We are the UN

Former Foreign Minister and diplomat, Prof. Adam Daniel Rotfeld, talks to Poland.pl about Poland’s contribution to the United Nations, bold political thinking, decision-making on the margins of the UN and Rafal Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who coined the term "genocide".

Poland.pl: In the life of a human being, the age of 70 is often a time for reflection. How would you sum up the work done by the United Nations on its 70th anniversary?

Prof. Adam Daniel Rotfeld*: Multilateral international institutions are a relatively new phenomenon in international relations. They did exist in the 19th century, but they were not inter-governmental in nature. For example, the International Red Cross, which was created in the second half of the 19th century, is a Swiss institution. With this in mind, one has to say that the United Nations is something very unique. The UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, was only active for 20 years and officially ceased operations after WW2, in 1946. 

As a result of its name, the United Nations is regarded as an institution that aims to unify nations. In reality, the U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first person to use the term during work on the Declaration of United Nations, which was written up by the leaders of the U.S. and Great Britain. The document became the foundation of the anti-Hitlerite coalition.  It was announced on 1 January 1942 and initially signed by 26 countries. This document not only gave the United Nations its name, it was also the ideological blueprint of the organisation.  The declaration stated the goals and objectives of the anti-Hitlerite coalition, which consisted of 26 countries, including democratic states as well as the Soviet Union. They were connected by the common goal of defeating Hitler’s allies and Japan, which were later described as “enemy States” in articles 53 and 107 of the United Nations Charter. 

We therefore had the United Nations as well as a group of enemy States. They consisted of 7 countries: the German Third Reich, Japan, Mussolini’s Italy, Finland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. As the Charter is used in its original state and has not been revised to this day, in effect the “enemy State” clause is still an integral part of the document. Of course, this reflects the formal-legal take on the matter, rather than the political reality – which has changed radically in the past decades. This is why, despite the fact that situation has radically changed over the last 70 years, some countries that are defined as enemy States within the Charter are in fact very friendly and do much more to support the UN than some of the founding nations of the UN defined in the Charter as “the original Members of the United Nations” (art. 3).

Poland did not participate in the founding conference of the UN. The UN Charter was signed on 15 October 1945 and was ratified on the following day. How has Poland contributed to the creation and functioning of this organisation?

The conference deciding on the passing of the Charter began in April 1945 in San Francisco. It was based on decisions previously discussed in Tehran during a meeting of the so-called “Big Three”. During the conference (which took place in late November-early December 1943), the leaders of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union – Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin – set out their objectives, which were later finalised in Yalta. Over the course of two months, until 26 June 1945, a document negotiated in Dumbarton Oaks was drafted in San Francisco that was presented at the city’s Opera House. The Charter was due to be signed by 50 states, which did not include Poland. Invited to attend the historical event, the famous Polish pianist Artur Rubinstein spoke out against the absence of Poland, saying that he did not see the Polish flag or a representative of the first country to fall victim to Nazi aggression. Rubinstein played Poland’s national anthem – as a reminder to all that historical events made Poland a natural original Member of the United Nations.

Artur Rubinstein In 2003, Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz, gave the United Nations a statue of Artur Rubinstein, financed by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Polish community in the United States. The statue shows Artur Rubinstein seated at a piano. On the piano, sculpted out of metal, are the notes of Dąbrowski's Mazurka, Poland’s national anthem. Poland was not present at the founding conference of the United Nations because there was a lack of clarity regarding who is the legitimate representative of the country: the government in exile or the representatives of the Polish Committee of National Liberation, supported by the Soviet Union. During WW2, the Soviet Union severed ties with Poland’s government in exile in London after reports about the Katyn massacre started to emerge. Stalin then quickly created the Polish Committee of National Liberation. A few months later the Provisional Government of National Unity was created and only then did Poland sign the Charter. After Poland’s signature and ratification the Charter came into force. This took place on 24th October. In effect, because of Poland United Nations Day is celebrated on 24 October. One year after the end of WW2, an “iron curtain” emerged and the member states of the United Nations were divided into two camps: those supporting the United States and a smaller group that was dominated, and in some cases occupied, by the Soviet Union. 

