Headquartered in New York City and composed of 192 member states (as of 2007), the United Nations (UN) is an organization whose mission is to foster international cooperation, prevent war, safeguard human rights, promote social and economic progress, improve living standards, and fight diseases all around the world. Its forerunner was the League of Nations, which was established in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security.” But the League became defunct after failing to prevent the Second World War from erupting in 1939. The League did not convene at all during the War years, and in 1946 its responsibilities were transferred to the United Nations.
The victorious Allied Powers officially established the UN after the end of World War II in the hope that it would be able to successfully defuse or resolve international conflicts and thereby prevent future wars. These founders or their successor states are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, each possessing veto power on any UN resolution. They are the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the People’s Republic of China (which replaced the Republic of China), and the Russian Federation (which replaced the USSR).
In 1945, representatives of 50 countries (including the five founders) met in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization to draw up the UN Charter, whose provisions were derived from preliminary proposals that had been worked out by the representatives of China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States in August-October 1944. The Charter was signed on June 26, 1945 by the representatives of all 50 countries. Poland, which was not represented at the Conference, signed it later and became one of the original 51 member states. The United Nations officially came into existence on October 24, 1945. Upon its inception, the fledgling organization chose five official languages in which to conduct its business: English, French, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. Arabic would be added in 1973.
Financing for the UN comes chiefly from the assessed and voluntary contributions of its member states. Its regular two-year budgets and its specialized agencies in particular are funded by assessments approved by the UN General Assembly. These assessments are based on each country’s relative ability to pay, as measured by such factors as national income statistics. The budget ceiling, representing the highest portion of the total bill that any country may be assessed, is 22 percent. The United States is the only member nation that must put forth this amount, though its payments are currently in arrears. Other leading contributors to the regular UN budget are Japan (19.63 percent); Germany (9.82 percent); France (6.50 percent); the United Kingdom (5.57 percent); Italy (5.09 percent); Canada (2.57 percent); Spain (2.53 percent); and Brazil (2.39 percent).
The UN Security Council occasionally approves the deployment of peacekeeper forces to various regions of the world where armed conflict has recently ceased, in order to enforce the terms of peace agreements and to prevent the combatants from resuming hostilities. Because the UN does not maintain a standing army, these forces are provided by member states whose participation in peacekeeping operations is entirely optional. During the 2005-2006 fiscal year, the UN spent approximately $5 billion on peacekeeping deployments consisting of some 70,000 troops in 17 missions around the world.
One of the central reasons for the creation of the UN was to establish a legal framework for considering and acting on complaints about human rights violations, and for preventing a recurrence of the genocide and related atrocities that took place during World War II. Toward that end, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a department of the United Nations Secretariat, is mandated “to promote and protect the enjoyment and full realization, by all people, of all rights established in the Charter of the United Nations and in international human rights laws and treaties.” This mandate “includes preventing human rights violations, securing respect for all human rights, promoting international cooperation to protect human rights, coordinating related activities throughout the United Nations, and strengthening and streamlining the United Nations system in the field of human rights.”
In an effort to advance “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights,” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all. Because the yardsticks of “human rights” set forth in this document are based on compromises between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union, many of them are mutually contradictory. The Declaration states that: “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”; “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”; “no one shall be held in slavery”; “no one shall be subjected to torture”; criminal defendants will be “presumed innocent until proved guilty”; all people have a right to “privacy” and “freedom of movement,” including “the right to leave any country, including his own”; “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion … freedom of opinion and expression … [and] of peaceful assembly and association”; “everyone has the right to own property”; “men and women of full age … have the right to marry and found a family”; government’s authority is based on the will of the people in elections “by universal and equal suffrage … held by secret vote”; every person “has the right to social security” and “the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality”; “everyone has the right to work” and to receive “equal pay for equal work,” to “form and join trade unions,” to “rest and leisure,” and to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”; “everyone has the right to education” that is “free … and compulsory” and “directed to the full development of the human personality.” “These rights and freedoms,” the Declaration added, “may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”
In June 1993, representatives of 171 countries met in Vienna, Austria, at the World Conference on Human Rights. There they adopted a new “holistic” approach to the Declaration’s vision of universal human rights, with the idea that a person’s human rights vary with his or her “national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds.” Thus the “rights” of a woman born in Saudi Arabia, for example, were to be defined not by the United Nations Universal Declaration but by the accepted norms of her nation, culture, and strict Wahhabist Islamic faith.
