Canada, Politics, Social Studies and History

Inventing Global Cooperation: A Brief History of the United Nations

Inventing Global Cooperation: A Brief History of the United Nations

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, 75 Years of the United Nations Special Issue, 2020

By Carolyn Gruske

If the United Nations didn’t exist, it would have to be invented. While that sounds like a resolution for a debate, it’s actually a conclusion that students of all ages are likely to form once they start learning about the organization’s history and purpose. At least, that’s the opinion expressed by more than one UN expert.

While the UN wasn’t established until after the Second World War, Marcel Jesenský, a history professor at the University of Ottawa, says that when he introduces the subject of UN history he refers back to much earlier events—to the 19th century. It was the time of the industrial revolution and the era when it was becoming easier for goods, services, and commerce to flow across international borders thanks to telegraph and railway lines, and particularly the 1874 Universal Postal Union (UPU), which created the rules that governed the handling of international mail. (Since 1948, the UPU has been a specialized agency of the UN.)

“This is the origin: international co-operation through an international organization, and the UN is more than a modern take on this idea. It’s the most global one, as it’s all-encompassing,” Jesenský says. “Going back and looking at the need for international co-operation beyond borders is something that makes a lot of sense, especially these days. I think that’s something kids can relate to, especially if you’re looking at something like the [current COVID-19] pandemic.”

Beyond that, Jesenský also points to Internet connectivity standards as well as climate change and environmental concerns as easy entry points for introducing even young students to the role international organizations like the UN play in world affairs. “Air pollution does not recognize borders. Neither do sea pollution and water issues.”

Joan Broughton, public information officer for the United Nations Association in Canada, a charitable organization with the mandate to inform and educate Canadians about the UN (including both its successes and failures), also believes that giving students examples of international co-operation highlights how and why the UN and its agencies came into existence and why they are still in operation. She also likes using the UPU as an example, but she is equally happy to point out a UN agency with Canadian roots.

“The International Civil Aviation Organization, one of the UN’s specialized agencies, happens to be headquartered in Montreal.” She explains that its operations are “central to the fact that there are accepted international norms which govern the methodologies of flight patterns and the rules of engagement of the aviation world.”

Broughton cites other examples that also serve to highlight what international co-operation can accomplish—and that might resonate with students—including programs run by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In fact, even if the UN were to disappear today, 17 of its specialized agencies, which are independent entities, would continue to exist and to carry on with their missions.

Canada and the UN

Getting students to understand first the role the UN plays in the world and the need for international co-operation is one step. Explaining to them that the UN is more than just the General Assembly and the Security Council—two of the UN’s very political arms that tend to get lots of news coverage—is the second one. Teaching its history and the role that Canada has played throughout can be a much more complicated endeavour.

As mentioned earlier, the UN got its start after the Second World War, and was created, in large part, to prevent a similar global conflict from occurring again. It was not, however, the first time an international organization had arisen from the ashes of war. The League of Nations was founded in 1920 to be a body that worked for world peace after the First World War. Whether a teacher brings up these historical elements in class, however, depends on a number of factors including the grade level being taught and the amount of time devoted to teaching about the UN.

“Maybe in senior high school it’s important to show antecedents and that there would be no United Nations if there hadn’t been a League of Nations that failed, so if you’re teaching Grade 11 or 12, I think you want to mention that because the UN didn’t just come out of nowhere. But I think at a younger level, the real story of Canada and the UN is the way that the Canadian identity is, in some ways, tied up in the UN and what it’s supposed to stand for…. You don’t really have to go back before 1945,” says Adam Chapnick, a professor of defence studies at the Canadian Forces College (CFC), which is part of the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC).

While Canada might not be the most important player on the international stage today, its status post-world war was a bit more prominent, and that reputation made it a welcomed founding member of the UN. “In many ways, our national foreign policy presence has kind of paralleled that of the UN, although there are some interesting differences,” says Daniel Gorman, a professor in the department of history and the Balsillie Schools of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo.

“Immediately after the Second World War, Canada is not a great power, but it’s actually one of the most significant influential powers because so many of the defeated powers are not part of the UN…. Canada actually had the fourth largest military contribution to the Allied victory, so even though we were much smaller than the United States or the Soviet Union, we were still sort of a major middle power. Canada had an outsized presence in the UN’s early years in terms of the number of Canadians working for the UN and playing leadership roles in UN bodies.”

One Canadian who left his mark on the UN right from the start was John Peter Humphrey. In 1946, the human rights advocate became the first director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights. He also wrote the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Chapnick adds that putting in the effort to do things like writing declarations or negotiating behind the scenes or attempting to bring nations together translated into Canada becoming influential at the UN.

“Particularly in the 1950s, Canada had a reputation at the UN as a country that, while it was on the Western side in the Cold War, was genuinely committed to making the UN work. The stereotype that Canadians already get along with everybody isn’t always true, but in the ’50s, it really was. We could talk to anybody. We were willing to do all the tasks at the UN that nobody else wanted…. That attitude really resonated around the international community at the time, which meant that if people didn’t agree with us, they were still willing to listen to us,” he says.

