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Some argue that the United Nations (UN) should be disbanded or at least that countries be able to leave it then start again, perhaps following their own principles and forming alliances that serve a similar purpose. Ironically an online debate showed that a group of European federalists to be divided, with roughly two thirds not in favour of the UN in one sense or another, with the rest favouring the status quo or with no opinion. Having worked and collaborated over the years for some UN agencies, one fairly regularly, I confess to not being a fan. However, I see no alternative. When asked, nobody actually knew, guessing, for example, that it was about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and a meeting after the end of WW2. It turns out that itis far more complicated and goes back much further than that..

It essentially began in June 1942 with the Declaration of St James’s Palace, in which the Anglo-Soviet Agreement was signed, forming an alliance between the two countries.

That was followed on 14 August, 1941 by the more consequent Atlantic Charter,  a joint statement setting out the USA and UK’s goals for the world post WW2 based on Franklin Roosevelt’s and Winston Churchill’s discussions during the Atlantic Conference in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. It outlined the aims of the USA and the UK for a post war world with no territorial expansion, no territorial changes made against the will of the people, thus self-determination, the reinstatement of self government to nations that had been dispossessed of it, global cooperation to secure improved economic and social conditions for everybody, a universal reduction of trade restrictions, freedom from fear and want, freedom of the seas, abandonment of the use of force and enforceable disarmament of aggressor nations. Being a statement, the Atlantic Charter was never a formal, legal document The Declaration by United Nations, signed on 1 January 1942; became the basis on which the UN was later founded.

That charter prompted several other international agreements, notably the wave of independences that eventually dismantled the British Empire, the formation of NATO and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), all of which drew on the principles laid out in the Atlantic Charter

On 1 January 1942, representatives of 26 nations at war with the Axis powers met in Washington to sign the Declaration by United Nations endorsing the Atlantic Charter, pledging to use their full resources against the Axis powers and agreeing that none of them would make a separate peace with their enemies. The Declaration was the key treaty in formalising the Alliance and was eventually signed by 47 national governments between January 1942 and 1945 when the grounding/founding UN meeting took place.

At the Quebec Conference in August 1943, the Secretary of State of the USA Cordell Hull and UK Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden agreed to draft a declaration that included a call for ‘a general international organisation, based on the principle of sovereign equality of all nations.’ Thus a negotiated and agreed declaration was issued following a Foreign Ministers Conference in Moscow in October 1943. During the Tehran Conference, a strategy meeting of Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill from 28 November to 1 December 1943 in the Soviet Union’s embassy there following the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, Roosevelt met Stalin to propose an international organisation made up of an assembly of all member states with a ten member executive committee to discuss social and economic issues. The USA, UK, USSR and China would act as ‘four policemen’ to ensure world peace. In the meantime Allied representatives were setting up a number of specific objective oriented organisations: the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in May 1943, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in November 1943, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in April 1944, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in July 1944 and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in November 1944. UNRRA, was an international relief agency representing 44 nations that formally became part of the UN then formally dissolved in September 1948. 

Representatives of the four powers that had met in Tehran met again at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington during August and September 1944 to draft the charter of a post war international organisation based on the principle of collective security. They recommended a General Assembly of all member states and a Security Council consisting of the ‘Big Four’ plus six members chosen by the General Assembly that would periodically rotate among member states. The voting procedures and veto power of the four permanent members of the Security Council were finalised at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 where Roosevelt and Stalin agreed the veto would not impede discussions by the Security Council. Roosevelt agreed to General Assembly membership for Ukraine and Byelorussia while reserving the right, never put into effect, to request two more votes for the USA.

WW2 was very clearly coming to an end, so preparations were being made for its aftermath. Representatives of 50 nations met for the United Nations Conference on International Organisation in San Francisco from 25 April until 26 June 1945 to complete the Charter of the United Nations.  For two months they worked on drafting then signing the UN Charter, which created a new international organisation, the United Nations, which they hoped would prevent another world war,like that which ended in 2 September of that year,. Which left many nations in ruins, people dead, uprooted or in need of some kind of rehabilitation..

