the General Assembly accepted the $8.5 million gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to buy a tract of land along the East River, New York City, for its headquarters. The principal buildings there, the Secretariat, the General Assembly, and the Conference Building, were completed in 1952. The Dag Hammarskjöld Memorial Library was dedicated in 1961.
In practice the UN has not evolved as was first envisaged. Originally it was composed largely of the Allies of World War II, mainly European countries, Commonwealth countries, and nations of the Americas. It was conceived as an organization of
peace-loving nations, who were combining to prevent future aggression and for other humanitarian purposes. Close cooperation among members was expected; the Security Council especially was expected to work in relative unanimity. Hopes for essential accord were soon dashed by the frictions of the cold war, which affected the functioning of the Security Council and other UN organs.
The charter had envisaged a regular military force available to the Security Council and directed the creation of the Military Staff Committee to make appropriate plans. The committee—consisting of the chiefs of staff (or their deputies) of the Big Five—was unable to reach agreement, with the USSR and the other four states on opposing sides; thus no regular forces were established. The same split frustrated the activities of two special Security Council bodies, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Commission on Conventional Armaments. Hence no arrangements were concluded for regulating the production of atomic bombs or reducing other types of armaments (see disarmament, nuclear). The charter anticipated that regional security agreements would supplement the overall UN system, but in fact such comprehensive alliances as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organization of American States, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, and the Warsaw Treaty Organization to an extent bypassed the UN system.
There were some early instances of Soviet cooperation with the United States and other powers that allowed for UN successes in restoring or preserving peace. These included the settlement (1946) of the complaint of Syria and Lebanon that France and Great Britain were illegally occupying their territory; the partitioning of Palestine (see Israel); the fighting over Kashmir between India and Pakistan (see India-Pakistan Wars); and the withdrawal of the Dutch from Indonesia. However, in many other issues of more direct importance to the great powers, conflict between the USSR and the remaining members of the Big Five prevented resolution. The Security Council was crippled by the veto, which by the end of 1955 had been used 78 times, 75 of them by the Soviet Union.
In reaction to the limitations that the cold war imposed on the Security Council, the United States, Britain, France, and other nations tried to develop the General Assembly beyond its original scope. In the assembly the United States and Great Britain had strong support from among the Commonwealth and Latin American countries and generally commanded a majority. The Soviet Union could muster only a smaller bloc, sufficient to create debate between East and West but less effective in voting.
Of more importance were procedures evolved in the Korean crisis in 1950. At that time the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council because of the UN refusal to admit the People's Republic of China as a member. Since the USSR was not present to cast a veto, the Security Council was enabled to establish armed forces to repel the North Korean attack on South Korea (see Korean War). Thus, at a time when the young organization had begun to seem politically sterile, it gave birth to the first UN army and to the widest
collective security action in history up to that time, although the United States provided the bulk of both fighting personnel and matériel. In addition, firmer UN action in future crises was prepared for when, in Nov., 1950, the assembly adopted the
Uniting for Peace resolution, which permitted it to take its own measures when use of the veto paralyzed the council. Although the assembly has been convened a few times under this resolution, its authority to require action by members has remained vague, and it has never developed workable enforcement machinery.
Some areas were opened for UN intervention, however, where world opinion and great power responsiveness favored it. In the struggle for independence in Morocco, Algeria, and elsewhere, the ruling colonial powers claimed these conflicts to be domestic; with their seats on the Security Council they were in a position to veto assembly resolutions, and with the official governments of rebellious territories under their control they were enabled to forestall UN intervention. In the Hungarian revolt (1956), requests that the USSR withdraw its troops from Hungary and that UN observers be admitted to the country were rejected by the Soviet Union. In the Suez crisis (1956), however, the General Assembly resolution for an immediate cease-fire and for withdrawal of invading forces was heeded by Great Britain, France, and Israel (see Arab-Israeli Wars).
Parallel to the growing activity of the assembly was the expanding role of the secretary-general. Trygve Lie, as secretary-general, made vigorous efforts to muster world opinion in such difficulties as the Korean crisis, but his labeling of North Korea as the aggressor earned him Soviet enmity and thus limited his effectiveness. Under the
quiet diplomacy of Dag Hammarskjöld the secretary-generalship gained greater scope. The secretary-general, not the deadlocked Security Council, was entrusted with organizing and establishing UN forces in the Suez crisis. He worked closely with the General Assembly on other issues. In 1958, when an assembly resolution asking for a strong force of UN observers in Lebanon had been vetoed by the council, the secretary-general nevertheless followed the assembly's recommendation.
Beyond such missions Hammarskjöld interpreted his office as responsible for preserving peace even when the assembly itself was deadlocked and could issue no definite instructions. In practice he operated largely under a General Assembly mandate but frequently took executive steps that could not be completely detailed by instructions. Thus the office of secretary-general was evolving as the UN's de facto executive authority in matters of international conflict, and the Security Council began to meet much less frequently.
