The United Nations (UN) is the general multipurpose world organization and the backbone of the UN system of specialized agencies. Initially envisaged primarily as an instrument for collective security, the UN has served this aim mainly in an indirect manner. Constitutionally and in practice solely an intergovernmental organization and framework for multilateral conference diplomacy, the UN also represents an imaginary surplus as a “world executive,” “parliament of man,” or “world conscience.” Due to the allocation of power mainly at the level of nation-states and the prevalence of tensions between them, the UN is an organization in a state of constant crisis. Only under exceptional circumstances has the UN lived up to the demand of evidently making a difference in world politics. Nevertheless, despite its seeming impotence, the UN has long been the single most important instrument of global governance.
The UN serves as a global discussion forum and clearinghouse, and thereby contributes to the emergence and dissemination of universal values and norms. It functions as a great legitimizer, as a face-saver, and as an important stage for symbolic politics. The UN has significantly smoothed the process of decolonization and facilitated the development of international law, in particular the law of the seas. However, rather than providing solutions to particular conflicts or problems, the merit of the UN is typically to keep controversial issues under lock. To a large extent, the agenda of UN organs consists of items that recur year after year. The various military missions since the establishment of the UN peacekeeping forces (known as the blue helmets) in 1956 (with a predecessor in 1948) also bear witness to the intricacy of lasting conflict resolution. At the same time, these peacekeeping operations are a significant advancement of the world organization not provided for by the UN Charter. Albeit difficult to assess in relation to other relevant factors, arguably the greatest success of the UN is the nonescalation of the cold war. Since the end of the cold war, the UN has demonstrated an increased ability for action. However, it has been hampered by its lack of thorough institutional adjustment to the changing world order.
In World War II (1939–1945), the term united nations was still a synonym for the Allied Powers fighting the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, Japan). At the UN Conference on International Organization, held in San Francisco in 1945, the UN was given a charter that came into force on October 24, 1945, and thus transformed the organization into an international organization. The forty-nine countries that had declared war on Germany or its collaborators were admitted as founding members of the UN. In addition, a special deal resulted in the Soviet republics Ukraine and Belorussia being given independent member status. This arrangement stemmed from pronounced distrust among the major Allies coupled with the Soviet government’s insistence, motivated by the fear of ending up in complete isolation. In contrast to the widespread myth of a prevailing naïve belief in the future of the world organization in 1945, the expectations in the UN were low key in all quarters from the outset.
A notable element of UN politics is avoiding reference to the UN’s predecessor organization, the League of Nations, existing from 1920 to 1939, de jure until 1946. This disregard is a consequence of the League of Nations’s failure to prevent World War II and its insufficient provision of congruence of power inside and outside the organization. Nonetheless, the UN, in practically all its basic traits, is a remake of the League of Nations. The only significant difference is that the UN affords the right to veto major decisions to five great powers: the United States, the Soviet Union (Russia since 1991), Great Britain, China (People’s Republic of China since 1971), and France. As the five permanent members of the Security Council—the potentially most powerful organ of the UN— these countries enjoy the veto right as well as a number of other privileges. Having cast almost half of all vetoes, the Soviet Union remains the country with most such interventions to date (123 vetoes by 2007). However, since the mid-1960s, the United States has invoked the veto power most extensively (82 vetoes, frequently on draft resolutions concerning Israel). Britain (32 vetoes), France (18 vetoes), and China (6 vetoes) have been more modest in using this instrument.
Because nothing of significance can be done against the will of any of the “permanent five,” the UN has had difficulties coming to terms with a substantial reform. Since the end of the cold war, there has been a perceived need to enlarge the Security Council in order to achieve better geographical representation as well as permanent membership of additional major international players such as India, Japan, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and one or two of the larger African countries (with or without the right to veto).These efforts culminated at the sixtieth anniversary session of the UN, from 2005 to 2006, without consensus. Another discussion surrounds the appropriate timing to merge the British and the French seat in the Security Council into a common seat of the European Union (EU). Ultimately, the UN conserves the global power structure considered legitimate in 1945, and there is an increasing tension vis-à-vis the present-day international setting.