The now-defunct United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) wrestled with political as well as semantic problems in trying to enforce the Declaration, which among other things affirmed each human being’s right to “freedom from fear,” most notably the fear of terrorism. Terrorism, however, was never clearly defined by the UN. The reason for this, writes Columbia University law professor Anne Bayefsky, is that “members of the Organization of Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States have blocked consensus on any common understanding of terrorism. In the view of countries like Saudi Arabia, expressed again during the [2003 session of UNCHR], ‘we should distinguish between the phenomenon of terrorism and the right of peoples to achieve self-determination.'” This was akin to the maxim that “one man’s ‘terrorist’ is another’s ‘freedom fighter.'”
Chairmanship of UNCHR changed on an annual basis, sometimes going to nations that ranked among the world’s most egregious human rights violators. For example, in 2002 the Commission was chaired by Syria, and in 2003 by Libya. In 2005, six of the fifty-three UNCHR members—China, Cuba, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe—were classified by Freedom House as some of the world’s “worst of the worst” abusers of human rights. On March 15, 2006, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to replace UNCHR with the UN Human Rights Council.
To adjudicate disputes among states, the UN oversees an International Court of Justice (ICJ) which was formed in 1946. In one case adjudicated by this Court, Congo accused France of illegally detaining former heads of state accused of war crimes. In another case, Nicaragua charged the United States with having illegally armed the Contras against the Marxist Sandinistas in the 1980s.
The United Nations has also established a variety of additional venues to address inter- and intra-national disputes. In response to charges of “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia, for instance, the UN Security Council in 1993 formed an International Criminal Tribunal to weigh the evidence. In 1994 the Security Council established a similar Tribunal in response to the genocide in Rwanda. Four years later the General Assembly called a conference in Rome for the establishment of an International Criminal Court (ICC), which became operational in 2002. Also in 2002, the UN set up the Special Court for Sierra Leone to address the atrocities committed during that country’s civil war.
One of the most controversial UN campaigns in recent years was the Oil-for-Food Program, created in 1995 by Security Council Resolution 986 to allow Iraq to sell oil on the world market in exchange for food and medical necessities, so as to “provide for the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people” while the nation was still subject to economic sanctions. In 2003 it was learned that this program (and the UN officials who ran it) had allowed Saddam Hussein to skim more than $21 billion from its coffers — money which he then used not only for his own aggrandizement, but also to bribe political leaders from Russia, France, and elsewhere to oppose American policy, all the while depriving his countrymen of the supplies they needed.
Historically the UN has been characterized by an inability to enforce its own mandates, as evidenced by the fact that Iraq ignored no fewer than 17 Security Council resolutions between the end of the Gulf War in 1991 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The organization has also shown itself to be incapable of acting decisively or forcefully in the face of crisis. It failed, for instance, to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide that took nearly a million lives; it failed to intervene effectively during the Second Congo War, where almost 5 million people were killed; it failed to intervene in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, even though the UN had designated that mountain town as a “safe haven” for refugees and had assigned 600 Dutch peacekeepers to defend it; it failed in the early 1990s to deliver food to Somalia’s starving masses, permitting the relief packages instead to be seized by local warlords; it failed to enforce the provisions of Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701 mandating the disarmament of Lebanese paramilitary organizations like Fatah and Hezbollah; it has been unable to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions; and it has failed to stop the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
On June 8, 2006, H.E. Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa was elected President of the sixty-first session of the UN General Assembly. At the time of her election, she was serving as Legal Adviser to the Royal Court in the Kingdom of Bahrain.
On November 28, 2012 — the 65th anniversary of the vote to divide the former British mandate of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab — 138 member countries of the UN General Assembly voted in favor of upgrading Palestine to a nonmember observer state of the UN. Only 9 members opposed the measure, and 41 abstained. The vote was considered to be a triumph for Palestinian diplomacy and a sharp rebuke to the U.S. and Israel. The new status was expected to give the Palestinians more leverage in challenging Israel in international legal forums for its settlement-building activities in the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza.
On November 29, 2012, UN Watch reported that the United Nations General Assembly, in its 67th session, planned to adopt a total of 21 resolutions singling out Israel for criticism in one form or another (click here to see draft texts) — and only 4 resolutions for all the other nations of the world combined. Those included one resolution each on Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Burma.
The current UN Secretary General is Ban Ki-moon, who succeeded Kofi Annan on January 1, 2007. At the time of his election to this post, Mr. Ban was the Republic of Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The United Nations receives financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Samuel Rubin Foundation, and the United Nations Foundation.