August 22, 2019

75 Years of the United Nations—What Has It Achieved?

UN headquarters in New York.
UN headquarters in New York.

The results of the UN’s actions often emerge 10–15 years later.

On 7 June 2019, Estonia was elected a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. To our surprise, this was achieved after two only rounds of voting, although we had prepared for a longer process. In the end, 132 of the 193 member states supported Estonia’s candidacy. This is a strong platform for our membership, which will keep the Estonian government and diplomats busy for the next two years. Although the UN received greater than average public attention in Estonia during the campaign, people’s knowledge of this international organisation and powerhouse of the post-Second World War world order leaves a lot to be desired.

Discussions about the UN are often driven by individual emotions and mostly reduced to the level of black and white, good and bad. This can be partly attributed to the Soviet propagandist perspective, which depicted the UN as the battlefield for the struggle against imperialism and the home of global justice, i.e. from a perspective on which every “proper Estonian” had a clear opinion. The UN continues to carry this stigma in the minds of many people. I will try to avoid this common line of reasoning and shed light on the broader meaning of the UN.

Peaceful and Humane Fundamental Principles

Let’s start with the fundamental principles: the UN Charter, which the 51 founding members adopted in 1945 in San Francisco. This document sets out the principles of the current world order and the direction for the development of relationships between countries. Its main keywords are the focus on rules and multilateralism—international law and international institutions, but also the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms, gender equality, equality between large countries and small, people’s right to self-determination, the avoidance of threats of the use of force and abstaining from its use, resolution of disputes by peaceful means, countries’ right to military self-defence, and international involvement in ensuring peace and stability. These elements are part of our daily routine as, at the very least, principles that guide us as humanity, nations and people. Whether we do it well or right is a completely different issue.

The second secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, said that the UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell. Unfortunately, more often than not, the UN is measured by how far we are from paradise rather than the number of souls, communities, countries or regions we have managed to save from the flames of purgatory. We often forget what the UN stands for and what would happen if these principles did not exist or were replaced by different ones.

Every now and then it is worth asking ourselves what the world would be like if the only acceptable way to resolve disputes was by force or if the use of force was a central principle of the global decision-making system. How much freedom and how many rights would we have, how long would our independence last, and would we have even managed to restore that independence? The world is naturally more complex than this, and the good and the bad is not determined by the UN and its activities alone; but this system of councils, agencies, programmes, countries and relationships between people has certainly kept the Dr Jekylls of the world in the spotlight, usually preventing the Mr Hydes from rising to power. Unfortunately, the assessment process is influenced by the fact that people tend to be fascinated and obsessed by failures, disasters, horrors and crimes and the associated feeling that there is nothing people can do, rather than the slowly increasing number of success stories and general stability.

Delayed Results: Counting Chickens After They’ve Hatched

It is true that the results of the UN’s work and the necessity of the organisation are likely to be revealed only in the long term. Current events and those that have taken place in the recent past often highlight elements that are more prone to cause doubts and lead us to believe that we have placed our trust in incompetent hands. But the tasks given to the UN and the goals established for it—to ensure that the world does not spiral into another devastating global war, that all people can live their lives in a dignified manner, that planet Earth remains fit to be inhabited by all living beings—cannot be fulfilled and achieved right away. In the context of our daily activities, all of this may seem excessively idealistic, but the underlying reasons for a conflict or a deterioration in our living environment can only be dealt with over the long term and—as the shrinking of the world shows—by working together.

Estonia became a full member of the UN as recently as 17 September 1991. Before that, we saw the UN as a symbol of the injustice caused by World War II, a kind of acceptance of the occupation of Estonia. Paradoxically, the majority of countries today see it as the exact opposite—a symbol of independence, liberation from foreign rule, and help and support in maintaining and developing one’s country. This has also given these countries faith in the power of the UN’s principles and achievement of its goals. However, we still need to be convinced of this every now and then. In this context, it is worth recalling BATUN—the Baltic Appeal to the United Nations—which led the younger generation of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian refugees to organise themselves to bring awareness of the occupation of the Baltic states to the world and gained a lot of international attention in the 1970s. This did not bring back independence, but it did maintain the framework on which we could rely several decades later.

