Table of contents
Background and history
The idea for the United Nations was elaborated in declarations signed at the wartime Allied conferences in Moscow and Tehran in 1943. United States president Franklin Delano Roosevelt suggested the name "United Nations" and the first official use of the term occurred on January 1, 1942 with the Declaration by the United Nations. During World War II, the Allies used the term "United Nations" to refer to their alliance. From August to October 1944, representatives of France, the Republic of China (now on Taiwan), the United Kingdom, the United States, and the USSR met to elaborate the plans at the Dumbarton Oaks Estate in Washington, D.C Those and later talks produced proposals outlining the purposes of the organization, its membership and organs, as well as arrangements to maintain international peace and security and international economic and social cooperation. These proposals were discussed and debated by governments and private citizens worldwide.
On April 25, 1945, the United Nations Conference on International Organizations began in San Francisco. In addition to the Governments, a number of non-government organisations, including Lions Clubs International were invited to assist in the drafting of the charter. The 50 nations represented at the conference signed the Charter of the United Nations two months later on June 26. Poland, which was not represented at the conference, but for which a place among the original signatories had been reserved, added its name later, bringing the total of original signatories to 51. The UN came into existence on October 24, 1945, after the Charter had been ratified by the five permanent members of the Security Council - Republic of China, France, USSR, United Kingdom, and the United States - and by a majority of the other 46 signatories.
The United States Senate, by a vote of 89 to 2, gave its consent to the ratification of the UN Charter on July 28, 1945. In December 1945, the Senate and the House of Representatives, by unanimous votes, requested that the UN make its headquarters in the United States. The offer was accepted and the United Nations headquarters building was constructed in New York City in 1949 and 1950 beside the East River on land purchased by an 8.5 million dollar donation from John D. Rockefeller, Jr UN headquarters officially opened on January 9, 1951. Under special agreement with the United States, certain diplomatic privileges and immunities have been granted, but generally the laws of New York City, New York State, and the United States apply.
On October 25, 1971, UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 was passed by the General Assembly, replacing the government of the Republic of China with the government of the People's Republic of China as the only "lawful" and "legitimate representatives of China to the United Nations" and as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Multiple attempts by the Republic of China on Taiwan to re-join the UN have never passed committee. (For more on the issue of Taiwan, see China and the United Nations.)
The founders of the UN had high hopes that it would act to prevent conflicts between nations and make future wars impossible. Those hopes have obviously not been realised. From about 1947 until 1991 the division of the world into hostile camps during the Cold War made this objective impossible. Following the end of the Cold War, there were renewed calls for the UN to become the agency for achieving world peace and co-operation. In recent years, however, the rise of the United States to a position of global dominance has created renewed doubts about the role and effectiveness of the UN (See the United States and the United Nations).
Arms Control and Disarmament
The 1945 UN Charter envisaged a system of regulation that would ensure "the least diversion for armaments of the world's human and economic resources." The advent of nuclear weapons came only weeks after the signing of the Charter and provided immediate impetus to concepts of arms limitation and disarmament. In fact, the first resolution of the first meeting of the UN General Assembly (January 24, 1946) was entitled "The Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy" and called upon the commission to make specific proposals for "the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction."
The UN has established several forums to address multilateral disarmament issues. The principal ones are the First Committee of the General Assembly and the UN Disarmament Commission. Items on the agenda include consideration of the possible merits of a nuclear test ban, outer-space arms control, efforts to ban chemical weapons, nuclear and conventional disarmament, nuclear-weapon-free zones, reduction of military budgets, and measures to strengthen international security.
The Conference on Disarmament is the sole forum established by the international community for the negotiation of multilateral arms control and disarmament agreements. It has 66 members representing all areas of the world, including the five major nuclear-weapon states (the People's Republic of China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States). While the conference is not formally a UN organization, it is linked to the UN through a personal representative of the Secretary-General; this representative serves as the secretary general of the conference. Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly often request the conference to consider specific disarmament matters. In turn, the conference annually reports on its activities to the General Assembly.
UN peace operations are funded by assessments, using a formula derived from the regular scale, but including a surcharge for the five permanent members of the Security Council (who must approve all peacekeeping operations); this surcharge serves to offset discounted peacekeeping assessment rates for less developed countries.
In December 2000, the UN revised the assessment rate scale for the regular budget and for peacekeeping. The peacekeeping scale is designed to be revised every six months and is projected to be near 27% in 2003. The United States intends to pay peacekeeping assessments at these lower rates and has sought legislation from the United States Congress to allow payment at these rates and to make payments towards arrears.
Total UN peacekeeping expenses peaked between 1994 and 1995; at the end of 1995 the total cost was just over $3.5 billion. Total UN peacekeeping costs for 2000, including operations funded from the UN regular budget as well as the peacekeeping budget, were on the order of $2.2 billion.
The pursuit of human rights was one of the central reasons for creating the United Nations. World War II atrocities and genocide led to a ready consensus that the new organization must work to prevent any similar tragedies in the future. An early objective was creating a legal framework for considering and acting on complaints about human rights violations.
