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History of the United Nations


The United Nations was created in 1945, following the end of World War II, in order to form a multilateral organization to provide a system of collective security and a forum for peaceful solutions to conflict. After two horrifying world wars, it was hoped that this united organization would guide a path to peace. From mid-April to mid-June 1945, fifty nations gathered in San Francisco to finalize the writing of the UN Charter, which establishes the rules and structure of the Organization. The main goal in 1945 was to create a united effort to prevent another world war based on a commitment to collective security. However, the work of the UN has vastly broadened over the last 70 years to include advancement of human rights, development, humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and peace building, among other activities.

While the UN is constantly at the forefront of global crises, in the past, the UN was not well equipped to maintain its own institutional memory or history. This lack of access to the UN’s institutional memory has had several causes, one of which being the UN was overwhelmed with global problems and did not prioritize the importance of making its institutional history available to the public as it moved forward. Another factor was the sense that many Member States did not come from cultures of information sharing and thus did not see this practice as a budgetary necessity. As a result, preserving and sharing its history was under-valued for some time. In recent years, the importance of retaining that history has grown tremendously and UN Archives has overseen the preservation of documents and records in an organized and professional manner. We are grateful to UN Archives for their work and cooperation with this project.

To give an example, there were some 800,000 papers produced within Kofi Annan’s term. The five-volume book set of Annan’s selected papers—both declassified and public—contains the most politically relevant documents for research and evaluation of his place on the world stage. Now, with this set of selected papers is available online, people around the world will have open access to this valuable historical resource about the interconnectivity of peoples and countries around the globe.

The Role of Secretary-General

In Chapter XV, Article 97, the UN Charter states that the Secretary-General “shall be the chief administrative officer of the Organization.” In other words, the Secretary-General must be the top manager of the Secretariat, which is the bureaucracy that administers the work of the General Assembly, the Security Council, and other bodies of the UN. However, the Charter also leaves open a small window of political space for the UN’s chief administrative officer. Article 99 states, “The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

The very first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, used Article 99 to bring the conflict in Korea to the attention of the Security Council and since that action, succeeding Secretaries-General have continued to assume that political space. Interestingly, Kofi Annan stated he never had the occasion to use Article 99.  Nevertheless, his papers reveal that in fact he did use it all the time without ever formally invoking Article 99. He constantly wrote letters to the president of the Security Council to draw the Council’s attention to issues and crises, adding his suggestions for possible action. Responses from the Council president acknowledge his attention to a matter and often thank Mr. Annan for his suggestions.

In addition to the use of their “good offices” and quiet diplomacy, the Secretary-General can also use the public attention garnered by the office to set goals for the international community, which may address some of the underlying conditions that contribute to disputes and the outbreak of conflict. The UN Secretary-General is expected to address all the issues of these turbulent times with no army and no budget of their own with which to face such challenges. They must also manage perceptions of the impartiality of the office, particularly with the major powers, and yet maintain the legitimacy of the Organization by criticizing acts that violate international law or the moral authority of the UN. This can present a complex day-to-day effort to balance unwarranted criticism with the acknowledgement of failures and the willingness to be held accountable and to make changes.