United Nations (UN), international organization of countries created to promote world peace and cooperation. The UN was founded after World War II ended in 1945. Its mission is to maintain world peace, develop good relations between countries, promote cooperation in solving the world’s problems, and encourage respect for human rights.
The UN is an organization of countries that agree to cooperate with one another. It brings together countries that are rich and poor, large and small, and have different social and political systems. Member nations pledge to settle their disputes peacefully, to refrain from using force or the threat of force against other countries, and to refuse help to any country that opposes UN actions.
UN membership is open to any country willing to further the UN mission and abide by its rules. Each country, no matter how large or small, has an equal voice and vote. Each country is also expected to pay dues to support the UN. As of 2007 the UN had 192 members, including nearly every country in the world.
The UN’s influence in world affairs has fluctuated over the years, but the organization gained new prominence beginning in the 1990s. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. Still, the UN faces constant challenges. It must continually secure the cooperation of its member nations because the organization has little independent power or authority. But getting that support is not always easy. Many nations are reluctant to defer their own authority and follow the dictates of the UN.
|II||CREATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS|
The UN is the result of a long history of efforts to promote international cooperation. In the late 18th century, German philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed a federation or “league” of the world’s nations. Kant believed that such a federation would allow countries to unite and punish any nation that committed an act of aggression. This type of union by nations to protect each other against an aggressor is sometimes referred to as collective security. Kant also felt that the federation would protect the rights of small nations that often become pawns in power struggles between larger countries.
Kant’s idea came to life after World War I (1914-1918). Horrified by the devastation of the war, countries were inspired to come together and work toward peace. They formed a new organization, the League of Nations, to achieve that goal. The League would last from 1920 to 1946 and have a total of 63 member nations through its history, including some of the world’s greatest powers: France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Germany, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). But the League had two major flaws. First, several of the world’s most powerful countries were not members, most notably, the United States. Second, the League required consensus among its members to oppose aggression. Dissent by any one member could prevent consensus and render the League impotent. When Japan, Italy, and Germany undertook military aggression in the 1930s, they would not agree to censure themselves, thus preventing the consensus necessary for League action. This aggression ultimately led to World War II (1939-1945). In the end, the League failed in its most basic mission, to prevent another world war.
Despite this failure, the idea of a league did not die. The first commitment to create a new organization came in 1941, when U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill announced the Atlantic Charter, in which they pledged to work toward a more effective system to keep world peace and promote cooperation. In 1942 representatives of the Allies—the World War II coalition of 26 nations fighting against Germany and Japan—signed a Declaration by United Nations accepting the principles of the Atlantic Charter. The declaration included the first formal use of the term United Nations, a name coined by President Roosevelt. A year later, four of the Allies—the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China—agreed to establish a general international organization. The four countries met in 1944 at the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington, D.C., and drafted a charter for the new organization. They called the new league the United Nations. But they still could not agree to certain details, such as membership and voting rights.
The four countries met again in early 1945 at a summit in Yalta, Ukraine (see Yalta Conference). There, they settled their differences and called for a conference of nations to complete their work. On April 25, 1945, the United Nations Conference on International Organization convened in San Francisco, with delegates from 50 countries attending. The delegates worked for two months to complete a charter for the UN that included its purpose, principles, and organizational structure. The charter contained a formal agreement committing all the world’s nations to a common set of basic rules governing their relations. The UN officially came into existence on October 24, 1945, with 51 member countries-the 50 represented at the conference and Poland, which had not been able to send a delegate.
Like the League of Nations, the UN was founded to promote peace and prevent another world war. The UN recognized it would not be successful unless it had the ongoing support of the world’s most powerful countries. The organization took several steps to ensure that support. To encourage continued U.S. involvement, the UN placed its headquarters in New York City. To reassure the world’s most powerful countries that it would not threaten their sovereignty, the UN gave them veto authority over its most important actions. Five countries received this veto power: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and China. (Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s veto after the breakup of that country in 1991.)
Another major strength of the UN, unlike the earlier League of Nations, is that virtually every territory in the world is a member, or a province, or a colony of a member. Some nonmember political entities, such as the Vatican City and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), also have permanent observer mission status at the UN.
|III||STRUCTURE OF THE UNITED NATIONS|
The UN’s charter established six distinct bodies that serve different functions: (1) the General Assembly, (2) the Security Council, (3) the Secretariat, (4) the Economic and Social Council, (5) the International Court of Justice, and (6) the Trusteeship Council.
The General Assembly is made up of all 192 member countries, each with one vote. It undertakes all major discussions and decisions about UN actions. It is like a global town hall, providing a powerful medium for countries to put forward their ideas and debate issues. The Assembly can discuss and make recommendations on any issue covered by the UN’s charter. However, the recommendations are not binding and the Assembly has no authority to enforce them. Members decide routine matters with a simple majority vote. Important decisions require a two-thirds majority.