That approach is one that Paul Martin Senior—the father of Prime Minister Paul Martin Junior—capitalized on while the UN underwent expansion talks in the mid-1950s. With more countries wanting and able to join, there was a tug-of-war between the US-led western countries and the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc ones about which nations to admit. Martin spearheaded an agreement that promoted a one-for-one balance: the same number of western allies and Soviet satellites would be permitted to join.

Of course, adding more countries diluted the dominance of existing General Assembly members and that slowly eroded Canada’s influence at the UN. In the mid-1950s, however, Canada still had a strong role to play in creating one of the things the UN is best known for: peacekeeping.

The Suez Crisis

The Suez Crisis of 1956 was triggered when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser seized control of the waterway that links the Mediterranean and the Red Seas. Although owned by a British and French company, the canal was built by Egyptian workers. The British were worried that the Egyptians would stem the shipment of oil through the canal, while the Egyptians wanted to use the shipping tolls generated by the canal to pay for domestic initiatives.

The situation escalated as both sides began lining up allies, with Britain and France turning to Israel, and Egypt to the Soviet Union. On October 29, as part of their plan, Israeli forces advanced. Britain and France called for peace (hoping that Egypt would withdraw along with Israel) and things would go back to normal. Egypt, however, didn’t fall for the ruse, so on October 31, Britain and France attacked and dropped bombs on Egyptian airfields. The Middle East, and possibly the rest of the world, was on the brink of war.

Lester B. Pearson, the Secretary of State for External Affairs at the time, was tasked with leading Canada’s response at the UN. Pearson devised the idea of a Canada-led peacekeeping force, and his proposal was adopted on November 4. Even though Britain and France ignored the UN’s wishes and sent troops to the canal the following day, a ceasefire was quickly arranged on November 6, with peacekeepers—officially known as the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF)—arriving shortly thereafter, under the command of Canadian General E.L.M. Burns. The next year, Pearson was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

“The Cold War divided the world into two camps… One could say the Suez Crisis and Lester B. Pearson’s ideas of moderating and separating two opposing parties changed this starting paradigm of East and West, adding the Third World and new perspectives,” says Jesenský.

Responsibility to Protect

While peacekeeping may be the most dramatic and action-packed of the UN’s typical endeavours, making speeches to the General Assembly is the exact opposite, but there are times when strong oratory performances can change the world, and according to Chapnick, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was responsible for one of these.

In 1985, Mulroney addressed the General Assembly and spoke about apartheid in South Africa. Countries like the United Kingdom and the United States had refused to take political action, and African nations were left to feel they had no support in the West. Mulroney, in contrast, proclaimed to the world that Canada was ready to cut diplomatic ties and impose economic sanctions.

“We still had a reputation, at the time, of mattering. In other words, if Canada says it’s going to act on apartheid, people do actually notice,” says Chapnick. “Is it the reason South Africa changes its policy? Absolutely not, but it does give other countries the confidence to continue pushing forward on sanctions against the regime and give [other nearby] African states… faith that there will be help… because the biggest challenge with sanctions is they tend to hurt neighbouring countries.”

Although Mulroney was able to exert his influence in a time period that can easily be measured in minutes, that’s not typically the way things work at the UN. Louise Arbour, for example spent years working on behalf of both the organization and international justice.

A former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and of the Court of Appeal for Ontario, Arbour was chief prosecutor for the International Court of Justice during two international criminal tribunals: one for the former Yugoslavia, which resulted in Serbian president Slobodan Milošević being the first sitting head of state indicted for war crimes; and the tribunal for Rwanda in the world’s first conviction for genocide since 1948. Arbour also served as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for International Migration.

“She’s kind of a representative of the liberal internationalist spirit… She made a commitment to use the tools of the international system for humanitarian good. She is part of the generation that came of age during the 1990s that [had the idea of] protecting human rights, of using international law as a tool to police the international system….” says Gorman.

He goes on to explain how that type of thinking led to the formation of a UN Panel of Eminent Persons that developed the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine. It states that if there are crises “even if they are within the borders of a particular state, then the international community has both an obligation and authority to act, and the United Nations… to initiate intervention in a state’s affairs,” adds Gorman, sharing that it has been used in countries including Chad and Libya.

In spite of Canada’s many contributions to the UN, it still does not have a seat on the Security Council. The country will have to figure out how to further its international agenda, but according to Jesenský, that’s just part of the natural flow of history and international politics.

“The world is changing, and that’s normal. That’s how everything flows: countries are rising and declining…. Today, we are talking about rising powers, great powers like India and China…. But Canada still has a lot to offer. It is, to some extent, an example of this globalized world due to the very colourful composition of its population and the links with practically all of the countries around the globe. So there are strings to pull and to use in this competitive arena. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s how it is nowadays.”


Carolyn Gruske is an award-winning reporter and magazine editor. She often writes about the intersection of business, technology and the law, but she also has a deep interest in educational topics.