What is The United Nations?
The United Nations (UN) is an international organisation of 193 independent states – nearly every recognised independent state in the world. The UN aims to facilitate peace and co-operation among states on issues of international law, international security, social progress, nuclear proliferation, economic development and human rights issues.
The organisation is divided into administrative bodies, including the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Secretariat, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Additional bodies and organisations deal with the governance of all other UN System agencies. Some of the most prominent include:
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)
International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)
International Labour Organisation (ILO)
International Maritime Organisation (IMO)
International Monetary Fund (IMF)
International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)
United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO)
United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP)
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Universal Postal Union (UPU)
World Health Organisation (WHO)
World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO)
World Meteorological Organisation (WMO)
World Bank Group
World Trade Organisation (WTO)
The United Nations Charter founded the organisation in 1945 to replace the League of Nations with the hope that it would be more able to intervene in conflicts between nations and avoid war. With its headquarters in New York City, the structure of the organisation reflects the circumstances under which it was created. The five permanent members of the Security Council – each with veto power over proposed resolutions – are the main victors of World War II: China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US.
The UN's most visible public position is that of the Secretary-General, currently held (since 2007) by Ban Ki-moon of the Republic of Korea. The Secretary-General's tasks consist of helping to resolve international disputes, administering peacekeeping operations, organising international conferences, gathering information on the implementation of Security Council decisions, and consulting with member governments regarding various initiatives.
The UN continues to play a large role in the field of global social activities. In particular, the UN has focused considerable attention on decolonisation and supporting the new and developing states that have arisen as a result. The organisation occupies itself at present in the fields of economic development, nuclear proliferation, world health, the environment, education and refugee issues, as well as raising awareness of genocide and social injustice. The UN actively encourages international human rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
One of the main factors distinguishing the UN from the League of Nations is the ability to deploy member states' armed forces as 'peace keepers' when deemed necessary by the Security Council. However, the veto power of the permanent members in the Security Council can lead to paralysis and lack of decisive action when a consensus is needed on a controversial issue.
Not surprisingly, this has led to criticism of the efficacy of the Security Council in preventing and mediating war, crisis and conflict – its main purpose. The General Assembly, as a response, passed a resolution in 1950 which enables the Assembly to act when there is a threat to international peace or act of aggression and the Security Council fails to reach a unanimous agreement. Among others, the failure to act on the Rwandan Genocide is an often cited example. Nevertheless, since the end of the Cold War, there has been an overall decrease in the number of violent conflicts and genocides which has been attributed to activist movements and military interventions spearheaded by the UN.
Further controversy stems from the invasion of Iraq and the US and UK's decision to circumvent the UN Security Council and act in a unilateral fashion. Some allege that this has undermined the UN as a whole to the point of making it irrelevant. According to others, however, this would be an overstatement of the damage caused to the institution. While it may not be the best forum for decisive multilateral military action, they argue, it is still an important and effective instrument in the fight against AIDS and SARS, reducing global poverty and inequality, helping refugees, aiding conflict resolution, and fighting global crime and the spread of nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, in spite of the unilateral tendencies of the US and UK in Iraq, the UN remains the most widely accepted source of international legitimacy. It may be that the US and UK, for example, find that the decision to invade Iraq without approval from the Security Council was a poor idea after all, considering the amount of blowback they have experienced as a result.
At the same time, the UN is accused of institutionalising and systematising the dominance of advanced countries over less developed ones. For this reason, several groups have proposed reform of the institution, but there is little agreement about how this would be carried out or the shape it should take. One popular suggestion is to make the Security Council more democratic and representative of the current geo-political situation.
On 1 January 2007, Ban Ki-moon of the Republic of Korea became the eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Kofi A. Annan (Ghana) 1997-2006
Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt) 1992-1996
Javier Perez de Cuellar (Peru) 1982-1991
Kurt Waldheim (Austria) 1972-1981
U Thant (Myanmar) 1961-1971
Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden) 1953-1961
Trygve Lie (Norway)1946-1952
"The currents of change are transforming our human and physical geography…..To ensure that our generation and future generations benefit from the opportunities presented by this changing reality and are able to mitigate increased risks, the global community will need to work together in unprecedented ways.
"The United Nations is uniquely positioned to facilitate such action because it can provide integrated solutions across interconnected issues areas such as development, peace and security, human rights and humanitarian action. It can facilitate universal dialogue to arrive at joint solutions and mobilise new constituencies to join Governments and international organisations to address global problems and share burdens, and it can legitimise new norms, structures and processes for international co-operation."
Introduction to the Secretary-General's Five Year Action Agenda – January 2012