By the late 1950s the UN was being revolutionized by a change in membership. Since the inception of the UN there had been a steady growth of feeling that the organization should comprise all the nations of the world. But new membership was long blocked by East-West rivalry; each side was antagonistic to admission of new members unfavorable to its views, and as non-Communist countries outnumbered Communist ones the USSR was especially intransigent. From 1947 to 1955 only Yemen (1947), Pakistan (1947), Myanmar (1948), Israel (1949), and Indonesia (1950) gained admission. The way to a compromise was led by Canada in 1955; 16 new members were admitted in that year, and thereafter expansion was rapid.
Accompanying expansion came voting realignment. The clear majority of the United States and its allies disappeared as the Afro-Asian group of nations (see Third World) obtained over half of the assembly seats. New voting blocs formed, including the NATO nations, the Arab nations, the Commonwealth nations, and, increasingly, a general Afro-Asian bloc. Latin America shifted away from its pro-U.S. position. Other themes began to equal that of the cold war in assembly debates, and more militant stands were taken against remnants of colonialism.
The changed nature of the UN was revealed in UN Africa policy in the early 1960s. The UN acted strongly in the crisis in the Congo, and during its involvement there the secretary-general developed his office to an unprecedented extent. When the UN was invited (1960) by the Congo government to send troops there, a UN force was quickly organized by Hammarskjöld from among neutral European and African states. The UN troops, confronted by social and political chaos, engaged in direct military action to force Katanga province to reintegrate with the Congo, which it finally did in 1963.
UN action in the Congo and later in sending peacekeeping forces to Cyprus (1964) demonstrated a willingness to intervene in basically internal situations, both to restore order and to prevent the spread of disorder to neighboring states. This willingness was especially evident in the attention paid to the remaining colonial areas, mainly in Africa. The UN repeatedly condemned the colonial policies of Portugal (until that country began to free its colonies after the 1974 coup) and the racial policies of South Africa and Rhodesia, against which severe economic sanctions were applied.
Having lost its automatic majority in the assembly, the United States joined the Soviet Union in limiting UN power and authority, mainly by keeping major issues within the purview of the Security Council and the veto, with inaction the usual result. There was a corresponding decline in the freedom of movement allowed the secretary-general. In the wake of Hammarskjöld's Congo operation and accidental death, the Soviet Union's
troika plan for a three-person secretary-generalship—an Eastern, a Western, and a neutralist member, each with a veto—was a sign that the USSR would not tolerate another activist secretary-general. Although its plan was defeated, the USSR's goal was largely achieved, since succeeding secretaries-general avoided actions that might be controversial.
Severe financial pressures have also served to restrict UN action. A number of countries, including the USSR, have refused to pay for UN actions, such as the Congo operation, not directly approved by the Security Council. The United States successfully pushed for a reduction of its assessment to 25% of the UN budget in 1977, instead of one third or more, but has still been in substantial arrears. (By the late 1990s the problem of U.S. arrears had grown so great that the United States was in danger of losing its vote in the General Assembly.)
Finally, the major powers have tended to deal with each other outside the framework of the UN. While certain agreements in peripheral areas of disarmament and international cooperation have been worked out within the UN—e.g., the peaceful use of atomic energy (see Atomic Energy Agency, International), cooperation in outer space, and arms limitation on the international seabed—most major negotiations and agreements have been on a bilateral basis.
As a result, until 1991 the UN played a relatively secondary role in most world crises, including the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973; the India-Pakistan War of 1971; the Vietnam War; and the Afghanistan War. However, with Soviet cooperation, the UN played a major role approving action in the Persian Gulf in 1991 to drive Iraq from Kuwait, and it actively supervised the subsequent cease-fire, embargo, and removal of strategic weapons from Iraq (see Persian Gulf War).
Since the early 1970s, the UN expanded its activity in the development of less developed countries. The UN and its related agencies have had a significant impact in disease control, aid to refugees, and technological cooperation. It has provided a mechanism through which developed countries can jointly contribute with a minimum of national antagonism and from which less developed countries can receive aid with a minimum of suspicion and resentment. The UN has also been active in setting standards of human dignity and freedom, such as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the establishment of international labor standards, and has been a forum for discussion on some environmental issues, such as at the
Earth Summit in 1992.
The current UN is an all but universal global institution. Its peacekeeping forces were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988, and in 2001 the UN itself, along with Secretary-General Annan, was awarded the prize. Beginning in the 1990s, the UN was increasingly involved in peacekeeping efforts throughout the world. Although the UN played a subsidiary role in the Persian Gulf War, its potential to gain a more prominent peacekeeping role was enhanced with the end of the cold war. In recent years the UN has supervised the 1993 elections in Cambodia (as part of its largest peacekeeping effort ever) and the 1999 referendum in East Timor (although it could not prevent the violence the followed), and it has mounted peacekeeping operations in Angola, Bosnia, Congo (Kinshasa), Eritrea and Ethiopia, Haiti, Kosovo, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan and Chad among others. In addition, the UN has provided police forces in regions, such as Kosovo, Bosnia, and East Timor, where the local government could not.
