Special Content

Special article vol.31

United Nations: Trying to Keep the World from Coming Apart

Sanjeev Sehgal

At the 71st United Nations General Assembly, the UN has called on Saudi Arabia to repeal laws that allow children above 15 years old to be tried as adults, and flogged, stoned, amputated, or even executed. But do you wonder why would Saudi Arabia (or any country for that matter) listen to the United Nations? It is because the United Nations is an international organisation founded in 1945 (just after the Second World War ended) to maintain world peace and security. It also promotes social progress, encourages friendly relations among nations of the world, protects human rights, and introduces better living standards across the world.

Today, the UN has 193 member states. The only countries which are not its members are Vatican City (which is a permanent observer state but not a full member because of its unique status and tiny population, Palestine (which is a non-member observer state), and Taiwan (which UN considers as part of China).

Some of the countries have limited recognition. Taiwan, for example, is recognised by just 21 UN members and the Vatican City (also known as Holy See). Palestine is recognized by 134 member states while others consider it as a part of Israel. Others include:

*Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (currently part of Cyprus), recognised by just 1 UN member state,

*South Ossetia (currently part of Georgia), recognised by 5 UN member states,

*Abkhazia (currently part of Georgia), recognised by 6 UN member states,

*Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic or Western Sahara (currently part of Morocco), recognized by 84 member states (including 39 members with frozen recognition), and

*Kosovo (currently part of Serbia), recognised by 107 UN member states.

Then, there are territories, dependencies, free associations, special administrative regions, insular areas, and autonomous regions which are not recognised by the UN. These include states which are not recognised by other countries, such as:

*Balochistan (part of Pakitan),

*Xinjiang or East Turkestan (part of China),

*Tibet (part of China),

*Kurdistan (part of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey),

*Oromo (part of Ethiopoa),

*Somaliland (part of Somalia),

*Transnistria (part of Moldova), and

*Nagorno-Karbakh (part of Azerbaijan).

Quick Overview

The UN is guided by the principles and purposes mentioned in its founding Charter. Besides peace & security and human rights, the UN also concerns itself with disarmament, terrorism, gender equality, sustainable development, climate change, food production, humanitarian and health emergencies and several other areas. The UN also provides different forums to its members where they can discuss various types of problems, and find solutions together, such as the General Assembly and the Security Council.

The Chief Administrative Officer of the UN is the Secretary-General, a post held by Ban Ki-Moon (born in South Korea) at present. He is the eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations, and this is second term at this post. He succeeded Kofi A. Annan from Ghana. His tenure is about to end on December 31, 2016.  The former Portuguese Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres will be the next UN Secretar y General.

The Secretary General is appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendations of the Security Council.

Key Departments of the UN

All the major organs of the United Nations were founded in 1945. They include:

1. General Assembly: The only universal platform of its kind, the General Assembly is where all the policymaking happens. The annual General Assembly session is held in September in the General Assembly Hall in New York where all the members meet and discuss several issues. Decisions on important questions like admission of new members, peace and security, and budget require two-third majority, while other decisions require a simple majority.

 It is headed by a GA President who serves one-year term in office. This year, His Excellency (H E) Peter Thomson (from Fiji) is the GA President.

There are several boards, commissions, committees, councils and panels, and other working groups that function under the aegis of GA such as Trade and development Board [established by GA resolution 1995 (XIX)], Advisory Board on disarmament matters [established by GA resolution 37/99 K], Executive Board of the United Nations Children's Fund [established by GA resolution 57 (I) and 48/162], Executive Board of the United Nations Development Programme and of the United Nations Population Fund [established by GA resolution 2029 (XX) and 48/162], Executive Board of the World Food Programme [established by GA resolution 50/8], and Disarmament Commission [established by GA resolution 502 (VI) and S-10/2] etc.

2. Security Council: One of the primary constituents of the UN, it has 15 member states, including 5 member states and 10 non-permanent members. Five permanent members include the US, the UK, Russia, China and France. Ten non-member states are elected for two-year terms by General Assembly. At present, non-member states that are part of the Security Council are Angola, Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

The President of Security Council rotates and changes every month among its members by alphabetical order. Russian Declaration holds the Presidency for October. In November, it will be held by Senegal, while in December, Spain will hold the Presidency for the SC.

Article 29 of the United Nations Charter states that the Security Council may establish subsidiary bodies to perform its functions. All existing committees and working groups under it comprise of its 15 members. Standing Committees are chaired by the President of the Council while other committees and working groups are chaired or co-chaired by designated members of the Council. Some of the Committees that work under its aegis include Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC), Non-Proliferation Committee, Military Staff Committee, International Courts and Tribunals and an advisory body called the Peace building Commission (PBC).

3. Economic and Social Council: This body is a forum for where policies and recommendations on economic, environmental, and social issues are discussed, reviewed, and implemented. It is also the central platform to promote sustainable development. The ECOSOC has 54 members which are elected by General Assembly for overlapping three-year terms. Out of these 54 members, 14 are from Africa, 11 are from Asia, 6 are from Eastern Europe, 10 are from Latin America and Caribbean region, and 13 are from Western Europe and other states.

At present, His Excellency Frederick Musiiwa Makamure Shava (from Zimbabwe) is the President of the Economic and Social Council. He was elected on July 28, 2016. The President of ECOSOC serves for a one-year term and is chosen from the small or mid-sized members of the ECOSOC.

