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United Nations

Basic Course 2: How did the United Nations Develop?

Immanuel Kant

[Otfried Höffe described Kant's paper on "Eternal Peace" as the decisive philosophical text in the modern debate on peace"]

The history of the United Nations began long before the foundation of the world organisation on 26th June 1945 in San Francisco. The history of the conceptual roots reaches back at least to the theories of important thinkers like Hugo Grotius (the founder of modern public international law, 1584-1645), Abbé de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743) or the publication of Immanuel Kant's treatise on "Perpetual Peace" in 1795.

We have no room here to make a more extensive study of these roots, but you can find more information on this topic on a separate page on D@dalos within the framework of the Main Subject Group Peace Education as a whole:

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Text on the development of public international law
 

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Text on international organisations as a strategy for peace

Within the framework of this basic course on the development of the United Nations, we will be limiting ourselves to the immediate prehistory, i.e. the League of Nations, as the precursor organisation to the United Nations. The following text summarises the most important information on the League of Nations.

Further sections in this basic course sketch out the development of the United Nations, from its foundation to the present day:

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Text 1: The Foundation of the United Nations (1941-1945)
 

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Text 2: The United Nations During the Cold War (1946-1988)
 

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Text 3: The United Nations After the End of the Cold War (1989-2004)


The League of Nations as Precursor to the United Nations

In a short introductory text to a publication on the United Nations Charter, Hartmut Krüger states:

"The foundation of the United Nations was not the first attempt to create a worldwide peace organisation. Due to the effects of the massive loss of human life und material loss during the course of the First World War, politicians... had pressed for a union of nations to prevent wars. In his now famous 14 Points speech of 8th January 1918, American President Woodrow Wilson called amongst other things for a 'general association of nations with the mutual guarantee of political independency and territorial integrity for large and small states alike'.

The revolutionary magnamity of a collective responsibility for peace and security becomes particularly clear when we reflects upon the fact that, according to public international law, up until the end of the First World War, waging war, and even a war of aggression - if a formal declaration had been made - was not see as immoral or criminal, but as a final political means.

The League of Nations Covenant of 1919/20 obliged its members to observe the intactness of the territories and the existing political independence of all its members. If infringements took place against this commitment, the League of Nations could take 'suitable measures'. Members were meant to settle issues of conflict in international courts and tribunals. They agreed to resort to warlike measures at the earliest three months after the court verdict. The Briand-Kellog Pact of 1928, which all major states signed, brought about the absolute proscription of war."

[taken from: Hartmut Krüger, Einleitung; in: Charta der Vereinten Nationen, Reclam Stuttgart 1982, P. 3]

The League of Nations is prescribed such great significance with a view to the United Nations, because it brought about many developments which the architects of the United Nations could link into. This applies both to the organs and the basic principle of a system of collective security alike, which the following text excerpts from Sven Gareis and Johannes Varwick demonstrate:

The Organs of the League of Nations

"The intentions and standards upon which the understanding of the collective system of the United Nations is based remain incomplete without at least a outline presentation of the League of Nations. Both organizations have frequently been linked to one another in such a way that the United Nations appears to be seen as wanting to correct the normative and structural weaknesses and deficits of its predecessor.

While being correct in some ways, it is often frequently overseen that developments of wide-ranging significance were instituted and organisational requirements created by the League of Nations which the United Nations could link into. This applies in particular to the principal approach of the League of Nations of creating a war prevention regime based on international legal standards and transferring the responsibility for peace to an international organisation (...).



The principal organs of the League of Nations were made up of ... the Assembly, the Council and the Secretariat. (...) All member states were represented in the Assembly by delegations, who disposed of one vote (...). The Assembly was assigned comprehensive powers concerning all League of Nations tasks or questions affecting world peace, so that it could deal with all the circumstances at hand and make recommendations.

The Council was made up of permanent and non-permanent members (...). In 1920, the year the Covenant came into force, the peace treaties of the five permanent ((France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, USA) and four non-permanent Council members were provided for by the "Representatives of the Allied and Associated Great Powers", which were to be determined according to the Council's own discretion. However, the USA's permanent seat remained free due to their failure join the League (...).

As a rule, the Council made its resolutions and recommendation unanimously (...). If Council members were involved in a dispute, these were excluded from voting, making a veto on their own part impossible. The Council ... was empowered with the same comprehensive powers as the Assembly (...).

The Permanent Secretary under both Secretary-Generals Sir James Eric Drummond (until 1933) and Francois Joseph Avenol made up the League of Nations' administrative authority. The Secretary-General ... was subordinate to an international authority, which was structured into specialist sections, and mainly recruited its personnel from the member states’ civil service organisations.
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[taken from: Sven Gareis/Johannes Varwick, Die Vereinten Nationen. Aufgaben, Instrumente und Reformen; Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung Schriftenreihe Band 403, Bonn 2003, P. 92-95]

The Collective Security System of the League of Nations

"A dual system of collective security was created through the Covenant of the League of Nations to ensure world peace and international security, which, on the one hand, was oriented towards preventing war via procedures for peaceful conflict settlement, but, on the other, prescribed a mechanism of sanctions to end wars which had already been begun.

