July 23, 2011

The UN's 60th birthday on October 24 offers an opportunity for students to learn about the organization's history and to consider some problems it faces.

To the Teacher:

The 60th birthday of the United Nations on October 24 offers an opportunity for students to learn about the organization's history and to consider some problems it faces. The four parts of the student reading below offer background, explanations of the limitations of the UN, and brief discussions of major problems and accomplishments.


Student Reading:

The UN and the quest for security and peace


Our hearts where they rocked our cradle
Our love where we spent our toil
And our faith, and our hope, and our honor,
We pledge to our native soil.
God gave all men all earth to love
But since our hearts are small
Ordained for each one spot should prove
Beloved over all.
-Rudyard Kipling

For most people around the world that "one spot" has come to mean their nation: Kenya. Japan. Belgium. Ecuador. The United States. This was not always so. A nation is "a community of people composed of one or more nationalities and possessing a more or less defined territory and government" (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary). But such communities of people with a territory and a government began to form only a few hundred years ago.

Humankind's first prehistoric attempt to achieve security in a dangerous world began, perhaps, with the family. It was followed by the clan or tribe. At the beginning of recorded history in Mesopotamia and Greece came the city-state and then, in time, the nation. While clans and tribes still exist, the nation is overwhelmingly dominant. But whatever the organizational formóclan or tribe, city-state or nationóthere is always an in-group and an out-group of strangers, about whom little may be known and against whom prejudices and fears may be fanned. This has sometimes led to the organized killing called "war," which has bloodied the history of the human race.

The nation is the biggest entity yet and is zealous in protecting its national sovereignty (sovereignty: "supreme power; freedom from external control," Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary). In doing so, it tends to use aggression to eliminate enemies, imagined or real, and to achieve territory, wealth, power. It would be hard to name a nation, including our own, without a record of aggression on the lands and resources of others. It would also be hard to name a national leader who did not offer official rationalizations for such actions.

Whatever its virtues, national sovereignty is a major obstacle in the way of achieving international security. Leaders of nations tend to be jealous of their "supreme power" and "freedom from external control." They cling to their power and privileges. Loving their "one spot," many people tend to supportómore or less uncriticallyóthe aggressive ways of their leaders and to distrust and fear the leaders of other nations.

Only in the past century or so have leaders and peoples begun to confront the known dangers of national sovereignty: international anarchy, collective insecurity, and war. Their aim has been to achieve international cooperation, collective security, and peace.

By the end of the 19th century, people began to become more aware of the increasing violence and savagery of modern wars. This led to the first international peace conference at The Hague in the Netherlands. But it failed to stop the mass slaughter of World War I. Millions died, were maimed, made refugees in their own land, left with shattered lives.

In 1919 came a response to the horrors of World War I: the birth of the League of Nations, designed "to promote international cooperation and achieve peace and security." U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was the driving force behind the creation of the organization. But he could not persuade the Senate to make the U.S. a member. The leading opponent, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R, MA), declared that if you fetter the U.S. to "the interests and quarrels of other nations, if you tangle her in the intrigues of Europe, you will destroy her power for good and endanger her very existence." (August 12, 1919)

Weakened by the absence of the U.S., the League nevertheless developed a membership of 57 nations and had some early successes. But it failed, especially in the 1930s, to prevent or halt Japan's aggression against China; Italy's against Ethiopia; or Germany's and Italy's against Spain during its civil war. Flouting the League and withdrawing from it, Germany's Adolf Hitler began the rearmament of Germany and initiated a series of aggressions that led directly to World War II.

The globe shrinking, the U.S. and other nations could not keep themselves from being fettered to "the interests and quarrels of other nations."

For discussion

1. The reading suggests that national sovereignty is a major factor in international anarchy. Do you agree? If so, why? If not, why not?

2. The idea that the globe is shrinking is commonplace. Why has it shrunk? In what specific ways? With what positive and negative consequences?



During World War II world leaders and ordinary citizens recognized once again that allowing sovereign nation-states to act with impunity produces international anarchy and insecurity. To be secure had to mean collective security through international cooperation.

In wartime Britain in 1941, the Declaration of St. James Palace declared, "The only true basis of enduring peace is the willing cooperation of free peoples in a world in which, relieved of the menace of aggression, all may enjoy economic and social security; it is our intention to work together, and with other free peoples, both in war and peace to this end." It was signed by the British and Canadian leaders, along with the exiled leaders of France, Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovokia, and Greece.

That same year U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill created the Atlantic Charter, declaring "that all nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force." For that to happen, there must be a "permanent system of general security."

