July 8, 2020

To What Extent has the UN Failed in its Core Mission “To Save the Succeeding Generations from the Scourge of War”?

By Fazal Wahab


The United Nations Organisation is the successor of the League of Nation founded on 25th April 1945 and soon after the end of World War II its charter was adopted unanimously in San Francisco. The United Nations (UN) is world leading organisation and has been successful to achieve it core mission –  “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”(UN Charter, 1945) – as there is no major world wars post the World War II in 1945.  In contrast, there are number of critiques of this argument, and it is one of the hot discussions among the practitioners and academics, but no one claimed clearly yet its success or failure. However, this study believes that the UN’s success in achieving its core mission is outweighed by its failure, as the number of war and conflict increased since 1945, the UN is failed to resolve international disputes and stop war/conflicts in 21st century, and the increase number of the Weapons of Mass Destruction and its use. Nevertheless, we are also aware of the complexity and subjectivity of this debate. If we measure wars of the last half of twentieth and compare it to the 21st century by its intensity – number of fatalities – then, no doubt, the UN has achieved more than its core mission. But if we count the number of conflicts from the last half of twentieth century then, of course, the number is much higher than the first half of twentieth century.

The creation of the UN was one of the big success of the liberalism as an institution building, however, the Permanent five members (P-5) acted on the realistic perceptive in cold war era by focusing on national interest and to some extent used the UN for the national security. The debate of the UN failure is an important issue as this is question mark on organisation like the UN and its core mission. If the question remained unanswered the international community will be in danger as no one will be able to trust any world organisation who claims for the international peace and prosperity. This study is based on the existing literature from the academic’s practitioners and some primary sources from the UN website and other reports issued by its agencies. This study also used the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme (UCDP) for the number of conflicts and wars after World Wars and aimed to add some fruitful discussion to academic debate and gave some recommendation to the UN for its reforms to achieve its core mission in this changing and uncertain world.

Number of wars and conflicts post World Wars

The number of wars and conflict has increased after the World Wars. There is no doubt that because of the World Wars humanity suffered the most – though the world did not see any such large-scale intercontinental wars after WW II, and it also led to different international organisations particularly the League of Nations and the UN. The mission of the League of Nations was to prevent future wars in which they had failed and as a result the UN replaced it. The core mission of the UN is to save the upcoming generation from the curse of war (UN Charter, 1945), but the UN had also not achieved its core mission completely because of increased number of wars and conflict – no doubt there is no major war like the World Wars – which indicated the UN did not succeed yet.  The figure 1 (Gleditsch et al., 2002) shows the number of wars – conflict having more than 25 fatalities – from 1946 to 2018 which clearly indicates that the number of wars increased with the passage of time.

However, the intensity is not, luckily, like World Wars (Gleditsch et al., 2002). The first decade of the second half of the twentieth century (1950 – 1960) seems the most stable decade  of the 20th and 21st century having less number of wars, however, the intensity of wars in this decade is much higher than the rest of the decades in 20th and 21st century which can be clearly seen in figure 2 (Roser, 2016), having the highest average of the fatalities which is over the 80,000. The deaths in the conflict decreased with the passage of time and I believe there are two reasons for this; firstly, the nature of the war has changed from the traditional war to guerrilla warfare and secondly, the safety combatants and technology is improved a lot.


Furthermore, the number of the civil conflict, one-sided violence and state-based violence has increased with the passage of time, which is interesting that most of these conflicts happened in the third or developing countries (Gleditsch et al., 2002). Figure 3 (Roser, 2016) below shows how conflict between states decreased in the last decade of the 20th century and conflict within the state increased which is non-state conflict and state-based conflicts.

The total number of war and conflicts 6349 from 1946 to 2016 which is massive increase. In contrast to these number there is an argument that the fatalities in these conflicts are very low as compare to World War I and World War II –  which is estimated over 20 million and 62 – 78 million respectively (Broadberry and Harrison, 2005; Kesternich et al., 2014) – and as I earlier mention that it is because of the change of the nature of war post creation of the UN. Firstly, the large-scale traditional intercontinental war is replaced by guerrilla intelligence Warfare in the cold war era, secondly, the wars and conflict shifted mostly to the third world developing countries who did not have advance military technology and Weapons of Mass Destruction to affect the world like World Wars. However, it can be argue that the tension has increased within the states and the UN could not achieve its core goal to save the upcoming generation from the curse of war (UN Charter, 1945).

