I INTRODUCTION 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 alliance 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 1998, the UN had 185 members, including nearly every country in the world.
The UN’s influence in world affairs has fluctuated over the years, but the organization has gained new prominence in the 1990s. Still, the UN faces many challenges. It must overcome the worst financial crisis in its history. In addition, the UN 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 PURPOSES OF THE UNITED NATIONS
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 encourage business and international trade. 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 environmental degradation. It serves as a symbol of international order and global identity. It promotes and coordinates economic and social progress 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 international data.
III 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. 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, League members proved unwilling to oppose aggression by Japan, Italy, and Germany in the 1930s. 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 signed the Atlantic Charter, in which they pledged to work towards 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 of 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. 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.
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, Britain, 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. Switzerland is an exception, maintaining only an observer mission status, meaning it can participate in UN deliberations but cannot vote. Switzerland has considered becoming a full UN member. Over the years that nation’s voters have rejected two referendums suggesting Switzerland join. The Swiss apparently prefer to maintain their neutral observer status. Some nonmember political entities, such as the Vatican City and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), also have permanent observer mission status at the UN.
IV 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.
V GENERAL ASSEMBLY
The General Assembly is made up of all 185 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 because 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.
VI SECURITY COUNCIL
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. 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; five of which hold permanent seats. The Assembly elects the other ten members for two-year terms. The five permanent members—the United States, Britain, 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. In the 1990s, increased cooperation between the United States and Russia has 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 cease-fire. It can enforce its decisions by imposing economic sanctions on a country, or through joint military action.
During the 1990s, 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.
A Secretariat Staff 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, and surveying economic and social trends. 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.
B Secretary General
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 1980’s, 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.
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. He is 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 knows the UN bureaucracy well. As secretary general, Annan has concentrated on reforming the UN secretariat’s finances and operations and on improving strained relations between the UN and the United States. Annan has not focused as much effort as his predecessors did on personal diplomacy or on plans to expand the UN’s power and activities.
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.
Past 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, 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.
VIII 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 oversees the work of a large number of programs and agencies. It 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 nine 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 geographical names.
ECOSOC coordinates 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 programs include the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Labor Organization (ILO), and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
IX 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.
X TRUSTEESHIP COUNCIL The Trusteeship Council was established to oversee the transition of a handful of colonies to independence. The last of those colonies gained independence in 1994, making the Trusteeship Council obsolete.
A 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 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 now 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. From 1945 to 1971, the UN excluded Communist China from its membership. Instead, China was represented by the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan, an island in East Asia where the government has its seat. The Republic of China lost its power on mainland China to the Communists in 1949 and reestablished its headquarters on Taiwan. Backed by the United States and other Western nations, Taiwan claimed to be the legitimate government of all China. In 1971 the General Assembly took the Chinese seat away from Taiwan and gave it to Communist China. 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.
B UN Funding 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, providing roughly 25 percent of the organization’s overall budget and about 31 percent of its peacekeeping budget.
C The UN’s International Influence The UN’s influence in promoting world peace has varied over the years. During the Cold War conflict between the United States and Soviet Union the organization exerted little influence over world affairs. Tensions between the United States and Soviet Union prevented the UN’s members from reaching consensus on important issues.
With its effectiveness in international security affairs limited during the Cold War, the UN turned its attention to other efforts. It focused on the economic and social problems of developing countries, and on supporting colonial territories as they moved toward independence, as well as helping nations that had recently achieved independence.
In the early 1990s, with the Cold War over, the UN began to have influence over international security issues. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and Russia took over its permanent seat on the Security Council. With the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union over, the major powers could agree more often on how to handle international security matters.
D Peacekeeping Forces Peacekeeping is the nonaggressive use of military force to help nations in conflict reach a settlement. 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 cease-fires, 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 cease-fires collapse and they sometimes have been deliberately attacked. More than 800 peacekeepers have been killed over the years.
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 armies 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. By the mid 1990s expenses reached several billion dollars annually, more than double the UN budget. Countries owed nearly half a billion dollars in unpaid contributions.
D1 The First Peacekeeping Mission
The UN charter does not mention peacekeeping forces, although it does establish guidelines for peaceful resolution of international conflicts and, failing that, authorizes the use of force to stop an aggressor. The idea for peacekeeping forces arose during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, when England, France, and Israel attacked Egypt. During the crisis, Canadian diplomat Lester Pearson suggested the need for an international force large enough to keep peace in the area until a settlement could be worked out between the parties. The General Assembly took his advice, and the UN’s first peacekeeping mission was born. The UN sent peacekeepers into the area to oversee the withdrawal of French, British, and Israeli troops and to act as a buffer between the warring parties. The idea of peacekeeping evolved from there.
