October 24 is United Nations Day, a day that is meant to celebrate the achievement and ongoing success of the United Nations. This year’s celebrated theme echoes Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s most recent statement: “Let us unite, seven billion strong, in the name of the global common good.” Yet one can’t help but wonder, what is the “global common good” and how does an organization like the United Nations help to unite our seven billion strong? What does the United Nations actually do?
Well, just like its name, the United Nations is in fact, a union between nations worldwide. An international organization whose stated purpose is to facilitate cooperation in international law, international security, social progress, economic development, human rights, and achievement of world peace, the UN acts as a global governing advisory assembly. The six principal organs of the United Nations are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Secretariat, the International Court of Justice and the United Nations Trusteeship Council (which is currently inactive). Other prolific UN System agencies include the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO), and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Each branch of the organization labors to implement its missions. For example, the Security Council is charged with upholding peace and security worldwide by facilitating binding decisions that member states must adhere to under the terms of the Charter. Although the Security Council is made up of 15 member states, only 5 are in fact permanent. These include China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The International Criminal Court on the other hand, is charged with trying those who commit the most serious crimes under international law, such as war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. The Economic and Social Council however, assists in promoting international economic and social cooperation and development, and whose chief finance ministers also head central committees like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Financed solely from assessed and voluntary contribution from its member states, the United Nations remains a global cooperative, seemingly forged from the needs of humanity.
Now it may seem that a political liaison among the world’s super powers and their allies is either counterintuitive or rather avant-garde, and yet, the UN is not the beacon of our postmodern era. In fact, the United Nations was founded in 1945 following the Second World War, a historical concept born about by historical events. A replacement for the League of Nations, the UN was initially designed to be both a global goodwill ambassador, and an intergovernmental policing platform, to stop armed war between countries and provide an arena for open debate and discussion. Since it’s beginning, membership has significantly grown to presently include 193 member states, with the joining of South Sudan in 2011. Today, the UN is more commonly known for its peacekeeping initiatives. While the UN does not maintain it’s own military, peacekeeping forces are therefore voluntarily provided by its member states. Commonly referred to as the “Blue Helmets,” the UN’s peacekeeping force is recognized worldwide by the UN’s renowned blue and white insignia, and boasts many accolades to boot, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.
So, one might ask, what is the relevance of an organization like the UN, if conflict between countries persists? One might also consider the moral caboose of the UN – whether or not a central governing body should in fact be responsible for the well being of individual states. Despite the apparent successes of the UN, criticism and conflict continue to plague the organization for its perceived failures. Many argue that due to the UN’s intergovernmental nature, member states demonstrate reluctance to achieve or enforce Security Council resolutions, and that disagreements in the Security Council about military action have failed to prevent many of the atrocities of the 20th century, including the Cold War, the Rwandan Genocide, the Second Congo War, starvation in Somalia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the continuing conflict in Darfur. In addition to these professed shortcomings, critics have also accused the UN peacekeeping force of sexual crimes starting in 2003, in the Congo, Haiti, Liberia, Sudan, Burundi and Cote d’Ivoire.
Apart from controversy over the UN’s actions, the very structure of the United Nations has been called into question. Critics challenge the democratic nature of the UN, stating it serves only the interests of the governments of the nations who form it, rather than the individuals within those nations. Other concerns are aimed directly at the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Some contemporaries are quick to criticize their veto power, while others point out their heavy investment in arms exportation and exclusive rights to nuclear power. In this respect, the UNSC is viewed as a platform for the strategic interests and political motives of its permanent members. Critics argue that examples can be taken from the UN’s protection over the oil-rich Kuwaitis in 1991 and its dithering with the resource-poor Rwandans in 1994, as well as its quick military action through NATO against Libya in 2011, but its present-day indecision over whether to take military action against Syria.
Whether or not one agrees with the political or moral aspects of the United Nations, or whether one even agrees with its relevancy to date, the United Nations is inarguably still a vital force for globalization, which sees the cooperation of many different states, societies, cultures and histories under the incentive of world peace. Too good to be true? Perhaps. But where it fails, it may also succeed, and while the world is becoming smaller through mico and macro technologies, organizations like the UN seem to be where our future is headed. So all hail on October 24!