The UN Charter obliges all member nations to promote "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights" and to take "joint and separate action" to that end. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though not legally binding, was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all. The General Assembly regularly takes up human rights issues. The UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), under ECOSOC, is the primary UN body charged with promoting human rights, primarily through investigations and offers of technical assistance. As discussed, the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the official principally responsible for all UN human rights activities (see, under "The UN Family," the section on "Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights").
The United Nations and its various agencies are central in upholding and implementing the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A case in point is support by the United Nations for countries in transition to democracy. Technical assistance in providing free and fair elections, improving judicial structures, drafting constitutions, training human rights officials, and transforming armed movements into political parties have contributed significantly to democratization worldwide.
The United Nations is also a forum in which to support the right of women to participate fully in the political, economic, and social life of their countries.
International ConferencesSecurity Council, but also counterpart bodies dealing with the governance of all other UN system agencies. For example, the World Health Assembly and the Executive Board oversee the work of WHO. Each year, the United States Department of State accredits United States delegations to more than 600 meetings of governing bodies.
When an issue is considered particularly important, the General Assembly may convene an international conference to focus global attention and build a consensus for consolidated action. High-level United States delegations use these opportunities to promote United States policy viewpoints and develop international agreements on future activities. Recent examples include:
- The UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992, led to the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to advance the conclusions reached in Agenda 21, the final text of agreements negotiated by governments at UNCED;
- The World Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, Egypt, in September 1994, approved a program of action to address the critical challenges and interrelationships between population and sustainable development over the next 20 years;
- The World Summit on Trade Efficiency, held in October 1994 in Columbus, Ohio, cosponsored by UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the city of Columbus, and private-sector business, focused on the use of modern information technology to expand international trade;
- The World Summit for Social Development, held in March 1995 in Copenhagen, Denmark, underscored national responsibility for sustainable development and secured high-level commitment to plans that invest in basic education, health care, and economic opportunity for all, including women and girls;
- The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in September 1995, sought to accelerate implementation of the historic agreements reached at the Third World Conference on Women held in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1985; and
- The Second UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), convened in June 1996 in Istanbul, Turkey, considered the challenges of human settlement development and management in the 21st century.
The UN system is financed in two ways: assessed and voluntary contributions from member states. The regular two-year budgets of the UN and its specialized agencies are funded by assessments. In the case of the UN, the General Assembly approves the regular budget and determines the assessment for each member. This is broadly based on the relative capacity of each country to pay, as measured by national income statistics, along with other factors.
The Assembly has established the principle that the UN should not be overly dependent on any one member to finance its operations. Thus, there is a 'ceiling' rate, setting the maximum amount any member is assessed for the regular budget. In December 2000, the Assembly agreed to revise the scale of assessments to make them better reflect current global circumstances.
As part of that agreement, the regular budget ceiling was reduced from 25 to 22 percent; this is the rate at which the United States is assessed. The United States is the only member that is assessed this rate, though it is in arrears hundreds of millions of dollars;(see also United States and the United Nations) all other members' assessment rates are lower. Under the scale of assessments adopted in 2000, other major contributors to the regular UN budget for 2001 are Japan (19.63%), Germany (9.82%), France (6.50%), the U.K (5.57%), Italy (5.09%), Canada (2.57%) and Spain (2.53%).
Special UN programs not included in the regular budget (such as UNICEF, UNDP, UNHCR, and WFP) are financed by voluntary contributions from member governments. In 2001, it is estimated that such contributions from the United States will total approximately $1.5 billion. Much of this is in the form of agricultural commodities donated for afflicted populations, but the majority is financial contributions.
The six official languages of the United Nations include those of the founding nations: Chinese, English, French, Russian. In addition, two widely spoken tongues -- Arabic and Spanish -- were added in 1973. All formal meetings are interpreted at least in these official languages. And all official documents, in print or online, are translated in all six languages.
Reforming the UN
The Definition of UN Reform
In recent years there have been many calls for "reform" of the UN. But there is little clarity, let alone consensus, about what reform might mean in practice. Both those who want the UN to play a greater role in world affairs and those who want its role confined to humanitarian work use the language of “UN reform,” but they mean very different things. In the United States, the term is frequently used to mean "make changes that will reduce the UN's power to hamper the United States", while outside the United States the term is usually a code for "make changes that will increase the UN's power over countries, including the United States".
Security Council Reform
The most frequently mooted change to the UN structure is to change the permanent membership of the Security Council, which reflects the power structure of the world as it was in 1945. One proposed change is to admit more members: the candidates usually mentioned are India, Japan and Germany. Another is to abolish the United Kingdom and France's seats and give a seat to the European Union: but since the EU is not a state this would require a change to the UN Charter (or it would require that the EU become a state).
Another change frequently suggested is to remove the veto power enjoyed by the permanent members of the Security Council. It is hard to see any of the current members surrendering the veto power. The United States in particular would strongly oppose this on the grounds that it would make the actions of the United States subject to international approval, and would also increase the likelihood of resolutions critical of Israel being passed. (See also Israel and the United Nations.) One of the main drives behind this are situations in which all but one of the fifteen nations on the Security Council vote to support a measure that is relatively unimportant, such as administrative decisions. (This was the case with the battle over re-election of UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.)
