The United Nations (UN) is often referred to in my presence as some mysterious and all-powerful catch-all remedy for international conflict. While that is the intention of the UN as an organization, I’ve found this to be extremely untrue. And I have a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies, this is essentially what I read about for four years.
In fact, in my experience talking other peoples’ ears off about international relations, the UN is one of the international bodies most misunderstood by the average person. People either seem to think it can do much more than is actually within its scope, or consider it impotent and a waste of resources. Neither of these is entirely right.
To remedy this gap, I present the (slightly biased) cocktail party guide to the United Nations – designed to get you through a ten-minute conversation about the UN and international issues before you escape the nerd you’re talking to and go get another drink. Ready?
What is the UN Anyway?
Starting off simple. The United Nations is an international governance body made up of a large collection of member states – 193 to be exact. To be a member of the United Nations has come to mean that a country is indisputably recognized as independent. There are countries that are not member states, some of which hold observer status (meaning they attend meetings of the General Assembly but cannot vote on issues) — they usually come with territorial or sovereignty disputes. Palestine, for example, was controversially upgraded to observer state, against Israel’s protestations that it was a shortcut around direct peace negotiations with Israel.
According to their own website, the UN “provides a forum” for discussion through its various bodies (we’ll get to those in a minute). It plays a significant role (in their own words) in “enabling dialogue” and “hosting negotiations.”
How Did it Come to Be?
Technically, the UN was founded in 1945 when the first set of member states signed the foundational Charter of the United Nations. The term “United Nations” was actually coined by FDR during World War II, to give a rhetorical term to those who united to fight against the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan).
Okay, you might say, but why? There’s got to be some reason deeper than just World War II going on.
Yes and no. The fact is, up to the end of WWII the United States, pretty much all of Europe, and several other regions of the globe had either been active combatants or played host to two huge and catastrophic wars. World War One was what my high school history teacher grimly referred to as a “meat grinder” for European youth, while the total casualty count of World War Two greatly exceeded the first, and ended with the introduction onto the world stage of the atomic bomb. At this point, many countries were upset and desperate to find a way to keep international peace in place and avoid the mistakes that had led to these two wars, and founding an international fraternity of states was not without precedent.
That’s right – the League of Nations, founded at the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War (thanks to tremendous effort by then-President Woodrow Wilson), was the largely ineffectual forerunner of the United Nations, which the United States never joined. While providing a model for what an international body could look like, the United Nations has been much longer-lasting and more effective than the League of Nations ever was.
Long story short – a bunch of states got together and while on the one hand trying to beat the Nazis, also wanted some form of collective oversight to prevent wars that big from happening again.
When you refer to the UN, you’re not just referring to the international body, you’re also talking about a bunch of different sub-organizations (deliciously referred to as “organs” on the UN website). These include: the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN Secretariat (Ban Ki-Moon), the General Assembly (the part that looks like a global parliament), the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, and the Security Council. The Security Council is the name that gets bandied about a lot these days, so we’ll come back to that in a later section.
In addition to those bodies, the UN has a cornucopia of different programs, funds, and agencies dedicated to different humanitarian issues that affect the global population. These include (but are by no means limited to) the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the World Food Program (WFP) and so so many more.
What’s the Security Council?
The Security Council is what you hear about in the news all the time. While it has multiple purposes, most of the functions listed on the UN website state that it determines what is and isn’t a threat to international peace and empowers the Council to issue opinions (resolutions) encouraging action, plan armament regulation, and make recommendations.
An important ability of the Security Council is to take military action. The fun part of this is that the UN has no standing military – they instead rely on member states’ contributed personnel (civilian, police, and military) for Peacekeeping activities. These missions are not aggressive or combative military actions, they are designed to be impartial and facilitating the post-conflict transition into lasting peace. There are currently 16 ongoing peacekeeping operations all over the world. I could really write a whole article about the relative merits and detractions of peacekeeping as a strategy, so I won’t get off-topic with details.
The other important feature of the Security Council is its membership structure. There are fifteen seats (meaning fifteen countries) on the Security Council at any given time. Five of these are permanent – belonging to the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom. Arguably, the countries who came out of WWII with the strongest negotiating power. The other ten seats rotate between the other member states, each having a two-year term on the Council. They don’t all turn over at once, either – they swap out a few states every year.
This is probably the most misunderstood aspect of the UNSC, in my opinion – that the makeup of the body enacting binding decisions (Resolutions will be discussed next) is a little undemocratic. In my experience, many people have this idea that the UN speaks for the countries of the world, and don’t tend to realize that the forceful decisions tend to be dominated by the five permanent Security Council members. While these two things are not mutually exclusive, it’s a good thing to bear in mind.
These, along with the Security Council, are what pop up in the news more frequently than the other stuff the UN does (and there is a lot of stuff). A resolution is essentially a published statement of opinion from the Security Council, which would typically be expressing a plan or action within the Security Council’s scope of powers. You can see from an example: Resolution 2294, published June 29, goes through a long list of caveats proving the UN is aware of the situation and then makes recommendations to the parties involved.
A lot of people are confused as to whether these are binding (Google autofilled my search for its authority when I was researching for this post). According to DAG (a very large FAQ site owned by the UN), this can depend on the type of resolution. But the FAQ on the Security Council website does state that all member states are bound to carry out the recommendations of the Council. So how are these enforced? It’s uncertain – the entry on DAG states that enforcement depends on the “resolution, decision, or Member State.” Taking a look through the archives of UN Resolutions, the situations tend to be dynamic and varying widely in scale and scope. In the case of the resolution on Libya from 2011, the action was enforced by a coordinated member state effort. This article from the BBC outlines Resolution 2178, and notes the fact that the enforcement of the resolution is wholly dependent on regulations in place in Member States. In that sense, it really does depend – on the type of issue (transnational flow of people, goods, or capital? Domestic violence threatening a neighboring state or states? Human rights violations within one state?) and the ability of a member state to carry out the decision.
The UN is simultaneously straightforward, and complex. It weighs the goal of international peace (or at least civil international relations) with the pride and independent legal systems of a hundred plus nations. It issues opinions, but also deploys personnel in Peacekeeping missions. While focusing on high-level international security issues, it also has created agencies and programs to deal with the fallout created by international and domestic governance gaps.
I’ve given you the 10-minute version of the United Nations, but the fact remains that it is a far-reaching and maddeningly complicated organization trying it’s best to do good for the most people.