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Papal Library

United Nations

by Catherine Frakas 17 Mar 2021

United Nations (UN), international organization established immediately after World War II. It replaced the League of Nations. Organization and Principles The UN Charter comprises a preamble and 19 chapters divided into 111 articles. The Charter sets forth the purposes of the United Nations as: the maintenance of international peace and security, the development of friendly relations between states, and the achievement of cooperation in solving international economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems. It expresses a strong hope for the equality of all people and the expansion of basic freedoms. The principal organs of the United Nations, as specified in the Charter, are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council (see trusteeship, territorial), the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat. Other bodies that function as specialized agencies of the United Nations but are not specifically provided for in the Charter are the Food and Agriculture Organization, the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Finance Corporation, the International Development Association, the International Labour Organisation, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the International Telecommunication Union, the Universal Postal Union, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the World Health Organization, and the World Meteorological Organization. Temporary agencies have included the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the International Refugee Organization (whose responsibilities were later assumed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which is still in existence. The official languages of the United Nations are Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. The working languages of the General Assembly are English, French, and Spanish (in the Security Council only English and French are working languages). The Secretariat and the Secretary General All UN administrative functions are handled by the Secretariat, with the secretary general at its head. The Charter does not prescribe a term for the secretary general, but a five-year term has become standard. Trygve Lie, the first secretary general, was succeeded by Dag Hammarskje¶ld, (1953-61) who served until his death. U Thant, acting secretary general, was elected secretary general (1962), was reelected in 1966 and served through 1971. Succeeding Secretaries General were: Kurt Waldheim (1971-81); Javier Pe©rez de Cue©llar (1982-91), and Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-). The secretary general transcends a merely administrative role by his authority to bring situations to the attention of various UN organs, by his position as an impartial party in effecting conciliation, and especially by his power to perform such . . . functions as are entrusted to him by other UN organs. Also strengthening the office of secretary general is the large Secretariat staff, which is recruited on a wide geographic basis and is required to work exclusively in the interests of the organization. The General Assembly The only UN body provided by the Charter in which all member states are represented is the General Assembly. The General Assembly was designed to be a deliberative body dealing chiefly with general questions of a political, social, or economic character. It meets in a regular annual session beginning the third Tuesday in September; special sessions are sometimes held. It has seven main committees set up to deal with specific matters designated as (1) political and security, (2) economic and financial, (3) social, humanitarian, and cultural, (4) trusteeship, (5) administrative and budgetary, (6) legal, (7) special political. It also has procedural, standing, and many ad hoc committees. The assembly passes on the budget and sets the assessments of the member countries. It may conduct studies and make recommendations, but may not advise on matters under Security Council consideration, unless by Security Council request. In the assembly, decisions on routine matters are taken by a simple majority of members voting; a two-thirds majority is required for matters of importance, such as the admission of new members, the revision of the Charter, and budgetary and trusteeship questions. The Security Council The Security Council was constructed as an organ with primary responsibility for preserving peace. Unlike the General Assembly, it was given power to enforce measures and was organized as a compact executive organ. Also unlike the assembly, the Security Council in theory functions continuously at the seat of the United Nations. The council has 15 members. Five-China (until 1971 the Republic of China; since then the People's Republic of China), France, Great Britain, the United States, and Russia (until 1991 the USSR)-are permanent. The 10 nonpermanent members are elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly; equitable geographic distribution is required. Customarily there are five nonpermanent members from African and Asian states, one from Eastern Europe, two from Latin America, and two from Western Europe and elsewhere. In the council the presidency is occupied for one-month terms in the alphabetical order of the members' names in English. There are two systems of voting in the Security Council. On procedural matters the affirmative vote of any nine members is necessary, but on substantive matters the nine affirmative votes required must include those of the five permanent members. This requirement of Big Five unanimity embodies the so-called veto. In practice the council has, on most substantive matters, not treated an abstention by a permanent member as a veto. In two situations, however, those of recommending applicants for UN membership and of approving proposed amendments