There was to be a General Assembly of all member states and, with the addition of France, a Permanent Security Council of five, each with veto power over individual resolutions. The Charter provided for an 18 member Economic and Social Council, an International Court of Justice, a Trusteeship Council to oversee certain colonial territories, and a Secretariat under a Secretary General. Although Roosevelt died in April just before the San Francisco conference, his administration had already made every effort to avoid Woodrow Wilson’s error of pushing the League of Nations as the perfect means of avoiding war to the Senate. Having set out to achieve bipartisan support, they succeeded in September 1943 when the Republican Party joined the Democrats so that both houses of Congress overwhelmingly endorsed the USA’s participation, with the Senate voting on 28 July, 1945 by a margin of 89 to 2 in favour. Roosevelt had personally sought to convince the American public that an international organisation was the best means of preventing future wars. The UN came into existence on 24 October 1945 after 29 nations had ratified the Charter, which was to become a majority of 46. Because the initiative had begun in the USA it was agreed that the headquarters of the UN be hosted by them, New York was chosen.

The Security Council held its first session on 17 January 1946, but for several decades the Cold War prevented it from achieving what it was set up for. Roosevelt wanted to set up the organisation to police the world after the defeat of the Axis powers, but found that the only way to get the USSR and other powers on the Security Council or on behalf of other nations to agree, was if they had the ability to block actions against themselves or countries they were supporting. Joseph Stalin had personally insisted on that power as a way for the USSR to protect itself. The Security Council now has 15 members; the five permanent members have remained more or less the same, although Russia now occupies the former Soviet Union’s seat and China was given the seat of the Republic of China. The ten non-permanent members are elected for two year terms by the General Assembly. They are currnetly India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico and Norway and will be replaced during 2022 by Albania, Brazil, Gabon, Ghana and United Arab Emirates until 2023. Over 50 UN member states have so far never been on the Security Council. A UN member state which but not on the Security Council may participate, but without a vote, in its discussions when it is considered that country’s interests are affected. That goes for members and non-members of the UN, when they are parties to a dispute being considered by the council.. However, the veto right has never changed, so nothing can be decided without unanimity of the five permanent members, effectively rendering it impossible to remove any of them. Since its foundation in 1945, a number of countries and representatives have suggested reforming it by adding more permanent members, better reflecting the contemporary world and the permanently changing balance or even attempt to find a means of taking away the veto power, but that is, almost by construction,  impossible, making the Security Council one of the most obstructive aspects of the UN. Other powers, including, as the world’s policeman, the ability to enforce the will of the majority of members, was diluted and eventually dropped. It was also acknowledged that such a branch of the UN would be subject to the will and whims of permanent members of the Security Council using their veto.

Why exactly is that history so important? The simple answer is that it shows that it was not something thrown together in a week or two in San Francisco but was a long and meticulous process throughout four of the six years of WW2. Could the world now do anything that is at all comparable? Without a major war that affects a very large part of the world in one way or another, the incentive alone is not there. I very much doubt it could happen.

Then there is the question about which countries are and are not UN members. Some people may question what makes numbers so important? It is important because it tells us which countries exist, would like to exist or have perhaps been merged into another. We can count how many countries could form alliances and with whom, and thus assess the risks this might entail. The occasionally used expression ‘rogue nations’ is a good example of why counting countries and verifying their existence counts.

Some countries are not recognised universally and some specifically not by the Security Council, especially of any of the permanent members. Officially, there are currently 195 countries in the world, comprised of 193 countries that are members of the UN plus: the Holy See and the State of Palestine, both of which are observers. Yet the UN recognises 251 countries and territories, while the USA, officially recognises fewer than 200. Other nations, are breakaway parts of recognised member states or regions that have declared their independence and are recognised by the majority of UN member states but are not part of the UN itself. Taiwan, which  formally calls itself the Republic of China (RoC), and is recognised as an independent nation by all but a handful of UN members, is a prime example, so is Kosovo, till considered a region of Serbia that declared independence in 2008. . The although the world’s 29th largest economy, Taiwan’s official membership is consistently blocked by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which claims it as a province. Having been  driven out of mainland China by communist rebels who eventual took over China, the leadership of the RoC fled to Taiwan where they set up a government until they could return to a ‘liberated’ mainland,. Taiwan was a member of the UN and Security Council until 1971 when the PRC replaced them and still vetoes official recognition, even preventing it from flying its., their flag at international events like the Olympic Games and may only be referred to as Chinese Taipei.

All that therefore adds to the membership confusion, since the list of 193 member countries and two observer states includes eleven non-member sovereign states such as Taiwan, Kosovo, Northern Cyprus, Cook Islands and others, making a total of 206. Other perplexing examples of non-countries include as Greenland, although it controls many of its own domestic affairs. That is because  it is in fact an autonomous part of Denmark, even tinier than Greenland’s neighbour Iceland. Nonetheless, some countries use less inflexible definitions of nationhood thus give dependent and disputed territories such as Greenland and the Gaza Strip their own listings.

