Although it is the UN’ s role as peacekeeper and international mediator which most often gets into the headlines, the majority of its work is concerned with its less spectacular aims of safeguarding human rights and encouraging economic, social, educational and cultural progress throughout the world.

(a) The Human Rights Commission

This works under the supervision of ECOSOC and tries to ensure that all governments treat their people in a civilized way. A 30-point Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948; this means that every person, no matter what country he or she lives in, should have certain basic rights, the most important of which are the rights to:

  • a standard of living high enough to keep him (or her) and his family in good health;
  • be free from slavery, racial discrimination, arrest and imprisonment without trial, and torture;
  • have a fair trial in public and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty;
  • move about freely in his/her country and be able to leave the country;
  • get married, have children, work, own property and vote in elections;
  • have opinions and express them freely.

Later the Commission, concerned about the plight of children in many countries, produced a Declaration of the Rights of the Child ( 1959). Foremost among the rights every child should be able to expect are:

  • adequate food and medical care;
  • free education;
  • adequate opportunity for relaxation and play (to guard against excessive child labour);
  • protection from racial, religious and any other type of discrimination.

All member governments are expected to produce a report every three years on the state of human rights in their country. However, the problem for the UN is that many states do not produce the reports and they ignore the terms of the Declarations. When this happens, all the UN can do is publicize countries where the most flagrant violations of human rights take place, and hope that pressure of world opinion will influence the governments concerned. For example, the UN campaigned against apartheid in South Africa and against General Pinochet’s brutal treatment of political prisoners in Chile.

Mary Robinson (a former president of the Irish Republic), who was UN Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 until 2002, worked hard to raise world awareness of the problems by naming and shaming guilty states. Unfortunately she made some powerful enemies by her outspoken criticism of their human rights records- among them Russia, China and the USA (all permanent members of the Security Council). Secretary-General Annan was pleased with her work and wanted her to serve another term as Commissioner. However, she was replaced by Sergio Vieira de Mello, and it was widely reported that her second term had been blocked by the USA.

(b) The International Labour Organization (ILO)

The ILO operates from its headquarters in Geneva. It works on the principles that:

  • every person is entitled to a job;
  • there should be equal opportunities for everybody to get jobs, irrespective of race, sex or religion;
  • there should be minimum standards of decent working conditions;
  • workers should have the right to organize themselves into unions and other associations in order to negotiate for better conditions and pay (this is known as collective bargaining);
  • there should be full social security provision for all workers (such as unemployment, health and maternity benefits).

The ILO does excellent work providing help for countries trying to improve working conditions, and it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1969. It sends experts out to demonstrate new equipment and techniques, sets up training centres in developing countries and runs the International Centre for Advanced Technology and Vocational Training in Turin (Italy), which provides vital high-level training for people from all over the Third World.

Again though, the ILO, like the Human Rights Commission, is always faced with the problem of what to do when governments ignore the rules. For example, many governments, including those of communist countries, and of Latin American countries such as Chile, Argentina and Mexico, would not allow workers to organize trade unions.

(c) The World Health Organization (WHO)

The WHO is one of the UN’s most successful agencies. It aims to bring the world to a point where all its peoples are not just free of disease, but are ‘at a high level of health’. One of its first jobs was to tackle a cholera epidemic in Egypt in 1947 which threatened to spread through Africa and the Middle East. Quick action by a UN team soon brought the epidemic under control and it was eliminated in a few weeks.

The WHO now keeps a permanent cholera vaccine bank in case of further outbreaks, and wages a continual battle against other diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and leprosy. The Organization provides money to train doctors, nurses and other health workers for developing countries, keeps governments informed about new drugs and provides free contraceptive pills for women in Third World countries.

One of its most striking achievements was to eliminate smallpox in the 1980s. At the same time it seemed well on the way towards eliminating malaria, but during the 1970s a new strain of malaria appeared which had developed a resistance to anti-malaria drugs. Research into new anti-malaria drugs became a WHO priority.