to the Charter, the actual concurrence of all permanent members has been required. The veto has prevented much substantive action by the UN, but it embodies the reality that resolution of major crises requires agreement of the major powers. Under the Charter the council may take measures on any danger to world peace. It may act upon complaint of a member or of a nonmember, on notification by the secretary general or by the General Assembly, or of its own volition. In general the council considers matters of two sorts. Disputes (or situations that may give rise to them) that might endanger peace. Here the council is limited to making recommendations to the parties after it has exhausted other methods of reaching a solution. In the case of more serious matters, such as threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression, the council may take enforcement measures. These may range from full or partial rupture of economic or diplomatic relations to military operations of any scope deemed necessary. By the terms of the Charter, the United Nations was forbidden to intervene in matters which are essentially . . . domestic, but this limitation was not intended to hinder Security Council measures to prevent threats to peace. The UN Charter was intentionally ambiguous regarding domestic issues that could also be construed as threats to peace, and left a potential opening for intervention in domestic issues that threatened dangerous international repercussions. History Origins The name United Nations was coined by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941 to describe the countries fighting against the Axis. It was first used officially on Jan. 1, 1942, when 26 states joined in the Declaration by the United Nations, pledging themselves to continue their joint war effort and not to make peace separately. The need for an international organization to replace the League was first stated officially on Oct. 30, 1943, in the Moscow Declaration issued by China, Great Britain, the United States, and the USSR. At the Dumbarton Oaks Conference (Aug-Oct., 1944), those four countries drafted specific proposals for a charter for the new organization, and at the Yalta Conference (Feb., 1945) further agreement was reached. All the states that had ultimately adhered to the 1942 declaration and had declared war on Germany or Japan by March 1, 1945, were called to the founding conference held in San Francisco (April 25-June 26, 1945). Drafted at San Francisco, the United Nations Charter was signed on June 26 and ratified by the required number of states on Oct. 24 (officially United Nations Day). The General Assembly first met in London on Jan. 10, 1946. It was decided to locate the UN headquarters in the Eastern United States. In Dec., 1946, the General Assembly accepted the $8.5 million gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to buy a tract of land along the East River, New York City, for its headquarters. The principal buildings there, the Secretariat, the General Assembly, and the Conference Building, were completed in 1952. The Dag Hammarskje¶ld Memorial Library was dedicated in 1961. Original Vision and Cold War Realities In practice the United Nations has not evolved as was first envisaged. Originally it was composed largely of the Allies of World War II, mainly European countries, Commonwealth countries, and nations of the Americas. It was conceived as an organization of peace-loving nations, who were combining to prevent future aggression and for other humanitarian purposes. Close cooperation among members was expected; the Security Council especially was expected to work in relative unanimity. Hopes for essential accord were soon dashed by the frictions of the cold war, which affected the functioning of the Security Council and other UN organs. The Charter had envisaged a regular military force available to the Security Council and directed the creation of the Military Staff Committee to make appropriate plans. The committee-consisting of the chiefs of staff (or their deputies) of the Big Five-was unable to reach agreement, with the USSR and the other four states on opposing sides, thus no regular forces were established. The same split frustrated the activities of two special Security Council bodies, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Commission on Conventional Armaments. Hence no arrangements were concluded for regulating the production of atomic bombs or reducing other types of armaments (see disarmament, nuclear). The Charter anticipated that regional security agreements would supplement the overall UN system, but in fact such comprehensive alliances as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organization of American States, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, and the Warsaw Treaty Organization have to an extent bypassed the UN system. There were some early instances of Soviet cooperation with the United States and other powers that allowed for UN successes in restoring or preserving peace. These included the settlement (1946) of the complaint of Syria and Lebanon that France and Great Britain were illegally occupying their territory; the partitioning of Palestine; the fighting over Kashmir between India and Pakistan (see India-Pakistan Wars); and the withdrawal of the Dutch from Indonesia. However, in many other issues of more direct importance to the great powers, conflict between the USSR and the remaining members of the Big Five prevented resolution. The Security Council was crippled by the veto, which by the end of 1955 had been used 78 times, 75 of them by the Soviet Union. Growing Activity of the Assembly In reaction to the limitations that the cold war imposed on the Security Council, the United States, Britain, France, and other nations tried to develop the General Assembly beyond its original scope. In the assembly the United States and Great Britain had strong support