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5.1: United Nations

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    The successor to the 1800s Concert of Europe was the League of Nations, which was set up in 1919 to prevent a repetition of WWI. Hampered by rules that required unanimous agreement and an inability to enforce its sanctions because of lack of cooperation by members, it did not succeed. But, with the much greater loss of life and destruction of WWII, the Allies tried again in 1945 with the United Nations. The UN Charter takes the nation-state as a given, recognizing the sovereignty and equality of all countries.

    The UN has sometimes been successful as a forum for diplomacy and to try to solve international problems. During the Cold War, it was hampered by Security Council vetoes by the USSR and U.S. However, because every country has full-time ambassadors there available for consultation at any time, it serves as a continuous worldwide forum for discussion, reduction and resolution of conflicts. For instance, the UN put together the 1983 Law of the Sea Treaty, which resolved numerous issues regarding the world’s oceans. The UN also carries out economic and social programs to address poverty, health, women’s and children’s rights, environmental and other issues, and has sent many peacekeeping forces to maintain cease fires and truces in various wars. Also, as an impartial international organization, it has credibility on issues like global warming.


    To avoid the weaknesses of the League of Nations, on the UN Security Council, which can authorize the use of force, only five "permanent" members have veto power (the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain - the WWII allies). There are also ten rotating members who do not have veto power. Since the end of the Cold War, use of the veto has declined in favor of consensus, but it remains a powerful tool - as in France and Russia's refusal of Bush 2's request for a resolution authorizing force against Iraq in 2002; Russia’s resistance to moving against its longtime ally, the vicious Asad regime in its Syria; Russia’s veto on resolutions condemning its taking Crimea from Ukraine and its shooting down a Korean Airlines passenger plane; the United States’ numerous vetoes of resolutions against Israel; and China’s resistance to action against the genocidal wars in Sudan (they have lucrative oil deals there). Also, China is against international intervention in general because it doesn’t want to set a precedent that might be used regarding Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. The Security Council does not only engage in the use of force; it has imposed economic sanctions against countries such as North Korea.

    The 75-year old composition of the P5 - the permanent veto members - clearly does not reflect the world power structure today, but proposals to add Germany, Japan, India, Brazil, and other large and powerful countries are stalled. China doesn’t want Asian rivals Japan or India to be permanent members. None of the current permanent members want their veto power diluted. And there is a valid concern that with more possible vetoes, it would be even more difficult to reach decisions. Meanwhile, there is another old-fashioned aspect of the UN; over 70% of its leadership are men.

    In the General Assembly, all countries are members and each has a vote. Decision on most matters is by majority rule. As the number of UN members from the Global South has grown, they continually push for focusing on their priorities, such as foreign aid, trade and debt, but without much success. The Secretary General is nominated by the Security Council, where the P5 countries have veto power, and elected by the General Assembly.

    There are continual conflicts over money at the UN. The spending is quite low for a world organization - about the size of the New York City Fire Department budget. This conveniently limits its reach in confronting the major powers. Since the rich countries pay for most of the budget, their priorities get more attention. At one point, the U.S. withheld dues to press for reforms. The bureaucracy was reduced somewhat, and the U.S. has nearly caught up in paying its dues. One interesting practice has emerged over the years; countries that become rotating members of the Security Council get more foreign aid from the major powers in hopes of gaining their votes. There have also been corruption scandals.

    Double Standards

    There are criticisms of double standards at the UN. There was intervention against the Iraq invasion of Kuwait, in order to save its oil for the major powers, and intervention in Yugoslavia, to stop the killings and the flow of refugees into Europe. But no action was taken to stop a much worse genocide in Rwanda, a poor agricultural country in Africa with no significant resources, or the mass killings during the civil war in Sri Lanka. Another double standard concerns Israel, which has been excluded from many UN functions and has been the target of dozens of resolutions condemning Zionism, the West Bank Settlements and other actions (the then-Secretary General even criticized Israel’s rescue of terrorist hostages at Entebbe). Meanwhile severe human rights violations by China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and others have been ignored. Similarly, the UN has supported nationhood for the Palestinians, but not for the Kurds, Tibetans and others.

