A Brief History of the UN

New Internationalist, January/February 2005 | Go to article overview

A Brief History of the UN


Early signs

In the 16th century the 'known' world came to be dominated by violent, seagoing and increasingly nationalist European empires: Spain, Portugal, France, Britain and the Netherlands in particular. They attempted to carve up the planet into colonies that would replicate the rivalries and fuel the wealth of European rulers. The idea of a supranational 'plurality' of sovereign (European) nation-states that might prevent constant wars between them was first set out at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. It was developed by a 'Holy Alliance' following the final demise of Napoleon's imperial ambitions in 1815.

First steps

The lethal results of industrialized weaponry led to the foundation of the Red Cross at a conference of 16 countries in Geneva in 1863 - the first Geneva Convention of 1864 sought to protect the sick and wounded in time of war. As international trade and communications grew, commercial interests led to the foundation of the International Telegraph Union in 1865 and the Universal Postal Union in 1874 (both survive today as 'specialized agencies' of the UN). In 1899 an International Peace Conference was held in The Hague. It adopted a Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes and established the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which began work in 1902.

War means peace

Nonetheless, in 1914 the Great War - 'to end all wars' - began in Europe. Once the carnage was complete in 1918, the Treaty of Versailles was imposed on Germany by the victors, including Britain, France and the US. The Treaty brought the League of Nations into being on 10 January 1920 'to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security'. Though US President Woodrow Wilson had been an architect of the Treaty, Congress refused to ratify it, on the grounds that it would intrude on its own power, and as a result the US did not join the League. Defeated Germany was excluded and so was revolutionary Russia. Britain and France, still with their colonies in tow, were the only 'Great Powers' left.

Rogue states

In 1921 the League successfully brokered an accord - which is still in force today - between Finland and Sweden on the disputed Aland Islands. But in 1923 it failed to prevent France from invading the Ruhr region of Germany in search of unpaid war reparations. Work had begun on the vast Palais des Nations in Geneva (now occupied by the UN) in 1929 when the economic Great Depression struck worldwide. It was exacerbated by 'beggar-thy-neighbour' national trading policies. a long-delayed World Disarmament Conference failed almost as soon as it began in 1932. The League again proved impotent when Japan invaded Chinese Manchuria in 1931, and when Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935. In 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany and in 1938 invaded Czechoslovakia. The League's doctrine of collective security,' between sovereign nation-states translated into the appeasement of expansionist fascism in Italy, Germany and Japan. No concerted attempt was made to forestall the impending Nazi genocide of the Jews in Europe.

Peace means war

A Second World War began in Europe in 1939 when Germany went on to invade Poland. As early as August 1941 - even before the US had joined the war - US President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill met on a warship 'somewhere at sea' to sign the Atlantic Charter. It proposed a set of principles that became the basis for all future discussions. On 1 January 1942, 26 nations - in fact, the Allies - met in Washington DC to sign the 'Declaration by United Nations'. The first blueprint of the UN was prepared at a conference organized by the US at the Dumbarton Oaks mansion in Washington DC in 1944. It was attended by Britain, the Soviet Union (which had lost upwards of 20 million people in the war) and China - the 'four horsemen' who would later be joined by liberated France in declaring themselves the Permanent Five members of the Security Council. …

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