The most serious world health problem in recent years has been the AIDS epidemic. The WHO has done excellent work collecting evidence and statistics, producing reports and putting pressure on pharmaceutical companies to reduce prices of drugs to treat the condition. In June 2001 the UN global AIDS fund was set up, which aimed to raise $10 billion a year to fight the disease.

(d) The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAQ)

The FAO aims to raise living standards by encouraging improvements in agricultural production. It was responsible for introducing new varieties of maize and rice which have a higher yield and are less susceptible to disease. FAO experts show people in poor countries how to increase food production by the use of fertilizers, new techniques and new machinery, and cash is provided to fund new projects.

Its main problem is having to deal with emergencies caused by drought, floods, civil war and other disasters, when food supplies need to be rushed into a country as quickly as possible. The Organization has done an excellent job, and there is no doubt that many more people would have died from starvation and malnutrition without its work.

(e) The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

Operating from its headquarters in Paris, UNESCO does its best to encourage the spread of literacy; it also fosters international co-operation between scientists, scholars and artists in all fields, working on the theory that the best way to avoid war is by educating people’s minds in the pursuit of peace. Much of its time and resources are spent setting up schools and teacher-training colleges in under-developed countries. Sometimes it becomes involved in one-off cultural and scientific projects. For example, it organized an International Hydrological Decade (1965-75), during which it helped to finance research into the problem of world water resources.

During the 1980s UNESCO came under criticism from western powers which claimed that it was becoming too politically motivated.

(f) The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF)

UNICEF was founded originally in 1946 to help children left homeless by the Second World War. It dealt with this problem so efficiently that it was decided to make it a permanent agency and the word ’emergency’ was dropped from its title (1953). Its new function was to help improve the health and living standards of children all over the world, especially in poorer countries. It works closely with the WHO, setting up health centres, training health workers and running health education and sanitation schemes.

In spite of these efforts it was still a horrifying fact that in 1983, 15 million children died under the age of 5, a figure equivalent to the combined under-5 population of Britain, France, Italy, Spain and West Germany. In that year UNICEF launched its ‘child health revolution’ campaign, which was designed to reduce the child death rate by simple methods such as encouraging breastfeeding (which is more hygienic than bottle-feeding) and immunizing babies against common diseases such as measles, diphtheria, polio and tetanus.

(g) The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)

This agency was set up in 1950 to deal with the problem of Arab refugees from Palestine who were forced to leave their homes when Palestine was divided up to form the new state of Israel (see Section 11.2). UNRW A did a remarkable job providing basic food, clothing, shelter and medical supplies. Later, as it became clear that the refugee camps were going to be permanent, it began to build schools, hospitals, houses and training centres to enable refugees to get jobs and make the camps self-supporting.

(h) Financial and economic agencies

1. The International Monetary Fund (IMF)

The IMF is designed to foster co-operation between nations in order to encourage the growth of trade and the full development of nations’ economic potential. It allows shortterm loans to countries in financial difficulties, provided that their economic policies meet with the IMF’s approval and that they are prepared to change policies if the IMF thinks it necessary. By the mid-1970s many Third World nations were heavily in debt (see Section 27.2), and in 1977 the IMF set up an emergency fund. However, there was a great deal of resentment among the poorer nations when the IMF Board of Governors (dominated by the rich western countries, especially the USA, which provide most of the cash) began to attach conditions to the loans. Jamaica and Tanzania, for example, were required to change their socialist policies before loans were allowed. This was seen by many as unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of member states.

2. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank)

This provides loans for specific development projects, such as building dams to generate electricity, and introducing new agricultural techniques and family planning campaigns. Again though, the USA, which provides the largest share of the cash for the bank, controls its decisions. When Poland and Czechoslovakia applied for loans, they were both refused because they were communist states. Both of them resigned from the Bank and from the IMF in disgust, Poland in 1950 and Czechoslovakia in 1954.

3. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)

This agreement was first signed in 1947 when member states of the UN agreed to reduce some of their tariffs (taxes on imports) in order to encourage international trade. Members continue to meet, under the supervision of ECOSOC, to try and keep tariffs as low as possible throughout the world. In January 1995 the GATT became the World Trade Organization (WTO). Its aim was to liberalize and monitor world trade and to resolve trade disputes.

4. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

The conference first met in 1964 and soon became a permanent body. Its role is to encourage the development of industry in the Third World and to pressurize rich countries into buying Third World products.

(i) The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

This began life originally as the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, set up in 1991 to enable the UN to respond more effectively to natural disasters and ‘complex emergencies’ (the UN phrase for human disasters caused by wars and other political events). Its functions were expanded in 1998 to include the co-ordination of responses to all humanitarian disasters and projects for human development; at the same time it assumed its present title OCHA.

UN statistics suggested that in 2003 alone, some 200 million victims of natural disasters and 45 million victims of ‘complex emergencies’ received aid, either supplied directly or organized by the UN. However, a recurring criticism of the UN’s role was that it lacked the power and the resources to operate as effectively as it might.


Evaluations of the UN’s effectiveness have been mixed. Some commentators believe the organization to be an important force for peace and human development, while others have called the organization ineffective, corrupt, or biased.

The UN has been in existence for well over half a century, but it is still nowhere near achieving its basic aims.

The world is still full of economic and social problems; acts of aggression and wars continue. The UN’s failures were caused to some extent by weaknesses in its system.

(a) The lack of a permanent UN army

This means that it is difficult to prevail upon powerful states to accept its decisions if they choose to put self-interest first. If persuasion and the pressure of world opinion fail, the UN has to rely on member nations to provide troops to enable it to enforce decisions. For example, the USSR was able to ignore UN demands for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Hungary (1956) and Afghanistan (1980). UN involvement in Somalia (1992-5) and Bosnia (1992-5) showed the impossibility of the UN being able to stop a war when the warring parties were not ready to stop fighting. The USA and Britain were determined to attack Iraq in 2003 without UN authorization, and the UN could do nothing about it, especially now that the USA was the world’s only superpower – by far the most powerful state in the world.

(b) When should the UN become involved?

There is a problem about exactly when the UN should become involved during the course of a dispute. Sometimes it hangs back too long, so that the problem becomes more difficult to solve; sometimes it hesitates so long that it scarcely becomes involved at all; this happened with the war in Vietnam and the war in Angola. This left the UN open to accusations of indecision and lack of firmness. It caused some states to put more faith in their own regional organizations such as NATO for keeping the peace, and many agreements were worked out without involving the UN; for example, the end of the Vietnam War, the Camp David peace between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and the settlement of the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe problem in the same year.

At this time, critics were claiming that the UN was becoming irrelevant and was no more than an arena for propaganda speeches. Part of the problem was that the Security Council was hampered by the veto which its permanent members could use. Although the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution could offset this to some extent, the veto could still cause long delays before decisive action was taken. If a potential aggressor knew that his forces would be met by a UN armed force, equipped and mandated to fight, this would be a powerful disincentive; for example if a UN force had been deployed on the Kuwait side of the Iraqi-Kuwait frontier in 1990, or on the Croatian side of the Serbia-Croatia border in 1991, hostilities might well have been prevented from breaking out.

(c) The increasing membership of the UN from the 1970s

The increasing membership of the UN during the 1970s brought new problems. By 1970 members from the Third World (Africa and Asia) were in a clear majority. As these nations began to work more and more together, it meant that only they could be certain of having their resolutions passed, and it became increasingly difficult for both Western and Communist blocs to get their resolutions through the General Assembly. The western nations could no longer have things all their own way and they began to criticize the Third World bloc for being too ‘political’; by this, they meant acting in a way the West disapproved of. For example, in 1974 UNESCO passed resolutions condemning ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’. In 1979 when the Western bloc introduced a General Assembly motion condemning terrorism, it was defeated by the Arab states and their supporters.

