The UN: Stepping into the Shadows of its Failed Predecessor

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Zafir Mahmood Malik, London, UK

On 26th June 1945, the United Nations charter was signed by representatives from 50 nations in San Francisco, USA. It was heralded as a momentous moment in history, to quote the San Diego Union of the following day, ‘…an instrument for keeping the world of the future free of war.’[1] Yet, 79 years on and World War III is practically knocking on our doorstep, bidding to enter.

This new charter was to be an upgrade from the failed predecessor of the United Nations, known as the League of Nations. It was formed shortly after World War I ended, when the leading powers at the time decided to come together to form an international organisation to promote mutual cooperation and prevent a similar catastrophe from happening again.

Thus, two years after World War I, the League of Nations was born on 10th January 1920.[2] At the time, world leaders were positive that this would be the solution to end all future wars. The New York Times of 1918 quoted Woodrow Wilson, President of the US at the time as saying that there was: ‘…Enduring Peace Only In a League of Nations.’

This ‘enduring peace’ lasted just 19 years, when the world became embroiled in a Second World War.

One of the biggest failures of the League of Nations was that a key major power, the USA, never joined. Despite Wilson’s championship of the League, others in the US were reluctant to be dragged into more ‘European wars’ which would drain their resources, resulting in the US less able to pursue its own interests.[3] Without the US’s military might, the League of Nations was effectively toothless, as it could not enforce any of its rulings, especially given the fact that it did not have a military of its own.[4]

While the League of Nations failed without the US joining, it seems that the UN is now failing despite the US joining. This is primarily down to the crippling effect of the veto power.

The Veto power wielded by the five permanent members: the US, Britain, France, Russia & China, has been reduced to nothing more than a five-way tug of war, with each nation pulling the United Nations in separate directions. No conflicts can be resolved as one nation seeks to back its friends or ally nations.

Take the example of the Ukraine-Russia war. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, any resolution passed by the UN Security Council which aims at sanctioning Russia or stopping its territorial expansion has been vetoed by Russia.[5] The same is the case for the US vetoing any resolution that is critical of Israel. Since the establishment of the UN in 1945, the US has vetoed 89 Security Council resolutions (as of 18th December 2023), 45 of them have been about Israel. 33 of the 45 resolutions were to do directly with the occupation of Palestinian land or their treatment of the Palestinian people.[6] But without this ‘veto’ caveat, the US may never have joined the UN. Richard Gowen, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group states:

‘Offering these countries the ability to protect themselves from Security Council resolutions was the only way President Franklin D. Roosevelt could get them [Congress] to join the U.N.’[7]

Another reason why the League of Nations failed was that when member nations decided to invade other countries, the league was powerless to stop it. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria (a region in China); Italy invaded Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) in 1935; in 1936, German troops occupied the Rhineland, an area de-militarised according to the Treaty of Versailles.

In all cases, the League of Nations condemned the actions of the aggressors and, in the case of Italy, even imposed some sanctions, but none which were meaningful. For example, the league imposed a sanction on arms trade to Italy and some relating to trade, but there were no sanctions on oil or coal, because the oil sanctions would have been ineffective without the backing of the US.[8]

In a complete mirror image, we are two years on from when Russia invaded Ukraine. Despite the US, UK and the EU imposing 16,500 sanctions on Russia [9], the United Nations is completely helpless in stopping the war. Similarly, according to a report by Amnesty International, Israel has been occupying the West Bank and Gaza for more than 50 years.[10] These territories have been occupied by Israel and were not part of its original borders drawn up when the United Nations passed Resolution 181 on 29th November 1947.[11] So the UN cannot even enforce the borders voted on by its General Assembly. Over 70 years on, the conflict has only gotten worse, with the death toll increasing with each passing day.

And who can forget the US-UK joint invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was declared illegal by the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan,[12] or the invasion of Afghanistan by a US-led coalition after the attack on the Twin Towers, New York, on 11th September 2001? In response to this attack, the United Nations passed two resolutions, 1368 and 1373, which were meant to deal with ‘the threat of international peace and security caused by terrorist acts.’ However, none of these resolutions permitted the use of military action.[13] But the UN stood by and could not prevent an invasion.

Even the words of the United Nations Secretary-General seem to have no effect. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has repeatedly condemned Israel’s actions for killing civilians on a ‘scale unprecedented’ during his time in office.[14] But like his predecessor, Kofi Annan, his words have also fallen on deaf ears.

It would be a grave injustice to think that United Nations has been a complete failure in all aspects. UN food programmes and other agencies have been helping in the most vulnerable areas of the world. In 2022, the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) assisted 160 million people worldwide.[15] Before the recent war in Gaza, 80% of the population relied on international aid supplied by the likes of the UN in order to survive on a daily basis.[16] And there are countless other aspects of the UN which are providing genuine relief to those most in need. However, these are faint glimmers in an ever-darkening world, where the UN is failing to maintain international peace. This is because it has contradicted one of its most fundamental charters:

‘The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.’[17]

But the truth is that there is no equality of all its members. Five out of the 198 UN member states have the power to veto any resolution. When certain member states send troops into other countries it is endorsed with the viewpoint that it is necessary to ‘maintain peace’ and ‘tackle terrorism’. But when other states do the same thing they are held accountable and seen as the aggressors, with sanctions imposed on them. This flagrant disparity is best summed up by George Orwell’s famous line from Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. 

For the UN to succeed, it would have to do two things;

  1. Scrap the power of veto
  2. Ensure that when one member of state crosses the line – irrespective of who that nation is – the entire world should unite, and remaining free from any vested interests, they must stop the aggression.

This second point is crucial and has been beautifully highlighted in the Holy Qur’an 1,400 years ago:

‘And if two parties of believers fight against each other, make peace between them; then if after that one of them transgresses against the other, fight the party that transgresses until it returns to the command of Allah. Then if it returns, make peace between them with equity, and act justly. Verily, Allah loves the just.’[18]

Although the verse makes mention of ‘two parties of believers’ fighting against one another, it is a blueprint of how a truly ‘United Nations’ organisation can work together to bring about peace in the world. This ominous flaw in the United Nations was pointed out just three years into its formation. In 1948, the second head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) pointed out some key aspects of how to establish social order based on the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. Following on from this, he stated:

‘The United Nations Organization has adopted some of these principles [of maintaining social order] but is in danger of failing in its purpose for neglecting others. The League of Nations failed for the reason that it did not give effect to the Quranic principle that an aggressor nation, which goes against a decision made by a collective organisation, should be compelled by force to submit to it.

The United Nations Organization does not appear to be anxious to secure that the powers that enforce a settlement should not seek any advantage for themselves at the expense of the vanquished nations and should confine their efforts to the enforcement of the settlement of the dispute which gave rise to the conflict. It is feared, therefore, that the United Nations Organization will experience the same fate which overtook the League of Nations; for peace can only be established and maintained on the principles laid down in the Qur’an.’

These prophetic words were penned at a time when the UN was being proclaimed as a beacon to prevent all future wars. However, only 79 years into its formation, humanity is at the brink of yet another world war, only this time round, there are nuclear weapons in the picture, the horrors of which are unimaginable.

About the Author: Zafir Mahmood Malik serves as the Associate Editor of The Review of Religions, having graduated from Jamia Ahmadiyya UK – Institute of Modern Languages and Theology. He is also an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and regularly appears as a panellist on MTA International and Voice of Islam radio station answering questions on Islam.








[7] Ibid.











[18] The Holy Qur’an, 49:10.