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The United Nations, or UN, is an international organization established in 1945 and now made up of 191 states. With the exception of the Holy See, the sole permanent observer state, all internationally recognized independent countries are members. Other political entities, notably the Republic of China (Taiwan), Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara), and Palestine, have de facto independence and/or some international diplomatic recognition from selected states, but are not UN members. For more information, see United Nations member states.
UN membership is open to all "peace-loving states" that accept the obligations of the UN Charter and, in the judgment of the organization, are able and willing to fulfill these obligations. The General Assembly determines admission upon recommendation of the Security Council. The organization's headquarters is in New York City, USA; see United Nations headquarters.
The term "united nations" was coined by Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, to refer to the Allies. Its first formal use was in the 1942 Declaration by the United Nations, which committed the Allies to the principles of the Atlantic Charter and pledged them not to seek a separate peace with the Axis powers. The name was transferred to the UN as it was founded by the victorious powers in the war as a condition of the Atlantic Charter and other wartime agreements. Initially, the body was known as the United Nations Organization, or UNO. But by the 1950s, English speakers were referring to it as the United Nations, or UN.
The United Nations System is based on six principal organs, part of what is collectively called the United Nations System:
- UN General Assembly
- UN Security Council
- UN Economic and Social Council
- UN Trusteeship Council
- UN Secretariat
- International Court of Justice
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 D. 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 Fighting Forces" to refer to their alliance. From August to October 1944, representatives of France, the Republic of China, 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 organizations, 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, the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and the United States — and by a majority of the other 46 signatories.
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., and designed by architech Oscar Niemeyer. UN headquarters officially opened on January 9, 1951. While the principal headquarters of the UN are in New York, there are major agencies located in Geneva, The Hague, Vienna, and elsewhere.
The founders of the UN had high hopes that it would act to prevent conflicts between nations and make future wars impossible, by fostering an ideal of collective security. Those hopes have obviously not been fully realized. From about 1947 until 1991 the division of the world into hostile camps during the Cold War made agreement on peacekeeping matters extremely difficult. 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, as several dozen active military conflicts continue to rage around the globe. The breakup of the Soviet Union has also left the United States in a unique position of global dominance, creating a variety of new challenges for 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 peacekeepers are sent to various regions where armed conflict has recently ceased, in order to enforce the terms of peace agreements and to discourage the combatants from resuming hostilities. These forces are provided by member states of the UN; the UN does not maintain any independent military. All UN peacekeeping operations must be approved by the Security Council.
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 U.S. 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 UN Peace-Keeping Forces received the 1988 Nobel Prize for Peace. In 2001 the United Nations and Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the UN, won the Nobel Peace Prize "for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world."
For participation in various peacekeeping operations, the United Nations maintains a series of United Nations Medals which are awarded to military service members of various countries who enforce UN accords. The first such decoration issued was the United Nations Service Medal, awarded to UN forces who participated in the Korean War. The NATO Medal is designed on a similar concept and both the UN Service Medal, and the NATO Medal, are considered international decorations instead of military decorations.
In conjunction with other organizations, such as the Red Cross, the UN provides food, drinking water, shelter and other humanitarian services to populaces suffering from famine, displaced by war, or afflicted by some other disaster. Major humanitarian arms of the UN are the World Food Programme and the High Commissioner for Refugees.
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 Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), 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.
United Nations System
Main 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
For more information on the organizational structure see the main article.
The member countries of the UN and its specialized agencies — the "stakeholders" of the system — give guidance and make decisions on substantive and administrative issues in regular meetings held throughout each year. Governing bodies made up of member states include not only the General Assembly, Economic and Social Council, and the Security 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 International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, Egypt, in September 1994, approved a programme 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 programmes 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 as well as Spanish (UN Charter, article 111). In addition, Arabic was added in 1982 [S/RES/528 (1982)]. All formal meetings are interpreted in these official languages. Additionally, all official documents, in print or online, are translated in all six languages.
Successes of the UN
- Raising consciousness of the concept of human rights through its covenants and of its attention to specific abuses through its resolutions or rulings. (eg. abolishing Apartheid in South Africa)
- Health successes such as the World Health Organization's elimination of small pox.
- The UN's World Food Programme helps feed more than 100 million people a year in 80 countries.
- The UN has helped run elections in countries with little democratic history including recently in Afghanistan and East Timor.
- The UN Population Fund is a major provider of reproducitive services especially in poor countries. It has helped reduce infant and maternal mortality in 100 countries.
- Organizations like the WHO, UNAIDS and Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria are leading institutions in the battle against AIDS around the world especially in poor countries.
- The UN has set up war-crimes tribunals to try war criminals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
Criticism of the UN
Throughout its history, the UN has been a source of controversy, dating back to the handling of its involvement in the conflict in Katanga, including allegations of massive rape campaigns and genocide. 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, prone to corruption, and acting outside the intended limits of its original charter (or, on the converse, not acting sufficiently within its charter or that the charter is too weak for present-day needs).
Some respond that much of the blame can only lie with the member states that support it (or fail to support it), including their perceived failure to make needed systemic changes to the institution (whether in its own administrative bureaucracy or in its structure governing member countries). See the reform section below on proposals for addressing the perceived systemic failures of the latter type.
General criticisms of its structure governing member countries:
- Charges that the UN is increasingly attempting to usurp or forcefully establish national sovereignty.
- These include the original controversies surrounding UN involvement in Katanga
- The UN involvement in the Korean Conflict in which the UN was instrumental in causing the perpetuation of the political division of the Korean peninsula, rather than in promoting a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
- Most such charges currently revolve around the International Court of Justice, and UN pressure to accept compulsory jurisdiction of this court.