Leadership And Membership
The historic legacy of the U.S. Senate’s defeat of U.S. membership in the League of Nations prompted the U.S. government to use utmost care in designing the UN in a way that would appeal to its home public. In the opening phrase of the UN Charter, “We the peoples of the United Nations,” the very name “United Nations” echoes the United States. However, whereas such similarities mirror the tremendous influence the United States has had on the UN from the very beginning, they are misleading in regard to what is de facto solely an intergovernmental character of the UN. In 1946, the headquarters of the UN were established in New York City (other major UN office sites are Geneva, Vienna, Nairobi, and The Hague). In the early years, the UN was thoroughly dominated by the United States. While developing nations’ politics of sheer numbers later challenged this dominance, the United States never ceased to be the hegemonic power at the UN. While certain U.S. politicians and debaters often engage in either “UN bashing” or “UN glorification,” they are frequently unaware of the vast influence their own country exerts on the UN by a variety of means. Not least, the U.S. Senate, in practice, acts as an organ exercising parliamentary control over the UN (e.g., irregularities in the oil-for-food program for Iraq).
The admission of new member states to the UN was slow in the first decade due to differences between the Western powers and the Soviet Union, yet the number of members has risen significantly since the mid-1950s. After the Republic of China (Taiwan) lost the Chinese seat to the benefit of the People’s Republic of China in 1971 and after the admission of the two German states in 1973, the UN has virtually been a universal organization. In addition, after Switzerland’s adhesion to the UN in 2002, no undisputed fully sovereign state remains outside the world organization (with the exception of the borderline case, the Holy See, which remains an observer state). UN membership has always been, and has increasingly become, an essential attribute of sovereign statehood. In 2006, the number of members rose to 192. The only country ever to withdraw (temporarily) from the UN was Indonesia, from 1965 to 1966, as a protest against Malaysia’s election to the Security Council.
Organs Of The UN
According to the UN Charter, the principal organs of the UN are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Secretariat, and the International Court of Justice. The sixth principal organ, the Trusteeship Council, suspended operations in 1994. Activity ceased after the last remaining UN trust territory, the Palau islands, achieved independence.
Most powerful among UN organs is the Security Council, with its five permanent and ten (six until 1965) elected and regionally representative members—provided that a qualified majority can be mobilized and none of the permanent members cast a veto. The Security Council operates continuously, yet, was in stalemate during the cold war. The only exception in a case involving differences among the great powers was the Korean War (1950–1953); when the decision to intervene in Korea was made, an expedition under the UN flag could be formed due to the Soviet Union’s unwise boycott of the Council. In the past two decades, the Security Council has been able to agree on more far-reaching decisions than in earlier years. The first major evidence of this congruence was the Council’s authorization of a U.S.-led military coalition deployed to oust Iraq from Kuwait in the Gulf War in 1991. However, as yet, Article 43 of the Charter, which obliges member states to make available armed forces and other facilities to the Security Council, has never been implemented.
Arguably, the General Assembly has been the most relevant UN organ in practice. The General Assembly cannot adopt binding decisions for member states, and it only convenes periodically (annually, usually from mid-September to mid-December).Yet, it is the universal forum of the UN with regard to membership and scope of subject matter; it is a highly relevant stage for symbolic politics, and—despite making some controversial decisions—carries considerable moral weight as a sort of “world opinion.” This moral authority is particularly notable when consensus is reached. The General Assembly controls the budget of the UN; reviews the annual reports of the other organs, including the Security Council; and elects their members. In 1950, the General Assembly changed the constitutional order of the UN by way of the Uniting for Peace Resolution and enabled itself to bypass the Security Council, if that council fails to act because of the veto of a permanent member. Despite all this, the term revitalization—in prominent use during attempts to reform the General Assembly over the past two decades—suggests a pristine vitality that never existed, apart from the special circumstances of the Korean War. The impression that the General Assembly has lost significance in recent years is accurate only in relative terms: The vitalization of the Security Council, which had earlier been even more paralyzed, after the end of the cold war has not been accompanied by a corresponding upswing of effectiveness of the General Assembly. The work of the General Assembly is organized in the plenary forum and six committees, in all of which each UN member state commands one vote.
The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN aims to promote and coordinate international cooperation in the fields of economy, social affairs, culture, education, health, and human rights. After an initial focus on recovery from the devastation of World War II, its main concern has long been to address problems faced by developing countries. Subordinate to the authority of the General Assembly, ECOSOC is composed of fifty-four members (eighteen until 1965, and twenty-seven from 1965–1973) that are elected according to a regionally representative key. Most of ECOSOC’s work occurs in various standing committees, functional commissions, and regional commissions. Despite the scope of its mandate, which also comprises the coordination of UN specialized agencies (e.g., International Labor Organization [ILO], World Health Organization [WHO], Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO], United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], International Monetary Fund [IMF], and World Bank), ECOSOC’s authority in international policy making has been limited. Nonetheless, its committees have done important work in their fields (e.g., the Commission on the Status of Women and, until 2006, the Commission on Human Rights, which was then replaced by the UN Human Rights Council under the General Assembly). ECOSOC is also the UN organ with principal responsibility for liaison with nongovernmental organizations.
