The UN in Action

It is difficult to say how successful the United Nations has been. Every member nation has its own idea of what is important, and each has its own interpretation of the effect the United Nations has had in particular cases. One thing that everyone can agree on is that any judgment of the success of the United Nations must be weighed against what it set out to do in each case. And, of course, the main purpose of the United Nations is to maintain international peace and security.

As the charter emphasizes, the United Nations tries to keep international peace and security by settling disputes and by preventing the use of force. There are differences of opinion as to how much the United Nations has contributed to this result. However, the world has not experienced a major world war since the United Nations was established. Perhaps it is because the United Nations has provided a forum for discussion among the world's major powers. Perhaps it is also because membership in the United Nations reminds world leaders of their duty to maintain international peace. This has led many observers to feel that the real power of the United Nations rests in its moral authority.

Efforts Toward Peace

Although the world has been spared a third world war, it has not been free of conflict. In dealing with local outbreaks of violence, the United Nations has had some failures but also a number of successes. For example, the long dispute between India and Pakistan over the state of Jammu and Kashmir is still unsettled, but the United Nations has played an important role in arranging cease-fires between the warring sides. During the Korean War of 1950–53, United Nations leadership had some success reducing aggression. In 1988 the United Nations was able to arrange an armistice in the long war between Iraq and Iran. It also helped persuade the Soviet Union to remove its last military forces from Afghanistan in 1989. It has been instrumental in ending fighting in other parts of the Middle East and in making sure that all parties live up to truce agreements.

During the 1990s, the United Nations was increasingly active in world affairs. Following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the United Nations adopted trade sanctions against Iraq and later approved the use of allied military action to force Iraq's withdrawal. In 1998, the intervention of the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan prevented another possible war between Iraq and the United States. The United Nations also succeeded in bringing an end to long civil wars in Central America (1992–96), Mozambique (1994), and Angola (1994). It arranged an accord in the civil war in Cambodia (Kampuchea), sent peacekeeping forces to that country in 1992, and supervised elections for a new government in 1993. United Nations peacekeepers have also been active in various other world trouble spots—from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo in the Balkans to the African nation of Somalia.

Human Rights

From the beginning the United Nations has been concerned with gaining respect for basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. One of the earliest accomplishments of the General Assembly was the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 1948. Respect for human rights has come to be regarded as equal in importance in the work of the United Nations to keeping international peace and security.

Much of the time of the General Assembly and the Security Council has been occupied with seeking to eliminate racial discrimination.


From the start, the United Nations took an active part in persuading colonial powers to give self-government or independence to their colonies. It also encouraged the people of these territories to work for independence. The U.N. Charter emphasized eventual self-government for all non-self-governing territories, as well as for those territories placed under trusteeship.

The rapid progress made by colonial peoples in gaining independence, particularly in Asia and Africa, has not been due entirely to the United Nations. However, there is no doubt that its role has been an important one. It provided a forum where the complaints of colonial people could be heard and brought pressure to bear on governing countries. The United Nations took as one of its chief aims the right of self-determination, or the right of people to decide how they wish to be governed. With this in mind, the United Nations continued to remind member nations that it was the duty of every government to respect this principle of self-determination. As recently as 1989, the United Nations helped bring about the independence of the vast African nation of Namibia.

Developing Countries

From the beginning, a major interest of the United Nations has been the economic and social evolution of developing areas. These areas include not only recently independent states but many that have been independent for a long time.

Various programs of the United Nations work for the economic and social development of these countries. Among them are UNICEF, which fosters the well-being of children; the World Food Program, which provides food aid; and the United Nations Development Program, which works for overall development.

A Continuing Role

Increasingly the U.N. has taken on the task of helping weak and underprivileged peoples. Under discussion are such issues as creating a state for Palestinians, improving the status of women, eliminating world hunger, and providing relief and protecting the rights of the oppressed. In 1998, a U.N. tribunal also set an important legal precedent when it became the first nonmilitary international court to hand down a guilty verdict for the crime of genocide against Hutu officials in Rwanda for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi civilians.

Leland Goodrich
Author, The United Nations