The General Assembly meets annually in regular sessions that generally run from mid-September to mid-December. Recently the General Assembly has been meeting year round. It also convenes for special sessions every few years on specific topics, such as economic cooperation or disarmament. In addition, the Assembly can meet in emergency session to deal with an immediate threat to international peace. At the beginning of each regular session, Assembly members elect a president to preside over the assembly. The Assembly sessions, like most UN deliberations, are simultaneously translated into many languages so that delegates from around the world can understand any speaker.
The General Assembly has the power to admit new members to the UN. It approves the budget for UN programs and operations. The Assembly can establish agencies and programs to carry out its recommendations. It elects members to serve on certain agencies and programs, and it coordinates those programs through various committees.
The Security Council is the most powerful body in the UN. It is responsible for maintaining international peace, and for restoring peace when conflicts arise. Its decisions are binding on all UN members and have the force of international law. The Security Council has the power to define what is a threat to security, to determine how the UN should respond, and to enforce its decisions by ordering UN members to take certain actions. For example, the Council may impose economic sanctions, such as halting trade with a country it considers an aggressor.
The Council convenes any time there is a threat to peace. A representative from each member country who sits on the Council must be available at all times so that the Council can meet at a moment’s notice. The Security Council also frequently meets at the request of a UN member—often a nation with a grievance about another nation’s actions.
The Security Council has 15 members, 5 of which hold permanent seats. The General Assembly elects the other 10 members for rotating two-year terms. The 5 permanent members—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), and China—have the most power. These nations were the winning powers at the end of World War II, and they still represent the bulk of the world’s military might.
Decisions of the Council require nine votes. But any one of the permanent members can veto an important decision. This authority is known as the veto right of the great powers. As a result, the Council is effective only when its permanent members can reach a consensus. This created problems during the Cold War, the post-1945 struggle between the United States and Soviet Union that ended when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. During that time, the council was frequently deadlocked because the United States and Soviet Union could not agree. Beginning in the 1990s, increased cooperation between the United States and Russia enabled the council to become more effective.
The Council has a variety of ways it can try to resolve conflicts between countries. Usually the Council’s first step is to encourage the countries to settle their disagreements without violence. The Council can mediate a dispute or recommend guidelines for a settlement. It can send peacekeeping troops into a distressed area. If war breaks out, the Council can call for a ceasefire. It can enforce its decisions by imposing economic sanctions on a country, or by authorizing joint military action.
In recent years, there has been growing controversy over which countries should have permanent seats on the Council. Some nations believe that other countries beside the original five should be included. For example, Japan and Germany are powerful countries that pay large membership dues and make substantial contributions to the UN, yet they do not have permanent seats. There is no easy solution to this problem. Adding more permanent members creates its own set of complications, including how to decide which countries get a seat and which do not. For example, if Germany joined, three of the permanent members would be European, giving that region an unfair advantage. Several proposals for addressing this problem have been considered, including adding Germany and Japan as permanent members, waiving the veto power of the permanent members, and limiting Council membership to one year. Thus far, none of the proposals have been adopted, partly because the present structure works well for the five permanent members and they can veto any changes to it.
The Secretariat is the UN’s executive branch. It oversees the administration of the UN’s programs and policies and carries out day-to-day operations. This branch is headed by the secretary general, who acts as the UN’s spokesperson.
The UN’s staff includes administrators, experts on technical issues such as environmental protection, and economic advisors working on various programs and projects in the member countries. These workers have a variety of responsibilities, such as overseeing the operations of peacekeeping missions, preparing studies on world issues, organizing international conferences, surveying economic and social trends, and providing translations of speeches. They perform the day-to-day work necessary for basic UN operations. The largest concentration of staff outside New York City is in Geneva, Switzerland, where several UN programs and agencies have headquarters.
One purpose of the Secretariat is to develop an international civil service of diplomats and bureaucrats whose loyalties are not tied to any one country. The staff answers only to the UN and takes an oath not to obey any outside authority. The UN charter calls on its members to respect the independence and international character of the staff. However, the UN has had mixed success following through on this ideal. The secretary general is generally seen as an independent diplomat. But member nations still compete to place their citizens in control of staffs that administer important UN programs.
In the early 1990s the UN bureaucracy came under increasing criticism for inefficiency and even corruption. Much of this criticism came from the United States, which believed it was bearing an unfair share of the costs of supporting the UN. By the mid-1990s, these criticisms had led to a series of reforms, including budget and staff reductions.
The secretary general is a powerful public figure who oversees the daily operations of the UN and plays a major role in setting the organization’s agenda in international security affairs. The secretary general can bring to the Security Council any matter that might threaten world peace. The secretary general has the authority to serve as a neutral mediator in international conflicts and to bring hostile parties together to negotiate. The secretary general’s personal attention to a problem can often help bring about a resolution. For example, in the 1990s Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali personally mediated conflicts in Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. In the 1980s, Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar mediated conflicts in Central America. The secretary general also works to build consensus among the five permanent members of the Security Council, knowing that without it the Council cannot act.
