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The UN at 60

Sixty years ago today, in the aftermath of the most devastating war in human history, a group of world leaders met in San Francisco to sign ...

Written by Shashi Tharoor |
June 26, 2005

Sixty years ago today, in the aftermath of the most devastating war in human history, a group of world leaders met in San Francisco to sign a document they hoped would make the second half of the 20th century very different from the first.

That document was the UN Charter. The birth of the United Nations, in San Francisco in 1945, came about because these far-sighted leaders understood that the world could simply no longer afford to continue as it had in the first half of the century, which had witnessed two world wars, countless civil wars, genocide, mass expulsions of populations, and the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima. So they drew up rules to govern international behaviour, and founded institutions in which nations could cooperate for the common good. The UN was pre-eminent among them.

Today, 60 years later, we are all far better off than in 1945, but criticism is rife. The divisions in the Security Council over Iraq in 2003 marked a turning point for the UN’s standing in the world. A Pew Poll taken in 20 countries in the middle of that year showed that the UN had suffered a great deal of collateral damage over Iraq from both sides of the debate. The UN’s credibility was down in the US because it did not support the administration on the war — and it was down in the 19 other countries because it could not prevent the war. And since then, the UN has reeled from assaults over its handling of the oil-for-food programme, accusations of sexual abuse by peace-keepers, and attacks from the US Congress, including threats to withhold dues.

As Secretary-General Kofi Annan told world leaders, we have come to a fork in the road. One way — the route marked business as usual — leads to potential disaster for all humankind. The other option is to review the entire architecture of the international system that has been built up since 1945, and renew it to build an effective house of global governance for the 21st century. The divisions over Iraq brought into sharp relief many of the fundamental questions that have plagued our modern world since the end of the Cold War: questions about preventive war, about the scourge of terrorism, about weapons of mass destruction, about intervening when States perpetrate injustices on their own citizens, and also about the persistent terror of underdevelopment, the combination of poverty, drought, famine and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa that threatens more lives than Iraq ever did.

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On March 21 this year — appropriately enough, the first day of spring — Secretary-General Annan offered his suggestions for how the UN might be changed to meet these new challenges in a report titled ‘‘In Larger Freedom’’. The title comes from the preamble to the UN charter, which speaks of the UN striving ‘‘to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’’. By that magnificent phrase the UN’s founders showed that they understood that development is possible only in conditions of freedom, and that people only benefit from political freedom when they have at least a fair chance of a decent standard of living.

The Secretary-General’s proposals tackle all the key challenges: the need for a new deal on development, debt reduction and fair trade opportunities for poor countries; a reiteration of the principle of the international community’s responsibility to protect the weak when their own States are unwilling or unable to do so; an affirmation of the need to agree on a comprehensive legal convention on terrorism, ending the political debates over its definition; and a call for wide-ranging institutional reform to create more credible UN human rights mechanisms as well as to bring the Security Council and the General Assembly into the 21st century.

But the Secretary-General can only recommend; as in San Francisco 60 years ago, it is up to the governments of the world to take the decisions that can transform the organisation. As President Harry Truman told the assembled signatories of the UN Charter in 1945: ‘‘You have created a great instrument for peace and security and human progress in the world… If we fail to use it, we shall betray all those who have died in order that we might meet here in freedom and safety to create it. If we seek to use it selfishly for the advantage of any one nation or any small group of nations, we shall be equally guilty of that betrayal.’’


And for 60 years, we have all reaped the benefits of this conclave in San Francisco. The UN’s existence created the framework within which human progress was possible during the Cold War and beyond. UN peacekeeping, for instance, prevented local conflicts from igniting a superpower conflagration, and so helped ensure that the Cold War did not turn hot. More than 170 UN-assisted peace settlements have ended regional conflicts. Indeed, with the UN’s help, more civil wars have ended through mediation since the UN’s birth than in the previous two centuries combined. The more than 300 international treaties negotiated at the UN have reduced the prospect for conflict among sovereign States. The UN’s electoral experts have helped bring or sustain democracy to people around the globe, most recently in Iraq, Palestine and Burundi. The list goes on.

Sixty years ago, the Golden Gate Bridge was only eight years old. Many things have changed since then. At the 2005 World Summit, to be held in New York in September, world leaders will meet to address the Secretary-General’s proposals. They will have an opportunity to make history again. Let us hope that they will have the boldness of vision, wisdom, and courage to prove worthy of what their predecessors accomplished in San Francisco 60 years ago.

The writer is the UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information

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First published on: 26-06-2005 at 12:07:13 am

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