Almost everybody has heard of the United Nations. But how many people know what it actually does? Or how it works? Or why, as world leaders gather to kick off the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly, the institution has struggled to live up to the promise of its founders: making the world a better, more peaceful place?
Birth of the United Nations: When, Where and Why
The United Nations Charter was signed at a conference in San Francisco in June 1945, led by four countries: Britain, China, the Soviet Union and the United States.
When the Charter went into effect on Oct. 24 of that year, a global war had just ended. Much of Africa and Asia was still ruled by colonial powers.
After fierce negotiations, 50 nations agreed to a Charter that begins, “We the peoples of the United Nations.”
Why is that opening line notable? Because today, the United Nations can, to some, seem to serve the narrow national interests of its 193 member countries — especially the most powerful ones — and not ordinary citizens.
These parochial priorities can stand in the way of fulfilling the first two pledges of the Charter: to end “the scourge of war” and to regain “faith in fundamental human rights.”
High Ideals on Human Rights
In 1948, the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These include the right to not be enslaved, the right to free expression and the right to seek from other countries asylum from persecution.
However, many of the rights expressed — to education, to equal pay for equal work, to nationality — remain unrealized.
General Assembly: Prominent Stage, Limited Powers
Each fall, the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly becomes the stage where presidents and prime ministers give speeches that can be soaring or clichéd — or they can deliver long, incoherent tirades, such as the one given by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan strongman, in 2009.
The event offers plenty of star power, but critics contend that it is little more than a glorified gabfest.
For the rest of the session, the General Assembly is the arena where largely symbolic diplomatic jousts are won and lost. Hundreds of resolutions are introduced annually. While some of them earn a great deal of attention — like one in 1975 that equated Zionism with racism— they are not legally binding. (The Assembly is responsible for making some budgetary decisions.)
In principle, nations small and large, rich and poor, have equal voice in the Assembly, with each country getting one vote. But the genuine power resides elsewhere.
Security Council: Powerful but Often Paralyzed
The 15-member Security Council is by far the most powerful arm of the United Nations. It can impose sanctions, as it did against Iran over its nuclear program, and authorize military intervention, as it did against Libya in 2011.
Critics say it is also the most anachronistic part of the organization. Its five permanent members are the victors of World War II: the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia. The other 10 members are elected for two-year terms, with seats set aside for different regions of the world.
Efforts to expand the permanent membership of the Council to include powers that have emerged since 1945 — such as India, Japan and Germany — have been stymied. For every country that vies for a seat, rivals seek to block it.
Any member of the permanent five — or the P5, for short — can veto any measure, and each has regularly used this power to protect either itself or allies. Since 1990, the United States has cast a veto on Council resolutions 16 times, many concerning Israeli-Palestinian relations. Russia has done so 13 times, including four times over Syria.
The Charter does allow the General Assembly to act if, because of a veto, international peace and security are threatened. But in reality, it is rarely done.
Problems Keeping the Peace
The Security Council’s job is to maintain international peace. Its ability to do so has been severely constrained in recent years, in large part because of bitter divisions between Russia and the West.
The Council has been feckless in the face of major conflicts, particularly those in which permanent members have a stake.
Most recently, its starkest failure has been the handling of the conflict in Syria, with Russia backing the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the United States, Britain and France supporting some opposition groups. The Council has not only failed to halt the fighting, but has also been unable to ensure the delivery of food aid and the safety of medical workers.
Also, North Korea, long an ally of China, has repeatedly ignored United Nations prohibitions against conducting nuclear tests.
Secretary General: Global Reach, Vague Role
The Charter is vague in defining the duties of the secretary general, the United Nations’ top official. He or she is expected to show no favoritism to any particular country, but the office is largely dependent on the funding and the good will of the most powerful nations.
The Security Council — notably the P5 — chooses the secretary general, by secret ballot, to serve a maximum of two five-year terms. This process makes it difficult for the role to be independent of the P5’s influence.
The secretary general has no army to deploy, but what the position does enjoy is a bully pulpit. If the officeholder is perceived as being independent, he or she is often the only person in the world who can call warring parties to the peace table.
The 10-year tenure of the current secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has repeatedly revealed the limits of the office’s authority. For example, Mr. Ban was persuaded for two years in a row to keep powerful countries off a list of those whose military forces had killed and maimed children.
Since 1946, eight have held the position of secretary general. All have been men. Mr. Ban’s successor will be chosen this fall.
What’s Next: 5 Questions for the U.N.’s Future
No matter who takes over as secretary general on Jan. 1, he or she will inherit a body facing the unenviable task of demonstrating the United Nations’ relevance in a world confronting challenges that were inconceivable 70 years ago. Here are some of the questions that will determine whether the organization’s influence diminishes or grows:
■ Can the Security Council take action against countries that flout international humanitarian law? And can the P5 members of the Council look beyond their own narrow interests to find ways to end the “scourge of war”?
■ Can peacekeeping operations be repaired so the protection of civilians is ensured?
■ Can the United Nations persuade countries to come up with new ways to handle the new reality of mass migration?
■ Can the secretary general persuade countries to keep their promise to curb carbon emissions — and to help those suffering from the consequences of climate change?
■ Can the United Nations get closer to achieving its founding mandate, to make the world a better, more peaceful place?
This post was originally published in The New York Times. Click here to read.