The secretary general is formally chosen by the General Assembly. But the secretary general must first be nominated by the Security Council and win the consent of all five of its permanent members. The secretary general serves a five-year term, which may be renewed. The Security Council can nominate a candidate from any country, but it is an unwritten tradition that the position rotates geographically, with a secretary general chosen from a new region after every two terms. In 1997 the General Assembly created the post of deputy secretary general to assist in the management of the Secretariat. The secretary general appoints the deputy secretary general.
The secretary general, like the rest of the UN staff, is supposed to be independent. In reality, the secretary general must rely on member countries, especially the five permanent Security Council members, to get anything done. As a result, the secretary general often struggles with the Security Council over what direction the UN should take. Since the Security Council chooses the secretary general, there is a limit on how independent the position can be.
Kofi Annan of Ghana was elected by the General Assembly to be secretary general from 1997 through 2001. In 2001 the General Assembly unanimously elected him to a second term, running from 2002 through 2006. He was the first secretary general from sub-Saharan Africa and the first to rise through the UN staff to the top job. Before becoming secretary general, Annan served as undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations. He was credited with doing the best job possible with difficult peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Bosnia in the early 1990s. Annan was educated in the United States and knew the UN bureaucracy well. As secretary general, Annan reformed the UN secretariat’s finances and management and significantly improved relations between the UN and the United States. He also worked to improve human rights worldwide and to slow the spread of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), particularly in developing countries.
Annan’s immediate predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, was secretary general from 1992 through 1996. He tried to expand the UN’s role as peacekeeper and peacemaker. He was outspoken with the Security Council, a trait that got him into trouble with its members, particularly the United States. For example, he scolded the Council for giving him big projects without enough money to carry them out. In 1996 the United States vetoed his candidacy for a second term. Since both Annan and Boutros-Ghali represented African nations, Annan’s selection preserved the tradition of keeping the secretary general’s post in the same geographic region for two terms. Annan was succeeded in 2007 by Ban Ki Moon, former foreign minister of South Korea.
Secretaries general have come from various regions of the world, but it is an unwritten rule that they never should come from one of the most powerful countries. This tradition is a response to concerns that a secretary general selected from such a country would not be perceived by other nations as objective or neutral. There is also a fear that such a selection would give the world’s most influential nations that much more power. Past secretaries general include Trygve Lie of Norway, who served from 1946 to 1953; Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden, 1953 to 1961; U Thant of Burma (now Myanmar), 1961 through 1971; Kurt Waldheim of Austria, 1972 to 1982; and Javier Pérez de Cuéllar of Peru, 1982 through 1991. No woman has yet served in this position.
|D||Economic and Social Council|
The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) works under the authority of the General Assembly to coordinate the economic and social work of the UN. ECOSOC has 54 member countries elected by the General Assembly for three-year terms. ECOSOC coordinates studies and recommends actions on international topics such as medicine, education, economics, and social needs. It promotes higher living standards, full employment, respect for human rights, and economic and social progress. It oversees the work of a large number of UN programs and agencies.
ECOSOC operates mainly through various standing committees, functional commissions, and regional commissions. There are five regional commissions that look at how the UN’s programs in a particular region are working together. There are ten functional commissions that deal with topics such as population growth, narcotics trafficking, human rights, and the status of women. Other committees work on topics relevant to several UN programs, such as crime prevention, public finance, natural resources, science and technology, and geographical names.
ECOSOC coordinates the work of many specialized agencies that provide a variety of social, economic, and related services. The agencies operate independently but work with other programs in the UN. Those agencies include the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Labor Organization (ILO), and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). ECOSOC also works closely with the private sector and with more than 2,000 nongovernmental organizations.
|E||International Court of Justice|
The International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, is the judicial arm of the UN. It is located in The Hague, Netherlands. The court hears cases brought by nations against each other. It has 15 judges, elected by the Security Council and the General Assembly. A country is not required to participate in the court’s proceedings, but if it agrees to participate, it must abide by the court’s decisions.
The Trusteeship Council was established to oversee the transition of a handful of colonies to independence. The last of those colonies, the Palau Islands, gained independence in 1994, making the Trusteeship Council obsolete.
|IV||MEMBERSHIP IN THE UN|
The UN started in 1945 with 51 founding members—including the 50 countries that had attended the San Francisco conference, and Poland, which was not at the conference but signed the charter later.
New members are admitted to the UN on the recommendation of the Security Council, if approved by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly. Membership is open to any country that supports the UN’s mission and is willing to follow the rules and responsibilities specified in the charter.
In its early years, Western countries dominated the UN and the General Assembly regularly sided with the United States. The Soviet Union provided a balance to Western influence by using its veto power in the Security Council.
The balance of power began to change in the 1950s and 1960s, as colonies in Asia and Africa gained independence and became members of the UN. The UN’s membership more than doubled during that time and the new members had different concerns than did the once-dominant Western industrial nations. Many of the new members believed the United States was too powerful and the UN too often gave in to American interests. As newly independent developing nations began to predominate, they affected voting patterns in the UN. The United States found itself in the minority on many issues. By the end of the 1970s, the United States had become the primary user of the veto.