D2 Subsequent Missions
In the 1980’s and early 1990s, UN peacekeeping forces have helped resolve several violent regional conflicts. The UN negotiated cease fires in Central America and the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), and dispatched peacekeeping forces to monitor the situations. In Africa a UN force went to Namibia from November 1989 to March 1990 to oversee the independence of that country from South Africa and to supervise the nation’s first free elections. UN peacekeepers won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988 in recognition of their successes. By 1995 the UN had about 70,000 troops from more than 70 countries in 17 separate peacekeeping missions, spanning South Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America.
The new missions were not without problems. The UN efforts were undermined by inadequate funding. The UN also misjudged what was needed for some of its missions. For example, in 1991 the UN sent only about 500 military and police observers into Angola, where a fragile truce had been declared in civil war between government supporters and rebels. The UN mission was to oversee a peace accord and to supervise elections. After the government won the elections, the rebel organization took up arms and the civil war resumed. The UN learned from this failure, and sent a force many times larger to a similar mission in Mozambique in 1992, with greater success. In 1991 the UN sent a peacekeeping mission to Cambodia to run the government under a fragile pact that ended a long civil war. The mission ended in 1993, when a new government was formed.
UN peacekeepers ran into even greater problems when they went to Somalia in 1992 and 1993. The UN authorized a peacekeeping effort led by the United States to deliver humanitarian aid to the country, which was embroiled in a civil war that had brought the population to the brink of starvation. The mission evolved into an attempt to end the conflict between several clans fighting for control of the country. After one of the clans attacked UN forces, Secretary General Boutros-Ghali urged U.S. forces to pursue the clan’s powerful leader, Mohammed Farah Aidid. The operation ended with an October 1993 battle in which 18 U.S. soldiers were killed and one of the bodies was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in view of television cameras. The United States abruptly pulled out of Somalia, and the civil war reignited.
The UN undertook its largest peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia in 1992. The effort involved about 40,000 foreign troops and cost about $1 billion annually. The mission focused on Bosnia and Herzegovina, a war-torn nation that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia. The mission was flawed from the beginning. The troops were not prepared for the conditions they faced. The UN sent lightly armed forces equipped for humanitarian operations into a war where one side had been identified as the main aggressor. The UN monitored numerous cease-fires, which were continually broken. The peacekeepers could deliver aid to besieged cities only if they followed the terms dictated by the aggressors, and they were taken hostage on several occasions. In 1995 Serb forces overran the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which the Security Council had declared a "safe area," without providing adequate troops to protect it. About 7000 men and boys were massacred. Within months, the peacekeeping effort was disbanded and replaced by a more heavily armed force assembled by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a regional defense alliance of countries including France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
D3 Changing Attitudes Toward Peacekeeping The UN’s experiences in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia made its most powerful members reluctant to undertake any new peacekeeping missions. The Security Council turned down the pleas of the secretary general to intervene in Rwanda in 1994, when militant Hutu tribesmen slaughtered roughly half a million members of the Tutsi tribe within weeks. When similar events threatened to unfold in the neighboring country of Burundi in 1995, the Security Council again refused to authorize a response.
E Economic Development The UN operates under the principle that promoting economic and social development will help bring about lasting world peace. The 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 had about 5000 projects operating around the world in 1997. 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 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.
F Global Environment 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, where large developing countries promised to develop their industries with an eye toward protecting the environment. Industrialized countries pledged to help them do that. A special commission was created to make sure countries followed through on the promises they made, but the commission has no power to enforce those promises. Supporters hoped that the commission’s ability to monitor and publicize how well countries were meeting their commitments would encourage those countries to keep their word. But at its first meeting in 1994, the commission found that the industrialized countries were providing only half the funding they promised for the effort.
The Earth Summit also adopted a treaty on global warming, the environmental phenomenon in which the earth’s temperature is increasing due to the burning of fossil fuels and other industrial practices. But the treaty did not commit countries that signed it to meet any targets by any particular date. The UN Environment Program works with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on this issue. The two organizations measure changes in global climate from year to year. The UN also sponsors the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Since 1989 that panel has served as an international forum for negotiations on global warming.
Another treaty adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit deals with the issue of biodiversity—that is, the variety of different living organisms in a particular habitat or geographic location. Under the treaty, nations agreed to preserve important habitats for animals and plants. Wealthier countries also agreed to pay for the right to extract commercially profitable substances from rare species in protected areas of developing countries. The United States delayed signing the treaty because of fears that it could limit patent rights in biotechnology.
The UN is the focal point for international cooperation on each of these environmental issues. But the UN’s lack of authority over the actions of its members is a major barrier to success.