This all had an impact on how the Organisation functioned. Interestingly, when North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, the UN’s Security Council passed its only ever resolution –the “United for Peace” resolution – granting military assistance to another country. Assistance was provided to South Korea by the United States under the UN auspices. The resolution only came into being because the USSR representative had left the room a few moments earlier. He left the session not as a result of the situation in Korea, but as a sign of protest against China being represented at the Security Council by Chang Kai-shek (representing the Republic of China, located in Taiwan) rather than the Communist regime led by Mao Zedong. As a result, the “United for Peace” resolution was passed unanimously. This was a one-off in the history of the United Nations.

What was the first significant contribution made by Poland to the United Nations?

During this time of tension and distrust, when the Iron Curtain divided not only Europe but the entire world into East and West, into two separate blocks, one American and one Soviet dominated, Poland nevertheless still managed to make a meaningful contribution to the United Nations. I have in mind the important personal role played by Rafal Lemkin. He was a Polish lawyer who finished his studies in Lvov in 1926. He then set up his own chancellery, first in Brzeżany and later in Warsaw. He participated in international law conferences organised within the framework of the League of Nations. In September 1939, just after the outbreak of the war, Lemkin escaped through Latvia to Sweden, where he had been offered a scholarship before the war.

Dr Rafał Lemkin, 1948, New York While in Sweden he gave lectures and collected documentation about German law in occupied Europe. He then made his way from Sweden through the Soviet Union to the Far East, from where he reached the United States by ship. Lemkin brought with him boxes containing German legal acts that the Third Reich had enforced on the populations of occupied Europe. These documents helped him put together in a well-documented monograph. The documentation also played an important role in formulating international criminal law, whose core consisted of a concrete definition of the term genocide – which had not existed until then. During the war itself, Winston Churchill – describing the situation in Europe – said that the Germans were committing crimes so horrendous that they lacked a precise legal term to describe them. Lemkin proposed a term he derived from Greek (the word geno – people) and Latin (cide – murder – from caedes: killing). He connected these two words, forming the term genocide (in French – Le genocide; in Russian – gienocid; in German – Genozid).

Lemkin was not connected to any government or organisation. This reminds us that the United Nations was much more accessible to the wider public than it is today. That is why a unaffiliated lawyer could simply walk into the United Nations and meet senior representatives in the UN canteen. Lemkin was very persistent by nature, very stubborn. A few years ago I met a "New York Times" journalist who came into contact with Lemkin as a young reporter and said that he was considered a “nudnik” within journalist circles.

He managed to win over the head of the Norwegian delegation and almost a dozen high-ranking representatives of Latin American delegations as well as India. In effect, he singlehandedly led to the passing of the resolution on genocide and – a few years later, in December 1948 – the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. 

Lemkin’s accomplishment is even greater considering that he basically did this all on his own – something that is difficult to imagine today. He managed to successfully connect professionalism with moral sensitivity and was able to win over people to his thinking. Lemkin helped break taboo; he could not accept that no binding legislation was in place to prevent genocide simply because article 2, point 7 of the UN Charter prevented countries from intervention in matters “which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction”. Lemkin paved the road to a new way of thinking, which was later continued by UN Secretary Generals Dag Hammarskjold, Kofi Annan as well as Gareth Evans, the author of the Responsibility to Protect conceptual Report. 

Was this the only major contribution Poland made to the UN during this time?

During the Cold War and before it regained sovereignty, Poland was unable to play a substantial independent role within UN fora. After the liberalisation and “thaw” of 1956, Poland was involved in various disarmament and humanitarian initiatives. For example, in 1968 Poland was the co-author of a UN Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to Nazi War Crimes. Ten years later, Poland initiated and helped push through the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Among UN representatives within the Soviet sphere of influence, Poland’s Foreign Minister at the time, Adam Rapacki, distinguished himself through his culture and distinct tone and his ability to find ways in which to defend Poland’s position within Europe. On 1957 he presented to the United Nations his plan for a nuclear-free zone in Central Europe. This marked the start of active involvement on the part of Poland in the field of arms control and disarmament. It was an area that demanded professionalism and was not ideological in nature. 