Another change in UN membership involved representation for China. In 1945 China joined the United Nations as a founding member and was represented by the Nationalist government in Nanjing. In 1949 the Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war against the Communists and retreated to the island of Taiwan. Backed by the United States and other Western nations, the Nationalist government on Taiwan claimed to be the legitimate government of all China and continued to hold the China seat in the UN until 1971. That year the General Assembly took the seat away from Taiwan and gave it to the Communist government in Beijing, on the mainland. This action left Taiwan without representation in the UN. Taiwan would like to be a member and has tried to win a separate seat. But China regards Taiwan as a province and has opposed independence for the island, despite the fact that Taiwan functions like an independent nation in many international matters. China has vehemently objected to UN membership for Taiwan because leaders there believe if the UN recognizes Taiwan with a seat it would help that government’s bid for independence.
The UN is funded by dues paid by each of its members. Each country’s dues are based upon its wealth and ability to pay. The UN also requires countries to make financial contributions to its peacekeeping efforts. In addition, many countries make voluntary contributions to support various UN programs. The United States is the largest contributor to the UN.
The UN cannot force member nations to pay their dues. Many nations have failed to pay their full dues and have cut their voluntary contributions, causing the organization to fall into considerable debt.
The financial crisis began in the 1980s when countries started falling behind in their payments. Yet as financial support declined, the UN’s expenses grew. In 1996 the UN came perilously close to bankruptcy. After Kofi Annan became UN secretary general in 1997, he pushed through reforms to consolidate some major UN offices, in part to encourage the United States to pay its back dues. In 1999 the U.S. Congress agreed to pay nearly $1 billion of back dues, but only on the condition that the UN decrease the U.S. share of the administrative budget from 25 to 22 percent and its share of the peacekeeping budget from 31 to 25 percent.
In 2000 the General Assembly responded to these terms by overhauling its system of financing. It set a ceiling of 22 percent as the maximum amount any country would pay toward the administrative budget. It also replaced its ad hoc system of funding peacekeeping operations with a sliding scale of dues based on a country’s per capita income. As a result, the U.S. contribution to peacekeeping operations declined to about 27 percent by 2004, and more than two dozen countries accepted increases in their peacekeeping contributions.
The UN also receives money from private citizens. Individuals may donate to various UN programs, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Program (WFP). In 1997 American business executive Ted Turner pledged $1 billion to UN programs, the largest single gift to the UN in its history.
|VI||FUNCTIONS OF THE UN|
The UN today has the same basic purpose and structure as it did when it was founded in 1945. Its primary purpose—and greatest benefit to its members—is to maintain world peace. That, in turn, helps countries to develop and prosper, thereby improving the lives of their citizens. In addition to that primary mission, the UN serves its member countries in a variety of other ways. The UN provides a forum for countries to promote their views and settle conflicts without violence. It allows countries to cooperate to solve world problems, such as poverty, disease, and threats to the environment. It serves as a symbol of international order and global identity. It works to address economic and social problems in developing countries, with the idea that such problems create sources of conflict that can lead to war. The UN helps coordinate the work of hundreds of agencies and programs, both within its own organization and outside it. It also collects and publishes global statistics.
|A||Maintenance of International Peace and Security|
The UN has three primary ways to maintain international peace and security. All directly involve the Security Council. Under chapter 6 of the UN charter, the UN can assist in the peaceful resolution of international disputes. This authority has evolved into the use of UN authorized peacekeeping forces. Under chapter 7 of the UN charter, the UN can authorize military action to enforce its resolutions. Finally, the UN can serve as a forum for international deliberations on long-term solutions to pressing security issues, such as arms control and terrorism.
Peacekeeping is the nonaggressive use of military force to help nations in conflict reach a settlement. The UN charter does not mention peacekeeping forces, although chapter 6 of the charter does establish guidelines for peaceful resolution of international conflicts.
The UN’s first peacekeeping effort took place in the Middle East in 1948. The UN sent unarmed observers to help maintain the truce negotiated after five Arab countries attacked Israel earlier in the year. The UN first used armed peacekeepers during the Suez Crisis of 1956, when England, France, and Israel fought Egypt for control of the Suez Canal. The peacekeepers oversaw the withdrawal of French, British, and Israeli troops and acted as a buffer between the warring parties.
Today, the UN’s peacekeeping forces play a neutral role, working to calm regional conflicts in several ways. They can go into an area of conflict as observers, making sure agreements reached between opposing sides are being followed. They can provide a buffer between warring parties by physically interposing themselves in the middle. They can negotiate with military officers on both sides, providing a channel of communication. They can also monitor ceasefires, supervise elections, and provide humanitarian aid.
Peacekeepers are lightly armed. They travel in armored vehicles with automatic rifles, but lack artillery, tanks, or other heavy weapons. Their work can be hazardous, especially if one of the warring sides doubts their neutrality. They are often caught in the middle when ceasefires collapse and they sometimes have been deliberately attacked. By 2007 more than 2,300 peacekeepers had died in the line of duty.
