The United Nations deliberates some of the biggest global issues facing the world today. Natalie Samarasinghe, Executive Director of the United Nations Association, explains how this complex organisation sets out to reach a decision.
What is the United Nations and what does it do?
The United Nations (UN) is an international organisation that brings states together to solve global challenges. Founded in the aftermath of the Second World War, it was set up to help stabilise international relations and establish peace. At present, the UN has 193 member states, with South Sudan being the most recent state to join in 2011.
Today, the UN’s main objectives are: preventing and resolving conflict, protecting human rights, and supporting action to tackle climate change.
To achieve these goals, it provides practical assistance across the world, from peacekeeping missions to vaccination programmes. In addition, it supports member states in areas such as policy development, research and training.
What do the UN make decisions on?
Over the years, the UN’s agenda has expanded to include almost every aspect of human endeavour and planetary resource.
For example, last Tuesday’s meetings at the UN's headquarters in New York covered a wide range of subjects, including Libya, Yemen, disarmament, non-self governing territories, small-island states, disaster risk reduction, desertification, biological diversity, education for sustainable development, sand and dust storms, energy access, rights of the child, universal jurisdiction, trafficking, international trade law, mine action, indigenous peoples, torture, youth, a proposal for World Bee Day, preventing an arms race in outer space … I stopped taking notes at this point.
Why are UN decisions important?
The UN General Assembly is the closest thing there is to a world parliament. While its decisions are not binding, they represent the weight of global opinion. All 193 member states have one vote in the chamber, no matter how big, small, rich or poor they are. Countries take the decisions very seriously, as the heated debates on issues such as LGBT+ rights have shown.
The UN Security Council, one of the UN's organs, can take decisions that are binding for all UN members, and can even be a matter of life or death for people in countries such as Syria.
One of the best examples of the UN's global impact is the Montreal Protocol. Agreed just 18 months after scientists discovered a 'hole' in the ozone layer, it became the first UN treaty to be formally approved by all members, and secured a high number of cuts to ozone-depleting substances. As a result, the ozone layer is expected to return to pre-1980 levels between 2050 and 2075.
Could you give us a brief overview of how the UN is organised?
Without going into too much detail, the UN charter outlines six main bodies.
Four are intergovernmental: the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council and Trusteeship Council. The other two are the International Court of Justice, which handles disputes between states, and the Secretariat, the international civil service headed by the Secretary-General.
There are also ‘specialised agencies and ‘related organisations’. They are autonomous organisations that work with the UN but are distinct from it.
What’s the process for making a decision?
Decisions are made in a variety of ways, depending on the body and sometimes even on the specific meeting or issue. A common formula is a vote of all members with a simple majority deciding the outcome. This would increase to a majority of at least two-thirds for decisions on some issues, such as membership.
But there are many exceptions. For example, in the Security Council, five permanent members (referred to as the P5) have a veto. There is also the Conference on Disarmament, where decisions are made by consensus, effectively giving every member state a veto.
Decisions are often pre-negotiated, for instance, at the committee level in the General Assembly or by groups of states ahead of big conferences. This allows world leaders to simply sign on the dotted line and smile for the cameras.
How long does it take to reach a decision?
The ease and speed of decisions depends on the level of consensus, the support of influential states and on momentum. Institutional constraints can also have an impact.
For example, all member states agree that the composition of the Security Council should be reformed. But none of the suggested proposals have attracted sufficient support. Furthermore, the P5 are in no rush to push for change. There’s another obstacle: reforming the Council would require amending the UN Charter. This has happened just five times in the UN’s history and it is notoriously difficult to achieve.
On the other hand, issues can also move forward quickly. The United Nations Association-UK was part of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign, which transformed the selection process for the UN Secretary-General in just two years.
We were able to secure this decision quickly by building a broad coalition of support, which included one of the P5, and proposing changes that could be implemented without formal reforms.
How much power does the UN have?
The UN is run by its member states. They appoint its senior officials, supply peacekeepers and agree its agenda and budget.
Almost everything the UN does will require consent. Peace operations require acceptance from the host country. Human rights treaties only apply to those states that formally approve them. When we hear about UN failures, most of the time it is our governments who bear responsibility.
It is difficult for the UN to make progress when states, especially the big powers, disagree, have vested interests (as with Syria) or are simply uninterested in a particular issue (as was the case at the beginning of the Ebola outbreak). The UN can advise, encourage, cajole and criticise, but it has few enforcement powers. Even binding Security Council resolutions rest on the willingness of states to act.
Many UN successes are the result of states coming together for the common good, resulting in huge transformations. Once it was considered normal to have the death penalty, administer colonies, or recruit child soldiers. These things still happen, but they are now the exception.
There is no doubt the UN will continue to frustrate supporters and sceptics, but it is as indispensable as it is flawed.
You can ask your questions to a group of world leaders, including a former UN Secretary-General, during our #FutureLeadersConnect live-stream on 23 October at 19.30 UK time.