The United Nations in a World of Conflict

A commentary on a text from Erskine Barton Childers
In: Development Dialogue, No 56, June 2011

original version, 2MB

Erskine Childers delivered this speech in 1994, in The Hague, to a conference of non-governmental organisations. At that time he had given many speeches on the role and position of the United Nations in different areas of world governance. It was a new era in the 20th century, five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with new opportunities opening up for countries to meet global challenges.

Until 1989, countries had been politically and economically constrained by the Cold War. It had been politically difficult to define common interests and to endeavour to bring about changes, because these might be perceived as threatening the status quo with regard to international spheres of influence. As a result, the Big Powers of East and West consistently resisted such changes. This situation also constrained the possibilities to reform North-South relations. Economic, social, cultural, religious and political conflicts between groups within countries had been frozen or suppressed, because they would endanger the status quo. Economically it was difficult to meet new global challenges, because many of the financial resources in the richer world were spent on an ever-increasing arms race.

By the 1990s, these considerations no longer constrained international options. Now there were possibilities to find ways and means to bridge the North-South divide, to lift poor people out of deprivation, to preserve the world’s natural environment and ecology and to mitigate climate change.  In 1992, this led to the adoption of Agenda 2000 by world leaders convened at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. This action implied a commitment to change and to setting new priorities in global governance.

However, a few years later this new spirit had dimmed.  The prospects for sustainable peace, development and action on the environment were no longer as bright. Political optimism was fading, and economic dualism increased: while a large part of the world’s population, in particular in the North, did indeed benefit from renewed economic growth and technological breakthroughs, many others were left aside. The divide between rich and poor grew wider, not narrower. The UN was as ineffective as before, despite the multiplication of meetings, conferences, reports and reviews.

It was during this period that Erskine Childers addressed many audiences around the world on issues of world governance. In all his speeches he confessed himself a staunch defender of the values that half a century earlier had been enshrined in international law and had led to the establishment of the UN.  Among those speeches, his Hague address on ‘The United Nations in a World of Conflict’ stands  out for its comprehensiveness and firmness.

That address delivered more than 15 years ago is still pertinent, and is so for seven reasons.

First, in this speech Childers takes us back to the very roots of the UN system. These tend to be forgotten.  The first meeting of the General Assembly of the UN took place many years ago (in 1946) and the world has since changed. People are inclined to read the principles and mandate of the UN in light of present practices. However, as Childers tirelessly argued on many occasions (Childers 1992), the founding fathers of the UN system had something else in mind. The system was established to maintain international peace and security, not only through peacekeeping operations and through political talks, but also by addressing the root causes of conflict. This would entail promoting higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development and addressing international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character. In order to do this effectively, the UN would have to be able to play a central role in international social and economic affairs. In the reports of the UN Conference on International Organisation (San Francisco, 1945) and of the preparatory commission of the UN, these affairs were defined as including international trade, finance, communications and transport, economic reconstruction, prevention of economic instability, economic development of underdeveloped areas, access to raw materials and capital goods and also health.  In these reports, the founders defined a commanding role for the General Assembly, the secretary general and the Economic and Social Council in coordinating the policies and practices of the Bretton Woods institutions and the specialised agencies (UN 1945).

Second, in his Hague speech Childers presented a persuasive and convincing argument in favour of an integrated global approach to the challenges that were then threatening the countries and peoples of the world. The reasoning of the founding fathers of the UN implied that this system should become the commanding centrepiece in the formulation of macroeconomic, macro-trade and macro-financial policies for all peoples.  In another address delivered three years earlier (Childers 1991), Childers quoted Aneurin Bevan, who in 1950 had argued that ‘the division of labour into which man is born weaves his own life into a series of interdependencies involving not only his own personal surroundings, but moving in ever-widening circles until they encompass most parts of the earth.’ In Bevan’s view, the modern world was:

… no longer a multiplication of a number of simple self-sufficient social groupings, each able to detach itself without damage to itself. … each part is connected as though by an infinite variety of nerves with all the others, so that the separatin is now a mutilation. It is simiolar to a physical organism but wiith this difference; that it has no head, and therefore no mechanism with which to receive and co-ordinate its vibrations. (Bevan 1952: 49)

Bevan here presented an enlightening perspective on the character of globalisation, which after the Second World War had been given new impetus. If the vibrations at the global level were not guided by reason, they might plague the world.  