Increasing number of Weapons of Mass Destruction

Prior to foundation of the UN, there was only one nuclear power – the United States (USA) – however, soon the number started increasing as in 1949 United Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) (Roser and Nagdy, 2013), joined this race and so on other great power started participating in the race. Nevertheless, the UN did not took any action to prevent testing of nuclear weapons till 1970,  and finally enforced Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970 (Onderco, 2019), till that there have been six countries who successfully tested nuclear weapons (Roser and Nagdy, 2013). This increase in nuclear weapons [was and] is still a great threat to the global security and because of which the world had fought war and implemented sanctions on different countries such as Iraq and Iran respectively (Blix, 2006, p. 4).The number of WMD increases every next year and even developing countries had joined this race, for instance, India in 1974 successfully tested a nuclear bomb (Times, 1974)  and disturbed the balance of power in the region as a result, in 1998 Pakistan also successfully tested his nuclear weapon (Burns, 1998) to balance of power in the region. And more recently in 2006 North Korea successfully tested nuclear weapon (Sanger, 2006) and also claim for the successful testing of hydrogen bomb which is more dangerous than nuclear bomb (Ross, 2016). But the nuclear race did not stop yet as Iran is facing international sanction but still struggling for nuclear weapon, on the other hand it is also believed that same as of  North Korea, Syria is suspected that they had violated the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and as they had refused to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (Arms control Association, 2019) which is suspicious and dangerous for global security.

In 2013 the number of global nuclear weapons were calculated 125,000 in which 97 percent was with the USA and Russia. All the nine countries have 10,000 nuclear warheads in military stockpiles which were only 2 at the time of the creation of the UN in 1945 (Kristensen and Norris, 2013).  On one hand these weapons contributed to the peace as it is used as deterrence [particularly in South Asia] while on the other hand it is a potential threat to the humanity across the globe. If war happen in 21st century that will be nuclear war, as a fragile state like North Korea can use it within minutes, also the USA and Russian nuclear weapon will take 5 to 15 minutes to launch after receiving orders (Kristensen and Norris, 2013).

Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter restricted that member state must not use force against the territorial integrity and political independence of any state and under article 25 Security Council (SC) has authorised to intervene to stop violence any country who breaches peace (UN Charter, 1945). To stop spread of the WMD the US-led “illegal invasion” (BBC, 2004) on Iraq and made ground for the invasion that Iraq was secretly testing WMD and fought a full-scale war and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) was unable to stop that war because of the disagreement and within the SC and involvement of members of P-5, which is failure of the UN and SC to stop and save humanity from the curse of war. Same as of the Iraq there is disagreement among the UNSC members to use force against the Syrian civil war (Nichols, 2019), in contrast to Iraq, Syrian government has used Chemical Weapons and because of this war almost 112,337 people died (Sundberg and Erik, 2013) and there is no resistance form the UN to save the civilians from the curse of war. This silence of the UN clearly indicates the realist approach of the P-5, solely depend self-interests and according to realism theory international system is an anarchic and there is no supreme authority to which a country is answerable.

Unresolved disputes in UN

Few year later after the creation of the UN, there were few international disputes which is unresolved till date, because of which people suffered and still suffering either directly or indirectly. I believe there are two reasons for these unresolved disputes in the UN: firstly, one of the p-5 veto the resolution in SC – in Israel’s case – and secondly, there is no interest of the great powers in the issue – in case of Kashmir.

Israeli occupation (1948 – now)

Since the declaration of independence in 1948 the conflict between Israeli occupation of Palestine is one of the long and unresolved issue in the UN. A number of the resolution is presented in UN general assembly and SC, 44 of which is vetoed by the USA in SC (Jewish Virtual Library, no date) it is because of strategic partnership as well as national interest which is indirect control of the middle east. Since 1948 in this almost 120,000 people died and almost 238,000 became IDPs by the end of 2018 (IDMC, 2019). The president of the USA made a controversial statement and recognised Jerusalem as the capital of the Israel state on which Israeli president said that it is an important step towards peace, while Palestinian president condemned and reject president Trump’s decision and declared that Palestine will no longer accept the USA as a mediator in Middle East peace process (Jeremy and Labott, 2017). Also, the UN’s French representative said that Trump’s decision is the breach of international law which is also risk of taking political and religious conflict (Beaumont and Wintour, 2017). Furthermore, the Palestinian president said that such actions help religious extremist organisation to wage a religious war which will lead us into wars that will never end (Jeremy and Labott, 2017). However, due to this controversial speech the Palestinian started protest and rocket attacks on Israeli soldier which was followed by the airstrikes from the Israeli state on Palestine military sites, which disturbed the region and a couple of Palestinians died and more than 2,222 injured (Beaumont and Wintour, 2017). This long unresolved issue of the UN is a potential threat to a large-scale war in Middle East, but this threat became more serious as Israeli hold nuclear weapons.

