The United Nations, or UN, is an international organization made up of 191 states. Almost all countries are members. It was established in San Francisco on October 24, 1945, following the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in Washington, DC, but the first General Assembly, with 51 nations represented, was not held until January 10, 1946 (held in Church House, London). From 1919 to 1946, there existed a somewhat similar organization under the name of League of Nations, which can be considered as the UN's precursor. 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. As of April 2004 there have been 191 members; see United Nations member states. The organization's headquarters is in New York City; see United Nations headquarters.
In the latter part of World War II, the Allies were increasingly referred to as "the United Nations" as a result of the 1942 Declaration by the United Nations. 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:
Background and history
Main article: History of the United Nations
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 League of Nations can be considered a precursor.
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 UN Peace-Keeping Forces received the 1988 Nobel Prize for Peace.
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 U.N. accords. The first such decoration issued was the United Nations Service Medal, awarded to U.N. forces who participated in the Korean War. The NATO Medal is designed on a similar concept and both the U.N. Service Medal, and the NATO Medal, are considered "international decorations" instead of military decorations.
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.
See also: United Nations Convention on the Abolition of Slavery and United National Convention on the Rights of the Child
United Nations System
Main article: United Nations System
The United Nations System has six principal organs:
For more information on the organizational structure see the main article.
Secretary-General since 1995: Kofi Annan, from Ghana.
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 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.
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
- Health successes such as the World Health Organization's elimination of small pox.
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, 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 national sovereignty.
- 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 especially highlighted with the United States' invasion of Iraq, and with Iraq's 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 people.
Some specific complaints are as follows:
- Internal institutional failures:
- Structure governing member countries
- Failure to act (or succeed) in security issues:
- 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.
- A failure to successfully deliver food to starving citizens of Somalia; the food was usually siezed by local warlords instead of reaching those who needed it. A United States/United Nation attempt to apprehend the warlords siezing the shipments resulted in the Battle of Mogadishu.
- The failure of UNIFIL to restrain Hizbullah and achieve security and order in south Lebanon.
- Criticism that the UN is ruled by "tyranny of the majority" where for example, Arab states have an unfairly large influence as seen by the total disproportionate number of resolutions condemning Israel.
Reforming the UN
Main article Reform of the United Nations
Whilst there have been many calls for reform of the UN, an official reform program was initiated by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan shortly after starting his first term on January 1, 1997.
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.
Model United Nations
The purpose of Model United Nations (MUNs) is have students to activately participate in a simulated version of the United Nations. Its focus is for students to research political positions of nations and to gain a better understanding of the world through it. Predominately in the United States, Model United Nations are usually classes or clubs or both. Typically, in United States high schools, MUNs are clubs, unless the rare exceptions where they are an actual class. Many Universities have MUNs as well, and are more commonly classes rather than clubs. Many MUNs usually host conferences for the surrounding area's MUNs. University-level Model United Nations host one conference per academic year for many secondary/high school level Model United Nations. Depending the presige of the University, it may attract many secondary/high school level Model United Nations internationally, country-wide, or providence-wide/state-wide.
There are a number of "Model United Nations" events held each year, in which participants collectively simulate 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), the National High School Model United Nations (NHSMUN), for secondary/high school students from across the world, held each March at the UN in New York City the American Harvard National Model United Nations (Boston each February), the North American Model United Nations (various United States cities each April), and the American Model United Nations (AMUN) (held annually before Thanksgiving in Chicago, Illinois). Individual schools and colleges also organize similar events for their own students.
Countries and the United Nations
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