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Understanding the United Nations: Its Legacy and Its Future

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Former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld

Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld was the third Secretary-General of the United Nations, described by John F. Kennedy as “the greatest statesman of our century.” He died on September 18, 1961, in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), en route to negotiate a cease-fire between "non-combatant" UN forces and Moise Tshombe's Katangese troops. Hammarskjöld was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously.

Once a year, all members gather at the UN headquarters in New York City, availing themselves of the opportunity to speak to one another at the world’s only global platform. As the UN General Assembly opens this week, it's relevant to go back in time and remember why the UN was created.

Between 50 and 80 million people died during World War II. Devastated by the losses, the Allied powers came together in the war’s aftermath, determined to prevent another such war from ever occurring. The League of Nations, formed after World War I, was scrapped due to its obvious failure, and in 1945 the United Nations was founded.

Fifty-one countries joined the organization at its start, today there are 193 members. 

The United Nations has been key to important successes on the world stage over the past 72 years. Helping to end apartheid in South Africa. Prosecuting war criminals such as Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor. Saving the Egyptian Pyramids and other World Heritage Sites from environmental threats. Eradicating smallpox, protecting children, promoting arms control, responding to refugee crises. Defending and supporting universal human rights.

Of course, there have been failures too. The UN failed to prevent the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, to contain North Korea, to protect the Rohingya in Myanmar. And at times the UN itself has been complicit in the problem (the massacre in Srebrenica, sexual abuse in the Congo, cholera in Haiti).

What often seems to be forgotten is that the United Nations is only as strong as the political will of its members.

What often seems to be forgotten is that the United Nations is only as strong as the political will of its members. An effective UN requires the full support of its members, and those in the UN Security Council play a special role. Comprised of fifteen countries, the Security Council is the only UN body with the authority to issue binding resolutions to member states. The victors of World War II—China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US—are permanent members, with veto power over any resolution. The remaining 10 members are elected on a regional basis to serve two-year terms.

The Security Council selects the Secretary-General, who is then approved by the General Assembly. The Secretary-General is diplomat, advocate, civil servant, and CEO. 

“The Secretary-General would fail if they did not take careful account of the concerns of Member States, but they must also uphold the values and moral authority of the United Nations, and speak and act for peace, even at the risk, from time to time, of challenging or disagreeing with those same Member States." 

The Role of the Secretary General

António Guterres, Prime Minister of Portugal 1995-2002 and former head of the United Nations Refugee Agency, took office as Secretary-General in January 2017.

Dag Hammarskjöld was an eloquent speaker, and when considering the successes and failures of the United Nations, his words are as true today as when he spoke them:

“…the concepts and the ideals [the United Nations] represents, like the needs it tries to meet, will remain an ineluctable element of the world picture. However, that does not mean that the present embodiment of the groping efforts of mankind towards an organized world community represents a definite shape selection, or out of experience. Thus an effort that has not yielded all the results hoped for has not failed if it has provided positive experience on which a new approach can be based. An attempt which has proved the possibility of progress even if it has had to be renewed again and again, and in new forms or settings in order to yield full success.”

- Dag Hammarskjöld, New York, April 10, 1957

As world leaders meet at the UN headquarters, groping toward the future, may they renew their commitment to the progress of humanity.

Top photograph of the United Nations General Assembly

The United Nations and Changing World Politics

This completely revised and updated eighth edition serves as the definitive text for courses in which the United Nations is either the focus or a central component. Built around three critical themes in international relations, peace and security, human rights and humanitarian affairs, and sustainable human development, this edition is a guide through the seven turbulent decades of UN politics. It incorporates recent developments on the international stage, including new peace operations in Mali and the Central African Republic ongoing UN efforts to manage the crises in Libya, Syria, and Iraq the Iran Nuclear Deal and the new Sustainable Development Goals. The authors discuss how international law frames the controversies at the UN and guides how the UN responds to violence and insecurity, gross violations of human rights, poverty, underdevelopment, and environmental degradation. 

The United Nations: A Very Short Introduction

If you'd like a shorter book abou the UN, then this is the one for you. It poses questions such as: After seven decades of existence has the UN become obsolete? Is it ripe for retirement? As Jussi Hanhimaki proves in the second edition of this Very Short Introduction, the answer is no. In the second decade of the twenty-first century the UN remains an indispensable organization that continues to save lives and improve the world as its founders hoped. Since its original publication in 2008, this 2nd edition includes more recent examples of the UN Security Council in action and peacekeeping efforts while exploring its most recent successes and failures. After a brief history of the United Nations and its predecessor, the League of Nations, Hanhimaki examines the UN's successes and failures as a guardian of international peace and security, as a promoter of human rights, as a protector of international law, and as an engineer of socio-economic development. This updated edition highlights what continues to make the UN a complicated organization today, and the ongoing challenges between its ambitions and capabilities. Hanhimaki also provides a clear account of the UN and its various arms and organizations (such as UNESCO and UNICEF), and offers a critical overview of the UN Security Council's involvement in recent crises in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Libya, and Syria, and how likely it is to meet its overall goals in the future. 

Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction

Another tome in the Oxford University Press short introduction series: Today human rights law continues to gain increasing attention internationally, and must move quickly in order to keep up with a social world that changes so rapidly. Discussing torture and arbitrary detention in the context of counter terrorism, Andrew Clapham also considers new challenges to human rights in the context of privacy, equality and the right to health. Looking at the philosophical justification for rights, the historical origins of human rights and how they are formed in law, Clapham explains what our human rights actually are, what they might be, and where the human rights movement is heading. 


Dag Hammarskjöld was elected Secretary-General to the UN in 1953 and was re-elected in 1957. Not only was he a highly respected diplomat, he was also very well read in literature and philosophy. Markings is a journal of poems and spiritual meditations recorded over several decades by this universally known and admired peacemaker. A dramatic account of spiritual struggle, Markings has inspired hundreds of thousands of readers since it was first published in 1964. Markings is distinctive, as W.H. Auden remarks in his foreword, as a record of “the attempt by a professional man of action to unite in one life the via activa and the via contemplativa.” 


This inspiring biography shows how Dag Hammarskjold perfected the active but quiet diplomacy that proved successful in a series of seemingly hopeless situations, from the Suez Crisis to Indochina, and how he stood up for principle against the greatest powers.


Reader, writer, globetrotter. Seattle native who has lived in six countries (current home: New York). Food obsessed. Bylines in NPR, Wall Street Journal, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel and more.