Kashmir dispute (1948 – now)

In August 1947 Indian subcontinent was divided into two independent domains namely Pakistan and India, while the princely states within the territory were given the choice to join either side or remain independent. On first of January 1948, India took question of Kashmir to the UN SC by alleging that invaders from Pakistan have reached to Kashmir and are operating against Indian territory. However, Pakistan denied the allegations and filed a counter complaint under article 35 of the UN charter, claiming that the Indian government is involved in the genocide of Muslims and violating international law. Since then the UNSC adopted a number [27 in total] of resolution and commissions – more recently in August 2019 Pakistan requested UNSC for meeting against the violation special status Kashmir under article 370 – of the  to solve the disputes but they are still unable to solve this dispute because the decision is either not acceptable to one or other party. The UNSC is failed to enforce the resolution on the parties and as result, there are more than 47,000 people have died since 1989 (CNN, 2020), while some sources says the number of death is 100,000 since 1989 (Reuters, 2008). According to UN records the resolution tabled by the Ireland – urged India and Pakistan to enter negotiation for settlement of Kashmir dispute – in 1962 was the only resolution, which is vetoed by Russia, which is very different case as compare to the Israeli occupation have 44 vetoes from the USA (The Economic Times, 2016). This also indicates the lack of seriousness and state interest of the UNSC permanent members. Because of this dispute in the region, the two neighbours is continuously spending a huge percentage of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on military and is also in continuous tension focusing on the arms race rather than development. Because of this continuous tension, the two neighbours are violating international borders and in the last 73 years they fought three full-scale wars, which also indicates the nature of realism of international politics and the UNSC where both the countries are trying to depend their national interests from the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Both Israeli occupation and the Kashmir dispute are the two longest unresolved issues which is till date not solved because of which a huge number of innocent people suffer. The UN Commission on Human Rights and later the UN Human Right Council is not succeeded to resolve these issues and help the lives of the innocents in these regions.

Cambodian genocide (1975 – 1979)

After US-Vietnam and Cambodian civil war, the Khmer Rouge regime took control of Cambodia in 1975 and adopted the policy of ultra-Maoism to turn Cambodia into socialist country and in 1976 Khmer Rouge attempted forcefully reform the Cambodian society to self-sufficient agricultural society having no place for money. As a result, during 1975 and 1978 the mortality rate exceeded from normal to one million (Aksu, 2018, p. 179) and in the four-year reign, over 1.7 million died because of starvation, torture and diseases (Luftglass, 2004, p. 895) while 350,000 Cambodian became refugees (Abdulgaffar and METH, 1992, p. 34). This regime is one of the darkest in the history of Cambodia as quarterly population was killed and is considered as one of the biggest genocides in the history. After World War II this is the greatest number of deaths in the twentieth century which clearly indicates the failure of the UN to take action against this genocides and war against humanity. Here a couple of questions to consider: firstly, why the UNSC was silent in the US-Vietnam war? Secondly, why the UN recognised the Khmer Rouge regime without considering the human right violations? These questions mark the anarchic and realistic nature of international political system as the two veto power states were indirectly involved and both US and China wanted to install ally ruler in the country. In early 1991 the two sides, Khmer Rouge and non-communist political movement led by Prince Ranariddh signed treaty in Paris to cease-fire and agreed to submit an ad hoc international body known as the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) who took control of the ministries – defence, finance and communication – to promote economic development, disarm 90 percent armed forces from both sides, provide security and conduct free and fair election for next government (Fisher, 1992). The UN failed to disarm both the side of conflict, only disarm non-communist side and the UNTAC soldiers were not deployed to the provincial and district, instead, they were kept in the urban areas, where the candidates were campaigning for election, the overall cost, however, of the UNTAC was approximately 3 billion US$ (Fisher, 1992).

Currently existing conflicts in the world

Though the intensity of the wars is low as compared to world war but still humanity is suffering from the curse of war and conflict. In the following section of the essay, we will present some of the war and conflict which is still in the world and some of which is longer than two decades.

Somali civil war

Somalian crisis start is marked by the escaped of the President Siad Barre because of the fear of overthrowing by the opposition leaders, Ali Mahdi Mohammad and General Mohammad Aidid, in March 1991 who were faced with civil war soon after the escape President Siad Barre and the opening of the presidential position (Philipp, 2005, p. 523). Thousands of people suffer and because of the conflict the state machinery was paralysed and was unable to provide basic need to the citizens’ which leads to mass starvation and accelerate violence. The UN in 1992 put efforts to mediate for cease-fire between Mohammad and Aidid but failed to fade the intensity of conflict (Clark, 1992), however, in 1992 Bosnian war broke which took more international attention as compare to the Somalian civil war, however, the UNSC passed a resolution, Resolution 767, and sent limited number of peacekeeping, UN Operation in Somalia I, forces to Somalia for monitoring and distribution of humanitarian aid which was not distributed properly and almost 80 percent of the aid was sold in the black market (Perlez, 1992), as a result, the UNSC approved 3000 personnel to send to Somalia who hardly distributed the UN aid to the Somalian citizens, but the US also helped and sent 30,000 personnel to Somalia which was very successful in the distribution in the humanitarian aid as compared to the UN (Prunier, 1995).

