Volume 18 Number 4
The UN at 60
01 August 2005

On the 60th anniversary of its creation, Sir Richard Jolly reviews the chequered history of the world’s foremost intergovernmental body.

This year the United Nations reaches 60. Although it has been under fire from critics for much of its life, the UN’s record is much better than many realize. A recent independent report from the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (see www.un.org) commented, ‘The UN has been much more effective in addressing the major threats to peace and security than it is given credit for.... While there have been major failings and shortcomings, the record of successes and contributions is underappreciated. This gives hope that the organization can adapt to successfully confront the new challenges of the 21st century.’

The same can be said of the UN’s contributions in the field of economic and social development—pioneering in the areas of economic strategy and statistics, sustainable development, human rights, and notably the rights of women and of children.

Often the UN’s work has involved leading thinkers of the time. Ten Nobel prize winners in economics worked closely with the UN—either as staff (for instance, Arthur Lewis, the first prize-winning economist from a developing country) or as associates (for instance, Dutchman Jan Tinbergen, notable for expressing his disappointment at winning the prize for economics—he said he had hoped to win the peace prize!)
Four principles underlay the UN Charter and its work when it was established in 1945:

  • Peace and negotiation under law, in place of war and national aggression

  • Sovereign independence for the many countries under colonial rule

  • Economic and social development to raise living standards worldwide

  • Universal human rights—boldest of all.

These principles grew out of the ashes of World War II. They represented not only a new vision of international cooperation for peace but also of global justice and economic cooperation to avoid repeating the mass unemployment and suffering of the Great Depression.

Yet despite this impressive vision, there was also a good deal of humbug, at least from the governments. The three major powers leading the effort—the US, the UK and the Soviet Union—each overlooked major contradictions with the principles in their own countries. The US had racist laws denying civil rights; the UK had its colonies and no intention of granting immediate independence; the Soviets, their gulags. But all three signed, along with 47 other countries—setting in motion a process of impressive change, far beyond what most contemporary observers expected.

Within a few years, India and Pakistan were independent, and the process was accelerating in Africa and elsewhere. By 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been drafted and adopted. And over 1949-51, three major reports on economic and social development laid out strategy for accelerated advance.

All this was a truly remarkable beginning. What explains this progress? The importance of committed and organized individuals and non-governmental groups emerges clearly from the record. The fact that the Charter refers 12 times to ‘men and women’, not just to people, is due to skilful lobbying by the four female delegates—out of the 160 at the founding conference.

On human rights, Christian Churches and the American Jewish Committee played a decisive role—ensuring that the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized that ‘everyone had the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’. In his book, Faith in Diplomacy (Caux Books 2002), Archie Mackenzie, present both at the Dumbarton Oaks preparatory conference in 1944 and at San Francisco in 1945, writes of ‘track two diplomacy’: behind-the-scenes efforts to bring diplomats and others together to help transform conflicts on the basis of honesty and true personal commitment.

Every decade since the 1940s has recorded further important UN advances, notwithstanding the long political stalemate of the Cold War. In many respects, more progress was made in the economic and social arena than in political matters. In 1961, for instance, President Kennedy launched the Development Decade, to accelerate economic advance in developing countries with a commitment to aid and private investment from the developed countries. This commitment became the 0.7 per cent target for development assistance, which still stands today.

Ten years later came the first round of global conferences, including: Environment and Development (1972); Population, and World Food (1974); and Science and Technology for Development (1979). Of special significance was the first World Conference on Women (1975), chaired by a man at the insistence of Mexico, but leading in 1979 to adoption of CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Less successful were the Special Sessions on the New International Economic Order, which attempted to explore how international trade, finance and debt relations could be fundamentally changed to enable poorer countries to receive a greater and fairer share of the benefits. Fundamental change was not, however, acceptable to the richer countries.

With hindsight, most of these conferences played a major role in changing global awareness, mobilizing supporters and setting new policy challenges. True, implementation has generally been slower than needed. Many of the conferences were repeated in the 1990s, to evaluate progress and mobilize further advance—most notably the World Conference on Human Rights (1993), which created the new post and Office of High Commissioner of Human Rights.

In 2000 came the climax—the Millennium Summit. This was the largest ever assembly of heads of state and government—147 presidents and prime ministers, with senior representatives from 32 other governments. The summit agreed a Millennium Declaration—a progressive, wide-ranging document, covering issues from poverty and sustainable development to security, governance and globalization, with actions to establish a more effective UN.

The Summit’s focus on poverty reduction was highly operational: it agreed eight Millennium Development Goals with 18 quantified targets. These are focused on halving the proportion of people in the world in poverty and hunger by 2015, and, in parallel, moving towards supportive goals on education, maternal and child mortality, the provision of water and sanitation, HIV/AIDS and environmental sustainability.

The last five years have seen real progress towards these goals. Broadly, about one third of the goals score as ‘completed or on track’; one third ‘making some progress but too slow’; a final third ‘no progress or going backwards’. The best performing countries are in Asia—China and South East Asia, especially—with Latin America, the former Soviet countries and Arab states making more mixed, often much slower, progress. Of most concern is sub-Saharan Africa, which for most of the goals records ‘no progress’ and often ‘going backwards’.

A new summit has been called for this September. The key questions will be how to accelerate progress in the countries lagging behind and how to build on successes in the others. A second challenge will be how to mobilize resources and political will to resolve conflicts, particularly in Africa. The world needs the vision to realize that conflict in any individual country today will affect many others.

Finally, the UN itself needs to be strengthened, with resources, but also with a revival of that early commitment to internationalism, backed up by a renewal of support from people in every country. To this end, the Secretary General has issued his own report, In Larger Freedom (United Nations, 2005). This sets out priority actions to strengthen the UN’s work towards freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom to live in dignity. This builds on the vision and commitment with which the UN started out: a vision which today’s world desperately needs to regain.

Sir Richard Jolly was Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF from 1982-96 and Special Coordinator of UNDP’s Human Development Report from 1996-2000. He is currently Honorary Chair of the UN Association of the United Kingdom and Co-Director of the UN Intellectual History Project.

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0