History of the United Nations

The Vision of a League of Nations

Since the beginning of time human beings craved for a peaceful existence. As such,  peace has at all times been one of the main ingredients in any agreement, with the next step up being collaboration on a number of fronts by those who signed such a peace covenant. An outline for a league of nations that would work together to promote peace between all nation was proposed by Immanuel Kant in 1795 through his oeuvre Perpetual Peace.

In 1864 the first of the Geneva Conventions came into being followed in 1899 by the first Hague Convention, both expanding the notion of international law. 1889  saw the creation of the first permanent forum for political multilateral negotiations, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) which could be considered as a fore-runner of the League of Nations. IPU was recognised in 1996 by the UN as the World Organisations of Parliaments and it was granted UN Observer Status in 2002. With its HQ in Geneva, it still fulfils an important role today.

The League of  Nations

While the First World War was still raging on, some  governments and civil society groups had already started to work on a possible architecture for an organisation that had at its core the mandate to change the way international relations were carried out in order to be able to prevent another such conflict. US President Woodrow Wilson’s  Fourteen Points for Peace promoted the idea of such a League of Nations. The Covenant of the League was drafted and the League was established by Part I of the Treaty of Versailles and 44 states signed the Covenant on 28 June 1919. Although Wilson fully supported  the establishment of the League, the United States would never ratify the treaty and join the League of Nations. The Palace des Nations in Geneva became the League’s HQ from 1929 till 1946.

Seeing that the League of Nations had not been able to avoid WW2, the Allied Powers agreed at the Tehran Conference in 1943 to create a new organisations to replace the League of Nations, the United Nations. The principal Allies in the Second World War (the UK, the USSR, France, the US, and the Republic of China) became permanent members of the UN Security Council in 1946. While the number of nations on the security council did not change, in 1971 the People’s Republic of China replaced the Republic of China (Taiwan) and in 1991 the Russian Federation replaced the USSR as permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Organisational Structure of the League of Nations

The League was made up of an Assembly, a Council, a Secretariat and two wings (the Permanent Court of International Justice at the Peace Palace in The Hague (NL) and the International Labour Organisation) both of which were established following the Treaty of Versailles. A number of other agencies and commissions were created to deal with the problems that arose from the war, e.g. the Disarmament Commission, the Health Organisation, the Mandates Commission, the International Commission on Intellectual Cooperation, the Permanent Central Opium Board, the Commission for Refugees, and the Slavery Commission.

Several of these institutions were transferred to the United Nations after the Second World War: the International Labour Organization, the Permanent Court of International Justice (as the International Court of Justice),  the Health Organization (as the World Health Organization), the International Commission on Intellectual Cooperation (restructured as UNESCO) and the Commission for Refugees (restructured as the UNHCR)

 The Process leading up to the Founding of the United Nations

The League of Nations was founded to create optimal conditions for peace. It failed to prevent War War II. Peace now became imperative and the United Nations was created to maintain international peace.

The Charter sets out in detail of how such a new organisation is to be structured. However, it might be of interest to note that the origins of the UN Charter can be traced back to the Atlantic Charter of 1941 which mentions “certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world”. The same document refers to the “establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security“.

In January 1942 a number of states subscribed to a common programme or purpose and principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter in a document that has become known as the Declaration by United Nations.

This was followed by the October 1943 Moscow Declaration, also known as the Four-Nation Declaration that recognised “the necessity of establishing at the earliest practicable date a general international organization, based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all peace-loving States, and open to membership by all such States, large and small, for the maintenance of international peace and security”.

Following this Declaration, the four States concerned, US, UK, USSR and China, appointed national committees of experts, each working on a draft of a charter for the future organisation.

It was at the Tehran Conference that the US, UK and USSR again stated the intention for their nations to “work together in war and in the peace that will follow” and that “the supreme responsibility resting upon us and all the United Nations to make a peace which will command the goodwill of the overwhelming mass of the peoples of the world and banish the scourge and terror of war for many generations”.

What made this a truly international organisations was that the intention was stated to “seek the cooperation and active participation of all nations, large and small, whose peoples in heart and mind are dedicated, as are our own peoples, to the elimination of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance” (Declaration of the Three Powers, Tehran, 1 December 1943).

It was at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference (August 21 to October 7, 1944) that the drafts that each government had prepared after the Moscow Conference were exchanged and a steering committee entrusted with reaching a consensus on the main substantive issues. A Joint Formulation Group then drafted a text from the agreed upon issues in the form of a treaty which was presented on October 9 and became known as  the “Proposals for the Establishment of a General International Organization”.

The Birth of the United Nations

It was at the Yalta Conference of 1945 that the text of the invitation was prepared and an agreement reached on which nations to invite  to the “United Nations conference on the proposed world organisation” in the United States in 1945. It was at the end of this Conference that 50 nations adopted  the Charter of the United Nations together with the Statute of the International Court of Justice and signed it the next day , on June 26, 1945. Since then it has been amended in 1963, in 1965 and  in 1973.