    Peacekeeping and Peacemaking

    Under the Security Council, the UN has engaged in dozens of peace-keeping operations after diplomacy ended the fighting in countries such as Cambodia, East Timor, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. Most of these have been successful. However, UN troops work under very restricted Rules of Engagement (rules on using their weapons), and sometimes there were problems. In Cambodia, the UN was not able to prevent President Hun Sen from forcing people who beat him in elections into ‘coalition’ governments, jailing opponents, conducting fraudulent elections, and engaging in massive corruption and numerous human rights abuses. There have also been scandals about UN peacekeepers engaging in sex trafficking and causing a cholera outbreak in Haiti.

    Efforts at peace-MAKING, such as in wars in Congo, Somalia or the former Yugoslavia (where NATO action was finally required), went badly. In Somalia, U.S. forces under UN command were ordered to take sides in a multi-sided civil war and suffered casualties when help was slow in arriving (Black Hawk Down). In Bosnia, UN soldiers were taken prisoner and handcuffed to prospective bombing targets. In addition, UN troops were under orders not to interfere when Serbian troops took 6,000 Bosnian men and boys from a supposed safe haven in Srebrenica in 1995 and massacred them. The UN has also taken no action during the genocide in Darfur that has killed over 300,000 since 2003 - it only has unarmed observers. In Congo, the war has flared up repeatedly because of neighboring countries’ hunger for its diamonds and coltan ore (valuable for cell phones and other electronics). At one point, 750 UN troops were taken prisoner there, and in 2017 fifteen were killed. Recently, the UN has supposedly authorized its local commanders to take stronger defensive action. We shall see if it can give up its usual micromanagement.

    So overall, UN peacekeepers have been effective where there is a settled peace, such as in the Sinai between Egypt and Israel, but have not been successful in peacemaking, i.e., where a war is still going on.

    Other UN Organizations

    There are other important UN organizations. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitors nuclear programs such as Iran’s for compliance with the Non Proliferation Treaty and the 2015 nuclear freeze treaty. The World Health Organization (WHO) led the fight to wipe out smallpox and is leading the fight to wipe out polio and to control the coronavirus, bird flu, Ebola, AIDS and Zika. The UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) runs camps that help people displaced by wars and natural disasters. The World Food Program feeds the hungry at these and other sites. There is the World Court, aka The International Court of Justice or ICJ, which adjudicates cases involving international law. The Economic and Social Council works on economic and social programs such as fulfilling Millennium Goals for food, water, health and education for the poor. There was pressure to improve the UN Human Rights Commission, which major violators like China and Saudi Arabia joined in order to prevent action against themselves. Starting in 2014, the Commission did issue very critical reports on North Korean violations of human rights.

    As China has become the second largest contributor to the UN, it has also pushed for more power. In 2019, it easily outmaneuvered Trump’s appointee to win the election to head the Food and Agriculture organization, which has 110,000 employees. Reportedly, Chinese diplomats pressured countries to whom it was giving aid, asking for screenshots of their votes and peering over their shoulders to see how they were voting. China now heads four of the 15 UN agencies.

    There are dozens of other UN agencies, commissions, programs, conferences and affiliations with other IGOs and NGOs which help focus efforts and resources on a variety of issues. There has been some progress on improving health and reducing poverty. However, the UN is criticized for being ineffective and bureaucratic compared to more agile and successful NGOs. UN officials are notorious for sitting behind their desks instead of going into the field, pushing up local rents when they snap up all the upscale housing and driving around in their white air conditioned SUVs. Another example: UNESCO spends 70% of its budget on its Paris headquarters.

    This page titled 5.1: United Nations is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lawrence Meacham.

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