The United Nations has many critics, but also many realists who acknowledge that for all its faults, it has done a lot to improve the state of the world.
The organisation was founded in 1945 after the horrors of the Second World War. A similar organisation was set up after the First World War in 1919 called the League of Nations but this wasn’t truly effective.
After seeing history repeat itself only 20 years later, the United Nations was created by the UN Charter to be the new and improved format for encouraging world peace and development.
The organisation represents 192 member nations and has six official languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.
The UN headquarters are located on international territory in New York, and includes the General Assembly where each country has a seat.
The General Assembly comes together every year for three months to discuss and make recommendations on UN business and world issues.
Arguably the UN’s most controversial body is the Security Council. This is comprised of representatives from five permanent member countries – the US, Britain, France, China and Russia – and ten non-permanent members who get nominated by the General Assembly and each serve a two-year term.
When a nation is threatening security, the Security Council meets to discuss whether any action is required. If it is, they must decide whether it justifies military force, sanctions (bans on diplomacy, trade, travel, and investment) or just condemnation.
A resolution is then passed by the council which is enforceable under international law.
The five permanent members all have the right of veto. This means if they don’t like something in the proposed resolution, they alone can block it from getting passed. This creates a lot of controversy because it means permanent members and their allies tend to get better treatment.
The most recognised example of this has been the relationship between America and Israel, with America continuously blocking resolutions to condemn Israel’s behaviour.
Another recent example is the Iranian nuclear issue. China and Russia are both close business partners of Iran and will likely block any Security Council action unless there is strong evidence Iran is lying.
The United Nations’ less visible and controversial work is arguably more important though. The Development Programme (UNDP) helps poorer countries through advice, training and financial aid to increase their standard of living.
There is also the World Food Programme (WFP) which feeds 90 million people every year, and UNICEF which provides humanitarian assistance to children and mothers in developing countries.
Another major role of the UN is peacekeeping. This is approved by the Security Council and the UN pays individual governments for the use of their troops. The largest UN force at the moment is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the deadliest conflict since WW2.
As a result of having to pay for itself and all these services, the organisation runs a huge budget. All member countries make a compulsory payment every two years, relative to their gross national income.
However, agencies such as the WFP, UNDP and UNICEF rely on voluntary funding and as a result suffer in an economic recession. The WFP has so far only received a quarter of what it needs for the 09/10 period.
Heading up the UN is the Secretary-General who is appointed every four years by the Security Council. This is currently Ban Ki-moon from South Korea who replaced Kofi Annan in 2007.
Many believe the UN is both inefficient and ineffective. Given its size and responsibility, there are countless checks and balances meaning action is slow. There is also a lot of wastage, with money and food often not going to its intended recipients.
Critics also argue the UN is weakened by its structure. Official statements are not as strong for fear of upsetting certain members. The power of veto in the Security Council means justice and action is often lacking.
There have also been over a hundred wars since the UN was created, including the Rwandan genocide when UN troops were either forced to leave or stand by and watch.
Certainly the organisation needs improving and arguably a restructure in some areas. However, there is no doubt it has done a great deal of good as well. There are probably just as many wars that it has prevented than have happened (it played a crucial role in the prevention of nuclear war between the US and Russia in 1962).
It provides considerable assistance to the poor and hungry, and protection to the vulnerable. But its main attribute is bringing nations together to resolve issues through constructive dialogue (with climate change being a recent example).
Although the UN has definite flaws and room for improvement, it still acts as a powerful force for good as the world realises the social and financial benefits of global cooperation over self-interest.
By The Casual Truth
Photo – The United Nations headquarters in New York.