On 26 June 1945, the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco by representatives of fifty countries and was promulgated on 24 October 1945. Formed after two World Wars in which between 80 and 100 million people died, the purpose of the UN was to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights…to establish condition under which justice and the respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”
Founded after the ravages of two World Wars, the U.N. observes its 75th anniversary in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic which has sickened millions and killed hundreds of thousands. This will have a dramatic impact in New York City: for the first time in decades, September traffic will not be snarled, since the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly (U.N.G.A.) will be virtual this year.
Although often the object of strong — sometimes quite uniformed — opinions, the U.N. for all its size and importance is relatively unknown to most people. In honor of its 75th anniversary we are offering a very brief introduction to the U.N. and its often dizzyingly complicated system.
The U.N. consists of three large sections:
1) Member States of which there are 193 and three Observer States. The Observer States, which do not have the right to vote, are the Holy See, the National Palestinian Authority, and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
2) UN Organizations which carry out the mission of the U.N. (These include organizations such as the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (U.N.E.S.C.O.), U.N. High Commission for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.) and very many others listed above. These organizations work, for example, to eradicate smallpox, malaria and other diseases; and
3) Civil Society, which consists of non-governmental agencies (N.G.O.s) with several different levels of accreditation to the U.N. It is interesting to note that there are very many faith-based N.G.O.s accredited to the U.N.. At the U.N. headquarters in New York alone, there are over 50 Catholic N.G.O.s. CNEWA is an accredited N.G.O. to the UN Department of Global Communications (U.N.D.G.C.) and has at times worked with different U.N. humanitarian aid agencies.
There are six principal organs of the United Nations:
- The General Assembly (U.N.G.A.) at which all Member States have a vote, which is deliberative, supervisory, financial and elective. It has no coercive authority. It accepts new member states, elects nonpermanent members of the Security Council, members of the Trustee Council and participates in the election of judges to the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.).
- The Security Council (U.N.S.C.). Presently consists of 15 members. The People’s Republic of China, France, the Russian Republic, the United Kingdom and the United States are permanent members of the U.N.S.C. (the Permanent 5 or P-5). Ten non-permanent members are elected from and by the General Assembly for two-year terms on revolving election of five members.
- Each member of the permanent five has absolute veto power.
- The U.N. Charter allows the Security Council to take military action; thus, unlike the U.N.G.A., the U.N.S.C. under some circumstances has (military) coercive power.
- “In addition,…the Council is facilitated by the Military Staff Committee, sanctions committee…peacekeeping forces, and the International Tribunal Committee.”
- Economic and Security Council (E.C.O.S.O.C.). This “directs and coordinates the economic, social, humanitarian, and cultural activities of the U.N.” and its organizations
- Grants consultative status (three different levels) to N.G.O.s enabling them to engage in advocacy on different levels of the U.N. system
- Consists of 54 members elected from the G.A. for three-year terms
- Trusteeship Council “was designed to supervise the government of trust territories and to lead them too self-government or independence.”
- International Court of Justice (I.C.C.), aka the World Court “is the principal judicial organ of the UN….to arbitrate international disputes ….”
- Consists of 15 judges elected by the U.N.G.A. No two judges may be citizens of the same state and serve a nine-year term and can be re-elected
- The I.C.C. suffers from lack of recognition, cooperation, etc., from member states under investigation
- Secretariat (U.N.S.G.). The UN Secretary-General is elected by the G.A. for a five-year term which is renewable by a two-thirds vote of the G.A. and the recommendation of the Security Council.
- The U.N.S.G. is “the chief spokesperson for the UN and its most visible and authoritative figure”…”often serving as a high-level negotiator.”
Given the size and complexity of the U.N., it is easy to highlight its weaknesses and failures — of which there are any number. However, that very size and complexity make it also extremely easy to overlook its successes. Its Millennium Development Goals (M.D.G.s) — now Sustainable Development Goals (S.D.G.s) — have had considerable success in reducing the level of world poverty and communicable diseases. While the world still suffers from far too many localized armed conflicts, because of the U.N. we have been able to avoid a repetition of 1914-1944, a 30-year period of two world wars and millions on deaths. As the UN observes its 75th anniversary, its goal to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” while not totally successful, has not nearly been a total failure either.
As the first half of the 20th century proved: while the United Nations may be flawed, our world would be a lot worse and a lot more dangerous without it.