World War II then brought six years of even greater mass slaughter than that of World War I. It culminated in the atomic incineration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. We had come from killing individuals with our hands to killing huge numbers of people with nuclear bombs dropped from the sky.

Later that year, just after Roosevelt's death, representatives of 50 nations met in San Francisco to draw up the charter of what Roosevelt had named the United Nations. President Harry Truman called the charter "a victory against war itself." The charter was ratified by China, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States, and the United Nations officially came into existence on October 24, 1945.

The preamble of the charter declares:


determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and smallÖ, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and to ensureÖ, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,

HAVE RESOLVED TO COMBINE OUR EFFORTS TO ACCOMPLISH THESE AIMSÖand do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations."

The Charter created the UN Security Council made up of representatives from 15 countries (five permanent members and 10 elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms). The Security Council has primary responsibility, under the Charter, for maintaining international peace and security.

Again, as with the aims of the failed League of Nations, the Charter's key words are "peace and security." But the League lasted 20 years. The United Nations has lasted 60 and now has 191 nations as members.

The UN itself declares that: "The UN does not have the capacity to impose peace by force. It is not a world government. It has no standing army, no military assets. It is not an international police force. The effectiveness of the UN depends on the political will of its member states, which decide if, when and how the UN takes action to end conflicts." (

In fact, the UN is not a government of any kind. The essence of a government is its power to make and enforce laws, something all the member-nations of the UN do within their borders. But those same member-nations have never been willing to give the UN such authority. For one result would be to impinge on the sovereignty of those nations, which none are prepared to surrender, except in limited ways. The result is a UN with significant limitations.

For discussion

1.  What are common themes of the Declaration of St. James Palace, the Atlantic Charter, and the Charter of the United Nations?

2.  What are "significant limitations" of the United Nations? What reasons are there for them? How might they be eliminated? What difficulties do you think stand in the way?


Not having the power to make laws, the UN passes resolutions. Its only power to enforce them is the collective will of its member-nations. Which means problems. Consider the UN and Iraq:

In the 1990s the UN Security Council placed economic sanctions on Saddam Hussein's Iraq for violating UN resolutions ordering Iraq to surrender its weapons of mass destruction. The UN also began a $64 billion dollar oil-for-food program aimed at reducing the suffering of the Iraqi people. Under the program, the UN allowed the Iraqi government to sell for export a limited amount of oil; the money earned was then used to pay for UN-supplied food and medicine. A later investigation of this program concluded: "Our assignment has been to look for misadministration in the oil-for-food program and for evidence of corruption within the U.N. organization and by contractors. Unhappily, we found both."

The report sharply criticized the UN's top official, Secretary General Kofi Annan, for lax administration of the program and for not stopping the corruption. But it also said that criticisms "must be broadly shared, starting, we believe, with member states and the Security Council itself" for "turning a blind eye to smuggling [that] surely undercut a sense of discipline in conducting the program."

The "blind eye" refers to the U.S. and Britain. Both nations overlooked evidence that their allies Jordan and Turkey were smuggling oil from Iraq, in violation of UN resolutions. The three other permanent members of the Security CouncilóFrance, China and Russiaóalso violated UN resolutions through kickbacks and oil deals with Saddam Hussein at a time when economic sanctions were supposed to be in force.

In the 1990s, UN teams under the authority of the Security Council inspected Iraqi sites suspected of harboring weapons of mass destruction. They found some such weapons and destroyed them. After an absence of several years, the inspectors were ordered back to Iraq in 2002. This time they did not discover any weapons. By March 2003 President Bush announced that inspections were not working, that Iraq was hiding biological and chemical weapons and a nuclear weapons development program. With no UN resolution authorizing its behavior and against the wishes of most of its member nations, the U.S. attacked Iraq.

A few other examples of the UN's limited powers:

  • In recent years North Korea has probably produced nuclear weapons in violation of its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. North Korea resigned from the treaty. Although UN negotiations with North Korea have been going on for some time, the member-nations of the UN have not acted to stop or to reverse this behavior.
  • The UN has passed numerous resolutions condemning Israel for its occupation of Palestinian land. But the UN has not acted on the resolutions.
  • Genocidal behavior by the governments of Rwanda in the 1990s and today by Sudan have been condemned but not stopped by the UN.

In short, the United Nations is made up of nations, sometimes united, sometimes not, and has limited powers. To enforce its resolutions, the UN often has to rely on follow-through by nations with conflicting interests. As a result, there often is no enforcement.

For discussion

1.  What questions do students have about any of the problems the UN has had in enforcing its decisions? How might these questions be answered?

2.  Consider the Rwandan and Sudanese genocides. If UN resolutions are insufficient to halt genocide, what actions do you think would be necessary? Why do you think the UN does not take such actions?


