The UN is an intergovernmental organisation made up of 192 member states, which has international cooperation as its objective in the diverse spheres of economic development, socio-cultural progress, human rights and international security. The organisation is headquartered in New York City, USA. On October 13th, 2006, the South Korean Ban Ki-Moon was elected the 8th secretary general, succeeding the Ghanaian Kofi Annan.
1. From the League of Nations to the United Nations
The UN was officially born in 1945, but its origins reach back to the League of Nations which operated on the world scene from 1919 until 1945. The League of Nations was strongly desired by US president Woodrow Wilson and was created through an institutional agreement called a covenant, which was inserted in the Treaty of Versailles and the other peace treaties that were signed at the end of World War I. The objectives of the covenant for the signatory countries were to "promote international cooperation and to guarantee peace and international security" with the obligation not to resort to force, but to "openly maintain relationships based on justice and honour [...]". Initially, the defeated countries (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria) were excluded, as well as Soviet Russia. Paradoxically, even the United States remained outside the covenant, becasue a majority of its Senate was against ratifying the Treaty of Versailles.
The League was made up of the same three main organisms of today’s UN: the General Assembly, the Executive Council and the Secretariat. The first two were simple diplomatic conferences, the first a broad general one and the second a more restricted one. They were without any legislative or executive power and had the same jurisdictions. Decisions were taken by unanimous vote. The new aspects introduced by the League of Nations did not have so much to do with the character and the structure of the created organisms, but rather with the universal character of the covenant, the stability of the diplomatic conferences and the periodic nature of the meetings, as well as the preventive acceptance by the member states of certain obligations related both to the constitution and functioning of these organisms, as well as the behaviour of the members with regard to the decisions taken. The make-up of the Assembly and of the Council continued to vary over the years following the evolution of the situation in Europe. The defeated nations were gradually admitted - some of which, however, left again soon afterwards due to various political changes (Germany and Russia). Some states were expelled - among them Italy in 1937, as a condemnation for invading Abyssinia.
The League of Nations’ effort to organise institutions with the aim of cooperating internationally was nullified by the political events of the years following its formation, which led in 1939 to the outbreak of World War II. The war, however, demonstrated even more profoundly the need for a new, more stable and efficient international structure to guarantee cooperation between the countries. This need was met at the end of the war, on 26 June 1945, during the San Francisco conference in which the victorious countries established with a statute (the so-called "San Francisco Charter") a new international organisation with a universal structure and objectives: the United Nations. Therefore, also the UN, like the League of Nations, was born through the peace accords following a world war, in this case the Yalta agreements, and had as its main promoter the American president Frank Delano Roosevelt. The UN was initially formed around the coalition of victors, and the Security Council, as it was conceived in 1945, mirrored for 40 years the USA-USSR bipolarism which characterised the world political climate until the fall of the Soviet regime and of the Iron Curtain in Europe at the end of the 1980s. In particular, this reality was reflected in the veto rights of the western powers on one side (USA, Great Britain, France, as well as Taiwan representing non-communist China until 1971), and the communist powers on the other (USSR and communist China from 1971 onwards). This right allowed for a platform of exchange between the two blocs, as well as between these two and the group of non-aligned countries, yet no decision could be reached without the consensus of all the permanent members. As opposed to the League of Nations, the UN revealed itself to be a system able to resist despite political and cultural changes over time. From the Cuban crisis of 1962 to the cultural revolution of 1968, the UN was able to avoid the major problem of countries withdrawing, which had heavily hit the League of Nations. The true challenge that the UN has had to face over the course of its existence seems to be a fruit of our times. With the fall of the Soviet regime, the consequent end of global bipolarism and the advent of a new logic based on worldwide competition, the UN finds itself dealing with a new political and economic order which does not correspond much with its structure and institutional organs. For this reason, the debate at the beginning of the 21st century focuses on a necessary and profound change in the UN, which would allow a more real and balanced representation of the new world order, in which every state is a possible protagonist able to put in play its own specific elements of power.
2. Objectives, principles and structure of the United Nations
The UN Charter falls under the category of constitutive treaties of international organisations and is made up of the highest level norms of the UN’s legal system. Article 1 of the Charter identifies the principle objectives of the organisation, which can be summarised as follows:
1. To maintain international peace and security by promoting effective collective measures to prevent and remove threats to peace and to resolve peacefully situations which could lead to its breaking;
2. To develop friendly relationships between the nations based on the respect of the principle of equality of rights and the self-determination of peoples;
3. To attain international cooperation in the economic, social, cultural and humanitarian arenas and to promote the respect for human and fundamental rights for all individuals;