The Security Council grants authority for peacekeeping missions, usually for several months, although the Council can reauthorize missions for many years. The UN does not have its own army, so the Security Council borrows forces for each mission from the military and police personnel of member countries. The Security Council also chooses a single commander, and the forces operate under UN command. The forces operate only if the parties in conflict agree to their presence. Thus, the success of a peacekeeping mission depends upon the cooperation of the opposing parties.
Peacekeeping forces are funded by special fees paid by UN members. The General Assembly must approve the funds. Today, lack of funds is the single greatest constraint in the use of peacekeeping forces. As peacekeeping operations have expanded, they have required more and more money.
UN peacekeepers won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988 in recognition of their successes. In the early 21st century the UN had nearly 90,000 troops from 112 countries in almost 20 separate peacekeeping missions in regions of the world including South Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa. In July 2007 the UN Security Council authorized a peacekeeping force of 26,000 for the Darfur region of Sudan. It became the UN’s largest peacekeeping force.
See also United Nations Peacekeeping Forces.
In addition to peacekeeping missions, the UN can also authorize peace enforcement operations. Unlike peacekeeping missions, which help willing parties maintain an existing peace agreement, peace enforcement operations seek to repel international aggression, using military force if necessary. Under chapter 7 of the UN charter, the Security Council may authorize member countries to take military action in response to international breaches of the peace. The UN’s founders initially envisioned chapter 7 as the teeth in the UN charter.
An early example of the UN’s role in peace enforcement came in 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea, starting the Korean War. The UN Security Council condemned the invasion and authorized a multinational force, led by the United States, to repel the attack. This resolution was only possible because the USSR boycotted the Security Council meeting to protest the UN’s refusal to recognize the communist government of China. When the USSR returned to the Security Council, it used its veto to protect its ally, North Korea. After the Korean War, the Cold War prevented further UN peace enforcement operations.
The UN again authorized a peace enforcement mission in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. After Iraq refused to comply with UN demands to withdraw, the UN launched a military operation to expel Iraq from Kuwait. This operation was again led by the United States, and it included a vast coalition of forces from many UN member countries (see Persian Gulf War). UN-sponsored peace enforcement operations remain rare, however, because of the difficulty of getting all five of the veto-wielding great powers to agree to military action.
The UN charter authorizes the Security Council to plan for worldwide disarmament and arms control. To help achieve those goals, the UN has sponsored arms control negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland, for decades. The General Assembly also held a special session on disarmament in June 1982. None of these UN activities have had much direct effect on actual arsenals.
Instead, during the Cold War, the most important arms control agreements were reached by countries negotiating directly with each other, particularly by the United States and Soviet Union. At that time, arms control was dominated by the nuclear arms race between the superpowers. The United States and the Soviet Union reached several important agreements, and then other countries signed on. Examples include the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty, and the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. In some instances the General Assembly ratified these agreements. But in none of these cases did the UN play a major role.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, UN agencies assumed a lead role in enforcing a Security Council resolution to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. IAEA inspectors uncovered and dismantled Iraq’s secret nuclear weapons program, and other UN weapons inspectors monitored the destruction of stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. However, in 1998 Iraq announced it would no longer cooperate with the UN. In 2002, in response to renewed U.S. efforts to enforce Iraqi disarmament, the Security Council approved a resolution warning of “serious consequences” if Iraq did not disarm. Weapons inspections resumed, but U.S. authorities charged that Iraq was not cooperating fully and was hiding banned weapons. In March 2003, after diplomatic talks broke down, the United States led a military assault on Iraq. However, U.S. forces failed to find any evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and subsequent investigations revealed that much of the prewar intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs was flawed. See U.S.-Iraq War.
|B||Economic and Social Development|
The second major function of the UN is to promote economic and social development worldwide. The UN engages in a myriad of activities and sponsors a large number of agencies to meet this goal. The UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) oversees these activities.
The UN operates under the principle that promoting economic and social development will help bring about lasting world peace. The organization’s charter calls on the UN to promote full employment for all, higher standards of living, and economic and social progress. As a result, the UN devotes a major proportion of its staff and budget to economic development programs worldwide. The General Assembly has recognized the need to restructure international economic relations to help developing countries and has recommended a series of steps aimed at reducing the gap between wealthy and poor countries.
The UN operates many programs and special agencies to promote economic development and provide assistance and technical expertise to developing countries. One of those programs is the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Many developing nations rely on income from trade to support their economic development efforts at home and are especially vulnerable to price fluctuations on international markets and other trade problems. UNCTAD was founded in the 1960s to help negotiate international trade agreements that stabilize prices and promote trade with developing countries. During the 1970s the General Assembly included those goals in its call for a New International Economic Order to promote growth in developing countries. But developing countries have little power in the international economy, and as a result UNCTAD has been largely ineffective in advancing their interests in international trade.
