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15.4: The United Nations and Global Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs)

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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Define intergovernmental organizations and discuss their role in global governance.
    • Discuss the purpose and history of the United Nations.
    • Describe the structure of the United Nations.
    • Explain the role of peacekeepers.
    • Analyze the sources and limits of the power of the United Nations.

    Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) are groups made up of member states that are held together by formal agreement. The number of intergovernmental organizations has increased dramatically since World War II. IGOs help the international community focus on issues and coordinate actions even when individual states’ interests may push them to act in ways that are incompatible with common goals. Each member state’s government selects delegates to represent its interests at IGO meetings.

    There are dozens of IGOs. This section focuses on global IGOs—that is, IGOs whose membership is open to states around the world. The scope of global IGO activity varies widely, from technical organizations such as the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Hydrographic Organization to organizations with a specific, narrow focus, such as the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. While some global IGOs have a relatively small number of members, 193 out of 195 recognized sovereign countries in the world are members of the largest global IGO, the United Nations,16 and 164 are members of the World Trade Organization.17

    With its worldwide reach, the United Nations contributes to global governance more than any other IGO. Since its beginning in 1945, its membership has grown as the number of sovereign states has increased. The newest members are Montenegro and South Sudan. The Holy See and Palestine are nonvoting “observer” members.18 The UN addresses every conceivable issue in international relations, from peace and security to migration and refugees, law, food, development, energy, and human rights, among others. Dozens of smaller global IGOs are housed within the UN framework.

    Where Can I Engage?

    Virtual Tour of the UN

    If you can’t visit the UN in person, this video can take you on a virtual tour of the UN Headquarters in New York.

    Headquartered in New York City, the UN is a hub of international activity, with representatives from member countries participating in General Assembly and committee meetings and engaging in forums on issues of international concern. You can visit the UN, where tours are conducted in multiple languages.

    The Founding and Mission of the UN

    The United Nations was created after World War II to ensure international peace and stability. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, established a global IGO called the League of Nations. The purpose of the League was to facilitate good relations among countries of the world and to punish aggression. To deter aggression, the League used the principle of collective security, requiring member states to jointly retaliate against any aggressive action of another state. Because the United States Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, the United States did not join the League of Nations. Ultimately, the League was ineffective in punishing aggressive states, and expansionist powers Japan, Germany, and Italy all withdrew from the League prior to World War II.

    While some might view the outbreak of World War II less than 20 years after the conclusion of the First World War as a failure of the idea behind the League, the leaders of the WWII Allied states saw the outbreak as evidence of the need for an even stronger global organization, and in response they created the United Nations. United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt committed US membership and backing, and the US Congress agreed to join the United Nations. While the League had required unanimous agreement among its members to take action, the UN requires only a majority vote for most resolutions. A two-thirds majority was required for issues of peace and security, admission of new members, and budgetary matters. Initially, the United Nations had 51 member states, mostly from Europe.

    Because the United Nations was founded in part on the principle of the sovereignty of member states, it is not and cannot become a “world government” with ultimate authority over its members. UN decisions are not binding on member states without the consent of those states. Like international law, the UN contributes to global governance by setting obligations and rules of behavior for member states. The United Nations Charter recognizes the rights of sovereign states and their obligations as members of the international community while emphasizing the importance of multilateral cooperation as the cornerstone to peace and prosperity for all. Member states commit to use peaceful means to settle disputes and to uphold and support UN decisions. The Charter specifies that the UN may intervene to stop acts of aggression or threats to the peace and that member states are only to use force in self-defense.

    The UN website displays the organization’s slogan: “peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet.” The three overarching goals of the United Nations are promoting peace, ensuring human rights, and achieving sustainable development with a focus on protecting the environment—all collective goods that can be elusive in a system of sovereign states each concerned only with its own survival and well-being.

    In service of the goal to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,”19 the UN has been involved in peacekeeping activities in areas of interstate conflict since the late 1940s.

    In 1948, UN member states signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), which lays out principles such as the right to freedom of religion, freedom of family choices, and freedom to travel. It became the foundational document for the protection of human rights worldwide.20

    Eleanor Roosevelt displays a large poster with the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in English.
    Figure 15.4 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of US President Franklin Roosevelt, served as the chairperson for the delegation that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.21 (credit: “Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in English), Lake Success, New York. November 1949” by FDR Presidential Library & Museum/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

    Recognition of the dignity of each person and their inalienable rights sets the stage for many other UN activities. The UN’s ability to coordinate international solutions to problems and to marshal funds and expertise has helped many states, especially in the developing world, achieve better economic, educational, health, and environmental outcomes.

    How Is the UN Structured?

    The UN is organized into six main bodies: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Secretariat, the Trusteeship Council, and the International Court of Justice. In addition, dozens of related IGOs work on issues in conjunction with or under the auspices of the United Nations.22 The International Court of Justice was discussed above. This section turns to the other five main UN bodies.