4. To promote disarmament and discipline of arms;
5. To guarantee the respect for international law and encourage its development and codification.
With regard to the structure of the UN, there are both similarities and differences with that of the League of Nations. Like the latter, the UN is composed of the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Secretariat, next to which, however, are also present other fundamental organs. All member states are part of the Assembly, with equal voting rights. This organ deals with fundamental issues such as peace announcements, entry, suspension or expulsion of member states and budget problems. Every state has the right to five representatives in the Assembly, but is allowed only one vote. On the other hand, the Security Council is a much smaller organ with greater powers. It is composed of 5 permanent members (China, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia) and ten non-permanent members, elected for a two-year term by the General Assembly. The permanent members have veto rights. In other words, they can block any decision they do not favour and prevent it from being discussed in the Assembly. The presidency of the Council is held on a monthly rotating basis by the non-permanent members in alphabetical order. The Secretariat is a permanent organ presided by the Secretary General, who is nominated by the Assembly upon recommendation of the Security Council and it remains in office for four years. A variety of offices and departments are part of the secretariat and are finalised towards the administrative management of the UN, which operates completely independently of the member states. Article 7 of the UN Charter lists, among other principle organs, also the Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice and the Trusteeship Council. In practice, the latter ceased to exist with the end of the trusteeship regimes, while its official closure was agreed on in a summit held in New York in September 2005. 54 members nominated for 3 years make up the Economic and Social Council, which carries out consultative functions and coordinates the economic and social activities of the Organisation and the various associated agencies. The International Court of Justice, headquartered in The Hague, the Netherlands, is the main judicial organ of the UN and has the task of solving the controversies between member states that have accepted its jurisdiction. The Court is made up of 15 judges that do not represent their own countries and cannot hold any other roles of a political or administrative nature.
Next to the main organs, there are a series of secondary organs in the form of funds or programs instituted for specific ends, which are connected to the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. Among the most important are: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL), United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), World Food Programme (WFP), United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
There also are a series of spcialised agencies established through treaties which are completely separate from the UN Charter and whose members, in principle only, coincide with those of the UN. These agencies operate independently of the UN at a legal level as well as at an organisational and financial level. They cover all sectors of economic and social development and give technical assistance and other forms of practical help to various countries. Among the main ones are: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), International Labour Organization (ILO), World Health Organization (WHO), World Meteorological Organization (WMO), International Maritime Organization (IMO), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Universal Postal Union (UPU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), United Nations Volunteers (UNV).
3. The UN and Human Rights
The birth of international human rights law is closely tied to that of the UN. The reasons for this relationship can be found not only in the historical period in which they were formed, but also in the progressive growth of awareness in the political world of the existence of a close relationship between protecting human rights and maintaining peace. To this end, the UN Charter of 1945 states among the objectives of the Organisation, both that of "maintaining peace and international security" and also that of "promoting and encouraging the respect of human rights and fundamental liberties for all without distinction of race, sex, language or religion". Although a close examination of the Charter’s dispositions tends to put more emphasis on the former rather than on the latter as a primary objective of the UN, there is no doubt that the protection of human rights takes on an instrumental role in maintaining peace (Marchesi, 2007). The UN Charter contains a series of norms dedicated to human rights, which assign functions to the organs of the Organisation and impose a series of obligations on the member states. The Human Rights Commission was created as an organ by invoking article 68 of the Charter, which recognises the authority of the Economic and Social Council to establish commissions for the protection of human rights. During the course of a gradual reform of the system for guaranteeing human rights, the Commission was first supported by the UN High Commission for Human Rights, an organ with mostly bureaucratic functions instituted in 1996, which was replaced by the Human Rights Council in 2006. This Council has many similarities with the Commission both from the point of view of its organisation and of its functions, but it is a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly and not of the Economic and Social Council. This upgrading was seen by many as a necessary step to strengthen the actions taken by the UN in protecting human rights. The reference to human rights contained in the Charter’s norms was spelled out in a separate document known as the International Bill of Rights. This contains the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drawn up by the Commission and approved by the General Assembly on December 10th, 1948. The Declaration can be considered as the act that gave birth to international human rights law and is the "result of a dialectic between the most important political positions and ideological components of the historical period in which it was born" (Marchesi, 2007). Over the years, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has played a key role in bringing the issue of human rights to the attention of the international community, which thus ceased to be an exclusively domestic affair, and it has contributed in a fundamental way to the creation of international as well as national laws on the subject.
4. The UN and the fight against poverty in the 21st century: the Millennium Development Goals
Starting in the 1990s, international organisations gradually focused more on adopting appropriate strategies for fighting and eliminating poverty. The continuous exchange that growing globalisation has permitted between different, and often unacceptable, worldwide economic and social realities has contributed without a doubt to awaken the international opinion on multiple aspects of the declining quality of life. The need to find solutions to this problem and to mount a collective effort in this direction, led the UN member states to approve the Millennium Declaration at the Millennium Summit in September 2000; the objectives of which were translated into the Millennium Development Goals. Through these Goals, the international institutions engaged in the fight against poverty by explicitly incorporating human poverty targets into their strategies. The goals are interrelated and refer not only to the strictly economic aspect of poverty (income growth), but also to other components that are fundamental to guaranteeing an acceptable level of quality of life. Each of the eight Millennium Development Goals has an associated series of targets: concrete results that the member states have committed themselves to reaching by the year 2015. In Table 1, the Goals and targets are listed as spelled out in the Millennium Declaration.
Table 1: The Millennium Development Goals
Source: UN (2003).
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Esposito, C. (2009), Istituzioni Economiche Internazionali e Governance Globale, Giappichelli Ed.
Marchesi, A. (2007), Diritti Umani e Nazioni Unite. Diritti, Obblighi e Garanzie, Franco Angeli.
Marchisio, S. (2000), Il Diritto delle Nazioni Unite, Il Mulino.
Treves, T. (2005), Diritto Internazionale. Problemi fondamentali, Giuffrè Editore.
Editor: Federica ALFANI
© 2009 ASSONEBB