The drafters of the UN Charter demonstrated they were aware of this risk. They opted for a system that could ensure reason in combination with ethics. However, world leaders soon renounced the principles and rules they had endorsed. This is the third theme of Childers’s speech. In words that cannot be misunderstood, he chastises the powers from the North for their hypocrisy. In another of his speeches from this period, Childers reprimands them because they ‘refused to discuss any macro-economic policy formulation in UN organs on the totally false claim that such policy issues belong in the Bretton Woods institutions – which they then make sure do not discuss them’ (Childers 1994a). The World Bank, IMF and GATT were indeed allowed to drift far from what had been concluded in San Francisco and even to abandon any pretence of acting as equitable global agencies. These specialised agencies were allowed to withdraw from any meaningful central coordination. Developing countries were confronted with uncoordinated and counterproductive international policies. The imposition of structural adjustment measures undermined development investments in education, health and agriculture. Trade protectionism by Northern countries, together with low and fluctuating commodity prices, volatile interest rates and mounting debts nullified the macroeconomic effects of development aid.  Far from decreasing, poverty and inequality grew.

The countries that established the UN system have clearly been shying away from the consequences of their own bold initiative. In various speeches, Childers supposed that this unprincipled attitude arose from the fact that these countries had not expected decolonisation to take place so fast. Decolonisation resulted in a large number of newly independent nation states, all of whom applied for membership of the UN. According to Childers, the inaugural members refused to grant to new members the rights they had created for themselves. In formal terms this had to be done, because of the one-country one-vote principle, but in reality such measures do not mean much if major decisions are being taken elsewhere.  Decolonisation was indeed one of the first and major successes of the UN system.  With the benefit of hindsight, this could have been expected from the very outset. Be that as it may, the founding members were clearly afraid of being outvoted by a large majority of Southern countries, their former colonies.  

 Are Northern powers the only ones to blame? In neither of  the two addresses mentioned above did Childers discuss at length the wrongdoings of regimes in developing countries. He refers to corruption, mismanagement and defaults, but does not dwell on them. Childers shows himself to be a Tiers Mondiste. He argues that the peoples of the South, having long suffered oppression through colonisation, have the right to make their own mistakes. This is Childers’s fourth general theme: though developing countries are independent and sovereign and responsible for the quality of the governance in their nations, the Northern former colonial powers still bear a historic responsibility. The argument is quite convincing.  Until recently, as Childers argues,

“the entire Southern majority of humankind was held in intellectual and institutional stasis - in suspended animation - by Northern colonial empires.  For (centuries) the South was not allowed to evolve its own institutions of governance, administration, and public accountability, or to develop science and technology and advance its economies, or to develop the very education of citizens. The proposition, that societies only even legally allowed to begin to try to resume their own indigenous evolution some … decades ago, bear no continuous wounds from the previous centuries is  ... insupportable”. (Childers 1994a: 2-3)

Right over might

As a matter of fact, this would reinforce the developing countries’ claim to justice within the new international legal order established after 1945. To reinforce their claim, they could quote the leader of one the then big powers, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, in the first-ever speech made in a UN Assembly:

Let us be clear what is out ultimate aim. It is not just the negation of war, but the creation of a world of security and freedom, of a world which is governed by justice and moral law. We desire to assert the pre-eminence of right over might and the general good against selfish and sectional aims’ (quoted in Childers 1991).

Right over might it had to be.  If not, both international justice and international security would be at risk. This is Erskine’s fifth theme. In his addresses at the beginning of the 1990s he issued clear warnings about the possible consequences for peace and security of injustice and neglect. In his statements, he went beyond the prediction that greater poverty would lead to more violence.  Such an analysis would have been too simple. According to Childers, there is more than poverty:

“Most of the South has emerged from the Cold War economically prostrated, politically ravaged, filed with long-suppressed movements of aspirations and anger and the abandoned weaponry of an alien North-North ideological contest gratuitously thrust into their lands. The South is thus the arena of political and economic policies dictated by the North that are prescriptions for mass unrest, the rise of so-called fundamentalist movements and more and more open conflict. The powers are virtually guaranteeing that these conflicts will coalesce into massive North-South confrontation early in the next century”.

This long quote contains thoughts that are also pivotal in Childers’s other speeches of the early 1990s. Today we are early into that next century Childers spoke of. He delivered his speech at a time of war in Bosnia, shortly after the tragedy in Somalia, shortly before the genocide in Rwanda. Since then, many ‘frozen’ conflicts have been unleashed, wars have been fought and people killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Congo, Gaza, Liberia, to name just a few. They could not be contained, because, as Childers foresaw in his speech in Geneva delivered half a year after his Hague address,  ‘present structural policies inexorably intensify the causes of conflicts that make more and more likely an apocalyptic convulsion across the North-South divide which neither they nor any imaginable UN peacekeeping capacity would contain’ (Childers 1994a). It should be noted that Childers no longer referred to a possible North-South confrontation, but explicitly to a ‘convulsion across the North-South divide’. This is exactly what has happened at the turn of the century.

