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Seventy years of the United Nations: Accomplishments and challenges

Hatsue Shinohara
Professor, Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University

The year 2015, which marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Japan, also means that the postwar era in world history is now 70 years old. The United Nations (UN) was established in 1945 after humanity experienced a second world war, so the UN also celebrates the 70th anniversary of its establishment. What were the past seven decades like from the perspective of an international organization aimed at building a peaceful world? In this article, I would like to look back on the history of the UN and discuss both its significance and problematic issues.

Let me begin by raising two questions. The first is: "Who would be troubled most if the UN completely disappeared and stopped operating tomorrow?" The second is: "Why do promising, capable young people wish to work at the UN?" The latter question is based on my experiences as a teacher dealing with students on a daily basis. When asked what career path they wish to follow in the future after studying International Relations, many students reply that they wish to work at the UN or related agencies.

If the UN did not exist…

The answer to the first question would be people suffering from poverty, discrimination, disease, and the like who receive aid from the UN and its agencies. The UN has many agencies under its umbrella, and their operations cover a wide range of areas. In fact, a discontinuation of its operations would immediately affect the lives and welfare of people in developing countries who receive benefits due to, for example, the vaccination and poverty eradication programs of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The answer to the second question stems from the idealism of young people---the pure-hearted intention to contribute to world peace and helping people in the world who are in need. The UN is perceived as an organization that embodies their ideals. This ideal image of the UN cannot be dismissed as a mere illusion, because the UN's various frontline operations have in fact been supported by people who held such ideals and beliefs. Looking back on the 70-year history of the UN (or its predecessor, the League of Nations), one can say that this international organization has been underpinned and improved by the efforts of people and member countries that truly wished to make the world a better place.

The UN has achieved concrete results in many initiatives, including measures to tackle poverty and disease, initiatives to protect human rights and promote democracy, and efforts to develop international norms and standards such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and to preserve World Heritage sites.

The author at the UN headquarters in New York.

Issues and challenges

While acknowledging many successes, the primary objective expressed at the UN’s creation in 1945 was to settle conflicts peacefully. When it comes to the achievement of this objective, the UN cannot be praised much and may be criticized in some cases. The unfolding of the Cold War, which had not been projected in 1945, brought about the development of alliance systems based on the right to collective self-defense rather than collective security as envisaged by the drafters of the United Nations Charter. In practice, when member countries violated the Charter, the UN's united attempts to tackle conflict were not successful.

On the other hand, based on its experience from the Suez crisis in 1956, the UN has initiated peacekeeping operations (PKO), a term not found in the UN Charter. PKO involves post-conflict cease-fire monitoring by UN personnel in order to maintain stability in areas of conflict. After the Cold War, PKO missions and peacekeepers were dispatched to a wider range of areas around the world. However, as the UN does not maintain standing or emergency-response forces, the former Yugoslavia dispute, for example, was only brought to an end through intervention by NATO, showing that the UN does not have the “teeth” to cope with international disputes. Therefore, when states consider how to ensure their security, they rely on their own armed forces or alliances, and these results have snowballed. Alliance systems based on collective self-defense have been built under the leadership of the United States, which played a central role in creating the UN. Over a long period the U.S. has become increasingly uninterested in the UN, and in the future, this tendency is expected to continue.

Furthermore, the UN is criticized as favoring the great powers, something that is also cited as a problem. There are moves to advocate for reform of the UN, but its system in which the five "Great Powers" are granted veto power on important decisions remains unchanged. Similar to the involvement of the U.S. in the Vietnam War, the UN has not been able to take effective countermeasures against the annexation of Crimea by Russia and China's advance into the South China Sea in recent years. On the other hand, newly independent nations can apply for admission into the UN and member nations have equal voting rights in the UN General Assembly, systems that legally and institutionally guarantee the equality of member nations. Switzerland, which had long stayed out of the UN due to its neutralist policy, joined the UN after a national referendum in 2002, another development fresh in our memory.

It can be said that the 70-year history of the UN reflects both the bright and dark sides of the international community. As globalization progresses and an increasing number of cross-border problems arise, the UN is needed to ensure incremental progress in the international community and the world as a whole. Even if its prestige may decline as the great powers and other member nations use the UN to promote their own interests, a world without the UN would be even darker.

Hatsue Shinohara
Professor, Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University

Hatsue Shinohara graduated from Waseda University with a bachelor's degree in law. She completed the Doctoral Program in Graduate School of Law, and obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

Major publications
US International Lawyers in the Interwar Years: A Forgotten Crusade (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
“International Law and World War I,” Diplomatic History 38 (2014).