Clickable map of major UN activity around the world since 1948
In the aftermath of the violence and horror inflicted on Europe during World War One, emerging powers realised that international governance required an organised forum where disputes could be aired and adjudicated.
The League of Nations was formed at the Paris Conference in 1919 to deal with international relations, post-imperial border arbitrations and conflict resolution but was almost immediately derailed because the US refused to become a member.
Though minor conflicts were resolved peacefully, the League oversaw the implementation of mandates which carved up the Middle East into regions of influence; ultimately, this would lead to successive wars in that area.
By the time Japan, one of the founding members, invaded Manchuria in 1931, the League’s efficacy was already in decline. The rise of Nazism and militarisation in Germany, facism in Italy, and growing anti-Semitism throughout Europe effectively buried the hopes the League had tried to instil in European realpolitik.
In 1944, as World War Two drew to an end, some former League members again tried to convene a world body with a greater emphasis on global security and mechanisms to use force to resolve conflicts.
Birth of the UN
On October 24, 1945, 50 nations ratified the UN Charter and created the world body.
Almost from the outset, the international organisation was plagued with conflicts and crises, some of which remain continue to this day.
The 1947 partition of Palestine and the 1948 creation of Israel erupted into a refugee crisis (known by Arabs as al-Nakba) and fuelled a series of regional wars.
More than 130 Security Council resolutions have been passed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which remains unresolved and is considered to be the fulcrum of regional crises.
On January 18, 1948, the UN took up the question of Kashmir as the newly-formed independent nations of India and Pakistan clashed over the territory. After some 27 Security Council resolutions and statements on the conflict, it remains unresolved and a source of tension between the two states.
In 1960, UN peacekeepers (or Blue Helmets as they would later be known), entered the civil war in Congo aiming to preserve the unity of the country. Going contrary to the founding guidelines of the UN, they fought against Katanga rebels.
The office of the secretary-general was strengthened by its second occupant, Dag Hammarskjöld, a former Swedish diplomat who was caught in the turbulence of the Cold War. He died in a plane crash in the Congo in 1961.
Since 1948, there have been some 37 peacekeeping operations, 16 of which are ongoing. Since the mid-1990s, the number and scale of these operations have increased significantly around the world.
Human rights agenda
The UN has also aggressively pursued campaigns of humanitarian assistance to refugees, and combatted hunger, poverty and once-widespread diseases such as malaria, cholera, dysentery, yellow fever, tuberculosis and typhoid, to name a few.
Today, the UN is engaged in the war on HIV/Aids and has established the Joint United Nations Aids Programme (UNAid) which works with other UN agencies to raise awareness of and fight the disease.
On December 10, 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a document that for the first time combined all the rights of all peoples of the earth and predicated their sanctity.
The document was seen as a watershed moment in the post-war era as it ensured that all UN agencies would work to promote and safeguard the articles therein.
Several agencies work under the ethos of the UDHR, chief among them the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which was established in 1950.
Criticism and praise
It would take several volumes of literature to list the UN’s failures and successes, but it has been the subject of both criticism and praise in its 63-year history.
While some point to alleged human rights abuses by UN peacekeeping forces and corruption within the management of the international body, others laud the organisation as the single, most effective mechanism for addressing and dealing with nations undertaking post-conflict reconstruction.
In recent years, however, the criticism has significantly increased in light of catastrophic failures of the Security Council to intervene when most needed.
In 1994, the Council failed to reach consensus and prevent the genocide in Rwanda, in which more than 800,000 people were killed.
The following year, Srebrenica, an internationally-recognised safe haven created by UN peacekeeping forces was over-run by Serb militia; 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men were massacred.
That year was also marred by the UN’s withdrawal from Somalia, after failing to address the humanitarian needs of the populace. The retreat led to a breakdown in law and order; Somalia is today considered by many to be a failed state.
More recently, the UN has been criticised for failing to prevent alleged genocide in Darfur and planning for the post-sanctions, post-invasion chaos that nearly tore Iraq apart.
However, and despite these drawbacks, historians and analysts believe that the UN is only as strong as its member states’ commitments to resolving conflict. They also say that the UN is still the best hope the world has.
UN agencies such as Unicef, Unesco, WHO, FAO, UNDP and WFP have helped billions of people since 1945.
The UNHCR is credited with having assisted and rehabilited 50 million people in its 58-year history.