At another level, calls for reforming the UN demand to make the UN administration (usually called "the bureaucracy") more transparent, more accountable, and more efficient. In the United States, and particularly in the United States Congress, this is linked to demands that the UN adopt policies which encourage the development of free market economies and cease what are seen as socialist and anti-American policies and actions.
Enhancing its Democratic Nature
Another frequent demand is that the UN become "more democratic." This raises fundamental questions about the nature and role of the UN. The UN is not a world government, rather a forum for the world's sovereign states to debate issues and determine collective courses of action. Since the large majority of the world's states are now democracies, the UN is in a sense an "indirect democracy" already - the majority of countries cast votes at the UN in accordance (at least in theory) with the wishes of the electorates that elected them. A direct democracy would request the election of the UN Secretary-General by direct vote of the citizens of the democratic countries (World presidentialism).
For the UN to become more democratic in a direct sense, three things would presumably have to happen:
- Representation would need to be based more on population vote and UN democratic and free elections to the Secretary and Assembly, rather than the present strict one-state-one-vote principle. Another proposal is to establish a consultative United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) as an intermediary step towards a world parliament within the UN structure.
- An assembly where Liechtenstein has the same voting power as the People's Republic of China is far from equally representational (generally considered a key aspect of democracy).
- Again, this would remove a form of counter-representationalism, where the permanent Security Council members have their opinions weighted above others.
- In other words, it would have to become, to some degree, a world government. This would imply having the power to impose sanctions on members who would not follow the UN's determined courses of action and resolutions (including the human rights' resolutions) or the exclusion of elections to UN if they dont offer and guarantee free elections.
Diversity and Democracy
Implementation of population-based UN voting also raises the problems of diversity of interests and governments of the various nations. The nations in the UN contain representative democracies, absolute dictatorships and every shading in between. Allowing large powers to vote their population's interests en bloc begs the question that they really represent the interests and desires of their individual citizens and the world community. Anything like direct election would be impossible as well in the many nations where an accurate direct vote would be impossible or where the local government has power to influence the local voters as well as security of the ballot box. Giving the UN any kind of actual governance power raises the question of how these powers could be carried out. What would happen when a vote of the UN general assembly demands changes in the borders or political status of a nation, or requires citizens in some nations to tax themselves in favour of other nations, or demands the arrest of the leader of a nation, and is met by refusal?
On the subject of financing, an interesting proposal has been made by Paul Hawken in his book, The Ecology of Commerce. Hawken's recommendation is to impose an international tariff on arms manufacturers worldwide. By his calculations, 'a tax on missiles, planes, tanks, and guns would provide the U.N. (sic) with its entire budget, as well as pay for all peacekeeping efforts around the world, including the resettlement of refugees and reparations to the victims of war.'
The main problem with implementing such a radical tax is finding acceptance. While most nations of the European Union and Japan would likely be willing to support such a tariff, it would be unpopular among consumers of arms. Nations such as these range from the United States, which spends a huge amount of its GNP on defence, to petty dictatorships who depend on arms to keep themselves in power. Arms producers would also oppose it, because it would increase their costs and reduce their consumer base. Like any large corporation, arms manufacturers have a great deal of political clout in most countries.
Criticism of the UN
Over the past decade, an increasing number of voices have questioned the overall direction that the UN has taken. Many now see it as ineffective, overly bureaucratic, and acting outside the intended limits of its original charter.
Some specific complaints are as follows:
- The inclusion on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights of nations, such as Sudan, Cuba and Libya, which are claimed to have very poor records on human rights. Lybia's chairmanship of this Commission.
- A failure to act during the ethnic cleansing campaign in Rwanda, when current Secretary General Kofi Annan oversaw peacekeeping forces there.
- A failure to intervene during killings in Srebrenica, despite the fact that the UN designated it a "Safe Haven" for refugees and assigned 600 Dutch peacekeepers to protect it.
- Charges that the UN is increasingly attempting to usurp national sovereignty.
United Nations SystemMain article: United Nations System
The United Nations System has six principal organs:
- UN General Assembly
- UN Security Council
- UN Economic and Social Council
- UN Trusteeship Council
- UN Secretariat
- International Court of Justice
International YearsMain article: United Nations International Years
The UN declares and coordinates "International Year of the..." in order to focus world attention on important issues. Using the symbolism of the UN, a specially designed logo for the year, and the infrastructure of the UN system to coordinate events worldwide, the various years have become catalysts to advancing key issues on a global scale.
Model United Nations (MUNs)
There are a number of "Model United Nations" events held each year, in which participants collectively simulated the workings of the United Nations in its various committees and the General Assembly for a short period, typically a weekend or a 5-day week. Prominent amongst these are The Hague International Model United Nations (THIMUN) (for secondary school students from many countries, taking place in The Hague each January) and the American Harvard National Model United Nations (Boston each February) and National Model United Nations (various United States cities each April).
Countries and the United Nations
- China and the United Nations
- Israel and the United Nations
- Soviet Union and the United Nations
- United States and the United Nations