Fifty years of unity and disunity

The United Nations
October 6, 1995

There is certainly room for improvement at the United Nations, which is 50 years old this year. Many of the organisation's peacekeeping operations are in some degree of trouble, often dire, and its finances seem to be in daily crisis.

Geoff Simons wants new life to be breathed into that clause in the UN charter which proclaims that "the Organisation is based on the sovereign equality of all its members".

He thinks that states must be stopped from always pursuing their own conceptions of their national interests.

Special rights must not, Simons says, be conferred on the powerful. And, to refer to an ever-present theme, the UN and its organs must become "more than virtual synonyms for the Washington state department and the Washington whim".

It would be a pity if the consistently apolitical, and therefore unrealistic, twist which Simons has given his analysis resulted in his book being ignored. For he has been careful in his research into the UN's origins and its response to the world's numerous crises.

His facts can be relied upon; he reports his findings pithily; and he has a couple of useful chronologies. But what he is asking for is not just a different UN, but also for a different sort of world. His request will not be met.

What will come out of current proposals for changing the UN? Not, it may be ventured, much.

So far as the UNSecurity Council is concerned, a consensus is already emerging within the UN for a limited reform. But the emphasis will probably be on "limited" - and even that may make decision-making more difficult than it already is. Beyond that, little is likely to happen, notwithstanding all the policy-relevant expertise which will be brought to bear on the matter.

The UN will continue as a central diplomatic meeting place through which such cooperation as can be agreed between the member states will often be channelled. Its growing role as an important legitimising agency may also be expected to endure.

The UN has, in truth, come a long way in 50 years. But it remains, and will continue to remain, a part of the political world. Accordingly, it will reflect, and not control, international politics.

Alan James is research professor in international relations, Keele University.

The United Nations: A Chronology of Conflict

Author - Geoff Simons
ISBN - 0 333 59378 2
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00
Pages - 345

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