Divided Nations

I stood at the podium delivering a presentation on the plight of the Darfuri people to an auditorium full of my classmates. After having dedicated my high school career to the cause, I felt I could answer any question that was thrown my way. That is, until I finished presenting and a girl in the third row raised her hand and asked the most basic of all questions. How can we end the killing?

My work on the cause had been to advocate donations for relief organizations that alleviated pain, struggle, and starvation suffered by refugees. I understood that my efforts would not end the genocide in Darfur. So I told the crowd that it had to be the UN’s responsibility. After all, this is precisely the type of crisis that the UN was formed to prevent. However, I knew that then, in 2006, the UN was not going to intervene because China had threatened to veto all UN resolutions against Sudan’s ethnic cleansing in Darfur. This frustrating conclusion led me on a journey to uncover the reason behind the UN’s ineffectiveness in preventing genocide in Darfur, beginning with an examination of the roots of the organization.

1939 was a pivotal year in the history of mankind. As Hitler’s forces invaded Poland to start the Second World War, and as the Holocaust became one of the worst humanitarian crises ever seen, it became apparent to the world that the League of Nations was failing “to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security” (Covenant of the League of Nations). It was this same year that President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to vocalize his plans for a new world organization called the “United Nations”. At the time, he envisioned nations of the world as being similar to the states of America. They would remain sovereign entities, but be united in the goal of improving the common welfare of their world, just as the states of America remain separate governments with the common goal of bettering the USA. The United Nations (UN) was established to be a more effective agent at preserving peace than the League of Nations had been. As stated in Article 1 of the Charter of the UN:

The Purposes of the United Nations are:

1. To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;

2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;

3. To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and

4. To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.

At its founding, the United Nations was intended to be a globally unified force towards world peace and the mutual advancement of all societies. The early workings of the UN showed promise for this dream to become a reality. The UN Charter was originally criticized for being very vague on the issue of human rights, leading to the fear of many that it would not be able to clearly define and prevent future crimes against humanity. However, this problem was solved in 1948 when a commission was established to draft a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Rosenzweig). To this day, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has proven to be one of the foremost documents in the growing phenomenon of international law. While the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948 was a great sign of the early collaboration of nations, the United Nations soon started to head in a different direction.