The Security Council's assertiveness in enforcing the Gulf War cease-fire resolutions in the early 1990s seemed indicative of a new vigor. Later divisions on the council over that issue, however, and limited success at times with respect to peacekeeping in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Sierra Leone, and Côte d'Ivore indicate that, unless the parties overseen by such forces are desirous of peace, perhaps the council can assert itself successfully only when the great powers are convinced that their interests are at stake. The fact was made all-too-obvious by the divisions that emerged between the United States and Britain, on one side, and France, Russia, and China over whether to approve military action against Iraq in 2003. Other divisions hampered the UN's ability to develop (2007) a fully workable peacekeeping mission in Sudan and Chad, where rebellion in Sudan's Darfur region and bordering parts of Chad created large numbers of refugees beginning in 2003. On the other hand, the UN peacekeeping mission along the Eritrea-Ethiopia border (2000–2008) was ended after the two benefiting nations undermined it.
In an effort to ensure that UN peacekeeping missions that are mounted are effective, Annan pushed for forces that were large enough to be able to enforce the peace, though that was not always possible. UN peacekeeping forces have also become more assertive about using force to protect themselves and civilians and more active in enforcing the peace. In 2011, in response to fighting in Libya, the Security Council authorized a no-fly zone in Libya to protect civilians and imposed sanctions on the government, but the NATO-Arab mission enforcing the zone also acted at times in apparent support of the rebels, who ultimately overthrew the government. A peace mission to Syria in 2012, which only involved UN observers, was not successful in stemming the Arab Spring conflict there, and subsequent UN efforts to protect Syrian civilians were marginally successful at best. A UN peacekeeping force was deployed in the Central African Republic in 2014, in response to fighting between Christian and Muslim militias following the overthrow of the government; the force superseded and absorbed an African Union contingent that had been deployed in the country in 2013.
A related and pressing problem has been the financial crisis created by the arrears owed by the United States and other nations, a crisis exacerbated by the expense of increased peacekeeping operations. Even as the nations of the world have been expanding the UN's role as peacekeeper, its ability to fund such operations has been hampered by nonpayment of UN dues. American dissatisfaction with the UN has led to opposition within Congress to payment of UN dues and resulted in unyielding U.S. opposition to the reelection of Boutros-Ghali as secretary-general. Kofi Annan, who succeeded Boutros-Ghali in 1997, worked to streamline UN operations and reduce costs, in part to restore American confidence and interest in the organization. In 1999 the U.S. Congress passed legislation that would pay some of the nation's back dues, but it also called for a further reduction in the assessment that the United States is expected to pay. An agreement in Dec., 2000, called for a reduction in U.S. dues to 22% of the UN's budget. In 2000, U.S. arrears had reached $1.3 billion, according to UN calculations, but by the end of 2004 that had been reduced by more than 80%.
In 2004 the UN's reputation was tarnished by revelations about corruption in the oil-for-food program that allowed Iraq, beginning in 1996 and ending after the U.S.-led invasion, to export oil to generate income that was to be used to purchase food and other humanitarian relief. Saddam Hussein's government received sizable kickbacks through the program (although the money Iraq earned through smuggling oil abroad was much greater), and many outside Iraq illicitly profited as well. A detailed UN investigation into the program, led by Paul
Also in 2005 Annan attempted to win international support for a group of comprehensive reforms within the United Nations, but agreement proved difficult to secure. UN members did approve the establishment of a Peacebuilding Commission, intended to aid war-torn nations in reestablishing political stability and economic growth. In Dec., 2005, under pressure from the United States and other wealthy nations, UN members approved a two-year budget with a spending cap for 2006 that was expected to be reached in June of that year. The intention was to link the approval of further spending to passage of management reforms by the General Assembly.
The General Assembly approved (Mar., 2006) the replacement of the UN Human Rights Commission with a Human Rights Council. The move was designed to restore credibility to the UN's human rights body, which was criticized for having included among its member nations many countries that had been denounced for violations of human rights, but the new body soon faced similar criticisms. In May the Assembly refused to approve the centerpiece of Annan's ambitious administrative reform plans for the United Nations; some modest reforms were approved in July. The budget cap, meanwhile, had been removed in June by the General Assembly.
Annan was succeeded as secretary-general by South Korean diplomat Ban Ki-Moon in 2007; he served for two terms. Ban, who also focused on reforming and restructuring the United Nations, was less of an activist international leader than Annan. Although UN peacekeepers kept the crisis in Côte d'Ivoire from worsening in 2011 and then aided in the installation of the country's internationally recognized president, elsewhere peacekeeping forces had more limited or even negligible effects. In Haiti, UN peacekeepers unintentionally introduced (2010) cholera into the island nation, leading to the deaths of more than 9,000, and the United Nations for a long time denied its forces were the cause. Increasing discord on the Security Council between Russia and Western nations during Ban's tenure especially hampered UN attempts to intervene in the Syrian civil war to save civilian lives. The most notable UN achievement under Ban was most likely the signing of the Paris climate change agreement in 2015, which included the broadest and most far-reaching program so far to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. António Guterres, a former Portuguese premier and UN High Commissioner for Refugees succeeded Ban as secretary-general in 2017.
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