Other efforts include the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which coordinates all UN efforts in developing nations. It is funded through voluntary contributions and has thousands of projects operating around the world. UNDP is the world’s largest international agency providing development assistance on technical issues. Two related agencies are the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research.
UN programs offer several advantages in promoting economic development. Governments of developing nations see the UN as a friend of the developing world, not as an outsider threatening their authority or as a reminder of colonial rule. Many UN experts and volunteers are themselves from other developing countries. UN workers who come from the developing world may be more sensitive to local conditions and to the pitfalls of development assistance than their counterparts from more wealthy countries. The UN can also organize its assistance on an international scale, avoiding duplication of efforts. Some issues, such as prevention and treatment of major diseases and environmental protection, particularly benefit from the UN’s international approach.
A major disadvantage of the UN development programs is that their funding largely depends on voluntary contributions from wealthy nations. Each program has to solicit contributions to carry on its activities, and contributions can be abruptly cut off if the program displeases a donor government. In addition, programs sometimes lack the efficiency and resources that governments and businesses in wealthy countries take for granted. This has given the programs a reputation for being inefficient and bureaucratic.
The UN also helps finance development through the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, better known as the World Bank. The World Bank was created in 1944 to help developing nations get funding for projects. The bank grants loans to member countries to finance specific projects and this in turn encourages foreign investing. A related agency, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was created at the same time to promote international cooperation on monetary issues. It encourages a stable, orderly pattern of monetary exchange rates between nations.
The UN has recognized that adequate health and control of disease are essential to economic and social development. The World Health Organization (WHO) is the leading UN agency to address global health concerns. Its goal is to improve the health of all people, and it does this through a number of global health programs. WHO epidemiologists help track outbreaks of new diseases and epidemics. For example, WHO was instrumental in diagnosing and containing the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. WHO also helps deliver basic immunizations to underserved populations. One of the greatest accomplishments of the WHO was the eradication of smallpox, a viral disease that once devastated humans around the globe.
The UN has also taken action to combat the worldwide epidemic of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). In 1995 it established the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) to coordinate the international response to the disease. In 2000, the United States led a special session of the Security Council to address the global threat from AIDS, and the General Assembly held a special session on AIDS the following year. Sessions such as these focused global attention on the disease and helped to win commitments of resources to the UNAIDS program.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) encourages and coordinates sound environmental practices throughout the world. It grapples with ways to approach environmental problems on an international level, provides expertise to member countries, monitors environmental conditions worldwide, develops environmental standards, and recommends alternative energy sources.
UNEP’s work is guided by principles adopted at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit. The summit, which took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was the largest such conference ever held, attracting with more than 100 national leaders. It was the third international environmental conference hosted by the UN.
The first UN environment conference took place in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972. It adopted general environmental principles, such as the idea that one country’s actions should not cause environmental damage to another. It also raised awareness about the international aspects of environmental damage. A second conference was held in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1982. Nairobi is the headquarters of the UN Environment Program.
The 1992 Earth Summit was larger and more ambitious than its predecessors. Its major theme was sustainable economic development, meaning development that does not use up or destroy so many of the world’s natural resources that it cannot be sustained over time. The meeting produced an overall plan, called Agenda 21, in which large developing countries promised to develop their industries with an eye toward protecting the environment. Industrialized countries pledged to help them do that. The Earth Summit also produced major treaties on biodiversity and global warming, although the latter treaty lacked enforcement provisions.
In 2002, UNEP sponsored the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. This conference sought to help developing countries undergo industrialization without harming the environment. But progress on environmental issues is slow because proposed solutions continue to pit the interests of poorer developing countries against those of richer industrialized nations. Most developing countries cannot afford to build an environmentally sound industrial base, while industrialized countries are unwilling to absorb the entire cost of environmental reform.
|B4||Other Economic and Social Programs|
The UN operates a host of other economic and social programs. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) addresses the needs of children worldwide. The International Labor Organization (ILO) advocates for workers’ rights. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) helps countries improve education and literacy, promotes ethics in science, and works to preserve cultural diversity. The United Nations Population Fund promotes family planning, safe pregnancies and childbirths, and reproductive health in developing countries, and it helps countries formulate population policies. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime helps countries fight illicit drugs, crime, and terrorism. The UN has an organization, commission, or specialized agency to address nearly every social issue on the global agenda.
One of the UN’s major goals under its charter is to promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all people, regardless of race, sex, language, or religion. But once again, the UN’s effectiveness in promoting its agenda is limited by its lack of authority over member nations.
After the atrocities committed by the Germans in the Holocaust, the slaughter of Jews that occurred during World War II, the UN adopted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration was adopted on December 10, 1948, which is now celebrated annually as Human Rights Day. It proclaims that “all human beings are born free and equal” and establishes basic rights for all people and norms for the behavior of governments in many areas. For example, it says that all people have the right to liberty, religious and political freedom, education, and economic well-being. It bans torture and states that all people have the right to participate in their governments. The declaration does not have the force of law, however, and seems to have had little visible effect on the UN’s member countries. Governments with poor human rights records, such as China, criticize the UN’s attempts to promote human rights, saying that such actions interfere with their internal affairs.