In Estonia, people often speak of national interests, which mainly refer to the state’s interests. Whatever we call them, they are very clear and even written down in the constitution: democracy, the rule of law, civil and individual liberties, the viability and preservation of the Estonian nation. All of this is also included in the UN Charter and, to be fair, these interests are best protected by the existing world order. However, this can only be maintained if we manage to agree on our general interest in implementing and protecting them. This in turn means that the state of Estonia, and Estonian-ness, are preserved more securely in the world in the context of general interests; any other path would be more complicated. When we joined NATO, we spoke of indivisible security, but in the case of the UN it is simply a step further—the world can maintain its life force and continue to function if all countries contribute to it. It is our job to contribute and convince others to do so, so we can be more certain of our own survival too.

The UN is among the most important creators of international law and the implementers and protectors of its creations. In relations between countries, international law is an element that enables them to agree on the rules of the game and it keeps—to some extent, at least, and hopefully more rather than less—those who have power from using it against others only in their own interests. This creates an environment that gives a chance to small countries including Estonia—which can never rely on influence based on power—to exist, develop and function. It also keeps more powerful and influential countries in line, preventing them from exercising their power at will and forcing them to take greater account of those who are smaller than them, and their interests. The protection of international law does not constitute a 100% guarantee for small countries, but it does have a restraining and deterrent effect.

75 Years of Efforts in the Name of Mankind

In the nearly 75-year history of the UN, one can identify three clearly defined stages: the period of the Cold War and decolonisation (1945–90), the period of consolidating cooperation and liberal values (1991–2005) and the period of sustainable development and new threats (since 2006). The four decades that followed World War II were best characterised by the competition between the two world-views—liberal democracy and socialist-communist totalitarianism—and the desire for supremacy, of which the US and the Soviet Union set the tone. As nuclear weapons and their apocalyptic potential ensured that the two greats refrained from going to war with one another, their interests clashed in various regional wars and conflicts and the establishment of an ideological direction for countries emerging from dissolving colonial territories. Instead of looking for peaceful solutions or helping new countries and their fledgling governments to gain some experience in governance, the two greats first gave them an ideological choice, which in turn created opposition within the country instead of strengthening cooperation. This period also marked the beginnings of the UN’s peacekeeping activities, which often succeeded in keeping warring parties apart, but not in ending the conflict.

The second period began with the weakening of the influence and power of the Soviet Union in the international arena, which led to the liberation of the Eastern bloc and the collapse of the USSR. This led to the second large wave of empires crumbling and countries becoming independent. The disappearance of the rivalry between the two ideologies gave way to hope/expectation that the principles and objectives of the UN Charter could be fulfilled more effectively in the new environment. This new era was to solve global problems on the basis of democracy and cooperation between nations.

The coalition of big countries established during the First Gulf War, which quickly managed to stop the aggression and restore the necessary, albeit fragile, stability, also increased faith in this possibility. The optimism was also fuelled by the relatively peaceful end of the apartheid regime in South Africa. But the high spirits of the early 1990s were soon dampened by the inability of the global community, including the US, which bore the leading role, to prevent the genocide in Rwanda or help Somalia to overcome its humanitarian crisis, and by difficulties in limiting the numerous conflicts that arose from the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The world was beginning to be plagued by a new type of threat that went beyond the framework of a conflict between countries and knew no national borders. Nobody was prepared for this, and failures slowly began to curb the world’s enthusiasm.

However, the period saw an increasing focus on conflict prevention and interest in the root causes of conflicts and the possibilities for eliminating them. The agenda of development aid and human rights was strongly and consciously tied to the framework of security problems. To this end, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were developed, which set in motion the reduction of global poverty and inequality, greater availability of high-quality healthcare and education, greater attention to women and more vulnerable groups, and the protection of their rights. There was increasing talk of every person’s right to live a dignified life and countries’ obligation to ensure this for their citizens.