A particularly interesting instrument used by ECOSOC to good effect has been world conferences on particular subject matters. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held 1972 in Stockholm, was a particular landmark in this respect. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development continued this work, introducing the concept of sustainable development and laying the groundwork for the convening of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (i.e., the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro. The adoption of the Framework Convention on Climate Change at this conference was the first step toward a global climate change regime, leading to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Ratified by 183 states, but, as yet, not by the United States, this protocol upholds a legally binding commitment for the reduction of greenhouse gases.
The Secretariat of the UN is the administrative organ of the world organization, and the domain for parties known as international civil servants. The Secretariat provides service to the other UN organs, for example, by preparing meetings and draft stipulations or by delivering relevant information; it administers the programs and policies established in other areas of the UN. Moreover, the Secretariat documents the work of the UN; publishes collections of material, reports, and statistics; and is responsible for public relations. Somewhat paradoxically, despite the idea of international civil service, the national background of UN staff members is a delicate and closely monitored issue. According to the UN Charter, the highest standards of efficiency, competence, and integrity are to be applied in the employment of the staff and in the determination of the conditions of service. However, at the same time, due regard must be paid to recruitment to ensure as wide a geographical representation as possible. In practice, despite the requested impartiality of officeholders, the staffing of the UN Secretariat is subject to the bargaining of governments.
The secretary-general heads the Secretariat, serving as the chief administrative officer and in practice also the highest representative of the UN, and appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council for a five-year, renewable term. Officeholders have been Trygve Lie (1946–1952), Dag Hammarskjöld (1953–1961), Sithu U Thant (1961–1971), Kurt Waldheim (1972–1981), Javier Perez de Cuellar (1982–1992), Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992–1996), Kofi A. Annan (1997–2006), and Ban Ki-moon (since 2007). Compared to the secretary-general of the League of Nations, the UN secretary-general has a more active role, with a provision to bring any matter perceived by the secretary-general as a potential threat to maintaining international peace and security to the attention of the Security Council. This independent role was strengthened under the administration of the first two UN secretary-generals, allowing a far more proactive position than the authors of the UN Charter had intended. The tenure of Dag Hammarskjöld is remembered as one of particularly skillful maneuvering that maximized the influence of the UN and its highest representative. In the UN Congo operations, Hammarskjöld died in the field under circumstances never entirely clarified, thereby becoming a sort of martyr and saint for the UN.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principal judicial organ of the UN, based in The Hague, Netherlands. The statute of the ICJ is considered an integral part of the UN Charter. Despite its status in the UN, in order to observe the principle of judicial independence, the ICJ acts in its own capacity. It is the direct successor to the Permanent Court of International Justice, which was active in the interwar years. The fifteen judges of the court, no two of whom may be nationals of the same state, are elected independently of one another by the UN Security Council and the General Assembly for tenures of nine years. The judges are to represent the main forms of civilization and the principal legal systems of the world. The ICJ’s role is twofold: (1) to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted for its review by the states concerned (i.e., contentious cases), and (2) to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred by duly authorized UN organs and specialized agencies. During the period from 1946 to 2007, a total of 111 disputes and 24 requests for advisory opinion have been submitted to the ICJ—humble figures characteristic of the state of international law.
It is a truism that the UN is not more than the sum of its members and that it cannot accomplish more than its individual members permit. While this observation aptly explains many of the limitations curtailing the UN ability to act, it fails to realize the added value of the international machinery provided by the UN. The UN, through its international legal status and staff, is more than a permanent or periodically held conference of governments. Its very existence changes the parameters and channels for nation-state action. The discrepancy between the frequently bombastic and deceitful language used in the UN (e.g., recently the talk of the so-called millennium development goals) and humble practical achievements should not obscure its various indispensable attributes: a forum for the global exchange and dissemination of ideas, a context for mutual acquaintance of representatives of the nation-states of the world, and a space for incremental policy making and storage regarding nonsolvable international problems.
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