The Soviet Union treated the issue of disarmament purely as a propaganda slogan. Poland did a lot of work on the issue and a group was created consisting of distinguished experts. They would go on to play an important role in the work done by the UN. Edmund Osmańczyk was the first and only person to independently put together a UN Encyclopedia, which was translated into many languages. Also very involved in the work done by the UN were Bohdan Lewandowski, Assistant Secretary General, and Henryk Sokalski, who led a UN peacekeeping mission in Macedonia. Andrzej Towpik wrote a book under the title The UN and Disarmament which remains valid today, even though forty years have passed since its publication. It is still one of the best monographs I know on the role of the UN and the disarmament process. It may be worth pointing out that the UN Charter only includes one word on the issue of disarmament, in article 11. Gwidon Rysiak, a lawyer at the Jagiellonian University, wrote a very good monograph on the article.

The Charter also does not include a reference to weapons of mass destruction. This can be explained by the fact that work on the Charter was drawn to a close on 26 June 1945 and information regarding the test of nuclear weapons only entered public discourse a month later, in July; and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened in August 1945. Polish efforts helped the UN adopt a number of measures on non-proliferation, with the aim of banning the testing of nuclear weapons and encouraging nuclear disarmament. The UN tackled the issue much more intensely than is stipulated in the Charter.

What can be regarded as the UN’s biggest success?

The United Nation’s biggest success has been the successful process of decolonisation, despite the fact that the term decolonisation does not appear in the Charter. Paradoxically, the UN’s achievements are most extensive in areas that were not included in the UN Charter. After all, the first sentence of the Charter reads: “We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…” The UN has not been able to prevent succeeding generations from wars, but it has been able to prevent a nuclear war from taking place. A major war in Europe has also not broken out. Furthermore, the history of the UN has marked the longest period of peace in the history of Europe. The history of Europe is, after all, a history of constant conflict interrupted by occasional moments of peace. 

The Charter also does not mention “peacekeeping missions.” Peacekeeping activities were never defined in the Charter. The fact that the UN has played such a meaningful role in this area is due to civil, intellectual and political courage as well as the professionalism and dedication of individuals who felt committed to the UN’s cause. Dag Hammerskjold, who was Secretary General from 1953 to 1961, literally gave his life protecting the ideals on which the UN was built. He died when his plane was shot down over Zambia. It was Hammerskjold, together with British diplomat Sir Brian Urquhart, who came up with the concept of peacekeeping missions and UN peace forces.

Another success is the standardisation of human rights as well as human dimension of security. Furthermore, the issue of sustainable development represents yet another area of the UN’s effectiveness in solving the problems of contemporary times.

Today, international security, sustainable development and protecting human rights are the three main pillars of the UN activities. The organisation is developing new approaches to protect the natural environment, mitigate climate change and find solutions to other global challenges.

We must not forget that the United Nations system and its inherent norms are not static, they are dynamic as they regulate life. Life, by its very nature is a dynamic process that creates completely different challenges in this day and age compared to the 1940s, the era when the United Nations was created. Back then, convening a conference or General Assembly session on the topic of climate change would have seemed like something out of a science fiction story. Today, it is an issue affecting the lives of billions of people around the world.

For those people that criticise the UN, my reply is two-pronged: first, no one has come up with a better alternative and no one can imagine a world without the UN system. Second, the UN is not an abstract creation; it is not made up of aliens. It is a common responsibility of all countries of the world. In other words, all of us – we are the UN.

Could you tell us of other notable Poles or Polish initiatives that have had an impact on the dealings of the UN after 1989?

After 1989 I lived in Stockholm, where I was the director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). As a result, I was limited in my ability to closely follow Poland’s activities within the UN framework. However, one major figure of Polish foreign policy after 1989 was Krzysztof Skubiszewski, a distinguished expert of international law and an authority on the UN. His first speech at the UN, which he wrote up himself on a typewriter, attracted a lot of attention. Not only because of its well-crafted content, but also because it was the first time since 1945 that one heard a free voice, unobstructed by ideology or dependencies.  It was the voice of the first non-Communist government of a free, sovereign and democratic Poland.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki Another person who played a prominent role within the UN system was Tadeusz Mazowiecki. In 1992, after having served as Poland’s first non-communist Prime-Minister, he became the UN Special Envoy to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a role he carried out for three years. Mazowiecki resigned, saying that „honesty must take precedence over twisted diplomacy, in which words about defending human rights become devoid of meaning”. He resigned because he was convinced that the great powers had proven to be helpless in the face of atrocities committed against Muslims. Kofi Annan, at that time the deputy Secretary General responsible for monitoring the situation in Rwanda, followed suit when the genocide took place in the country. He provided a self-critical assessment of his own work and thereafter as Secretary General said that the UN could not simply play the role of a passive witness.

