LEADERS of the advance nations first felt the need to meet for world peace in 1899. In that year an international peace conference was held in The Hague in order to device 'an instrument for settling crises peacefully, prevent wars and codify rules of warfare'. The conference adopted the 'convention for the pacific settlement of international disputes and established the permanent court of arbitration'. The court began its work in 1902. But in spite of the international craving for global peace war could not be averted. The first such war that drew a large number of nations into its maelstrom was the First World War (1814-18). The world leaders again sat for peace and the League of Nations was created under the Treaty of Versailles. This peace initiative on a global scale again failed in the wake of World War II (1939-45). The human tragedy of the second Great War was so appalling that the world leaders again put their heads together for peace. The United Nations was officially born on October 24, 1945. In the run-up to the San Francisco Conference attended by the representatives of 50 countries of the world, where the United Nations Charter was drawn up, a series of meetings between the leaders of Britain, USA, Russia and China took place. And since the inception of the process of forming the United Nations, it was invariably the leaders of Britain and USA who took the lead for such peace talks.
Meanwhile 59 years have passed and the world body has turned 60 this October. During all these years, the world passed through a period of uneasy peace. Wars broke out from time to time at different flash points. The United Nations tried to disengage the parties involved whenever any such war flared up. It is not that since its creation the UN succeeded in preventing wars or establishing peace in each and every case of conflict among its member countries. In fact, without real power or authority to dictate terms to its member nations it could hardly impose any binding conditions on countries that violated its charters for peace. Many of the resolutions taken during its sixty years of existence could never be implemented. Interestingly though, this world organisation since its early years have been concerned with Arab-Israeli conflicts. The first UN observer mission, the UN Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO), was instituted in the month of June of 1948 to make peace in Palestine. It was even able to bring about a semblance of peace by way of making the warring parties, Israel and the Arabs, to agree to a cease-fire on January 7, 1949 through its mediator Ralph Bunche. But of all other countries that became its member since the beginning, it is Israel that violated its resolutions more often than not. But still the UN was a place where its member nations could talk and discuss their problems. If anything, the organisation has been able to exercise its moral authority on its member countries. The powerful nations like United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China and all other small or big countries behaved with restraint and allowed the UN to use its moral authority towards establishment of world peace. Small wonder, with the emergence of newly independent nations, the organisation went on growing in its ranks.
Whatever the record of the world body's successes or failures in resolving crises, its very existence has so far been a source of reassurance for its member countries. The makers of this world body were at least successful in instilling this hope among its members. Even during the half a century of Cold War between the two superpowers-the erstwhile Soviet Russia and the United States-their rivalries never turned into an all-engulfing nuclear war. And in addition to the bilateral treaties existing between the two great powers, they also discussed many of their problems in this world forum. So, the existence of this global forum of nations was never questioned by the world powers, even though smaller nations, disillusioned by its many failures to make its decisions binding on the nations, often expressed their suspicions about the usefulness of the UN. So, even if the smaller or less powerful nations, out of their frustration, often questioned the utility or the very rationale of the existence of the UN system, the big powers always insisted on the pre-eminence of this world body as the reference point in solving crises among nations. It was also expected of them. For it was the leaders of these global powers who first conceived of such a world forum to resolve conflicts and establish peace. And the major source of the smaller nations' hope in this world body also lay in this fact that the world powers are behind this global forum. So in spite of all the complaints against the many inefficiencies or failures of this forum of nations to resolve crises or enforce peace, its existence was never threatened.
The leaders of the world are at the moment in the middle of a gathering in New York. The stated objectives are to have a five-year review of the Millennium Summit and modernise the United Nations. The grand aims of the Millennium Summit will come under closer scrutiny against the backdrop of the progress made so far by the UN member nations. More pragmatic and attainable agendas for development may come under active consideration on the occasion of this historic gathering. But what is more disconcerting than the discussion on the issues of global poverty alleviation and peace is the chink in the 60-year-old global forum's own armour. That stems from the report of the independent enquiry committee, which investigated into the scandal surrounding the United Nation's oil-for-food programme in Iraq. The report has completely destroyed the image of the respectable institution and credibility that it had so far been enjoying in spite of its various other limitations. Even the powerful Security Council has come under flak. The said report has exposed the rot that has set in in this otherwise highly regarded global institution to look after peace and human rights worldwide. Bribes, kickbacks, various illicit deals, even smuggling, are not unknown to this venerable body, the report says. And so the UN needs an urgent and thoroughgoing reform, the report concludes. The need for UN reform, however, is not being felt after the report of the independent committee alone. There is already one on the agenda. The High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, too, submitted its recommendations to the UN secretary general last December. It is a serious issue of discussion among the diplomats in the ongoing gatherings. The reform agenda cuts across the entire gamut of problems the UN has been since its inception. The issues include, among others, the use of force and collective security, humanitarian intervention, the reform of the Security Council or more particularly making it more representative, the question of development and poverty alleviation, combating terrorism, peace building commission, human rights commission, nuclear non-proliferation and last but not least the incumbent UN secretary general Kofi Annan's prospect of further continuing in office.
All these debates apart, the fact of the matter is that the UN has far from outlived its usefulness. On the contrary, day-by-day its importance is growing in spite of its many failures, limitations and the latest image crisis it has fallen into.