F1 Human Rights 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.
The UN operates a Commission on Human Rights, which monitors human rights abuses in countries, holds international meetings on human rights concerns, and handles complaints about human rights violations. In 1993 the General Assembly also created the position of High Commissioner for Human Rights. 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.
Among the UN’s most visible recent activities regarding human rights are the two International Criminal Tribunals held to bring to justice those responsible for the horrible acts of violence committed during the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The tribunal for crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia was established by the Security Council in 1993. The council initiated the Rwanda tribunal in 1994. They are the first such international war crimes trials since the Nürnberg Trials that followed World War II. Although the tribunals were established by the Security Council, they operate independently. The trials depend on contributions from countries to keep operating and are seriously hampered by financial shortages. A more serious problem is the inability to arrest suspects in countries that do not support the tribunal’s efforts. The Yugoslav tribunal indicted 75 people for war crimes and genocide, including the top military and political leaders of the Serb forces in Bosnia and a high officer in the Croatian militia in Bosnia. But neither Serbia nor the Bosnian Serb forces have turned over suspects. The international military forces in Bosnia have also refused to arrest them. The president of Croatia actually gave an indicted officer a promotion and medals. In 1997 the tribunal had only a handful of low-ranking suspects to actually bring to trial.
G Arms Control and Disarmament 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 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.
One UN agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), does serve an important function in arms control. The agency, which has its headquarters in Vienna, Austria, operates independently from the UN. The agency inspects the nuclear power industries and research facilities of the countries that have signed the Nonproliferation Treaty, to discourage them from diverting nuclear materials to military uses. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, IAEA inspectors uncovered and dismantled Iraq’s secret nuclear weapons program. IAEA also played a major role in persuading North Korea to freeze its nuclear program in the early 1990s.
H Relationship with United States
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 international trade.
Starting in the mid-1980s the United States became more selective about how much money to give the UN in both mandatory and voluntary contributions. Some U.S. political leaders criticized the UN for being too large and inefficient. They complained that the UN answered to too many countries and was hindered by competition among the nations whose citizens were a part of the UN’s staff. The United States was further disillusioned by the peacekeeping fiascoes in Somalia and Bosnia in the early 1990s. This dissatisfaction came at a time after the Cold War, when the United States began to turn inward and to reduce foreign aid, diplomatic operations, and military forces worldwide.
At the same time, the United States was being squeezed financially by the size of its own debts and fell behind in paying its UN dues and contributions to the peacekeeping efforts. By the mid-1990s the United States owed the UN roughly $1.5 billion, despite various promises and plans to catch up. Meanwhile the U.S. Congress voted to give less money to the UN’s peacekeeping operations. Although polls showed strong U.S. public support for the UN, no groups stepped forward to persuade Congress to increase its support.
The United States began to target its criticism increasingly at UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali. In 1996 the United States announced its plans to veto Boutros-Ghali’s candidacy for a second term. In a rare display of unity, almost all the other UN member states opposed this decision, arguing that the United States had no right to dictate the UN’s direction until it paid its membership dues. Nonetheless, the United States vetoed Boutros-Ghali’s second term, overruling all 14 other Security Council members. After several months of stalemate, Kofi Annan was elected with the support of the United States.
I Crisis of Funding and Future Prospects The United States was not alone in its failure to keep up with its dues and other contributions to the UN. By early 1997 members owed the UN more than $3 billion, with roughly half of that owed by the United States alone. The financial crisis had actually started years earlier, in the 1980s, when countries started falling behind in their payments. Some of the reasons were political, reflecting the unhappiness of the United States and other Western countries over how the UN was managing some of its programs, including its peacekeeping missions.
At the same time financial support declined, the UN’s expenses grew. In the preceding decade, the UN had greatly expanded its peacekeeping operations and increased other programs. In 1996 the UN came perilously close to having to shut down its operations. It was forced to scale back or terminate its peacekeeping operations, and the creation of new peacekeeping efforts became almost impossible. The UN had reached the biggest funding crisis in its history.
By the time Annan took office in January 1997 he faced an organization that was on the brink of bankruptcy and the target of severe criticism from the Untied States. The new secretary general pushed through a series of reforms to consolidate some major UN offices, in part to encourage the United States to pay its back dues. United States President Bill Clinton pushed Congress to approve payment of the debt of over $1 billion, but the legislation stalled in the House of Representatives in mid-1998 when Republicans attached antiabortion amendments to the measure. Clinton threatened to veto the bill unless the amendments were removed, a position that some in the UN feared might undermine the organization’s financial stability.
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. Despite the challenges it faces, the UN will likely play an increasingly central role in international politics in the coming decades.