Furthermore, the UNSC passed Resolution 814 and establish UN Operation in Somalia II, which further complicated the security situation and increased the number of targeting the UN and US Personnel by the extremists, as a result in 1994 the US retreated his soldiers (Lorch, 1994) and in 1995 the UN also left the country without solving and implementing peace in Somalia (Prunier, 1995). It is almost three decades of the Somalian civil war and till now approximately 2.6 million citizens became IDPs and almost 2.1 million Somalian face food insecurity and according to the UN and Norwegian Refugee Council by the end of August 2019, almost 300,000 people newly displaced (Human Rights Watch, 2020), which is a huge number and clearly marks the failure of the UN and indicates the nature international anarchic system in which the powerful states only peruses its national interest.

Syrian civil war

The Syrian civil war is originated from the ash of the authoritarian regime ended in 2000, when the father of the President Bashar al Assad (Hafiz al-Assad) died and he took over the regime and was hoped to modernize and reform Syrian society which were false hopes from him. The Syrian society is multi-ethnic society composed of 13 percent of the Alawites (Shia) and 75 percent of the Sunni Muslims in 17.5 million population (World Population Review, 2020). In March 2011 people started pro-democracy protest and the Assad’s resignation from presidency, the government open fire on the peaceful protesters (Amnesty International, 2012). As a consequences “the Syrian crisis created more than five and a half million refugees and displaced a further 6 million Syrians inside their own country” (OCHA, 2020), while according the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Mr. Staffan de Mistura the number of deaths are estimated 400,000 by April 2016 which is a huge number for five years of civil war (United Nations, 2016).

In the past decade the UN attempted to resolve the Syrian civil war crisis, however, they failed to resolve it till date. The UNSC is supposed to be the guarantor of the international peace and is responsibility of the permanent with the support of the non-permanent members of the UNSC to solve crisis when and wherever arise. In contrast, the permanent members are directly or indirectly involved in the Syrian crisis, the US is against while Russia is in supporting the regime, and Russia vetoed any action against the regime even sanctions (The Annual Review of World Affairs, 2016, p. 159).  The US is backing the rebel group in Syria by the support of the Gulf allies while Russia is supporting China in the UNSC and attacking the soil of Syria (Spencer, 2015). It seems like Cold War policy as both the blocks – China, Russia and US – are protecting their interests in the region without thinking of the lives of the innocents. Also, some scholars see this as that the UN is politicised and criticised the P-5 members states for their lack of interest or ignore the issues of the smaller states (Mingst and Karns, 2006, p. 282). Furthermore, the Syrian government holds and used chemical weapons in 2017 (OPCW, 2020), however, the UN did not take any action against it as the member of P-5 are vetoing any draft or Resolution in the SC for their interests. While the UN remain silent on the Iraq war whose main reason was the so called the WMD on which neither China took action nor Russia. This mark the structural failure of the UN and needs to address.

Moreover, there is number of other conflicts which marks the UN failure to achieve its core mission, for instance, Rwandan civil war in 1994, in which almost 800,00 were killed and around 250,000 women were raped (The Washington Post, 2017), Srebrenica genocide in 1995, Darfur conflict in Sudan from 2003 till present (Security Council Report, 2015, p. 4), conflict in South Sudan started in 2013 till present, and Yemen civil war started in 2015 till present (TRTWorld, 2018). The list can go long which is a question mark on the role of the UN, its structure, and norms especially the SC (Thakur, 2006, p. 295).


The UN is successor of the League of Nation and was created with the aim to save the coming generations from the curse of war as his predecessor failed to do so. However, the UN also could not achieve it fully to date. There are numbers of proofs which clearly indicates its failure. Firstly, the number of war and conflict increased after the creation of the UN and millions of people suffered directly or indirectly as millions of people died or became displaced because of the curse of the war. Secondly, the number of WMD increased in the post-UN world which is an unending tension among the neighbour states and even in continents.  Thirdly, the long unresolved issues/disputes are question mark on the role of the UN and SC which raises number of questions on the structure and norms of the UN and its member states. Lastly, the number of conflicts/disputes, civil war and genocides in the developing countries which is ignored by the UN and especially the SC because of the lack of interest of the P-5 member or disagreement among them. Also, because of the lack of seriousness of these countries the innocent people are suffering, which is a curse itself and should seriously take into account to save at least the succeeding generation from the affliction of war.


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About the Author


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