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The perceptions of the United Nations

By Stephen Cheleda - posted Thursday, 13 March 2008

The United Nations is viewed by some people with disappointment that it seems unable to solve some of the pressing humanitarian issues such as the one occurring in the Darfur region of Sudan. Or that it could not intervene effectively to stop the genocide in Rwanda.

Other people despise the UN for similar reason, but argue that the UN is simply incapable of acting meaningfully to solve any security issues.

Some people fear it, because they do not want any “world government”. They certainly do not want a standing “world army”.


Again, others persist with the belief that somehow the UN will reform itself, and the super-powers (the five Permanent Members of the Security Council) will relinquish their veto, or simply moderate its use to special circumstances only.

All these perceptions have one thing in common. Neither of them reflects the purpose or the true meaning of the United Nations.

The United Nations is the custodian, the upholder, of International Law. It is not the enforcer of that law.

To appreciate what International Law is, perhaps we ought to consider its origins. It started at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 when an International Directorate was established for the navigation of the Rhine. The “Superior Health Council” was established in 1838 with an inspectorate in Constantinople (Istanbul), to deal with any outbreak of cholera. Other such directorates followed as a result of international agreements.

The International Telegraph Union (1865) was the first IGO (intergovernmental organisation) that the USA joined. The fact that commercial planes can fly over many countries, or that, radio transmissions are restricted to given frequencies, are all the results of international agreements with an independent directorates.

These IGOs are not altered or changed if a government happens to change. It is a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that certain issues cannot be resolved by force but only by co-operation. Therefore, international law is a treaty, or agreement between governments, with an independent IGO to administer those agreements.


The United Nations is an umbrella organisation for all the IGOs. It was formed in 1945 in order to administer the Charter of the UN. The Charter itself was the result of a series of negotiations and treaties, starting with the Atlantic Treaty between Churchill and Roosevelt, leading on through Dumbarton Oaks (draft of a World Peace Organisation), Yalta and finally to San Francisco. (The actual conference between the 50 state representatives took 63 days to work out the details of the Charter.)

International law works very effectively in the scientific, technical and in commercial fields. However, it is in the field of security issues that the UN simply cannot act independently.

Security was always an important consideration throughout human history. It remains so today. (Though we ought to remember that “security” means the safeguarding of trading patterns and not just the access to resources. Can an international body deal better with these issues than individual states?)

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About the Author

Stephen Cheleda was born in Budapest in 1938 and has lived in the UK since December 1956. After working in industry, he became a teacher of Mathematics in 1971. Stephen did an MA in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. He retired in 2003.

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