The 1950s: Finding the UN’s Role in Global Governance


We prefer world law, in the age of self-determination, to world war in the age of mass extermination.

John F Kennedy, 35th President of the United States of America

In the history of law, the UN has been the dominant force in global governance for the best part of the 20th Century. Ever since the organisation’s conception in San Francisco, where the United Nations charter was signed in 1945, different amendments and resolutions have caused the organisation to gain significance in the intricacies of international relations. However, on closer inspection, the respected body has had a tumultuous history, with many decisions being overturned by the bias of its members; during the 20th Century, tensions were high within the UN as the Cold War raged on between the world’s biggest superpowers, and this had a great effect on the way international law could be made. As well as maintaining international politics, the UN advocated for change in domestic laws within its member states, and from this, arose criticism of how intervention in international law should be conducted. Despite elements of a chequered past, the UN has created a standing for itself as the most significant law making body in the world, and much of this derives from the lessons learned within the 1950s.

In the late 1940s, after the devastation of the Second World War, the UN was merely the dream of a few, to tackle global crises before they escalated into armed conflict. The predecessor of the role, the League of Nations, had famously failed to achieve any sort of international harmony, so it would be a gross overstatement to say the United Nations had big shoes to fill. Despite this, the original delegations at the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conference fought voraciously to see their plans come into being, and the overwhelming ambition of the project seemed unrealistic to begin with. However, by June 1945, the UN had already passed its first binding agreement between its member states. The UN charter, originally signed by 50 countries, promised to ”establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained,” and, ”to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights”. The ramifications of this were extreme, as the UN was promoting themselves as the international policemen, to carry out independent legal decisions; a project of this scope had never been undertaken before.

In the 1950s, the UN saw the first tests in how it would manage the international situation. A clear problem that arose from within the UN was the idea that different cultural norms and laws were contradictory, in some cases, to those of different member states. It was impossible to establish a clear cut, ‘one size fits all’ approach to international law making when every nation viewed the amendment requirements differently. One of the first major legal challenges the UN faced was the Korean War. In 1950, the UN approved a full scale retaliation to Kim Il-Sung’s crossing of the 38th Parallel, which sparked the North Korean invasion of South Korea. The UN sent an army, led originally by General Douglas MacArthur, and engaged in many violent battles throughout the war, from 1950-1953. When the Panmunjon Armistice was finally reached in 1953, the UN had been responsible for the poor mismanagement of the situation, and for allowing it to worsen. This episode in the UN’s history served as a lesson to the organisation, reminding them of how fragile the international situation was, and how laws needed to be carefully guided to suit the best interests of the majority.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington D.C.

Following on from Korea, the UN achieved some major successes in the 1950s. It took a clear standpoint on many racial issues, such as apartheid in South Africa, and claimed that any form of racial segregation was based on ”racial discrimination”. The UN doctrine condemned these actions and gave the organisation a clear judicial perspective. Moreover, between 1950 and 1960, 41 countries joined the UN, most of them former colonies. This allowed the UN to make conclusions about human rights in colonies and campaign against oppression. This automatically meant that the UN had the respect of the less developed nations, which had not been the case with the League of Nations. From a domestic legal perspective, the UN was also beginning to press for reform in different nations, against their human right violations. Despite criticism of the organisation by the infamous US senator, Joseph McCarthy, the UN continued to uphold international values of justice and harmony. All the progress made by the UN came to a point in 1956, where the UN showed great promise as a vehicle for justice.

In 1956, the UK and France, large powers in global politics at the time, had been conspiring to take back their shares of the Suez Canal, which had been seized by Egyptian President Nasser in July, 1956. The joint powers aimed to ‘sneak in’ to Egypt while the Israeli army distracted the Egyptians by invading the Sinai peninsula. This was obviously illegal, as it promoted war and destruction as a way to take back the resource for the countries’ own benefits. However, in response to this, the Canadian Prime Minister, Lester B Pearson, had the UN create the multinational UN Emergency Force 1. This influenced international law and not only did it condemn the actions of two large superpowers that dominated the institution, with their possession of 2/5 of the permanent seats on the UN security council, but it also paved the way for international cooperation between the different countries within the Emergency Force. Soldiers and officers were taken from ten independent countries across four different continents, to help aid the situation and allow Egypt to see the justice it deserved. The relatively well managed operations that followed were a sign that perhaps the UN was ready to hold an international position that could fight for freedom and equality against colonialist powers, as well as uphold judicial pledges from it’s constitution-like ‘United Nations Charter’.

At the opening of the new decade, President John F Kennedy would hail in a proposal for a ”UN development decade”, but arguably, the most important strides had already been made. Behind the typical 1950s facade of ‘Rock and Roll’, the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ and poodle skirts, sat the ever learning mechanism which was to become the most significant melting pot of opinions and nationalities in the world. The 1950s had taught the UN how the laws they promoted could both help and hinder the world, and the fragile strains of international relations were steadily beginning to weave together. Furthermore, the 1950s was an experimental time for the UN, where they took their law making focus away from the international stage and applied it equally to the domestic spheres, resulting in colonial reform and racial justice.


  1. United Nations (2015) ”1944-1945: Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta”
  2. United Nations (1945) ”Charter of the United Nations”
  3. Imperial War Museum (2018) ”A Short History of the Korean War”
  4. United Nations South Africa (2020) ”UN: Partner in the Struggle Against Apartheid”
  5. United Nations Protocol and Liaison Service (2020) ”Blue Book” ”
  6. Famousbio (2020) ”Trygve Lie – First Secretary General of the U.N.”
  7. The Loyal Edmonton Regiment Military Division (2018) ”Suez Crisis and the United Nations Emergency Force 1: 1956”


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