North-South stands for a divide between haves and have nots in terms of welfare and power. That divide has economic, social, cultural and political dimensions, which reinforce each other. The possible consequences of the widening of these gaps, as foreseen by Childers, have become the grim realities of today or have come close to realisation. Presently the situation is even grimmer. Witness, for instance, climate change, more rapid than envisaged at that time. Witness the global financial crisis due to  the ‘vibrations’ orchestrated by transnational banks and not constrained by rational, reasonable and responsible action – in Bevan’s terms,  a ‘head’. Witness the weakening of many nation states, many fragile, some failing or even breaking down. Witness also threats to security from international terrorism, the general recourse to defending national interests through so-called pre-emptive strikes and the resulting violations of human security, human rights and democracy.

These developments were foreseen not only by Erskine Childers. Others – intellectuals, civil servants, politicians and citizens – spoke along similar lines. Erskine Childers, however, did not confine himself to criticising prevailing policies and practices, issuing warnings or preaching doom, he also made a number of concrete proposals for UN reform.  He did so on many occasions, and I consider this – the sixth theme in his speech in The Hague – one of  his strengths. Childers always came forward with constructive ideas. They were not dreams, but options for change within reach, both desirable and feasible.  The general principles underlying the proposed reforms were that the institutions had to be truly global, equally representative, fully integrating all dimensions of development and conflict and that they should have authority, in other words become some form of democratic central power at the international level.  I will not repeat the proposals made by Childers in this and other addresses. They can be studied together with proposals made elsewhere, for instance in the Report Our Global Neighbourhood by the Commission of Global Governance (Carlsson and Ramphal 1995; Childers and Urquhart 1994). Not all these proposals have been rejected or neglected and a few have been brought to some form of implementation. Currently, an ongoing debate on UN reform continues.   However, reform has always been marginal and piecemeal, never substantial, leaving the central powers unchallenged.  The present discussion within the UN does not offer much prospect of anything diferent.  

Childers does not blame the UN itself for this. He has made it clear that the UN administration is at the mercy of governments. For this reason, he recommended against devoting much time to amending the UN Charter. Such an enterprise might even be counterproductive, because it could strengthen the hand of those governments aiming to further weaken Attlee’s principle of ‘right over might’ (Childers 1991). Instead, he pleaded for the mobilisation of world public opinion in order ‘to use every possible comparative advantage of the system as it is’ (Childers 1991). So, use what is available, fight for this and confront the powers that try to conceal their actions in violation of once-agreed principles.


Will such mobilisation be successful?  Here we come to the seventh element in Childers’s Hague speech. The speaker, addressing an audience of young citizens rather than experienced bureaucrats and politicians, not only offered theoretical alternatives but also made clear that these alternatives had a chance to be turned into reality.  It was a heartening message of hope.

Childers gave three reasons for being hopeful.  Despite everything, the South had not yet given up on the UN. Moreover, Northern powers had to confront so many problems at home they would have fewer resources to rule the world by themselves without regard for their partners in the South. And, finally, the world’s public, growing increasingly concerned about global problems, might become involved in a surge for responsible leadership by an effective and truly representative UN.

More than fifteen years have passed and the world has changed a great deal since Erskine Childers delivered his speeches.  It is too early to conclude that the three reasons for hope have faded. However, in the North and in the South choices are being made that are different from that he hoped for or expected. The US has spent huge resources on invading Iraq, waging a war in Afghanistan and fighting international terrorism. Other powers in the current multi-polar world support or, at least, allow these endeavours to dominate world affairs, without any meaningful UN involvement. In the South, many no longer believe the UN can play an effective non-partisan role.  Many governments and people see the UN as a Western construction.  Moreover, today the South is even less a common entity than it was shortly after decolonisation. At that time, resource-rich countries and emerging economies in the South attempted within the UN to define common positions together with the poor and economically less developed countries. Together they saw themselves as the so-called Third World. Since the end of the Cold War, there is no longer any reason to define common positions and join forces. Increasingly, the larger and stronger Southern countries such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa work together with Russia in the BRICS coalition to  negotiate with the bigger and more powerful Northern counterparts outside the framework of the UN. The G20 and special so-called ‘Coalitions of the Willing’ talk and work on economic, financial, political and environmental issues, without involving the smaller, weaker and poorer countries of the world. The interests of the latter hardly feature in frameworks that are self-elective and self-contained. The UN is a principled system, values-based, rules-based and rooted in international law. These principles and values, the procedures of decision-making and the rules of implementation are the result of consensus. All these considerations can be arbitrarily laid aside in the new gatherings where so-called global deals are made. Peoples and nations excluded from the deals have no right of appeal.  

