Seventy-five years after its creation, the United Nations is still largely seen as essential in tackling global challenges. That’s according to the over one million people who took part in a global conversation launched at the beginning of this year to mark the Organization’s anniversary. But respondents also said they wanted the UN to change and innovate, to be more inclusive of the diversity of actors in the 21st century, and to become more transparent, accountable and effective.
The survey was conceived, and much of it conducted, before COVID-19 upended the lives of most people on the planet. But the call for a UN that can respond to present and future challenges is an enduring one. A new website and virtual exhibit, ‘The Work of Peace’, by the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), aims to bring to life the enduring ability of the world body to change with the times while staying true to the core principles and values of the Charter and the laws and standards forged by its membership over the last three quarters of a century.
The virtual exhibit highlights the work of the UN in preventive diplomacy, good offices, mediation and elections and looks ahead at what the future may hold for this work. We’ve put together a preview of the exhibit. For the full experience, please visit workofpeace.org.
The United Nations was created to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” For 75 years, those inspiring words have guided the Organization’s work to prevent and resolve violent conflict, but also to facilitate economic and social development and protect and promote human rights for all. War has not disappeared, of course. But the United Nations has played an instrumental role in averting potentially devastating conflicts, resolving longstanding international disputes, keeping the peace between belligerents, and fending off the threat of nuclear confrontation. Today, the United Nations is active around the world to quiet the guns and help countries and societies build sustainable peace.
The work of peace, the foundation of the United Nations, is just that: work. And it succeeds to the extent that it is inclusive and enjoys legitimacy and the broadest support possible. We have tried to illustrate part of the history of diplomacy for peace, going back to the Organization’s first tentative steps in mediation, through today, as we imagine peacemaking and peacebuilding in the future.
The newly created world body’s capacity to grapple with violent conflict was tested early on. Following the outbreak of hostilities in Palestine in 1948, the General Assembly created the role of mediator for the region. Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden was appointed as the first-ever United Nations mediator to, among other duties, promote “a peaceful adjustment of the future situation of Palestine” and cooperate with the Truce Commission for Palestine appointed by the Security Council earlier that year to oversee a cessation of hostilities.
More on this first UN peace mission here.
The United Nations Charter has a universal vocation. It speaks in the name of “We the peoples”. When the Charter was drafted, however, 750 million people - almost a third of the world’s population at the time - lived in territories ruled by colonial powers.
More than 80 former colonies have gained their independence since 1945 and other territories chose free association, or integration with a State. The last Non-Self-Governing Territory (NSGT) to change its status was Timor-Leste, which became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century, following three years of UN transitional administration.
But the process of decolonization is not finished. There are still 17 NSGTs, with a total population of 1.6 million people. A Special Committee on Decolonization monitors the situation in these Territories, working to facilitate their advancement towards full self-government.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations was the cornerstone of a new system created to avert war and govern the world’s affairs on the basis of rules, laws and international cooperation. Soon after its founding, however, the United Nations also became the stage for competition and confrontation between diametrically opposed visions of the world.
More on the ‘Deep Freeze’ of the Cold War period and the ‘rebirth’ of the UN afterwards, with examples of the work in Namibia, Cambodia, South Africa, Central America and Timor-Leste and a special focus on the UN’s electoral assistance here.
For a long time, matters of war and peace were seen exclusively as the province of men: the men with the guns, the men who led the men with the guns and the men who brought those leaders together around a negotiating table, behind closed doors. But if peace is to last, all those affected by violent conflict must have a say in how to bring it to an end.
The women, peace and security agenda is today a formal part of the UN security discourse. Despite undeniable progress, however, much work remains to be done, including to prevent a rollback of gains in anchoring women’s inclusion in matters of peace and security.
More on Women, Peace and Security here.
Violent conflict today is significantly more intractable, durable, and violent than in decades past. When combined with an international environment characterized by greater polarization, as well as weakening support to multilateral processes, they make peacemaking much more difficult.
The United Nations has continued to adapt and refine its tools in order to better address the complexity of today’s conflicts. The UN’s work in mediation is one example.
Mediation is one of the main ways to settle disputes peacefully. The Secretary-General and other UN officials use mediation in seeking to prevent, manage or resolve violent conflict. The UN has developed robust institutional capacities for mediation, personified in the Secretary-General, but including the deployment of special envoys and other missions. The Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) is the main operational arm for the exercise of the Secretary-General’s good offices and the United Nations’ mediation work.
More on UN mediation and examples from Kyrgyzstan, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Syria and Yemen here.
The United Nations has developed a multitude of instruments and processes to tackle the challenges of violent conflict and build sustainable peace. These include the Organization’s blue helmets, or peacekeepers, who are deployed in 13 countries around the world. And dozens of civilian political missions support UN Member States in conflict prevention, peacemaking and peacebuilding.
Political missions have been at the very center of United Nations efforts to maintain international peace and security since the establishment of the Organization. From the deployment of Count Folke Bernadotte to the Middle East in 1948 to the establishment of the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan in 2020, political missions have, in different forms, played a vital role in conflict prevention, peacemaking and peacebuilding.
More on the UN’s Special Political Missions and examples of the UN’s conflict prevention and peacemaking work in Madagascar and North Macedonia and a special focus on peacebuilding here.
The UN continues to adapt the way it contributes to the prevention and resolution of conflict and to peacebuilding. This responds to the imperative to approach violence and conflict in a manner that considers political but also developmental, human rights and social conditions. Recent efforts to aid political transitions and the consolidation of peace illustrate this more holistic way of working.
More on the UN’s engagement in Sudan and Bolivia here.
New technologies are playing a critical – and sometimes controversial – role in today’s conflict settings, posing challenges to the UN in managing information around mediation processes. At the same time, the increased use of technology also has the potential to create new opportunities, enhance the inclusivity of peace processes, and broaden the participation of women and young people.
More on ‘Futuring’ Peace and examples of how new technologies have been applied in the UN’s work of peace here.