AbstractOver the past seventy-five years, the UN has evolved significantly, often in response to geopolitical dynamics and new waves of thinking. In some respects, the UN has registered remarkable achievements, stimulating a wide range of multilateral treaties, promoting significant growth of human rights, and at times playing a central role in containing and preventing large-scale armed conflict. As part of the special issue on "The United Nations at Seventy-Five: Looking Back to Look Forward," this essay argues that the organization has been the most impactful in three areas: producing, shaping, and driving key ideas, particularly on development and rights; generating such effective operational agencies as UNICEF and the World Food Program; and, especially in the immediate post–Cold War period, addressing major conflict risks through the Security Council. Since then, however, the UN has struggled to meet emerging challenges on many fronts and been increasingly hampered by internal ossification and institutional sprawl as well as internecine dysfunction. The twenty-first century has confronted the UN with further challenges relating most notably to climate change; to risks arising from new technologies; and to the increasingly fraught relationships between China, Russia, and the United States. If the past seventy-five years can offer one lesson, it is that new thinking and new ideas will need to drive the organization to evolve still further and faster, or else risk irrelevance.
This article situates the emergence of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept, later accepted by many as a principle, in the wider flow of events following on the end of the Cold War. Among the hallmarks of change in the United Nations (UN) Security Council as of the early 1990s, in stark contrast to the Council's preoccupations during its first four decades of activity, was its growing attention to humanitarian considerations relating to conflict, its new willingness to tackle conflicts (mainly internal ones) it might have avoided earlier, and its willingness to experiment with new approaches to resolving them. Just as worries over terrorism and the threat of weapons of mass destruction were to become dominant themes in its work, the humanitarian imperative also incrementally wove itself into the fabric of the Council's decision-making. It is against this wider backdrop and that of several spectacular UN failures to prevent genocide and other mass humanitarian distress that UN Secretary-General (UNSG) Kofi Annan was impelled as of 1999 to look beyond existing international law and practice for a new normative framework, that while formally respecting the sovereignty of states nevertheless elevated humanitarian concerns and action to the level of an international responsibility to prevent the worst outcomes. Today R2P finds itself competing with other legal and diplomatic principles, but it remains a potent platform for advocacy and, at times, for action by the UN.