Understanding the United Nations: Its Legacy and Its Future
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."
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