    An organizer shows the main bodies of the United Nations: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat. The Trusteeship Council was suspended in 1994.
    Figure 15.5 The United Nations is organized into six main bodies. (CC BY 4.0; Rice University & OpenStax)

    The General Assembly

    Each of the 193 UN member states has equal representation, regardless of its size or wealth, in the primary deliberative organ of the United Nations, the General Assembly (GA). The GA serves as a venue for states to discuss the most pressing international challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, armed conflict, illicit trade, poverty, and hunger, as well as systemic problems such as wealth inequality and intolerance. Every state in the world faces these troubles to varying degrees, and thus the quest for solutions is a quest to provide collective goods. At its annual meeting, GA members deliberate policies and goals for the international community, elect members to the Security Council, and discuss reports from other UN organs.

    The Security Council

    The Security Council performs the UN’s most crucial peacemaking work. Fifteen member states sit on the Security Council. Ten are elected by the General Assembly to two-year terms, while the other five seats, known as the Permanent Five (P5), belong to the victors of World War II and the primary architects of the United Nations—the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The P5 have veto power over any Security Council action. Even if the other 14 states on the Council agree with a given action, the veto of any one of the P5 will block the action. Admission to membership in the United Nations requires the affirmative vote of nine Security Council members and no vetoes from within the P5.

    Though the General Assembly has more than tripled in size, the structure of the Security Council has only changed once, when in 1965 the number of members was expanded from 11 to 15. There is ongoing discussion about increasing the size of the Security Council beyond 15 states, and some advocate for expanding the P5 since the Security Council has no permanent representative from Latin America, Africa, or the Middle East.

    The Security Council monitors international conflict, facilitates diplomatic resolutions to disputes, and may place sanctions on member states engaged in violence. To stop ongoing or impending conflict or violations of international law, the Security Council has authorized military intervention (e.g., in response to North Korea’s aggression against South Korea in 1950 and in response to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait), levied sanctions (e.g., in 2006 against Iran for refusing to stop its uranium enrichment process in its quest for nuclear weapons), and imposed arms embargoes (e.g., against Serbia in 1998 for ongoing aggression against Kosovo). The Security Council also provides a space for multilateral discussion about transnational threats to international security such as terrorism, poverty, migration and refugees, and trafficking of goods and people.

    The Economic and Social Council

    The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is a primary driver of global governance policy aimed at dealing with the collective problems facing the world community. Former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld explained, “While the Security council exists primarily for settling conflicts . . . the Economic and Social Council exists primarily to eliminate the causes of conflicts.”23 ECOSOC’s responsibilities span economic and social issues. Dozens of subagencies are housed under the ECOSOC umbrella, including regional development agencies and issue-specific organizations. In particular, ECOSOC focuses on “development,” or raising the standard of living for people around the world through economic expansion and improved access to resources common throughout wealthier states, such as electricity, sanitation, education, and health care. In recent years ECOSOC has focused on how to incorporate care for the environment in the drive for economic prosperity, a concept known as sustainable development.

    Since 2015, the United Nations has focused on helping member states achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 objectives that broadly address “ending poverty, protecting the planet and improving the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere.”24 These goals are part of the UN’s “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” ECOSOC coordinates the work on these goals and collects the data required to measure progress toward their achievement.

    The Secretariat

    The UN Secretariat performs administrative work. Upon the recommendation of the Security Council, the General Assembly elects the head of the Secretariat, the Secretary-General, for a five-year renewable term. The Secretary-General engages in leadership, diplomacy, and public outreach to promote the UN; to draw international attention to urgent issues; and to raise money for UN activities.

    The Trusteeship Council

    At the time of the founding of the UN in 1946, much of the world was under European colonial control. The Trusteeship Council was formed to allow the UN to administer the former colonial territories that had belonged to the defeated powers of World War II: Germany, Italy, and Japan. All territories placed in trust to the United Nations subsequently attained independence. While it still exists per the UN Charter, the Trusteeship Council is currently inactive.

    What Tools Does the UN Have to Help Keep Peace?