Acts of courage, such as the decision by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, have had a bigger impact than passive approaches. Mazowiecki managed to rattle public opinion. His resignation had a big political and moral impact – staying in the position would have been a setback.

It must be said therefore, that Poland holds a special place within the UN framework, as a country that has contributed – and continues to contribute – new ideas and new approaches to the development of international law. Not insignificant in this regard, is the prestige and respect earned by the Polish school of international law, represented first and foremost by two former presidents of the International Court of Justice, professors Bohdan Winiarski and Manfred Lachs. 

What do you like most about Poland? What do you value most about Poland and Polish people?

One of the main advantages and strengths of Polish society is the ability of Poles to be innovative and capacity of Poles for bold thinking in unpredictable situations. I have in mind the distinguished Poles whose names I already mentioned. But also many others, who have helped shape Poland’s image. New ideas come to Poles naturally, in an unforced manner. They are good at improvising. Poles react to the reality around them. Poles call things as they are, they do not hid behind political correctness. Poland is valued around the world for its selflessness in putting into practice the ideals of justice and solidarity, for the ability to face challenges and spontaneous readiness to help others in difficult times. However, in everyday life I have to say that this romanticism and spontaneous reactions can also have a side effect. It is reflected quite often in discontinuity, in the lack of consistency and an ability to co-operative in the long-run. One can also get the impression that sometimes we celebrate our defeats and setbacks more than our successes, great achievements and victories.

For example, Jan III Sobieski’s victory at the Battle of Vienna (1683) is underestimated in the studies on Polish history and in the education of new generations of Poles. Too often, we recount our defeats – such as the January Uprising 1861/63 – rather than the great victory in Vienna, without which European history would have undoubtedly taken a different turn. Without this victory, Vienna, and perhaps even the whole of Europe, would have been occupied by the Turks. Jan III Sobieski fought the Battle of Vienna not out of geopolitical calculations and not for the riches he could have claimed but out of loyalty to the beliefs and convictions that he held dear. He wanted to defend Christianity and its values. That was the main motivation behind his involvement in the battle. Despite this, Austrians have never bestowed the Polish King with the recognition and fame that he deserves.

Poland has now been independent for 26 years. It is high time for us to think of Poland as an integral part of Europe. We also need to stop telling ourselves that the State is to blame for our mistakes and defeats. We are seeing how success is being privatised while personal setbacks are nationalized. If someone is successful in something then they regard it as a testament of their talent and energy. However, if something doesn’t work out then the State automatically gets the blame. We have to tell ourselves that both successes and defeats are down to us. The State shouldn’t be perceived as an obstacle, as a barrier – it should be seen as a promoter of opportunities, supporting its citizens. Only then will we be able to build pride and respect for our own country. The world respects those who respect themselves.

Interviewed by Ewa Kwaśnik-Ciągło and Magdalena Majewska


*Prof. Adam Daniel Rotfeld – born 4 March 1938 in Przemyślany, close to Lvov, Polish scientist and diplomat, Poland’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs in the government of Marek Belka. In 1961-1989 he worked at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). Starting in 1989, he worked at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) for 12 years. He is involved in helping diffuse international conflicts and helping mediate difficult issues. In 1992-1993 he was part of the political mission to find a solution in the Transnistria conflict. From 2006 he was a member of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, a position he held for six years. In January 2008 he was named Co-Chairman of the Polish-Russian Group on Difficult Matters. In August 2009, the NATO Secretary General made Prof. Rotfeld a member of the NATO Group of Experts (Wisemen Group) tasked with preparing the new Strategic Concept of the Alliance. In 2014 he joined the Panel of Eminent Persons tasked with preparing a report on European Security as a Common Project.”

Rotfeld is a professor at the Artes Liberales department of the University of Warsaw and lectures at the College of Europe (Natolin).