The United Nations—a sometimes controversial, but often under-appreciated global institution—turns 71 years old today.
The day marks what is now known as United Nations Day, which promotes the work of the international body and reminds us how much more needs to be done to achieve peace and security.
“On United Nations Day, we reflect on the progress we have made in the time since, resolve to carry this progress forward, and reaffirm our commitment to international cooperation rooted in the rights and responsibilities of nations across the globe,” the White House said in a press release.
The United Nations has been around for nearly three quarters of a century and we are now two generations removed from World War II—the war that inspired the world to come together to tackle international disputes in a global forum rather than on the battlefield. This has led to us forgetting how the United Nations came about and how it became the institution it is today.
The United Nations, which is now mainly based in New York and Geneva, was the second iteration of an international organization that was meant to settle issues of war and peace and protect the most vulnerable nations through collective security.
The League of Nations, created in the aftermath of the brutal first World War, was a disaster from the start. While ambitious in scope, it was rejected by the United States Senate, it didn’t represent those living under colonial powers, and it showed itself unable to deal with Japanese and Nazi aggression. The League, which was based in Geneva, dissolved quickly during the onset of World War II, which killed tens of millions of people around the globe and saw some of the most horrific mass murder in recorded history.
After the war, representatives of 50 countries, with the leadership of the United States and its president Franklin D. Roosevelt, met in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization. There and at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C., they created the United Nations Charter, which was signed by 50 member states on June 26, 1945. The United Nations was born in October of that year, after being ratified by the world’s largest powers.
In essence, the United Nations was created with the belief that only a multilateral institution could guarantee world peace. Talking to each other was better than the behind-the-scenes horse trading for power and prestige that was an essential part of foreign relations beforehand. It also rejected the balance of power-politics that characterized international relations a century before.
The United Nations was primarily a security institution with the Security Council—along with the General Assembly—as its leading body. The United Nations’ role has expanded since then to include refugees, environment, weapons, health, and even global criminal justice.
There were 50 initial member of the United Nations. Decolonization, war, and independence movements have helped to create the current 193 member states.
The United Nations’ history has been turbulent at times. Here are a few of the major events since its creation:
The U.N.General Assembly passed its first resolution to commit to the elimination of nuclear weapons.
The United Nations voted to partition Palestine with Jewish and Arab sectors.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is adopted by the General Assembly. Two other covenants on civil, political, social, and cultural rights would follow in the 1960s and 1970s.
The tension between Jews and Arabs in Palestine led to the first U.N. peacekeeping mission.
The World Health Organization was created under the auspices of the United Nations to deal mainly with communicable diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, malaria and HIV.
After the invasion of South Korea by the North, the U.N. Security Council voted in favor of stemming the aggression—without a vote from the Soviet Union, which was boycotting the forum at the time. It is one of the only times the Security Council agreed on major military action during the Cold War.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was created to deal with the millions of Europeans displaced after the second World War. This organization is now on the front lines of the struggle to feed and house millions of refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other countries affected by war and poverty.
Dozens of former colonies joined the organization upon independence.
At a Security Council meeting, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations shows evidence that the Soviet Union is putting missiles in Cuba, kicking off the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The U.N. Environment Programme was created to deal with global environmental issues.
The Cambodian genocide began, with the United Nations powerless to stop it. It would face similar controversy for its failure in Rwanda in 1994.
Treaty on the Protection of the Ozone Layer is signed in Montreal.
The Soviet Union collapsed and many of its satellites states become independent countries and members of the United Nations
The United Nations established the first war crimes court for perpetrators of mass atrocities during the war in Yugoslavia.
The U.N. Millenium Development Goals were created to encourage progress against poverty and malnutrition, while promoting human rights, gender equality, environmental sustainability, and education. The goals have largely been considered a success and were recently replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals.
The United Nations established the International Criminal Court to try suspects who are alleged to have committed war crimes, genocide, and other atrocities. The United States is not a member of the court.
Currently, there are 16 U.N. peacekeeping operations and over 100,000 U.N. peacekeepers from 123 countries.
Over the years, the United Nations has shifted from a multilateral organization focused on security to one that has taken more responsibility for problems that can only be solved globally: refugee flows, the spread of weapons, environmental damage, emergency humanitarian crises, and public health. These missions have met mixed success, but perhaps more so than if they had been faced alone by individual countries or regional efforts.
However, the United Nations is only as effective as the sum of its constituent parts, the member states. Without them, the United Nations is powerless to act.