There are several commissions, committees and expert bodies that work under the aegis of ECOSOC, such as Commission on Population and Development, Commission on Narcotic Drugs, United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names, UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (GGIM), Committee for Development Policy, International Narcotics Control Board, and United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN).

4. Trusteeship Council: The Chapter XIII of the UN Charter established the Trusteeship Council for international supervision of 11 Trust Territories placed under its 7 member states. Later, the Trust Territories included about 100 territories which were under the supervision of 12 administering states (Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, the UK and the US). Since all the Trust Territories attained independence and self-governance by 1994, it suspended its operation since November 1, 1994. It does not meet annually now but there is a provision that on the request of the President or majority of the members of the General Assembly or the Security Council request, a meeting can be organised as required.

More than 80 former colonies have gained independence since the formation of the UN. 17 non-self governing territories (NSGTs) that remain to be decolonized are: Western Sahara in Africa; Gibraltar, Pitcairn, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Faulkland Islands, Montserrat, Saint Helena, and Turks and Caicos Islands in the UK; American Samoa, US Virgin Islands, and Guam in the US; French Polynesia in France; and Tokelau in the New Zealand.

About 2 million people live in these NSGTs.

5. International Court of Justice: The seat of the principal judicial organ of the UN is at the Peace Palace in Hague (Netherlands). It is the only one of the six principal organs of the UN which is not headquartered in New York. The Court's role is to settle disputes legal disputes and give advisory opinions on issues related to international laws.

The Court has 15 judges who are selected for the office of nine years by the General Assembly and the Security Council. To ensure a measure of continuity, one-third of the Court is elected by every three years. If a judge dies or resigns during his term, a special election is held to choose a replacement judge.

The President and the Vice-President of the International Court of Justice are elected by the court members every three years by secret ballot. Judge Ronny Abraham (from France) is the current President of the ICJ, while Judge Abdul qawi Ahmed Yusuf (from Somalia) is its current Vice-President.

6. UN Secretariat: The UN Secretariat is the working arm of the UN. It comprises of the UN Secretary-General and its international staff members who perform the day-to0day work of the United Nations. It has several departments and offices such as the Office of Legal Affairs, Department of Political Affairs, and Office for Disarmament Affairs, Department of Peacekeeping Operations etc.

Funds and Programmes of the UN

Besides these key organs, the United Nations system also includes affiliated programmes, funds and specialised agencies that are run by independent international organisations that are funded by both voluntary and assessed contributions. These include:

Programmes and Funds

*UNDP (United Nations Development Programme): It works in about 170 countries and territories to eradicate poverty reduce inequalities and build resilience.

*UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund)

*UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)

*WFP (World Food Programme):  It is the world’s largest humanitarian agency which feeds almost 80 million people in around 75 countries.

*UN Women

*UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development)

*UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme)

*UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund)

*UN-Habitat: Also known as the United Nations Human Settlements Programme

*UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)

*UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) for Palestine Refugees

UN Specialized Agencies

The UN specialized agencies are autonomous organizations working with the United Nations. Some existed before the First World War, some were associated with the UN predecessor – League of Nations, and some were created with or by the UN. These include:

*World Bank: It provides interest-free loans, credit and grants to developing countries to reduce poverty and improve education, health, infrastructure, and communications. It works in over 100 countries. Its subsidiaries include:

*International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD)

*International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID)

*International Development Association (IDA)

*International Finance Corporation (IFC)

*Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA)

*IMF (International Monetary Fund): It offers temporary financial assistance to countries to foster their economic growth and help them to generate employment. At present, it has outstanding loans worth $28 billion across 74 nations.

*WHO (World Health Organization):  It responds to public health emergencies and lead global vaccination campaigns as well as eradication campaigns against life-threatening diseases like polio and malaria.

*UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization): It conducts teacher training programs and also protects important historical and cultural sites around the world. Right now, there are 1,052 World Heritage Sites across 165 countries listed by UNESCO. These include 814 cultural sites, 203 natural sites and 35 mixed properties. India has 35 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including 27 cultural, 7 natural and 1 mixed site.

*FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization)

*ICAO (International Civilian Aviation Organization)

*IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development)

*ILO (International Labor Organization)

*IMO (International Maritime Organization)

*ITU (International Telecommunication Union)

*UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization)

*UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organization)

*UPU (Universal Postal Union)

*WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization)

*WMO (World Meteorological Organization)

Other Entities

*UNAIDS: The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS is co-sponsored by 10 UN system agencies: UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, UNDP, UNFPA, UNODC, the ILO, UNESCO, WHO and the World Bank.

*UNISDR (United Nations Office for Disaster Reduction)

*UNOPS (United Nations Office for Project Services): This operational arm of the United Nations helps in implementing UN’s peace building, humanitarian and development projects around the world.

Related Organizations

*IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency)

*WTO (World Trade Organization)

*CTBTO (Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization)

*OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons)

The British historian Paul Kennedy noted that though the United Nations has suffered some major setbacks, "when all its aspects are considered, the UN has brought great benefits to our generation and ... will bring benefits to our children's and grandchildren's generations as well."


(The author is an expert of foreign affairs and writing in various newspapers. email: sanjeev@sparshsecuritech.com)