The United Nations was able to accomplish this feat because of the similar interests of the 58 member states at the time in 1948. Immediately following World War II, the United Nations was only open to members of the Allied Powers (United Nations Member States). The over 50 million unnecessary deaths during World War II, including over 12 million systematically in the Holocaust, resonated for years on the conscience of nations that opposed the Axis powers. This allowed for cultural gaps between the original member states to be bridged, and compromises to be more easily met. Although the early member states were a very diverse set of nations, the recent exposure to the evil of Nazism aligned the moral compasses of the Allies, allowing an effective code on human rights to be drafted.
The relevance of the United Nations began to decrease after the success that it saw in its first few years. As the Cold War era began in the aftermath of World War II, the identity of the United Nations shifted from that of the unified Allied Powers to that of a divided world: the West, the Soviets, and the Third World. America and the USSR, two nations that had created the UN as allies, were now staunch enemies and battling to lead the world in two opposing directions. This caused the first major conflicts of interest for UN Security Council nations, and nations on both sides began to vote for policies and resolutions that would advance either Soviet interests or American interests rather than the world’s interests. During this period, the only significant actions of the UN was intervention against North Korea in 1950, but this only occurred because the Soviet Union was temporarily boycotting the UN and therefore was not able to veto the decision (Higgins). Other humanitarian crises during the Cold War, most notably the killing fields in Cambodia in 1975, did not see any UN intervention simply because of politicized vetoes by states on either side of the Cold War. As new incentives were added to the equation for member states, morals were often ignored in favor of the political interests of nations.
Another factor contributing to decreasing rate of moral decision-making in the UN was an influx of cultural diversity. The United Nations began in 1945 with 51 member states, and by 1954 had only expanded to 60 member states. In 1955, however, 16 new member states joined the UN, and 17 new member states joined in 1960 (United Nations Member States). By this point the United Nations no longer had any affiliation with the Allied Powers, as Italy became a member state in 1955 and Japan a year later, and the organization was shaping into the mesh of cultures that it is today. Representation from sub-Saharan Africa spiked, as well as from many other previously underrepresented areas of the world. The increase of member states from the original 51 to 166 in 1991 before the fall of the Soviet Union brought many new ideas and backgrounds to the scene of the UN General Assembly.
By 1960, the United Nations had transformed from a unified international organization promoting the best interests of the world, to an unconnected entanglement of nations competing for their own interests, not the worlds. The flood of new opinions in the UN was too much to be beneficial and created a hyper pluralistic stalemate. Whereas the UN started as a smaller, more focused group of nations with similar intentions, it evolved into a mass of bodies all holding views so radical that they all cancelled out. In the beginning, all of the nations had similar, good-natured intentions as they convened their meetings in the hazy aftermath of a world war. By 1991, there was nothing that any one nation had in common with all others besides the world they shared. Although increasing the membership of the UN put a larger percentage of the world under the UN’s jurisdiction, it made the strength of its jurisdiction significantly weaken everywhere.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought a period of hope for the United Nations. By 1992 the USSR was dissolved, meaning the Cold War had ended, and a new Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, was elected to replace Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru. At the time, experts argued that the Cold War was the reason for the UN’s failure to promote peace in controversial lands such as Cambodia, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Iran. They believed that a new era of world peace was beginning. Morton Kaplan, the Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at the University of Chicago, predicted in 1989 that the impending fall of the Soviet Union would bring about the dissolution of NATO and the Warsaw Pact and lead to a “global Democratic community” (Kaplan). This view of the world was in line with the widespread assumption that the Cold War caused the inefficiencies of the UN and was the major inhibition to world peace.
But Kaplan’s prediction, along with that of many of his peers, never came close to being reality. When the Yugoslav wars in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia all broke out in 1991 and 1992, the UN was faced with its first post-Cold War international crisis. Rather than enforcing an immediate ceasefire or mediating peace talks between the opposing sides, the UN chose a course of action that fueled Genocide against the Bosnian people. In 1992, the UN showed disregard for basic Human Rights by immediately voting to recognize Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia as new member states despite their lack of qualifications for statehood. Although the UN had troops deployed in the region that could have fought as peacekeepers, they were never given orders to intervene, so they watched as Slobodan Milosevic led the Serbs in an ethnic cleansing of the Bosnians (Higgins). Despite letters from many influential leaders, including Albert Einstein, calling for the UN to stand up for human rights, the UN could never get around vetoes from Russia to intervene, so US finally led NATO forces to end the crisis in 1995, four years after fighting broke out (Einstein). Although this was the first UN deficiency in the post-Cold War era, it still was influenced by lasting Soviet aggressions and incentives. However, just a couple years later, the UN turned its back to a human rights atrocity in sub-Saharan Africa, an area removed from the influences of the Cold War.
In 1994, when massive exterminations of Tutsis by the Hutus began in Rwanda, the UN Security Council was faced with a decision on what course of action to take. Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire, in command of UN forces in Rwanda, informed the UN four months before the genocide had begun that a mass extermination was being planned. The UN Security Council, including China which had been supplying massive quantities of machetes to the Rwandan government, voted to ignore the warning and not grant permission for General Dallaire to confiscate weapons from the Rwandans (Wrage). Once the systematic murders actually began and the security of the region deteriorated to oblivion, the UN again chose to not intervene even though it had troops ready to fight to protect the defenseless victims of genocide. This decision was reflected a sense of apathy by the UN Security Council for matters outside of their own interest. Rwanda is situated on very resource-scarce land, so intervention would have been for purely humanitarian reasons.
The UN’s decision not to intervene shows that the UN’s charter does not reflect the organization’s goals anymore. Ultimately, member states do not place their votes in the interest of “[maintaining] international peace and security” anymore (UN Charter). Instead, each member state votes based on the individual incentives of their nation. If promoting peace would bring a net negative impact on any given nation, then its best interest would be to vote no to intervention, even if intervention would bring an overwhelmingly net positive impact to the world as a whole. This happens over and over again at the United Nations, and nations who do not use this individually focused decision making process are put at a disadvantage relative to other nations, adding to the incentives to disregard morals at the United Nations.
This flawed method for how nations decide on their vote is not always the way the UN has been. At its start, since it consisted of nations with similar interests and intentions, the Allied Powers, the individual incentives of nations did not stray far from the incentives of the organization as a whole. Promoting peace and security everywhere benefitted all parties within the UN, so the early actions of the UN were in line with the guidelines transcribed in its charter. As the membership of the UN increased, the governments represented in the United Nations no longer represented one body of countries with similar morals working towards a common goal. The incorporation of new schools of thought and new cultures into the United Nations changed the realized goal of the United Nations.
But who exactly is to blame for what the United Nations has become? Is it the members or the system? The obvious answer is that it is the fault of each individual nation for putting their interests in front of the world’s interests. However, it is not the nations but the system that is to be blamed. The current system does not work with a broad array of members. The immense cultural diversity and misaligned values allows for no sense of trust among the 192 member states. Trust breeds cooperation, but its absence in the United Nations creates a vicious cycle of competitiveness. This type of atmosphere creates continuous situations where nations would be hurting themselves by voting for peace. This allows for a paradox in which it is logically the best move for nations to vote against peace in certain circumstances, because they can’t trust other nations to not vote for their own interests in later resolutions. Hyper pluralism in the United Nations has hindered the organization’s ability to promote peace and stop crimes against humanity. A new organization of more likeminded nations would be a more effective way to prevent Genocide and elevate us closer towards a more peaceful world.

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