Friction reached crisis point in 1983 at the UNESCO General Congress. Many western nations, including the USA, accused UNESCO of being inefficient and wasteful and of having unacceptable political aims. What brought matters to a head was a proposal by some communist states for the internal licensing of foreign journalists. According to the USA, this would lead to a situation in which member states could exercise an effective censorship of each other’s media organizations. Consequently the Americans announced that they would withdraw from UNESCO on 1 January 1985, since it had become ‘hostile to the basic institutions of a free society, especially a free market and a free press’. Britain and Singapore withdrew in 1986 for similar reasons. Britain rejoined in 1997 and the USA followed in 2002.

(d) There is a waste of effort and resources among the agencies

Some of the agencies sometimes seem to duplicate each other’s work. Critics claim that the WHO and the FAO overlap too much. The FAO was criticized in 1984 for spending too much on administration and not enough on improving agricultural systems. GATT and UNCTAD even seem to be working against each other: GATT tries to eliminate tariffs and anything else that restricts trade, whereas UNCTAD tries to get preferential treatment for the products of Third World countries.

(e) Shortage of funds

Throughout its history the UN has always been short of funds. The vast scope of its work means that it needs incredibly large sums of money to finance its operations. It is entirely dependent on contributions from member states. Each state pays a regular annual contribution based on its general wealth and ability to pay. In addition, members pay a proportion of the cost of each peacekeeping operation, and they are also expected to contribute towards the expenses of the special agencies. Many member states refused to pay from time to time, either because of financial difficulties of their own, or as a mark of disapproval of UN policies; 1986 was a bad year financially: no fewer than 98 of its members owed money, chief among them being the USA, which withheld more than $100 million until the UN reformed its budgeting system and curbed its extravagance. The Americans wanted the countries that gave most to have more say in how the money was spent, but most smaller members rejected this as undemocratic. As one of Sri Lanka’s delegates put it: ‘in our political processes at home, the wealthy do not have more votes than the poor. We should like this to be the practice in the UN as well.’

In 1987 changes were introduced giving the main financial contributors more control over spending, and the financial situation soon improved. However, expenses soared alarmingly in the early 1990s as the UN became involved in a series of new crises, in the Middle East (Gulf War), Yugoslavia and Somalia. In August 1993 the Secretary-General, Dr Boutros-Ghali, revealed that many states were well in arrears with their payments. He warned that unless there was an immediate injection of cash from the world’s rich states, all the UN’ s peacekeeping operations would be in jeopardy. Yet the Americans and Europeans felt that they already paid too much – the USA (with about 30 per cent), the European Community (about 35 per cent) and Japan (11 per cent) paid three-quarters of the expenses, and there was a feeling that there were many other wealthy states which could afford to contribute much more than they were doing.

(f) Other Problems

Since its founding, there have been many calls for reform of the United Nations but little consensus on how to do so. Some want the UN to play a greater or more effective role in world affairs, while others want its role reduced to humanitarian work. There have also been numerous calls for the UN Security Council’s membership to be increased, for different ways of electing the UN’s Secretary-General, and for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly.

The most enduring divide in views of the UN is “the North–South split” between richer Northern nations and developing Southern nations. Southern nations tend to favour a more empowered UN with a stronger General Assembly, allowing them a greater voice in world affairs, while Northern nations prefer laissez-faire UN that focuses on transnational threats such as terrorism.

After World War II, the French Committee of National Liberation was late to be recognized by the US as the government of France, and so the country was initially excluded from the conferences that created the new organization. The future French president Charles de Gaulle criticized the UN, famously calling it a machin (“contraption”), and was not convinced that a global security alliance would help maintain world peace, preferring direct defence treaties between countries.

In spite of all these criticisms, it would be wrong to write the UN off as a failure, and there can be no doubt that the world would be a far worse place without it.

