The United Nations UN

Former US ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge stated that:

'This organization is created to prevent you from going to hell. It isn’t created to take you to heaven.'

The UN is the only intergovernmental organisation where all the world’s states can be members. It is the forum where issues such as climate change, international terrorism, food production, human rights, poverty and humanitarian and health interventions can be discussed.

The Un was established though the San Francisco Conference (April–June 1945). The principal aims of the UN, as spelled out by its founding Charter, are as follows:

To safeguard peace and security in order ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’

To ‘reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights’

To uphold respect for international law

To ‘promote social progress and better standards of life


The UN is a sprawling and complex organization, described by its second Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, as ‘a weird Picasso abstraction’. Its size and complexity has enabled the UN to respond to myriad interests and to address an ever-widening global agenda, but it has also resulted in an organization that is highly cumbersome, often conflict-ridden and, some say, is doomed to inefficiency. At its heart, the UN is a hybrid body, configured around competing concerns: the need to accept the realities of great power politics and to acknowledge the sovereign equality of member states. This has created, in a sense, two UNs, one reflected in the Security Council, the other in the General Assembly. The Security Council is the most significant UN body. It is responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security, and is dominated by the P-5, its permanent veto powers – the USA, Russia (until 1991, the Soviet Union), China (until 1971, the Republic of China or ‘Taiwan’), the UK and France. The General Assembly, on the other hand, is a deliberative body that represents all members of the UN equally. Whereas the Council is criticized for being poorly representative and dominated by great powers the Assembly, in a sense, is over-representative, a highly decentralized body that often serves as little more than a propaganda.


The role of the UN today


Climate change

The UN has taken more action to reduce environmental degradation, conscious that the global commons requires collective action to be adequately protected. The UN’s key task has been to get a majority of member states to agree on the existence and impact of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change helped with this task. The UN also organises key international summits within the UN Framework. Convention on Climate Change The first major environmental summit was the 1992 UN Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro. Subsequently, the UN has made painstaking progress to encourage states to take collective action and make international agreements to limit emissions. The Kyoto Protocol was a UN treaty that was signed in 1997 and enhanced the UNFCCC. Subsequent major summits (COP) have been held annually, including the Copenhagen Summit (2009) and the Paris Summit (2015). Glasgow 2021

Nuclear weapons and proliferation

The UN has also developed a leading role in limiting the spread, or proliferation, of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was first opened for willing states to sign in 1968. The UN provided a vital forum for states to decide on, codify and sign the NPT. Although four UN member states have not signed the treaty (and it is not a requirement of UN membership to sign it), the UN played a key leadership role. The UNGA has a dedicated Disarmament Commission (UNDC) and within the UN Secretariat, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs takes a lead.

Peace and security

UN peacekeeping activities have expanded hugely in scope and number during the organisation’s lifetime . The UNSC became more active on matters of peace and security after the Cold War ended in 1991. Before this, gridlock between the USA and the Soviet Union made decision-making in the UNSC difficult. Furthermore, the 1990s saw the biggest increase in UN-approved military intervention, especially in Somalia (1992), Rwanda (1994) and Bosnia (1995).

Reducing poverty

The UN has also expanded its role in reducing global poverty. The Millennium Development Goals, agreed at the UN’s Millennium Summit in 2000, represented a huge increase in focus and scope for the organisation’s development efforts. The UN continued this focus by reshaping the MDGs into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) .

Strengths and weaknesses of the UN

The UN is a unique global organisation, as every state in the world is a member. This means that the UN and its associated agencies are the forum where the world as a whole can co-operate to find solutions to global problems, such as eliminating poverty and diseases. It also allows states to have worldwide communication networks, develop common frameworks for dealing with the sea, regulating space and space travel, protecting Antarctica and discussing climate change. The UN is often reduced in the public mind to the Security Council, but this ignores the many elements that enable states, corporations and people to interact on a daily basis. The existence of the UN shows the interconnectedness and interdependencies of the modern world.

One great strength of the UN is that it represents the states of the world as equals, irrespective of their power, size, wealth, dominant religion, culture or system of government. However the UN has problems as a result of 193 sovereign states with competing national interests and outlooks will sometimes disagree. The UN does not take sovereignty away from states, so there is no compulsion. Regular criticisms include: it does not do enough; it is undemocratic or it gives unsavoury governments an equal platform with the most liberal; it gives small countries too much say or it is dominated by powerful countries.