WHAT should you do, or indeed what are you allowed to do, if you hear your neighbours repeatedly abusing their children? How do you protect those little victims if they decide to escape from their oppressors and seek sanctuary elsewhere? To any civilised person the answer seems to be obvious but the reality is somewhat different, clouded as it is by questions of morality and legality and, dare one say it, of political correctness. Translate that simple quandary into the realm of modern diplomacy and international affairs and it sums up the central dilemma facing the United Nations as it commemorates its foundation 70 years ago this weekend. (On the ratification of its founding charter by the five permanent members of the Security Council – France, the Republic of China, the Soviet Union, the UK and the US – and by a majority of the other 46 signatories, the UN officially came into existence at a meeting held in London on October 24, 1945.)

Then as now one of the main problems facing the UN was the protection of human rights. Prompted by the genocide and other heinous crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, the fledgling world body made the imposition of humanitarian law one of its primary objectives but it turned out to be a fraught experience.

The experience of the post-war world shows that gross violations of human rights have not only become the norm, they have also provoked mass migration of people on a scale that threatens to destabilise host nations thereby creating an additional threat to world peace and security. Throughout this year, the unprecedented flight into Europe of refugees from the Middle East and Africa has been a case in point and it has been exacerbated by the reluctance of the international community to take coercive measures against the governments responsible for the abuses which led to the mass exodus.

Seven decades after the UN’s foundation, the dilemma was given grim reality last week on the rain-soaked border between Croatia and Slovenia where 9,000 cold and hungry refugees were confronted by Slovenian police forces backed up by the army. As the wave of humanity continued to press into the bottleneck there were inevitable clashes and as the violence spiralled out of control, officials from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) were forced to withdraw. This was not pusillanimity on their part but tactical good sense allied to an understanding of their legal position under Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter, which prevents them from intervening “in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state”.

This prompts the additional question of whether or not the price of non-intervention is too high – the age-old cry that “something must be done” – not just on humanitarian grounds but also on the economic, social and political consequences created by the refugee crisis. As winter encroaches on the main migrant trail through the Balkans, it is a question that has to be answered if the UN is to have any credibility – not just in this 70th anniversary year but in the decades that lie ahead.

So far this year, more than 600,000 refugees, mostly fleeing violence in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, have made the dangerous journey to Europe – some 5,000 have been drowned in inflatable boats making the voyage from Turkey to Greece – and the numbers show no sign of diminishing. Last week the UN estimated that at least 27,000 people have arrived in the Greek islands with little more than the clothes they are wearing. At the same time and in the same area, having completed the long haul through Greece and Macedonia, thousands more have been stranded in bitterly cold and dispiriting conditions on Croatia’s frontier with Serbia.

Behind all this misery the main reason for the predicament of the refugees is warfare – the “scourge” which was supposed to have been eradicated by the UN when it came into being all those years ago. After all that is the main intention of Article 1 of the charter, with its sonorous declaration that the UN was founded “to maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace”.

It sounds too good to be true and to a certain extent it is just that – a diplomatic statement of intent which addresses a problem without providing the means of how it might be settled. But it has also to be seen within the context of the times in which the charter was so confidently composed. In 1945 the world had just come to the end of a global conflict which had been won by the allied powers but at an unspeakable cost. The losses are not known with any accuracy but most estimates agree that 57 million people died as a result of six years of fighting in which Germany and Japan had attempted to wage global war with limitless strategic objectives but decidedly limited capability. One example stands for many: according to the distinguished war historian HP Willmott, “of all Soviet males born in 1923 only three per cent were alive in 1946”.

With that dreadful haemorrhage in mind it was not surprising that the victorious allies vowed that never again would young lives be thrown away so carelessly and never again would the people of the world destroy themselves through armed combat. That understanding underpinned the Atlantic Charter of December 1941, which cemented the wartime alliance between the UK and the US and which later became the basis of the United Nations. At Dumbarton Oaks near Washington DC, 39 nations met to discuss the framework for a new global security organisation which would comprise a General Assembly and a Security Council of five permanent members and 10 other members which would be elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly on a regional basis.