- Charges that the UN is not doing enough to override national sovereignty.
- In general, the UN has shown a reluctance to act upon its resolutions, making it weak and evoking comparisons to the League of Nations.
- Some charge that the UN is powerless should member nations ignore UN resolutions, or also, proceed with actions without UN support. This was highlighted in 2003 by controversy surrounding the United States-led invasion of Iraq (which was not conducted in contravention of UN policy, but was, however, conducted despite intense disapproval by a majority of the vocal membership), and by Iraq's converse direct defiance of UN weapons and humanitarian resolutions.
- The UN gives precedence to government authority over individual liberty, regularly seeming reluctant to challenge member states' behaviour regarding their own populace.
Some specific complaints are as follows:
- Internal institutional failures:
- Exploitation of UN facilities and workers in the aid of terrorism. Concrete allegations were against UNRWA and UNIFIL regarding the involvement in the October 2000 Lebanon abduction of three Israeli Engineering Corps soldiers, by Hizbullah,  (http://www.maarivintl.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=article&articleID=11009)). Alternatively, some criticize the UN for failing to stop Israeli invasion of Lebanon, or daily violations of Lebanon's borders and territory.
- Allegations of mismanagement and corruption regarding the Oil-for-Food Programme for Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
- Structure governing member countries
- Inclusion on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights of nations, such as Sudan, Cuba and Libya, which demonstrably have abysmal records on human rights, and also Libya's chairmanship of this Commission. These countries, however, argue that Western countries, with their history of colonialist aggression and brutality, have no right to argue about membership of the Commission.
- Failure to act (or succeed) in security issues:
- Failure to act during the ethnic cleansing campaign in Rwanda, when current Secretary General Kofi Annan oversaw peacekeeping forces there.
- 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.
- Failure to successfully deliver food to starving citizens of Somalia; the food was usually seized by local warlords instead of reaching those who needed it. A US/UN attempt to apprehend the warlords seizing these shipments resulted in the Battle of Mogadishu.
- Criticism that the UN is ruled by "tyranny of the majority" where for example, it is said that Arab states have an unfairly large influence as seen by the large number of resolutions (over 30% of all resolutions in the history of the UN) which are directly condemnatory of Israel (although it is worthy of note that many non-Arab and non-Muslim-majority nations have, for whatever reason, often supported such resolutions). Alternatively, some argue that the UN is ruled by a "tyranny of the rich", being a puppet at the hands of powerful states. Critics point out to the repeated use of the veto to protect Israel, and the failure of the UN to enforce its resolutions on powerful countries like Israel or the US while enforcing them on weaker states like Iraq or Syria.
- Sexual abuse of girls by UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This abuse is still widespread and ongoing despite many revelations and probes by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services.
Reforming the UN
Main article: Reform of the United Nations
In recent years there have been many calls for "reform" of the United Nations. There is, however, 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 or otherwise reduced use the term "UN reform" to refer to their ideas. The range of opinion extends from as far as those who want to eliminate the UN entirely, to those that want to make it into a full-fledged world government.
An official reform programme was initiated by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan shortly after starting his first term on January 1, 1997. Popular demands include changing the permanent membership of the Security Council; making the bureaucracy more transparent, accountable and efficient; making the UN more democratic; and imposing an international tariff on arms manufacturers worldwide.
On June 17, 2005, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill to slash funds to the UN in half by 2008 if it does not meet with certain criteria laid out in the legislation. This represents the culmination of years of complaints about anti-America and anti-Israel bias in the United Nations. The United States of America is estimated to contribute about 22% of the UN's yearly budget, making this bill potentially devasting to the UN. The Bush administration and several former US ambassadors to the UN have warned that this may only strengthen anti-America sentiment around the world and would only serve to hurt current UN reform movements. As of June 17, the bill still has yet to be passed by a Congress which seems to be split on the issue, and thus whether or not it will take effect is unknown..
Main 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.
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
- UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador
- UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador
- List of UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors
- UNESCO World Heritage Sites
- Japanese Peace Bell
- Attacks on humanitarian workers
- Oil-for-Food Programme
- Millennium Development Goals
- Forum of Cultures
- League of Nations
- World Health Organization
- World democracy
- World government
- Global Fund
- United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (fictional)
- Model United Nations
- United Nations Space Command (fictional)
- "An Insider's Guide to the UN", Linda Fasulo, Yale University Press (November 1, 2003), hardcover, 272 pages, ISBN 0300101554
- "United Nations:The First Fifty Years", Stanley Mesler, Atlantic Monthly Press (March 1, 1997), hardcover, 416 pages, ISBN 0871136562
- "United Nations, Divided World: The Un's Roles in International Relations" edited by Adam Roberts and Benedict Kingsbury, Oxford University Press; 2nd edition (January 1, 1994), hardcover, 589 pages,ISBN 0198279264
- "A Guide to Delegate Preparation", A Model United Nations Handbook, edited by Scott A. Leslie, The United Nations Association of the United States of America, 2004 edition (October 2004), softcover, 296 pages, ISBN 1880632713
- "U.S. At War - International." Time Magazine XLV.19 May 7, 1945: 25-28.
- United Nations (http://www.un.org/) - Official site
- Website (http://www.globalpolicy.org) of the Global Policy Forum, an independent think-tank on UN
- Website (http://www.uno-komitee.de) of the Committee for a Democratic UN (german and English versions)
- Economist.com background (http://www.economist.com/background/displayBackground.cfm?story_id=3398746)
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