The United Nations was officially created when its charter was signed on June 26, 1945, by 51 countries, including the United States. The new international organization was the successor of the League of Nations, which had been formed by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I in an attempt to prevent the kind of military aggression that might lead to future global conflicts. Unfortunately, the League had proved to be ineffective early on. Both Japan and Germany had withdrawn from the organization in the early 1930s and had later become the aggressors in World War II. Throughout 1943 and 1944, representatives from the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and China—allies during World War II—had met to discuss the formation of an international organization that would replace the League of Nations. At the end of the war, this organization—the United Nations—was formally established. The U.N. grew from 51 members in 1945 to 185 by its fiftieth anniversary in 1995.
The U.N.’s charter set out four primary goals: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind . . . ; to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights . . . ; to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained; and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” In order to promote these goals, the organizers established six different bodies. The Security Council, which consists of five permanent members (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China) and ten rotating member countries, was given primary responsibility for international peace and security. The General Assembly, to which all members belong, decides budgetary matters and votes on policy issues. The other bodies are the Secretariat, the Economic and Social Council, the Court of Justice, and the Trusteeship Council.
The United Nations’ earliest priorities were nuclear arms control and disarmament, the protection of human rights, securing the independence of colonized countries, and the development of poorer countries. To control nuclear armaments, the U.N. promoted bans on nuclear testing, including undersea and space tests. It created the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957 to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and in 1968 it drafted the Non- Proliferation Treaty to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries. The creation of the 1946 Commission on Human Rights led to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In order to improve agriculture, health care, communications, and economic development, a number of specialized agencies were formed, including the U.N. Development Programme and the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development. The U.N. often functions in cooperation with other international organizations, such as the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization.
Though solving world health, population, development, and arms control problems is a large and vital part of the U.N. operation, many of the most cur- rent and strident debates have centered on peacekeeping, a term that appears nowhere in the U.N. charter but has always been the organization’s foremost priority. The term “peacekeeping” was first used to describe the activities of the first U.N. observer mission in 1948, in which U.N. personnel were sent to the Middle East to prevent hostilities between the newly created state of Israel and its Arab neighbors. The first lightly armed peacekeeping mission was conducted in 1956 along the Suez Canal to create a buffer between Israel and Egypt. This mission lasted eleven years and involved nearly six thousand soldiers. Thirteen peacekeeping missions took place during the first forty-five years of the U.N.’s existence, the most successful of which was the 1960–1964 mission in the Belgian Congo, which assisted that nation’s separation from colonial rule. Nearly twenty thousand troops were deployed to the Belgian Congo, coming close to the number sent on modern peacekeeping missions.
These missions adhered to the U.N. charter, which was originally designed to limit the level of involvement U.N. forces could undertake to secure peace. The U.N. is also limited by its pledge of noninterference in issues that are “essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any states.” As a result of this policy, certain guidelines have evolved concerning the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping forces. For example, a host government must consent to any U.N. deployment, as must the country contributing the troops to the mission. Any country with a particular interest in the outcome of a dispute is not allowed to participate in the peacekeeping mission. U.N. troops are allowed to use their weapons only in self-defense and must remain neutral if hostilities break out. If the criteria for U.N. involvement are not met, the U.N. cannot take direct action. Such was the case in the Korean War, which is now often considered a U.N. mission but was actually led and carried out by the United States and its allies. The Persian Gulf War was a similar action. Authorized by the U.N., a coalition made up of the United States, Great Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, and other countries repelled the Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait.
In the 1990s the United Nations has participated in missions in Haiti, Cyprus, the Western Sahara, Liberia, Somalia, India/Pakistan, Bosnia- Herzegovina, and the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Tajikistan, to name just a few. It is because of recent missions such as these, some of which the U.S. has participated in or led, that controversy has arisen over the scope of the U.N.’s responsibility for military-style peacekeeping. Many of these missions, particularly those in Bosnia and Somalia, have widely been considered ineffective or even outright failures.
Many of the earlier peacekeeping measures, critics and supporters alike note, were successful largely because the conflicts were usually interstate disputes between legitimate governments that welcomed U.N. involvement. According to Raymond Carroll, a former editor at Newsweek and author of The Future of the UN, in most cases
both sides wanted the UN forces to be there, wanted the shooting to halt and were in command of disciplined military forces. The parties to the conflict were recognized countries, members of the UN, who respected the missions of the men in the blue helmets, soldiers who used their weapons only in self-defense.
Few of the more recent conflicts share these characteristics, however. Current conflicts are more likely to involve two or more parties within a single state, rather than separate nations at war. Carroll maintains that these conflicts “are likely to be partly ethnic, religious or secessionist in nature, or they may be factional disputes among purely domestic rivals.” The more recent peacekeeping efforts have often failed because, in many of the troubled regions, governments have broken down, combatants have been unwilling to cease fighting, and U.N. troops have been unwelcome. Essentially, the organization and structure of U.N. peacekeeping has remained static while the nature of world conflict has changed.