from among the Commonwealth and Latin American countries and generally commanded a majority. The Soviet Union could muster only a smaller bloc, sufficient to create debate between East and West but less effective in voting. An early assembly innovation to bypass the veto was the establishment (1947) of the Interim Assembly to meet in permanent session; it was staunchly opposed by the USSR, which charged that it usurped Security Council functions, and it has never fulfilled its purpose. Of more importance were procedures evolved in the Korean crisis in 1950. At that time the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council because of the UN refusal to admit the People's Republic of China as a member. Since the USSR was not present to cast a veto, the Security Council was enabled to establish armed forces to repel the North Korean attack on South Korea. Thus, at a time when the young organization had begun to seem politically sterile, it gave birth to the first UN army and to the widest collective security action in history, although the United States provided the bulk of both fighting personnel and mate©riel. In addition, firmer UN action in future crises was prepared for when, in Nov., 1950, the assembly adopted the Uniting for Peace resolution, which permitted it to take its own measures when use of the veto paralyzed the council. Although the assembly has been convened a few times under this resolution, its authority to require action by members has remained vague, and it has never developed workable enforcement machinery. Some areas were opened for UN intervention, however, where world opinion and great power responsiveness favored it. In the struggle for independence in Morocco, Algeria, and elsewhere, the ruling colonial powers claimed these conflicts to be domestic; with their seats on the Security Council they were in a position to veto assembly resolutions, and with the official governments of rebellious territories under their control they were enabled to forestall UN intervention. In the Hungarian revolt (1956), requests that the USSR withdraw its troops from Hungary and that UN observers be admitted to the country were rejected by the Soviet Union. In the Suez crisis (1956), however, the General Assembly resolution for an immediate cease-fire and for withdrawal of invading forces was heeded by Great Britain, France, and Israel (see Arab-Israeli Wars). Expanding Role of the Secretary General Parallel to the growing activity of the assembly was the expanding role of the secretary general. Trygve Lie, as secretary general, made vigorous efforts to muster world opinion in such difficulties as the Korean crisis, but his precipitate labeling of North Korea as the aggressor earned him Soviet enmity and thus limited his effectiveness. Under the quiet diplomacy of Dag Hammarskje¶ld the secretary generalship gained greater scope. The secretary general, not the deadlocked Security Council, was entrusted with organizing and establishing UN forces in the Suez crisis. He worked closely with the General Assembly on other issues. In 1958, when an assembly resolution asking for a strong force of UN observers in Lebanon had been vetoed by the council, the secretary general nevertheless followed the assembly's recommendation. In 1959 he acted in direct contravention of Soviet wishes when he visited Laos and assigned a special UN ambassador there. Beyond such missions Hammarskje¶ld interpreted his office as responsible for preserving peace even when the assembly itself was deadlocked and could issue no definite instructions. In practice he operated largely under a General Assembly mandate but frequently took executive steps that could not be completely detailed by instructions. Thus the office of secretary general was evolving as the United Nations' de facto executive authority in matters of international conflict, and the Security Council began to meet much less frequently. Effects of a Growing Membership By the late 1950s the UN was being revolutionized by a change in membership. Since the inception of the United Nations there had been a steady growth of feeling that the organization should comprise all the nations of the world. But new membership was long blocked by East-West rivalry; each side was antagonistic to admission of new members unfavorable to its views, and as non-Communist countries outnumbered Communist ones the USSR was especially intransigent. From 1947 to 1955 only Yemen (1947), Pakistan (1947), Myanmar (1948), Israel (1949), and Indonesia (1950) gained admission. The way to a compromise was led by Canada in 1955; 16 new members were admitted in that year, and thereafter expansion was rapid. Accompanying expansion came voting realignment. The clear majority of the United States and its allies disappeared as the Afro-Asian group of nations obtained over half of the assembly seats. New voting blocs formed, including the NATO nations, the Arab nations, the Commonwealth nations and, increasingly, a general Afro-Asian bloc. Latin America shifted away from its pro-U.S. position. Other themes began to equal that of the cold war in assembly debates, and more militant stands were taken against remnants of colonialism. The changed nature of the United Nations was revealed in UN Africa policy in the early 1960s. The United Nations acted strongly in the crisis in the Republic of the Congo, and during its involvement there the secretary general developed his office to an unprecedented extent. When the United Nations was invited (1960) by the Congo government to send troops there, a UN force was quickly organized by Hammarskje¶ld from among neutral European and African states. The UN troops, confronted by social and political chaos, engaged in direct military action to force Katanga province (see Shaba) to reintegrate with the Congo, which it finally did in 1963. UN action in the Congo and later in sending peacekeeping forces to Cyprus (1964) demonstrated a willingness to intervene in basically internal situations, both to restore order and to prevent the spread of disorder to neighboring states. This willingness was especially evident in the attention paid to the remaining colonial areas, mainly in Africa. The United Nations repeatedly condemned the colonial policies of Portugal (until that country began to free its colonies after the 1974 coup) and the racial policies of South Africa and Rhodesia, against which severe economic sanctions were applied. These resolutions and sanctions appeared at the time to have little effect, although later evidence has been mixed. However, they marked a lessening UN influence in world political affairs, due largely to a diminishing support of the United Nations by major world powers. A Lessening UN Influence Having lost its automatic majority in the assembly, the United States joined the Soviet Union in limiting UN power and authority, mainly by keeping major issues within the purview of the Security Council and the veto, with inaction the usual result. There was a corresponding decline in the freedom of movement allowed the secretary general. In the wake of Hammarskje¶ld's Congo operation and accidental death, the Soviet Union's troika plan for a three-man secretary general-an Eastern, a Western, and a neutralist member, each with a veto-was a sign that the USSR would not tolerate another activist secretary general. Although its plan was defeated, the USSR's goal was largely achieved, since succeeding Secretaries General avoided actions that might be controversial. Severe financial pressures have also served to restrict UN action. A number of countries, including the USSR, have refused to pay for UN actions, such as the Congo operation, not directly approved by the Security Council. The United States successfully pushed for a reduction of its assessment to 25% of the UN budget in 1977, instead of one third or more, but has still been in substantial arrears. Finally, the major powers have tended to deal with each other outside the framework of the United Nations. While certain agreements in peripheral areas of disarmament and international cooperation have been worked out within the United Nations-e.g., the peaceful use of atomic energy, cooperation in outer space, and arms limitation on the international seabed-the major negotiations and agreements have been on a bilateral basis. As a result, until 1991 the United Nations played a relatively secondary role in most world crises, including the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973; the India-Pakistan War of 1971; and the Vietnam War. However, with Soviet cooperation, the UN played a major role approving action in the Persian Gulf in 1991 to drive Iraq from Kuwait, and actively supervised the subsequent cease-fire, embargo and removal of strategic weapons from Iraq. The Security Council repeatedly refused to lift sanctions until Iraq fully complied with UN resolutions demanding its disarmament and disclosure of nuclear and missile technology suppliers. During the 1970s and 80s, the UN expanded its activity in the development of less developed countries. The United Nations and its related agencies have had a significant impact in disease control, aid to refugees, and technological cooperation. It has provided a mechanism through which developed countries can jointly contribute with a minimum of national antagonism and from which less developed countries can receive aid with a minimum of suspicion and resentment. Following the World Food Conference of 1974, the World Food Council was established to coordinate efforts to deal with the critical problem of food shortages in many parts of the world. The United Nations has also been active in setting standards of human dignity and freedom, such as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the establishment of international labor standards. The current United Nations is a nearly universal global institution. While it played a subsidiary role in the Persian Gulf War, its potential to gain a more prominent peacekeeping role has been enhanced with the end of the cold war. The Security Council's assertiveness in enforcing the cease-fire resolutions may be a harbinger of the future, but the reluctance of the UN to act with respect to the fighting that accompanied Yugoslavia's disintegration indicates that perhaps it can assert itself only when the great powers are convinced that their interests are at stake. Bibliography The United Nations publishes a series of comprehensive yearbooks (1947-). See Maurice Waters, The United Nations (1967); L. M. Goodrich, E. I. Hambro, and A. P. Simons, Charter of the United Nations: Commentary and Documents (3d ed. 1969); D. W. Wainhouse, International Peacekeeping at the Crossroads (1973); L. M. Goodrich, The United Nations in a Changing World (1974); D. P. Moynihan, A Dangerous Place (1978); Conference on United Nations Procedures, Global Negotiations and Economic Development (1980); Evan Luard, A History of the United Nations (2 vol., 1982-89); J. P. Humphrey, Human Rights and the United Nations (1983); P. R. Baehr and Leon Gordenker, The United Nations: Reality and Ideal (1984); Department of Public Information, The United Nations and Human Rights (1984); Robert Riggs and Jack Plano, The United Nations: International Organization and World Politics (1987); P. J. Fromuth, ed., A Successor Vision: The United Nations of Tomorrow (1988); Adam Roberts, United Nations, Divided World: The U.N.'s Role in International Relations (1988); H. Pietila and J. Vickers, Making Women Matter: The Role at the UN (1990); R. Berridge, Return to the United Nations: UN Diplomacy in Regional Conflicts (1991). The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition Copyright ©1993, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Inso Corporation. All rights reserved.

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