There is no Third World anymore in terms of a clearly defined group of nations. The concept of North-South has also lost its meaning as a distinction between two groups of countries. The present North-South divide is not between nations, but between classes. Globalisation has resulted in a convergence of economic interests of the upper and middle classes in all countries, North and South, East and West.  This may help us to avoid new international wars, until countries become involved in a scramble for scarce resources. However, in all countries the middle and upper classes strive for greater economic welfare by neglecting, exploiting and excluding people who are poor, weak and voiceless, and do not have adequate access to land, water, energy, capital, credit, technology, education, health, public services – in short, the means necessary to improve their own lot and to benefit from economic growth in general. Indeed, the present North-South can be observed within all the countries of the world, leading to a global North-South divide that no longer follows national frontiers.   

In his speeches and writing, Erskine Childers dealt in particular with discord between nation states. However, as noted above, he also referred to more complex conflicts, including reverse aspirations within countries, which could lead to an ‘apocalyptic convulsion across the North-South divide’.  In the last 20 years, economic and political conflicts within countries have become ever sharper, more complicated and less manageable because of cultural, religious and ethnic divisions. The escalation of such conflicts, and the resulting violence, has spread across national frontiers and sometimes taken on global proportions. So far, the UN’s capacity to deal with these increasingly complicated conflicts has not kept pace with events. Root causes are hardly addressed. Governments of individual nation states, to guard their national security, increasingly look to their military, police, special forces, intelligence and secret services, rather than seeking political solutions within the framework of values-based international consultations and negotiations.  

So, Childers’s first two reasons for hope for a better UN have become even more fragile than they were 20 years ago. However, the very international developments that have nearly made these hopes illusory provide strong reason to revitalise the UN. Violations of peace, threats to security and challenges to sustainability demand a greater capacity in international society to address the root causes of these dangers.  Will new generations be aware of these risks and of the need to address them in a  rights-based and equitable way.   Childers’s third reason to be hopeful did not lie with states, governments and regimes, but with peoples.  An increased public awareness and concern about global problems might mobilise people in favour of UN global leadership. Such awareness and concern has indeed increased, for instance, with regard to terrorism or climate change. This, however, has not yet led to a broad popular movement in favour of equitable provisions to meet the needs of all the peoples of the world and create a sustainable future for all of humankind. Concern and fear seem to foster self-centredness and the apportionment of blame on other people of different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs.

However, Childers was right to base his hope on people rather than regimes. Perhaps this is even truer now than 20 years ago. The broadening and deepening of globalisation after the end of the Cold War has resulted in rapid and widely shared technological progress and in unprecedented  opportunities for people all over the world to gain access to information and to communicate with one another.  At the beginning of this new century, generations of young people are using these opportunities freely and intensively. They do not easily accept the suppression of information and ideas by authorities, governments and other powers.  They know how to get around restrictions on information and freedom of opinion and expression. The audience of Erskine Childers’s speeches 15 or so years ago did not have such opportunities to the extent that people do today. Nowadays, many young people in countries all around the world communicate with each other in unprecedented ways. They are less prejudiced than their predecessors, have more in common, and share information, ideas, expectations and hopes.  

So, Erskine Childers’s three reasons for hope can be turned into a threefold appeal: believe in the opportunities that present themselves, get mobilised and confront selfish powers. That is what the founding fathers of the UN had in mind. It is still worth a try.




Bevan, A. (1952), In Place of Fear, London: Heinemann.

Carlsson, I. and S. Ramphal (1995), Our Global Neighbourhood. The Report of the Commission on Global Governance, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Childers, E. (1991), ‘Global Economic Governance’, address to The Other Economic Summit, London, 15 July.

Childers, E. (1992), The UN Role in the World Economy. The Intention of the Founders (mimeo).

Childers E. (1994a), ‘The Demand for Equity and Equality: The North-South Divide in the United Nations’, address to conference of the Jamahir Society, Geneva, 2 July.

Childers, E. (1994b), ‘The United Nations in a World of Conflict: Assuming our Responsibilities’, address to the NCO Conference on Development and Conflict, The Hague, 28 February.

Childers E. and B. Urquhart (1994), ‘Renewing the United Nations System’, Development Dialogue, Vol. 1, Uppsala: Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.

United Nations (1945), Report of the Preparatory Commission of the United Nations, Doc. PC/20.