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United Nations Building – an Emblem of Peace

Thursday, December 8, 2011

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The United Nations building in New York City is one of the prominent monuments in eastern Manhattan Island. It occupies an area of 18 acres and covers a total of four buildings: General Assembly building (domed building), Conference building, Secretariat building and Dag Hammarskjold Library. The Secretariat building is the tallest building in the complex composed of 39 levels reaching a height of 155 meters. The land was donated by the Rockefeller family and the buildings were architected by Wallace Harrison, the Rockefeller family architect.

Many believe that the idea of having international laws and norms started in 1945 with the formation of the United Nations. This, however, is simply not true. There is evidence of international laws and treaties that have been developed between communities of nations throughout the ages ever since the times of Ancient Egypt. Hundreds of small tablets have been recently discovered near the Pyramids of Giza that carry well-written letters that must have been carried by diplomats. The letters were addressed from one government head to another shedding light to international politics of the time. The tablets show strong evidence of an international norm, where Egypt was regarded as a super power, maintaining peace and balance of power between nations throughout the region.

In Europe, however, international laws and treaties first appeared in the late 19th century. The International Telegraph Union was founded in 1865, the Universal Postal Union was established in 1874, the first Geneva conventions shortly afterwards, and finally the international Hague Conventions in 1899 and 1907. Such efforts were sporadic, not strongly supported by most European governments, and served specific limited goals. It was not until after the millions of lives lost in World War I, that the voice of peace activists finally gained a listening ear. After World War I, it was decided that the League of Nations should be created with the primary goal of maintaining world peace by encouraging nations to settle disputes through negotiations.

Although a noble and worthy cause, the League of Nations failed for several reasons. Firstly, it had no armed forces to militarily enforce its own laws, if necessary. Secondly, economic sanctions were ignored since it can eventually be used to hurt member states. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Woodrow Wilson was unable to sell the idea of League of Nations to the Senate, and thus the League lacked the support of the rising superpower of the time, the United States. Eventually, nations started to withdraw from the League of Nations starting with Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain. When World War II erupted, the league was completely abandoned and was eventually replaced by the United Nations (UN) in 1945.

Learning from mistakes of its predecessor, the UN charter was written in such a way as to give more authority to the United Nations to enforce its own laws, including a military wing, called peace keepers. Its military wing would be under its own direct control, but member states would supply the soldiers to be trained with the UN. The stated objectives of the UN are three-fold: peacekeeping and security, humanitarian assistance, and social and economic development.

Since its creation, the United Nations has operated with some degree of success in each of these areas. Its first peacekeeping mission was in 1948 and was sent to regulate the ceasefire between Israel and the Arab states. It has been called on several other missions of regulating ceasefire agreements including the end of the Korean War in 1953, the end of the Suez Crisis in 1957, the Congo in early 1960s, and several other missions. During the Cold War, the UN has been successful at offering a forum where the two superpowers can discuss their disputes, and hence aid in the prevention of war. One of the most successful missions was the UN intervention in the Libyan Civil War in 2011, where civilian populations were protected from government attacks and the UN was given both the mandate and the armed forces (assisted by NATO) necessary to carry out its mission. The intervention eventually aided in the overthrow of the Libyan government. The United Nations humanitarian efforts and social and economic development have largely been effective and had little signs of abuse. The largest exception to this was the Oil for Food program enacted by the United Nations in the late 1990s.

By far, the largest corruption scandal that the UN has been involved in is related to oil for food program deal with Iraq that lasted from 1995 to 2003. The program was proposed by the US president in 1995 as a way to provide food directly to the Iraqi people, who suffered immensely as a result of the economic embargo imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991. As part of the program, the UN was to purchase oil produced by Iraq in exchange for food directly. This seemingly humane deal resulted in one of the largest corruption scandals in history.

The program was abused in many ways. The Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, offered discounted oil in exchange for influence at the UN and with Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, himself. Bribes estimated at a total of $150,000 were also paid to Benon Sevan, the head of the oil for food program. He subsequently shredded all documents related to the program and, in turn, was suspended from the UN. The most revealing document released that shows the scope of corruption was an article written in an Iraqi newspaper published in January 2004. According to the article, the beneficiaries of the bribes resulting from the program included a British MP George Galloway, former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, India`s foreign minister Natwar Singh, and many other individuals and corporations. This list came from over 15,000 documents that were found in the state-owned Iraqi oil corporation that surfaced after the US led invasion. Although these claims could not be independently verified, it caused serious damage to many people`s reputation, including the expulsion of India`s foreign minister for his role in the scandal. After the discovery of the scandal, it later came to light that the three largest recipients of discounted oil were Russia, France, and China. These were the very same countries that vehemently opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In total, it is now estimated that bribes in the form of discounted oil and smuggled oil from Iraq exceeded $12 billion. It is now clear that the UN acted as a facilitator of one of the largest bribery scandals in recent history.

Despite its limited abilities and evidence of corruption scandals, the UN has had a positive effect in maintaining peace between nations. This is largely due to its accepted neutrality in international conflicts. It played a key role during the Cold War to prevent war between the United States and the Soviet Union. It encouraged dialogue between nations. One artwork that best symbolizes the very credibility of the United Nations is the knotted gun sculpture, which was a gift from the Luxembourg government to the United Nations buildings in New York City. It is meant to symbolize the prevention of armed conflicts.


  • [1] Weiss, T and Daws, S. Oxford Handbook on the United Nations, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK, 2007.
  • [2] Wadhams, N. and Lederer, E., “UN: 2,200 Companies Gave Iraq Illicit Funds,” AP, Yahoo News, Oct 27, 2005.
  • [3] Lynch, C. “Park Sentenced to 5 Years in UN Oil-for-Food Bribery Scandal”, The Washington Post, Feb 23, 2007, p. A-11.

  • Keywords: United Nations, New York City, America, United States

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