Just as violent conflicts continued in Syria, Myanmar’s Rohingya minority fled persecution to neighboring Bangladesh and hurricanes ravaged through the Caribbean islands, I found myself at home writing a seven-page essay summarizing the foundations of the United Nations. Through my research for the paper and conversations with my parents and colleagues, I realized that the functions of the UN are still unclear to many. If, at some point in your life, you’ve wondered why the UN is a subject of discussion in many households and in the media—but never understood what on earth it does—then you’ve come to the right place.
Why does it exist?
Before we get to the basic anatomy of such a massive organization, it may serve us well to understand, more or less, why it was formed. History classes have always taught us that as the League of Nations failed, the United Nations rose victoriously to represent countries around the world. However, many textbooks fail to mention its underlying framework: European nations sought to regain their stronghold around the world after World War II debilitated their powers. Like many things in life, the organization slowly strayed from the true intentions of its architects. Nelson Bass, professor of international relations in the Department of History and Political Science, said “The UN has grown in importance since its founding, and today is involved in peacekeeping missions, humanitarian aid, promoting a version of international human rights, and probably most importantly, providing a forum for nations to discuss issues of pressing global concern”.
What does it do?
As a major inter-governmental organization, the United Nations has many functions. Jessica Faieta, assistant secretary-general and United Nations Development Programme director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said the organization has two sides. For one, it serves as a convening organization where countries come together to form a consensus on key issues such as climate change, human rights and environmental laws. It is also a technical organization with specialized agencies, funds and programs that work on specific matters necessary for dire circumstances facing some countries.
The creation of such agencies ensure the UN’s effectiveness in situations that need immediate response, such as disaster-relief. Faieta is directly involved in supporting small islands in the Caribbean as they recover from damaging hurricanes. As part of her work, she directs and provides logistics for those who seek food, water and shelter while cooperating with non-governmental organizations to repair hospitals and roads.
Who is involved?
Whatever the issue may be, the UN marks its presence in 193 nations. Its Security Council permanently houses five global powers: the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and China. Meanwhile, the other 188 recognized member states form part of the General Assembly with two observers: the Vatican and Palestine.
What are the criticisms?
Much of the criticism toward the organization lies in the influence of the Security Council and its controversial veto power. Others undermine its legitimacy as they look at the UN’s historical inability to provide humanitarian intervention in genocides, ethnic cleansing and debilitating wars. However, does much fault lie within the organization or the member states themselves? Faieta called attention to the fact that “the UN cannot solve anything if members do not reach an agreement on impending issues facing Syria, for example.” The UN ultimately functions when member states are able to settle disputes on pressing global concerns facing humanity.
It’s likely that the UN won’t go anywhere anytime soon, which may be a good thing. As Bass pointed out, “given humans predilection—at the moment—to cloak ourselves in nationalism, the UN provides a forum where humanity can meet as equals to discuss our common future, and offers a way to overcome the imaginary barriers that separate us”. As humans come to grips with an ever-changing society, we find ourselves in need of an organization that remind us that we are not alone in the world.