Until 2006 the UN operated a Commission on Human Rights. In 2006 this commission was replaced with a Human Rights Council. The work of the previous commission had been largely discredited because countries known to violate human rights had become members. As members they often blocked the commission from censuring them for their human rights abuses. The reformed Human Rights Council was created to address this problem. The UN General Assembly now elects individual countries to the council by majority vote. Previously, membership on the council was allocated by region. The council also reviews the human rights records of member countries, and systematic violators of human rights can be suspended from the council by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly. The council also meets more frequently than the commission did. The council meets three times a year for a total of ten weeks, compared with the commission’s single session of six weeks each year. The council has the ability to meet quickly to address a human rights emergency. The purpose of the council is to monitor human rights abuses in countries and address complaints about human rights violations.
The UN also operates the office of High Commissioner for Human Rights. The General Assembly created this position in 1993. The commissioner oversees all the UN’s human rights programs, works to prevent human rights violations, and investigates human rights abuses. The commissioner also has the power to publicize abuses taking place in any country, but does not have the authority to stop them. However, most publicity about human rights abuses does not come from the UN but from rival countries or from nongovernmental organizations, such as Amnesty International.
The UN has also drawn up four international conventions (treaties) on human rights, which are legally binding but hard to enforce. The conventions address the problems of genocide, racial discrimination, civil and political rights, and economic and social rights. The treaties have been ratified by only about half of the world’s nations. The United States has only ratified the convention on genocide and has declined to ratify the others. Other countries have also refused to sign the conventions, citing concerns about the specific terms of the conventions and the loss of authority that such treaties imply.
During the Cold War, Western countries continually criticized nations under Soviet rule for their lack of respect for human rights, such as freedom of expression and fair elections. But the UN played a small role in these arguments because of the Soviet Union’s veto power, and because many other national governments did not guarantee human rights in their own domestic politics. The most important Cold War pact regarding human rights, the 1975 Helsinki Accords, a diplomatic agreement between 35 countries that encouraged human rights, was negotiated outside the UN framework.
One of the UN’s most visible recent activities regarding human rights has been the creation of special war crimes tribunals to prosecute those responsible for atrocities committed during the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. These tribunals, established by the Security Council in 1993, 1994, and 2002, respectively, operate independently of the UN (see War Crimes Trials). The UN also played an important role in the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute war criminals, although the ICC is not a UN organ.
Since the end of the Cold War the UN has become increasingly involved in providing humanitarian assistance to people in need. All too frequently, the humanitarian crises to which the UN responds are caused by international conflict. The UN can also respond to humanitarian crises caused by natural disasters such as floods or hurricanes. Conflicts and wars may create refugee crises, as when people flee their homes for fear of persecution or harm. Agencies such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program (WFP) can mobilize international assistance in a short time frame to respond to a crisis.
Increasingly, UN agencies work with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that provide relief and assistance, as well as with the aid agencies of governments, to coordinate a global response to humanitarian crises. For example, in 1999 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began to bomb the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (see Serbia and Montenegro) to protest its treatment of ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. The conflict created a massive flow of refugees out of Kosovo and into the neighboring province of Montenegro and the countries of Albania and Macedonia. These governments were not able to absorb the large number of refugees. International aid agencies, led and coordinated by the UN, responded to the crisis and were able to house, feed, and care for the thousands of refugees who had fled the fighting.
|E||Development of International Law|
The UN plays an important role in the development of international law. Formally, the UN can produce international law in two ways. Security Council resolutions are binding on all UN members and have the force of international law. Decisions by the World Court are also binding as international law. Through these two bodies, the UN has been responsible for the development of a significant body of international law. However, much of this law deals with specific issues of peace and security—the Security Council’s main focus—and becomes obsolete after the crisis in question has been resolved. For example, Security Council resolutions prohibit Iraq from invading its neighbors and possessing weapons of mass destruction. Following the U.S.-Iraq War, however, much of this law became obsolete because it pertained to a regime no longer in power.
Informally, the UN also has a large role in the development of international law. The standing committees of the General Assembly and the standing UN commissions and functional agencies routinely hold global conferences on topics such as arms control, the environment, and human rights. These large diplomatic sessions often produce the ideas and early momentum for international treaties that are not formally part of the UN system but owe their existence to UN discussion of an issue. Treaties such as the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the 1997 Kyōto Protocol on greenhouse gases, and the 1998 Rome Statute approving the International Criminal Court were the topic of UN deliberations before they became treaties in their own right.
Two UN commissions are specifically charged with developing and codifying international law. The UN’s International Law Commission, created in 1947, studies important questions of international law and prepares drafts of treaties codifying these topics. Over the years, topics have included the law of the sea, diplomatic relations and immunity, treaties between nations, shared natural resources, nationality and statelessness, relations between nations and international organizations, and many other issues. The UN’s Commission on International Trade Law, created in 1966, drafts texts on laws concerning international commerce and economic development. These commissions submit their texts and recommendations to the General Assembly, which may then call an international diplomatic conference to incorporate the texts into a treaty.