An example of how it can work is the example of what is now called the Republic of South Sudan, formed following a. A referendum  in what was Southern Sudan from 9 to 15 January 2011 one of the consequences of the 2005 Naivasha Agreement between the Khartoum central government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement. A simultaneous referendum should have been held in Abyei to determine whether they would become part of Southern Sudan but was postponed due to conflict over demarcation and residency rights. A landslide majority of 98.83% voted in favour of independence. Ballots were suspended in 10 of 79 counties for exceeding 100% of voter turnout, well over the requirement of 60% turnout, thus the majority vote for secession was not in question. The preset date for creation of an independent state was 9 July 2011, when more than 25 countries recognised it, including all permanent members of the Security Council. On 14 July 2011, the Republic of South Sudan was admitted as a member without a vote or objections by UN members.

Three self declared nations have never been recognised by any UN member states: Somaliland, Transnistria and Artsakh (formerly known as Nagorno-Karabakh). Partially recognised states include the Cook Islands that usually act as though they are independent countries but have neither declared independence nor shown interest in joining the UN. Other territories, colonies and dependencies are sometimes incorrectly called countries but do not actually count because they are governed by or are part of others. Places commonly assumed to be independent countries include Bermuda, Greenland, Palestine, Puerto Rico and Western Sahara. There are also political states made up of more than one country, therefore listing the UK as a single country is wrong since it is made up of England, Northern Ireland Scotland and Wales.

When dependent territories are included, the UN recognises 241 countries and territories. The UN’s ‘UN/LOCODE Code List by Country and Territory’ lists 248 countries and territories  including Antarctica which is in fact a continent rather than a country, but although some territories controlled by particular countries they are not themselves countries. There is said to be a list of that contains another 10 making it up to 258 top level domains that media in the USA have occasionally cited. However the much used CIA Factbook lists 237 countries. Acomplete list of country dialling codes mentions 249 nations, that is includesdependent territories and self-declared nations.

The point of all this is to demonstrate how complicated establishing the exact number of countries in the world can be, taking into account the  logistics of all of the human, economic and technicalaspects of organising and implementng a complex operation that in turn takes into account the movement, equipment and accommodation of people, supplies and and getting them from one place to another. Skilled negotiators must sometimes gain access to places where UN personnel are required or newly emergent countries cut off or surrounded by others that do not recognise their existence or is at war with them. The constant changing nature of politics also means that issues like independence and sovereignty may never be resolved. The can be said for how would unions, federations, alliances, blocs and other configurations can be formed. Friends today may be at each other’s throats tomorrow, and vice versa..

So, of course the UN is a massive global organisationghat goes well beyond the Security Council. Te organisation itself comprises six main organs: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Trusteeship Council and the Secretariat, all of which are based at UN headquarters in New York, as well as the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The New York based UN Secretariat has regional offices in Geneva, Nairobi and Vienna and Regional Economic Commissions in Addis Ababa, Bangkok, Beirut, Geneva, and Santiago. add to this,ifteen specialised agencies and five related organisations carrying out various functions of and on behalf of the UN, with offices in many or most countries,. Each of those parts of the UN cooperates or at least works closely with national governments or regional bodies such as the NAU, AU, ASEAN and EU.  UN representatives of some sort are to be found, in most countries, many of the territories that are neither a country nor recognised as such because they have assumed independence themselves. Aid workers, volunteers, observers, peacekeepers, medical personnel and consultants and contractors like me are on the ground where there is extreme poverty, hunger droughts, famines, floods, pollution, slums, squatter settlements, frontline wars and permutations of those conditions researching, evaluating and assessing the situation of mainly vulnerable populations or specific groups of people. All, from top to bottom, must remain impartial at all times, certainly never take sides, yet still retain the human ability to do their jobs rather than what their conscience or sympathy would like them to do. To take all of that apart may well be very easy, to replace it is probably as close to impossible as anyone could ever imagine. I would challenge people who think the UN needs to be broken up and replaced with something better. 

So, the Security Council could only look on as Russia invaded Ukraine. As the presidency of the Security Council rotates monthly, following the English alphabetical order of each member state’s name, it happens that Russia held the presidency and, even chaired the meeting of the Security Council, as the invasion began and diplomacy was failing. The General Assembly has condemned Russia over the war in Ukraine, but that carriesonly symbolic weight. They were suspended from the Human Rights Council, which requires an at least two thirds majority vote, with 93 in favour, 24 against and 58 abstentions with 18 other member states not included, showing a great degree of support for Russia. In other words, the majority of UN members did not vote to expel them. Russia clearly expected to be condemned, despite its many friends, but the status and power of being on the Security Council with equal standing to the USA and China, despite its relative unimportance in the world economic order is paramount .