While in the last century the UN’s activities focused on resolving tensions that had arisen from the dissolution of the colonial world and helping newly established countries to cope with themselves and their surroundings, in the 21st century it concentrates its efforts on two large fields: conflict management and sustainable development. In the former, the focus is mainly on finding solutions to ongoing conflicts or preventing and countering emerging ones. This is a specific and targeted activity that takes place here and now. The timeframe of sustainable development is significantly longer, and its objectives—to ensure the preservation of humanity and a habitable living environment—is much broader and existential. Nevertheless, it still tackles conflicts, both their causes and their possible elimination. This period also laid the groundwork for the fourth core council—the Human Rights Council—which specified its focus on human rights and their protection more effectively than before and created more precise procedures for monitoring the state of human rights in all member states. The concept of Responsibility to Protect was also adopted, which defined countries’ obligations towards their citizens and the rights of international intervention for humanitarian purposes.

Sustainable Development as the Key to the Survival of Mankind

Ensuring sustainable development is perhaps one of the most important globally agreed activities of the UN, and meeting this objective is currently keeping the organisation busy. The issue of sustainable development grew out of the MDGs, whose implementation revealed that, as changes in the human living environment and the development of mankind continue, the world will face even greater challenges.

Studies revealed that, if the world’s population continues to increase at the same rate as now, and average individual consumption and the capacity to consume due to the improvement of living standards continue to increase, by 2030 we will need 30% more energy, 40% more clean water and 50% more food. This was supplemented by growing concern about global warming and awareness of the role of humans in climate change. Climate change in turn created new risks and pressures: a deteriorating living environment and competition for use of natural resources, leading to instability and migration. In simple terms, answers were needed to the question of how to ensure the functioning of the world’s ecosystem and the preservation of social coherence in the context of general well-being and the increasing population in a way that would allow us to lead a dignified life.

As the problem is global and knows no national borders, it needs global solutions, which can be achieved only if everyone participates. Drawing on studies, experience in achieving the MDGs, and political consultations involving civil society and the world of business and research, the UN prepared the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted in 2015 and set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Coordinating the fulfilment of these goals and assessing their success (or lack of it) forms a significant part of the UN’s agenda: this is linked to the activities of the whole organisation with all of its parts, programmes and projects.

Will Idealism Pay Off?

The UN is often accused of idealism, setting unachievable goals and excessive dilly-dallying. It is true that, if we analyse and assess the UN’s activities every month, every year or even every five years, this may seem like futile fussing. However, the UN’s goals are not short-term and often yield results only after 20–30 years or even longer. In the big picture, this constitutes the establishment of new types of global behaviour, in production, consumption, attitudes towards fellow citizens and placing value on life, the living environment and stability. Here, a somewhat arbitrary parallel can be drawn with smoking and the social condemnation thereof, which was initially met with significant opposition and ridicule in Estonia and elsewhere in the world; but at some point 10–15 years later, we realised that, in addition to having given up smoking ourselves, the smokers around us and in our social circle were few and far between. This is also the case with many UN initiatives and objectives. As a result of decades of work, people’s opportunities to achieve personal fulfilment in the world, to lead a dignified and healthy life and to enjoy a peaceful and stable environment have significantly increased.

Naturally, this is not applicable everywhere—instability, conflicts and wars are still around, people’s rights are being violated, minorities and vulnerable groups are discriminated against, countries refuse to fulfil agreements and break their promises—but the principles, norms and rules of behaviour agreed in the UN and the organisation’s constant efforts to implement and enforce them has created a framework that allows it to relieve tensions peacefully and more reliably than before and acknowledge world problems before seeking to resolve them. This has shown mankind, countries, communities and people the way forward. Whether we do so largely depends on us—each and every one.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.