Order and Justice in International Relations

By Rosemary Foot; John Gaddis et al. | Go to book overview

2 Order/Justice Issues at the United Nations

Adam Roberts

Since its foundation in 1945, the United Nations has recognized that peace is a matter not just of order but of justice. Already enshrined in the Charter, this recognition has been reflected in numerous declarations and activities of UN organs and agencies. The fact that the UN and its members have been committed to both order and justice has had positive aspects, and has been a key element in the UN's survival over more than half a century. The organization's concern, not just with the maintenance of order between existing states but with a wide range of justice-related issues, helps to explain its modest but nonetheless unprecedented degree of success. It contributed to the process of decolonization. It has helped to secure the interest of peoples and governments in the organization. It has resulted in some remarkable developments in the rhetoric, practices, and decisions of UN bodies.

The contrast with the League of Nations (1920-46) is striking. Although the League did have a limited involvement in certain justice-related issues, for example in the fields of labour rights and prohibition of slavery, it was associated, to a dangerous extent, with the territorial status quo of 1919. It could do little to answer the criticism that the peace was unjust, and it was powerless to respond to criminal conduct by states within their borders. For these as well as numerous other reasons, it could never command anything like the UN's near-universal membership and widespread popular support. The League's failure to be associated with justice, as well as its incapacity to maintain order, helps to explain its decline into insignificance during the 1930s.

As will be seen, principles of order and justice can often conflict with each other. Yet they do not always do so. Practically all concepts of international order are based, implicitly or explicitly, on some idea of justice. Similarly, all ideas of international justice encompass the idea that it is only through progress in righting wrongs—ending colonialism, reducing inequality, upholding human rights and democracy—that a secure and lasting peace can be obtained. Moreover, it is wrong to view justice issues as necessarily challenging the sovereignty of states. Most states, for most of the time, have worked on the assumption that

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