    The main mission of the UN is to keep the peace by enhancing transparency, providing countries with a forum in which to peacefully resolve disputes, and engaging in projects aimed at alleviating the causes of conflict. The Security Council can send UN representatives—troops, police, observers, and civilians—to conflict zones. UN peacekeepers are deployed at the request of the warring parties and with the authorization of the Security Council. Three guiding principles undergird the UN deployment of peacekeepers: 1) consent of the parties, 2) impartiality, and 3) non-use of force except in self-defense or in defense of a Security Council mandate.25

    A group of United Nations Peacekeepers stand together wearing camouflage and bright blue helmets with the letters U N on the side.
    Figure 15.6 UN Peacekeepers are often referred to as “blue helmets.” (credit: “Over 200 Nepalese peacekeepers arrive in Juba” by Isaac Billy/UN Photo, CC BY 2.0. Photo courtesy: USIP,

    In 2020, there were approximately a dozen ongoing UN peacekeeping missions, mostly in the Middle East and Africa. The first UN peacekeeping mission was in 1948, monitoring the armistice between Israel and its Arab neighbors. In 1949, peacekeepers were sent to the border between India and Pakistan to monitor a ceasefire agreement in Kashmir. Both of those missions were small in scale—unarmed peacekeepers were sent to monitor an existing ceasefire. Both are still active. More than 3,000 UN peacekeepers from 120 countries have died in this service.26

    UN Specialized Agencies and Related IGOs

    Numerous IGOs work to address specific global issues. Some, like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), operate independently but share information with the UN and help support the UN’s mission. Global IGOs such as the Universal Postal Union (UPU) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) are specialized agencies operating within the UN framework. These agencies act autonomously, with their own constitutions, leaders, headquarters, and bureaucratic organizations.

    Table 15.1 highlights the mission, accomplishments, and goals of the three most significant global IGOs: the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Working on the collective good issues of global health, economic development, and international trade, respectively, these organizations provide guidelines for state behavior, encourage and enable countries to share information and data, and collaborate on policy making.

    IGO Primary Purpose Activities Notable Accomplishments Current Goals
    World Health Organization (WHO) To track and combat disease and improve health worldwide Public health education, immunization campaigns, data gathering, and coordination of international health initiatives such as pandemic response Elimination of smallpox, near-elimination of polio, dramatic reductions of malaria and yellow fever “Triple Billion” Goal: one billion more people benefiting from universal health coverage, one billion more people better protected from health emergencies, one billion more people enjoying better health and well-being27
    World Bank To create sustainable economic growth in the poorest countries by investing in human capital and ending extreme poverty28 Funds projects designed to alleviate poverty and help people around the world have access to food, water, education, health care, sanitation, transportation, and energy Provided millions with access to health services, improved electric and water systems, improved highways, child immunizations, and teacher training29 To end extreme poverty (decrease the percentage of people living on less than $1.90 a day to no more than 3% by 2030) and to promote shared prosperity (promote income growth of the bottom 40% of the population in each country)30
    World Trade Organization (WTO) To open trade worldwide and provide a forum for trade negotiations and to settle disputes31 Sets rules for global trade and helps countries avoid costly and dangerous trade wars Increased world trade and decreased average tariffs; increased income of members32 To help trade flow smoothly, freely, and predictably
    Table 15.1 Major Global IGOs
    Show Me the Data

    The World Bank Open Data website provides free and open access to innovative visuals that tell the stories of global development data. You can explore a walkthrough of the 2020 Sustainable Development Goals at the World Bank Data blog, where you can see examples of these detailed and interactive data visualizations.

    What Constrains the Effectiveness of the UN and Global IGOs?

    In IGOs, sovereign states represent their own interests, bringing their own cultures and ideas to discussions of global governance, and IGOs are limited in their ability to intervene in the domestic affairs of member states. Although the purpose of IGOs is to help states work cooperatively, and though they strive to help states coordinate activities in pursuit of collective goods, in most circumstances, states place their own desires and interests above those of the broader international community. For example, ideally all states would work together to promote collective security by punishing aggressor states; in practice, states often cannot agree on what constitutes aggression or are unwilling to hold their allies accountable. Similarly, global poverty might be more easily eliminated if all countries worked together and pooled resources, but most countries are anxious to keep the gains of prosperity to themselves and dedicate only a small percentage of their wealth to help other countries. Countries that refused to lock down or promote vaccination might prolong the COVID-19 pandemic despite the actions of other states following WHO guidelines to control it.

    Funding is another limitation on the effectiveness of the United Nations. UN member states pay dues based on their wealth relative to other member states. The United States pays 22 percent of the operating expenses of the United Nations and almost 28 percent of its peacekeeping budget. China now pays the second highest amount toward the peacekeeping budget, at 15 percent.33


    Let’s Talk WTO

    The World Trade Organization establishes rules governing international trade and provides a venue for trade negotiations between countries.

    Another limit on the UN is its inability to enforce its decisions or rules. In many ways, it is an aspirational body. The General Assembly passes resolutions, but often without any real expectation that they will be implemented and without the ability to impose consequences if they are not. Sometimes the Security Council or others working on treaties or building international law use those resolutions to help justify sanctions or other punitive measures against states. According to the United Nations, GA resolutions “have been a constant driver for the development of space law and international cooperation of Member States in their space activities . . . Many provisions of the General Assembly resolutions related to outer space have become widely accepted by the international space community.”34

    15.4: The United Nations and Global Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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