Many of those who criticize the U.N.’s more recent peacekeeping efforts point to the disastrous shelling of U.N. troops in Bosnia by the Serbs in the early 1990s. Critics insist that the attack, in which U.N. troops were unable to fight back effectively, is proof that the U.N. is ill equipped for military missions. Some contend that the organization is not only ill equipped but that it was never intended to function as a military entity or to enter ongoing conflict situations for either humanitarian or peacekeeping reasons. Disarmament Times editor and U.N. journalist Jim Wurst asserts that the U.N. “has dangerously blurred the line between peacekeeping (working to stabilize a truce) and peace enforcement (the current jargon for fighting), as well as the line between military and humanitarian actions.”
Criticism of U.S. involvement in U.N. peacekeeping operations has also become more intense, in part as a result of recent failures. The 1992 invasion of Somalia by the United States, under the auspices of the U.N., is often cited by critics as an example of why the United States should avoid involvement in U.N. missions. The United States initially invaded Somalia to provide humanitarian aid to relieve a severe countrywide famine, which had been caused in part by the disruption of food distribution by several competing factions. The famine was successfully halted, and the United Nations took full command in 1993. The U.N., along with American forces, stayed to try to rebuild Somalia’s infrastructure (hospitals, civil services, police force, and educational system), but local leaders, and their heavily armed followers, objected violently to the U.N.’s continued presence. Several soldiers were killed, including a number of Americans. The body of one American was shown on the evening news being dragged through the streets of Somalia’s capital. Ultimately both the United States and the United Nations left Somalia, leaving it largely in chaos. After this experience, many American politicians and foreign policy experts were more convinced than ever that the United States should refrain from sending American troops on U.N. missions. California representative Andrea Seastrand sums up the views of many critics of America’s involvement in U.N. operations: “This entangling alliance with the world body and its web of specialized agencies and institutions has resulted in our involvement in one foreign quarrel after another, from Korea to Vietnam to Bosnia. We have paid dearly, in terms of blood, treasure and potential loss of sovereignty.”
While Somalia is universally acknowledged as a military failure, supporters of the United Nations assert that the primary goal of that mission—to end the famine—was accomplished. Supporters also contend that it is shortsighted to argue that a few difficult or failed missions prove that the greater goal of keeping the peace is no longer worthwhile. They maintain that intrastate conflicts that produce floods of refugees, famine, and genocide violate the “moral conscience” of the world, if not specifically the U.N.’s charter. These supporters of U.N. intervention suggest, for example, that the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 could have been halted or even prevented had the now gun-shy United Nations intervened sooner. More than five hundred thousand people were killed in Rwanda during a struggle for power between members of two rival ethnic factions. Hundreds of thousands more poured across the borders into neighboring countries, straining their economies and threatening to drag them into the fight, which ultimately could have destabilized the entire region. U.N. supporters contend that fear of another Bosnia- or Somalia- style failure hampered a timely U.N. intervention in that conflict.
Lincoln P. Bloomfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, asserts that many of the United Nations’ members have collectively concluded that enforced famine, terror, racial genocide, and other atrocities are unacceptable, violating the spirit of the U.N. charter. Bloomfield and others argue that these situations necessitate an international response similar to those of earlier, more circumscribed missions. The U.N. response to these new kinds of international crises should, according to Bloomfield,
feature compliance procedures that resemble a process of law enforcement. It will look less like a traditional binary choice between war or peace and more like a step process that mimics domestic policing. Violations of agreed rules will take many forms along a broad continuum, matched by a continuum of community responses.
Many of those who support continued U.N. involvement in peacekeeping efforts around the world also clearly support continued American involvement in those efforts. The United States is generally considered to be the only remaining superpower, whose leadership in conflict situations is necessary. Within the United States, supporters argue that U.S. involvement in the United Nations allows America to promote its own economic and political interests abroad without appearing to be heavy-handed or the “world’s policeman.” The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine K. Albright, supports this view and contends that joint peacekeeping efforts cost the United States less and involve fewer American troops than do unilateral efforts. The Center for Defense Information, a defense analysis organization in Washington, D.C., asserts:
The U.S. can, at significantly less cost, wield great influence over world events and achieve U.S. policy goals by remaining fully engaged in planning and implementing UN peace operations. Not only is such engagement cheaper, it allows us the luxury of influencing events with minimal commitment of U.S. military personnel.
The center concludes that the United States must continue to be involved in U.N. peacekeeping.
The debates over U.N. peacekeeping operations will likely continue as new conflicts arise and old ones simmer. This is only one of several controversies in which the U.N. remains embroiled. International calls for fiscal and organizational reform are as loud as the criticisms of peacekeeping, with some accusing the U.N. of incompetence or even outright corruption. In addition, the United Nations has become a central target of many right-wing militias and others who assert that the international body threatens the freedom and sovereignty of the United States. These and other issues are discussed and debated in At Issue: The United Nations. This anthology reveals that after more than fifty years, opinion regarding the U.N.’s structure and mission is far from unanimous.