  • It provides a world assembly where representatives of around 190 nations can come together and talk to each other. Even the smallest nation has a chance to make itself heard in a world forum.
  • Although it has not prevented wars, it has been successful in bringing some wars to an end more quickly, and has prevented further conflict. A great deal of human suffering and bloodshed have been prevented by the actions of the UN peacekeeping forces and refugee agencies. At the present time (2012) there are around 85 000 UN peacekeepers in action across the world.
  • The UN has done valuable work investigating and publicizing human rights violations under repressive regimes like the military governments of Chile and Zaire. In this way it has slowly been able to influence governments by bringing international pressure to bear on them.
  • Perhaps its most important achievement has been to stimulate international co-operation on economic, social and technical matters. Millions of people, especially in poorer countries, are better off thanks to the work of the UN agencies. It continues to involve itself in current problems: UNESCO, the ILO and the WHO are running a joint project to help drug addicts and there has been a series of 15 conferences on AIDS in an attempt to co-ordinate the struggle against this terrible scourge, particularly in Africa.


Many people thought that with the end of the Cold War, most of the world’s problems would disappear. In fact, this did not happen; during the 1990s there seemed to be more conflicts than ever before, and the world seemed to be less and less stable. Obviously there was still a vitally important role for the UN to play as international peacekeeper, and many people were anxious for the UN to reform and strengthen itself.

Kofi Annan, who became Secretary-General in December 1996, had gained an excellent reputation over the previous few years as head of UN peacekeeping operations. He was well aware of the organization’s weaknesses and was determined to do something about them. He ordered a thorough review of all UN peace operations; the resulting report, published in 2000, recommended, among other things, that the UN should maintain permanent brigade-size forces of 5000 troops, which would be ready for immediate deployment, commanded by military professionals. The spread of terrorism, especially with the September 2001 attacks on New York, prompted Annan, now in his second term as Secretary-General, to produce his Agenda for Further Change (September 2002). This was a plan for reforms to strengthen the UN’ s role in fighting terrorism, and it included a much-needed streamlining of the cumbersome budget system. These things take time, but none of the suggested reforms is beyond the bounds of possibility.

The really serious problem, which had been brewing ever since the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the USA as sole superpower, was about the future relationship between the UN and the USA. Tensions began to mount as soon as the Bush administration took office in 2001: within its first year the new government rejected the 1972 AntiBallistic Missile Treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (which aimed to limit the emission of greenhouse gases) and the Rome Statute of the new UN International Criminal Court, as well as Security Council offers of a resolution authorizing a war against terrorism (this was because it prefers to conduct its own self-defence in whatever way it chooses). Tensions reached a climax in March 2003, when the US government, aided and abetted by the UK, decided to attack Iraq, without UN authorization and against the wishes of the majority of UN members. The USA was so disproportionately powerful that it could ignore the UN and act as it pleased unless the UN delivered the outcome it wanted.

An important American technique in its quest to control the UN was to secure the appointment of a sympathetic Secretary-General. A prime example was Kofi Annan, Secretary-General from 1996 until 2006, who whole heartedly supported the American line on every major UN involvement except one – Iraq. In a book published in November 2006 to mark the end of Annan’s two terms as Secretary-General, James Traub chronicles his rise to the top. Since 1993 Annan had been in charge of all UN peacekeeping operations under Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali. However, Dr Boutros-Ghali had displeased Washington by refusing to send a UN mission into Somalia and delaying the NATO bombing of Serbia. In both cases Annan had supported the American line. In 1996 all the signs were that Boutros-Ghali would have his mandate extended for another five years. But President Clinton was determined to get rid of him; it was relentless pressure from the Clinton administration that got Kofi Annan chosen instead of Boutros-Ghali. Consequently when NATO launched its bombing attack on Yugoslavia early in 1999, instead of condemning it as a blatant violation of the UN Charter – which it most certainly was – Annan announced that it was a legitimate action.

However, the attack on Iraq in 2003 was more difficult for Annan. When the joint US and British operation against Iraq was launched without a second Security Council Resolution authorizing the attack, Annan was eventually forced to admit that the invasion had been illegal. The challenge for the UN over the coming years is to find a way to harness and make use of the power and influence of the USA instead of being impeded or stampeded by it.

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