Saturday and Sunday, the United Nations is celebrating its 60th anniversary in San Francisco, where the organization was chartered June 26, 1945. Commemorations will examine the U.N.'s accomplishments, its failures and challenges.
Nancy Peterson, president of the United Nations Association of San Francisco, says activities will focus on the city's Nob Hill neighborhood, not far from where the founding events occurred.
"And our intention is to light a fire, so to speak, on Nob Hill that the whole world can see," she said.
The weekend celebration features four main events. A Saturday panel will look at U.N. development goals for the new millennium. The goals include the alleviation of poverty and improvement of public health. A Saturday evening reception will honor the San Francisco consular corps and delegates to the conference.
Sunday, former Irish president Mary Robinson, a one-time U.N. official and one of 60 former world leaders who are attending the meetings, will speak on human rights. A final panel Sunday will examine future challenges facing the world body.
Stephen Schlesinger, director of the World Policy Institute at the New School University in New York, says the organization's founding was not a simple matter. U.S. President Harry Truman was trying to implement the vision of his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt. Mr. Truman convinced delegates from 50 countries to gather in San Francisco. Professor Schlesinger chronicles the story of the complex negotiations in a book called Act of Creation. He says a lot was at stake.
"You have to remember that in the spring of 1945 when the conference began, the world had experienced two cataclysmic world wars within a 30-year period, World War I in which about 30 million people died, World War II, which was just then concluding, in which another 60 million people died."
He says through debate and behind-the-scenes intrigue, delegates hammered out the United Nations charter.
Ted Drenton, 84, was a student reporter who covered the U.N.'s founding conference for the Stanford University newspaper. He says there was euphoria in the streets and inside the opera house, where delegates and world leaders, including President Truman, gathered.
"There were people in the streets, throwing confetti when Truman came in. And in the Opera House, it was crowded," he recalled.
Political realities would persuade the body to limit its early goals. Stephen Schlesinger says the U.N. did not create a world government or international army to prevent future conflicts, as delegates had envisioned.
"On the other hand, the most important thing the organization was created to do was to prevent a third world war, and in the last 60 years, there has been no third world war, and that may be its greatest accomplishment," said Mr. Schlesinger.
Critics say the United Nations is ripe for reform. They point to recent scandals, including allegations that funds were siphoned off from the Iraqi oil-for-food program, which was intended to provide humanitarian aid for the Iraqi people at a time of U.N. sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein. Others question the legitimacy of the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission. A bipartisan U.S. panel has called for revamping the U.N. commission to exclude countries with a poor human rights record.
Amid debate over the U.N.'s future, no high-level delegations from the United States or from other countries will attend the commemoration. Organizers have criticized the Bush administration for sending a mid-level ambassador. State Department officials say scheduling conflicts kept Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Robert Zoellick, from attending.
Gillian Sorenson is an advisor to the United Nations Foundation, and a former U.N. official. She says the body's record is a good one and that its shortcomings, including the failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, are failures of its member nations.
"We need to be careful when we say ‘the U.N. failed,’” he explained. “The U.N. is us, and especially the United States."
Stephen Schlesinger says the United Nations has successfully filled a need to limit conflict, partly through enforcement efforts such as those in Korea in the 1950s and the Persian Gulf in the 1990s. He says the U.N. has also settled civil wars in places like Cambodia and Angola. He notes the body now carries out peacekeeping operations in 17 places in the world, from Kosovo to Cyprus, and says it is filling a role that individual nations cannot fill on their own.