When people and groups suggest or even demand that the UN be disbanded, their proposals ignore the reasons to keep it together but with radical reforms, such as addressing the impotence of the General Assembly and Human Rights Council. The idealised alliance of a bloc such as a federal EU, despite some member states unlikely to ever accept accession as a European body with non-EU members probably wanting to be in, would almost certainly be confronted with challenging blocs. Those have the potential to become antagonistic, conflictual to the point of belligerent then actual conflict as wars between individual nations supported by the rest of their bloc or between entire blocs. To complicate matters, the dissolution of most of the 15 agencies of the UN would contribute to an already unequal world becoming far more unequal since the declarations and conventions that at least create a level playing field in theory, if not in practice, would be lost. There is, it probably comes without saying, the dilemma of neither knowing or agreement of how many countries there are at any particular point in time, which states recognise them and changing relationships. The present Russian war against Ukraine epitomises that relationship with Russia claiming parts, if not all, of that independent state that they recognised after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. So the formations of blocs that could include would-be nations that claim independence becoming part of alliances that support their claimed status must be included in the equation. The potential of killing off the UN to create new unions carries far more risk than retaining what there is at present.

That is not to say that the UN does not need serious and very radical reform. At present it is toothless. To some extent responsibility lies with Stalin who had designs on greater parts of Europe within the Soviet Union after WW2. To an extent that was achieved, initially by occupation, some of which was as victor over loser, in other cases as protector over formerly occupied states. The outcome of that was the East and West division that became the locus of the Cold War, similarly the influence and controlled former independent states by China that was a major UN and Security Council member both before and after their revolution. The USA, to a lesser extent the UK and France as colonial powers, although by then in decline, contributed to the problems that remain. Mainly Stalin, but despite Roosevelt’s ideas, the USA resisted the police function of the UN having any real authority or mechanism for enforcement. So, when one says that the UN was set up as an organisation to create and maintain peace, the flaw is that it still refers back to the effects of WW2 globally but does not really account for the many conflicts that have occurred since. That point of reference most certainly needs to change. The precept and basic principles of the UN are also far more guided by what we could call secular values with an underlying Christian morality that is as much hypocritical as it is useful. That was embedded in the founding principles of the organisation, including by the Soviet Union that underlying its own monopolistic and dictatorial version of communism was inherent. That has been more or less imposed on the entire membership.

For many people and the least easily resolved matter is the Security Council. For as long as it has existed, the expansion of the number of non-permanent members aside, nothing significant has changed. Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s veto when it became the permanent member replacement. To a rather bizarre point, it is what holds the UN together but also holds back essential changes that a radical reform would bring from top to bottom. That is probably the starting point but the most complicated and, as yet, unresolved dilemma.

Otherwise, the value of the UN is that irrespective of how many members it has, how many other parts of the world it recognises as though they are nation states but cannot be allowed to become members, it is where members can assemble and those places without independent nation status can be represented or, with permission, be present but not participatory, with a shared objective that is to keep world peace. That that has never actually been achieved does not actually reflect on the UN itself but on membership and the unreformed founding principles that in some cases unanimity rather than simply majority require. Therefore, if the propositions of those who believe the UN should go to be replaced by something that they do not really know what it could be beyond their notional alliances, there is likely to be no place and means by which the world can be entirely assembled by representatives under the umbrella of a single organisation, most often in one place. Until somebody has an achievable idea how to set up something that is better but upholds the basic principles of the UN the proposition holds no water. For me, as somebody who is no ‘fan’ of the UN that I have seen with a foot just in the door, it is not easy to say some of things I have said here, but simultaneously I have never yet been impressed by suggestions about replacing it. I fear the prospect of a world without that seriously flawed organisation in which rival blocs would form that without a focal point would destroy an already at risk world.

Featured image by Mathias Reding on Pexels.

Brian Milne
A Social anthropologist who specialises in the human rights of children. In practice Brian Milne has worked on the street with 'street children', child labour, young migrants, young people with HIV and AIDS. Brian’s work has taken him to around 40 countries, most of them developing nations; at least four of them have been in a state of conflict or war, thus taking him to the front line in two. Brian’s theoretical work began with migration; working on, written and publishing on citizenship and generally best known as an 'expert' on the human rights of children. Brian has a broad knowledge of human and civil rights for all ages, environmental issues and has been politically active most of his life. An internationalist and supporter of the principle of European federalisation.

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