It was not a perfect solution but at the time the delegates were fully justified in hoping that the UN would emerge as the “peace-preserving organ of world society”. They were also determined to learn from past mistakes. An earlier experiment at creating a global body to preserve peace had foundered when the League of Nations, founded in 1920, had failed to prevent the succession of crises in the 1930s which led to the outbreak of the Second World War. The US, despite being a founder through the promptings of President Woodrow Wilson, never became a member, the Senate having refused later to ratify the treaty; Germany joined in 1926 but left in 1934 and both Japan and Italy defied the League of Nations by invading, respectively, Manchuria in 1931 and Abyssinia in 1935.

Nevertheless, despite the failure of the League of Nations to provide an international association capable of keeping world peace, important lessons were learned and the United Nations prospered as a result. The world’s superpowers were instrumental in creating it and that sense of common cause was undoubtedly a factor in preventing the Cold War from overheating. In fact, despite the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation it quickly became clear that the UN’s greatest challenge came from the welter of lesser conflicts in Asia and Africa which erupted as proxy wars in the continuing rivalry between Washington and Moscow.

Together with the fallout from the decolonisation of Africa, those crises provided the major flashpoints and initially the UN was ill-equipped to deal with them. Only in the Congo between 1960 and 1964 was the UN able to concoct a force of blue-helmeted infantrymen from 11 African and three Asian governments plus Ireland and Sweden who knew that they might have to fight instead of acting as diplomatic bystanders. As seen by Sir Anthony Parsons, former UK Permanent Representative at the UN, it was also a defining moment: “Had it not been for the UN operation," he said, "there can be little doubt that the Congo would have disintegrated, that the infection of fragmentation would have spread throughout the continent, and that the Soviet Union and the United States, with their respective allies, would have entered the fray on behalf of opposing sides in a mounting number of mutually hostile, tribally based territories.”

Parsons 's comment also raises the question that other post-war conflicts in places like Somalia and Bosnia could have been avoided if the Congo model had been copied. This was quite different from the other major UN interventions in Korea (1950-1954) and the Gulf (1990-1991), where the Security Council delegated responsibility to US-led coalitions to do the fighting on its behalf. (The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 took place without a UN resolution.) Seen from that perspective the clash between war-making and peacekeeping is still an issue and the idea of a global UN army is still hotly debated, not least because there is provision for one within the UN Charter. Although there were some abject operational failures in the 1990s, such as the Rwandan genocide and the massacre at Srebrenica in the Balkans, there is still a school of thought which insists that the UN will only be effective when it has teeth. It is a salutary fact that every time the Security Council votes to deploy peacekeepers, the UN has to appeal for troops and equipment from amongst its 193 member states. Being forced to start from scratch it takes between three months and a year to deploy a UN force – far too slow, in an emergency where lives are at risk and speed is of the essence.

On the credit side, the idea has the advantage that not only would a UN army be cheaper to maintain over a long period, but the presence of the blue-helmeted soldiers brings a legitimacy which might otherwise be lacking in any intervention. Such an army need not be a standing force but a system could be created whereby certain capable nations would keep a proportion of their own armed forces on permanent standby. They would also be properly trained and equipped for peacekeeping operations which by their very nature require specialised skills. However, on the debit side the concept of a UN Army is met with deep suspicion even amongst those who admire the organisation. Critics argue that its creation would undermine the objectivity which has been carefully nurtured during the last 70 years and there would also be a problem of infringing national sovereignty. The US, for example, will not permit its forces to come under UN command and that restriction is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

There is also the problem of the way in which the UN is viewed and this extends to areas beyond its military capabilities. For many people, the UN is known not for its successes, such as eradicating smallpox or bringing relief in the time of natural disasters, but for its profligacy. In their view the UN is a byword for bureaucratic insensitivity and escalating budgets; it operates 17 specialised agencies, employs 41,000 people and has an annual budget of $5.4bn. Not for nothing do disgruntled Africans deride UN officials as “Benzis” – a sarcastic reference to the prevalence of white-painted air-conditioned off-road Mercedes Benz vehicles to be found in any UN compound across the continent.

Getting rid of that perception of waste, extravagance and incompetence is a major challenge for the organisation and it is one that has to be addressed before further reforms are even considered, let alone discussed. As Parsons noted with commendable understatement in a recent appraisal of his time in office at the UN, “there are incremental possibilities for improvement”.