At the end of World War II (1939-1945), the great powers held vast colonial empires in the developing world. One goal of the UN charter was decolonization—ending the practice of colonialism. The Trusteeship Council was established as the UN organ to aid in the decolonization process. As colonies gained their independence in the mid-20th century, one of their first steps was to join the UN. This act announced their arrival on the international stage as a full-fledged member of the international community. The Trusteeship Council served as a transitional authority to help a country make the transition from colony to independent nation. In 1994 the last colony gained its independence and the Trusteeship Council suspended its operations.
|VII||INFLUENCE AND EFFECTIVENESS|
The UN’s influence on international politics is significant and cannot be ignored. The main goal of the UN’s founders was to avoid a third world war, and in that respect, the organization has succeeded. The UN has peacefully resolved numerous international disputes since its founding and has established a set of rules for the use of force in the contemporary world. Although these rules are not always followed, the UN has nevertheless established itself as a significant player on the world stage.
The UN has been involved in every major war and international crisis since World War II in one fashion or another. It authorized the international coalitions that fought the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Persian Gulf War of 1991. A UN resolution created the state of Israel in 1948, and the UN has been both a forum for debate and an active mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the United States used the UN as a forum to challenge the Soviet Union in front of the whole world.
Since the end of the Cold War, the UN has asserted the right of the Security Council to be the sole body with the power to declare international uses of military force legitimate. However, this claimed authority does not always work. In some cases, the UN may fail to muster support for a force to intervene in a violent conflict. For example, lacking support for intervention from UN member nations, the UN failed to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. In other cases, great powers such as the United States take action on their own when they cannot get the UN to grant the authority they wish. In 2003 the United States sought but did not receive explicit Security Council approval of military action against Iraq. The United States nevertheless led an invasion of Iraq, inviting the UN to play a role in postwar humanitarian assistance and running elections for a new government (see U.S.-Iraq War).
Certain tensions constrain the UN’s influence and effectiveness. The first is the tension between the UN’s role as an autonomous actor and its role as a collection of nations. The UN can call on member nations for action, but it has a hard time enforcing its own resolutions because it is also committed to the principle of sovereignty, which asserts each country’s right to set its own policies. The UN requires member nations to contribute to its peacekeeping operations and relief missions, but when no nation wants to contribute, it is an impotent body. On the one hand, the UN has a mandate to work on its own to promote the values of its charter. On the other hand, the UN Charter is a treaty among nations. Thus, the UN cannot do anything without the expressed approval of its members, particularly the great powers. The UN’s authority comes from the countries that join the organization, sign the charter, and provide the UN with the resources it needs to accomplish its mission.
The UN also faces the tension of the gap between the developed and developing world. The developing world represents the majority of the UN’s members, both in terms of number of countries and global population. The developed world, meanwhile, controls the majority of financial and military resources available to the UN. Developing countries want the chance to build their societies, but to do this they need help from the richer, already developed countries, many of which are reluctant to spend their resources on others. The struggle to set priorities and allocate scarce resources is a constant tension within the UN.
There is a constant tension between the International Law of the UN Charter and the diplomacy that the member nations conduct on a daily basis. The UN Charter only has value to the extent that members follow its provisions. Nations can ignore elements of the charter and can also work outside the charter. Peacekeeping, for example, is never mentioned in the Charter but has become a key UN diplomatic function. Trying to maintain the integrity of international law while still playing effective diplomacy that satisfies the needs of the member countries consumes much of the day-to-day business of the UN.
Finally, a longstanding tension exists between the UN and the United States, the world’s most powerful nation. The UN constrains the United States by creating the one coalition that can rival U.S. power—that of all other nations. In addition, the United States has a streak of isolationism in its foreign policy that runs counter to the idea of the UN. But the UN also benefits the United States in many ways. It amplifies U.S. power because the United States usually leads the UN coalition. It helps keep world peace, which the United States is not rich or strong enough to do by itself. And it helps keeps the world stable, providing a good climate for global economic growth.
|VIII||THE FUTURE OF THE UNITED NATIONS|
Since its creation in 1945, the UN has done much to promote international cooperation in economic and social goals, and to a lesser extent, world peace. The end of the Cold War and new possibilities for cooperation among the world’s major powers has given the UN an opportunity to realize the original vision of its founders. The UN now has a chance to become an international organization that can effectively maintain world peace within the limits of a system where individual nations maintain their own authority and independence.
Constantly challenged, the UN remains the only forum where all the nations of the world can gather to discuss pressing issues of peace and security. The UN’s greatest asset remains its ability to speak as the world’s voice, offering legitimacy and guidance on the paths nations follow to solve their problems. Despite the challenges it faces, the UN will likely play an increasingly central role in international politics in the coming decades.