Robert Johansen is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He specializes in issues of international ethics and global governance, the United Nations, and peace and world order studies.
The United Nations’ 70th anniversary prompts us to reflect on the reasons for its creation and current utility. Arising from the devastation of World War II and a hard-headed appraisal of national interests, the UN Charter expressed the wisdom of the U.S.-led wartime alliance, known as the United Nations: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. . ., [and] to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights. . ., do hereby establish . . . the United Nations.”
Despite its promise, the UN has faced harsh criticism for ineffectiveness. Although that complaint may appear to be true, it is false if it means that the UN itself is the main cause of ineffectiveness. The UN serves as a stage on which states act out the dramas of our time. The UN stage brings the actors together, but it cannot determine the outcome of their drama in progress.
The United Nations cannot do more than its members allow, so criticism of its failure to stop genocide, for example, might be leveled more accurately at the Permanent Members of the Security Council than at the UN itself. Because states have difficulty working together, the United Nations often looks ineffective, yet this difficulty is also the reason the UN is absolutely necessary to engage states and encourage cooperation.
SERVING THE COMMON GOOD
At the UN, states do not interact in a vacuum. The principles shaping the UN reflect many of the highest values of human civilizations. States face a backdrop of international norms requiring them to take seriously the values of peace, human rights, democracy, economic well-being for all, and environmental sustainability. If the UN did not exist, something functionally similar would have to be created in its place because its functioning is absolutely necessary to make interstate relations predictable and able to serve the common good. Improvising on the UN stage, governments may discover that the collective interest is the national interest—especially in the long run.
Despite the need for serious reforms (which are prevented because influential members refuse to agree), the UN has orchestrated many benefits. It provides peacemaking services that no nation or alliance has the legitimacy or power to manage by itself. Its 120,000 peacekeepers (soldiers, police, and civilian administrators from scores of countries) dampen conflicts in dozens of states.
PROTECTING HUMAN DIGNITY
Claiming that human rights set limits on sovereignty, the UN legitimized the responsibility to protect people threatened by violation of their rights when their own government is unable or unwilling to do so. It subsequently has protected civilians from mass murder in several countries and refers atrocities to the International Criminal Court for investigation and prosecution, as demonstrated with the Sudanese and Libyan referrals. It has assisted tens of millions of refugees and displaced persons who have desperately needed humanitarian assistance. It upholds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, monitors elections, and investigates violation of basic human rights. It also sets challenging goals to abolish poverty, eliminate disease, and establish schools enabling every child to realize her or his potential.
SHAPING STATE BEHAVIOR
The UN also has earned a key political role in monitoring and regulating international disputes. The UN system moves countries to create international laws that generate a predisposition to comply with them. Not all states share that predisposition, but enough do to shape public opinion and generate constructive expectations for state behavior. It condemned and reversed Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait. In an effort to stop nuclear proliferation, the UN has, despite obstructions, successfully monitored nuclear facilities that might be used to develop nuclear weapons. The UN has also provided the only framework upon which the United States (and others) could call for legally binding measures to stop the funding and organizing of terrorist organizations around the world. These mechanisms to control nuclear weapons and weaken the funding for terrorist groups illustrate significant achievements to prevent violent conflict by using political means.
Despite these gains, the UN still has much to learn and accomplish. The states and peoples of the world urgently need the UN to: (1) regulate the use of military force; (2) address terrorist violence by state and non-state actors; (3) uphold human rights and prevent atrocities, especially prohibitions of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity; (4) advance human development and overcome poverty and economic injustice; (5) sustain a life-enhancing environment; (6) strengthen the rule of law, globally and nationally; and (7) educate nations about how to strengthen democratic values and develop consciousness of shared interests, practices, and institutions in the service of human security.
The UN provides a vital stage conducive to addressing transboundary problems that increasingly threaten national and human security but which no country can successfully address alone. If the UN can induce more cooperation from members during its second 70 years, the world will see far fewer tragedies and many more compelling acts implementing the values of human dignity.