The partial ban on war written into the League of Nations Covenant committed all member states to participating in a cooling-off process in all cases of conflict where war may result. The aim of this procedure was to place the matter of conflict in front of either a court of arbitration, the International Court of Justice or the Council.

The Council was deemed to investigate the matter and write a report within six months (...). During this period and a subsequent period of three months, none of the parties were permitted to enter into a war. In the case of one of the conflicting parties accepting a judgement or arbitrator's award, or unanimously accepting a recommendation made by the Council, a ban on war was spoken out."


[taken from: Sven Gareis/Johannes Varwick, Die Vereinten Nationen. Aufgaben, Instrumente und Reformen; Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung Schriftenreihe Band 403, Bonn 2003, P. 95-96]

Weaknesses of the System

"One of the gravest weaknesses of these set of rules was that all measures of force below the threshold of war were not included within the framework of the ban. The question as to at what point the admissible use of force became a banned war therefore remained open.

This blurredness was of immense significance to the effectiveness of collective security measures. Indeed, the League of Nations Covenant provided the chance of imposing sanctions on a state if it chose to start a war despite the ruling. These collective measures, the spectrum of which ranged from economic and political boycotts to military force, were to be carried out by all members of the League (...).

However, due to the lack of a clear definition of aggression ... massive general insecurity reigned concerning the requirements for imposing measures of constraint, and the range of military subscription obligations in particular (...). The practice of imposing sanctions by the League of Nations remained limited to just one case. The Council imposed an embargo on Italy during the Abyssinian War in 1937. However this step failed in its purpose of ending the Italian aggressions.

The League of Nations had already remained inactive against the Japanese invasion of North China at the beginning of the Thirties, and was unable to prevent the outbreak of the war between Japan and China in 1935, all the more so because Japan had left the organisation in 1933. The Soviet aggression against Finland may have led to the exclusion of the USSR from the organisation in December 1939, but in the face of the Second World War, which had already begun in September 1939, the League of Nations had already failed as a collective security system at this time."


[taken from: Sven Gareis/Johannes Varwick, Die Vereinten Nationen. Aufgaben, Instrumente und Reformen; Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung Schriftenreihe Band 403, Bonn 2003, P. 96-97]

Hartmut Krüger sums up the work of the League of Nations in its main task of securing peace in the following way: "The League of Nations failed to accomplish its main task of preventing wars. All efforts to limit armament or even disarmament remained without success. The stipulations of the League of Nations Covenant which were to prevent the secret diplomacy seen to be the reason for the outbreak of the First World War remained ineffective: international contracts were supposed to be made public as a part of this, and to be automatically made invalid if infringements against the League of Nations Covenant occurred."

[taken from: Hartmut Krüger, Einleitung; in: Charta der Vereinten Nationen, Reclam Stuttgart 1982, P. 4]

Reasons for the Failure of the League of Nations

"General and pertinent deficits and blurredness in the standards laid down in the Covenant such as the ... inappropriate limitation to a partial ban on war were made responsible for the failure of this first attempt at establishing a global security system. However, structural weaknesses in the organisation itself also need to be mentioned as reasons (...). What the League of Nations failed to bring about more than anything else in its history was to include all the major powers that existed at that time (...). The League of Nations would never have been capable of becoming a universal organisation in this manner. Its dissolution took place on 18th April 1946 at the 21st Assembly."


[taken from: Sven Gareis/Johannes Varwick, Die Vereinten Nationen. Aufgaben, Instrumente und Reformen; Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung Schriftenreihe Band 403, Bonn 2003, P. 97]

The Significance of the League of Nations

Despite its failure, the balance regarding this new type of organisation in international politics is in no way just negative, as the following text excerpt from Sven Gareis and Johannes Varwick points out:

"The League of Nations stands for a conceptually historical turnaround in international relations, even when the states at the time were still not prepared to furnish this revolutionary new basic construct for preventing war and securing peace via a global system with a real chance of implementation, and at least allow it to develop into a clearing house for questions of global security.

Its ultimate collapse during the catastrophe of the Second World War has not principally led to a conviction that the ideas and standards upon which the League of Nations was founded were utopian or superfluous. On the contrary, because of the outbreak of the Second World War, the importance of an effective, collective security system was underlined in a dramatic way. With the United Nations Charter, the world made a second attempt at establishing a global organisation for securing peace.
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[taken from: Sven Gareis/Johannes Varwick, Die Vereinten Nationen. Aufgaben, Instrumente und Reformen; Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung Schriftenreihe Band 403, Bonn 2003, P. 97-98]

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... go to the next section within the framework of Basic Course 2:
    The Foundation of the United Nations (1941-1945)


 

... go to Basic Course 3: How is the United Nations Structured?

[Author: Ragnar Müller]

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