Efforts to reform the United Nations have sparked disagreements over such key questions as the following:

Should the Secretary General be given more power to manage the organization?

No, argued smaller nations. They fear the increased influence this would mean for the larger nations, especially those in the Security Council, at the expense of the General Assembly.

Result: The member-nations of the UN recently watered down ambitious reform proposals. The Secretary General was given only some new power to make personnel changes.

Should the Security Council be expanded to include more permanent members than the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France?

The U.S. and China opposed making Germany and Japan permanent Security Council members.

Result: Any decision on increasing the size of the Security Council was put off until December. But an increase seems unlikely despite the importance in world affairs that Germany and Japan, defeated Axis powers at the time the UN was created, have achieved.

Should the richer nations like the U.S. and European countries commit themselves to contribute 70 cents for every $100 of income to the poorest nations?

No, said several of those richer nations. These nations included the U.S. (which as of 2004 contributed 16 cents for every $100), Italy (which gives even less) and Japan (which gives slightly more). The Bush administration view is that helping the poorest countries requires better government and sounder economic policies on their part or else the money given them is squandered or even stolen.

Result: The wealthy nations agreed to try, but only on a voluntary basis, to give 70 cents for every $100 to the poorest nations.

Complaints about the UN are unending. It is slow to act and, at times, inefficient. It spends a lot of money wastefully. A few of its officials have been corrupt. It is disorganized. The most serious complaint: it has only limited success in its chief mission: to "maintain international peace and security."

All of these complaints have some truth. Rarely heard, however, is the complaint that the UN can only do what its member-nations allow it to do and support collectively with deeds, not just words.

Despite its limitations, the UN provides many kinds of support and services. Without the work of the UN:

  • Serbian troops would either still be "ethnically cleansing" (murdering) the Albanian people of Kosovo. Supported by NATO-led peacekeeping troops since 1999, the UN has worked to promote better relations between Serbs and Albanians and to build democratic institutions, a very difficult mission and still a work in progress.
  • UN peacekeepers would not have successfully enforced the terms of a peace agreement between Indonesia and East Timor.
  • Haiti would be an even more dangerous place. The UN has worked there to promote stability.
  • The dangers of nuclear weapons would be even greater than they are without the inspections and other efforts of the UN's International Agency for Atomic Energy. (The 2005 Nobel Peace Prize was recently awarded to the agency and its head, Mohamed ElBaradei.)
  • Accused war criminals like Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic would not be facing the UN's International Court of Justice.
  • Child Friendly Schooling for Nigerian children would not be provided through the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). This schooling program works for safe learning environments, clean water and sanitation, good and well-paid teachers, and teaching material.
  • A number of other UN agenciesóthe World Health Organization (WHO), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Commission on Human Rightsówould not be helping to build needed global institutions.

The UN today is involved in many peace and security activities, among them peacekeeping missions in 16 countries and international agreements to prevent terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons. In recent years the organization has been responsible for peacemaking, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance in Sudan, Burundi, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as in Kosovo, East Timor, and Haiti.

UN agencies have also played leading roles in everything from Asian tsunami recovery to halting drug smuggling, combating AIDS, promoting sound environmental policies, and reducing hunger, child mortality, and poverty.

Could the UN be improved? Obviously. Would the world be better off without the UN and all its imperfections? What is your answer?

For discussion

1.  What questions do students have about Part Four? How might they be answered?

2.  The UN's main mission is to "maintain international peace and security." How well is it achieving this mission? What else would you need to know to answer the question more fully?


Additional Classroom Activities


For further inquiry

1. Become an expert on any UN agency named in the reading, or any other. What are some specific activities of this agency? How successful have they been?

2. What were the chief successes of the League of Nations? Its major failures?

3. What is being done and by whom about the findings of the investigation into corruption and mismanagement in the oil-for-food program?

4. What UN resolutions have been violated by Israel? By North Korea? How? Why? What, if anything, is being done about the violations?

5. Why is Iran accused of violating its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? What is its answer to the accusation? What is the status of this dispute?

6. What are the major provisions of the UN's Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? What commitments have the major nuclear powersóthe U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and Chinaómade in this treaty? How have they been honored?

7. Inquire into commitments made to the poorest nations. What, exactly, are those commitments? How are they being honored?

8. Select countries that in the past 60 years since the UN's founding have suffered from warfare (for instance, India and Pakistan). What role has the UN played in promoting peace and security?


For citizenship

Have students study the cyberschoolbus adjunct to the main UN website, It offers many activities for students interested in the UN, including instructions for organizing a model UN and human rights activities. Then discuss with the class opportunities for individual participation.

Curricula for teachers are also offered at this site.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: