What it is: The United Nations (UN) is an international organisation created in 1945 to ‘maintain international peace and security’. There were 51 founder members, and by 2003 every world state (except Taiwan and the Vatican) had joined. Their representatives meet in the UN General Assembly (each state has one vote). The UN has a large Secretariat of officials, diplomats and other staff and experts. There is a UN Economic and Social Council and many other UN agencies, most of them doing humanitarian work. The UN is also responsible for the International Court of Justice. The UN Security Council handles matters of peace and war. The Charter of the United Nations states the organisation’s aims and what its member states have signed up to – which include international co-operation, settling disputes ‘by peaceful means’ and not threatening or using force against other member states.

What it means: The UN was mostly the brainchild of the Allied Countries in the Second World War. It was intended to do a better job at saving the world from ‘the scourge of war’ than the League of Nations had done. But though there was no Third World War, there have been hundreds of smaller wars and armed conflicts which the Security Council has not prevented. The UN Security Council has 5 permanent members (the USA, the UK, the Russian Federation, France and China) and 10 others elected on a rota basis for 2-year stints; but only the 5 have the power to veto decisions. The USA has used its veto more than any of the other 4 – and has also voted against UN General Assembly resolutions on (for example) aggression, international law, human rights abuses and disarmament. In the 20th century only 2 military actions were authorised by the Security Council: in the Korean War (1950) and the Gulf War (1991). One of the UN’s problems is that its charter was drawn up to prevent interstate wars like the two world wars, rather than the civil wars, liberation wars and ethnic conflicts that became so frequent. Another problem: the permanent members of the Security Council were ‘inherited’ from 1945, and since then have faced conflict between themselves, notably the Cold War. The 5 (none of whom want to give up their roles) can unite to exert the authority of the UN, or they can tie its hands. And making things difficult for the UN is easy to do: from the start it has suffered from lack of funds and other resources. Many countries, including the USA and Russia, have been slow to pay their dues; and the UN’s essential independence has often been restricted or compromised. Many people have criticised the failure to set up an independent UN peacekeeping force – instead the UN has had to rely on individual countries (with their own interests and agendas) volunteering troops and equipment. But other people continue to say that the UN should not be involved in any kind of armed intervention. Instead, states should respect the UN charter and its link with international law, which membership requires them to do. As for the problems created by war, UN staff in its network of agencies have gained unique experience and skills to cope with them. They help civilian victims (including refugees), they protect human rights, they assist in rebuilding civilian institutions and social systems: all actions aiming to build peace. It’s also true that the UN charter and UN resolutions are a point of reference by which many nations justify what they do, or assess the legality of what other states do. The UN works to remedy injustices that are often the causes of war. It can also get peoples and states to do the same: all states have adopted the UN Millennium Declaration. This means aiming to eradicate poverty and hunger, ensure universal primary education, promote gender equality, combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases, reverse the loss of natural resources, and lift the burdens holding back developing countries – all by the year 2015. The UN is also a universal forum where the world’s peoples can meet and discuss their problems – maybe not enough people take advantage of that opportunity.

Think about it:
In 1988 the UN Peacekeeping Forces were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The selection committee said that the peacekeepers had, ‘under extremely difficult conditions’, helped to reduce tension in places of conflict where ceasefires had been agreed but peace treaties weren’t yet in place. In these situations, ‘the UN forces represent the will of the community of nations to achieve peace through negotiations’; the forces ‘by their presence’ had helped to bring this about. Despite such achievements, is armed force really the way to get a lasting end to conflict? Does history show that there really has been a strong international will to negotiate the way out of war? If your country’s leaders seem to prefer armed force to discussion, and disregard the UN Charter’s requirement for non-aggression, you as a citizen really do have the right and the power to complain. (It needs only a little thought and planning.)

(2) In 1945 a US banker made a prophecy. By 1950, he said, people would think the UN was humankind’s greatest vision. By 1955, doubts would be creeping in. By 1995 people would believe that the UN could never succeed: all the odds were against it. ‘It will only be when the United Nations is 100 years old that we will know that it is the only alternative to the demolition of the world.’ What else does the UN need, as well as time?

(3) In 2003, a senior member of the UN staff said this: ‘Without the active involvement of the USA, the UN can’t achieve much. The UN shouldn’t be made into a rallying point of opposition to American power. But it will also fail if it’s seen to be nothing more than a rubber stamp for decisions made in Washington.’ Some US political thinkers had another view: the UN and international law shouldn’t have authority that could override a democratic government’s policies – that would undermine individual democracies, and that’s why the US has not always been a co-operative member of the UN. In different ways, these ideas draw attention to what must be recognised worldwide: if you sign up to membership of the UN and acknowledge international law, then you have consented to respect their rules. Those well-intentioned rules were hammered out in the interests of every state and every individual. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be rethought in the light of experience, or revised by agreement. It does mean that every UN member has to stick to them if they are to work. The UN has made a start on some rethinking: in 1997 the new Secretary-General Kofi Annan began reforms to make the UN more efficient. What about other reforms, including the way states make collective decisions? – harder to agree and achieve, but clearly necessary. Again the question: what else does the UN need as well as time?