A little guide to the workings of the United Nations, from a peacebuilding perspective

By Bonnie Price Lofton | December 13th, 2013

In the beginning, there was World War I

Almost 20 million people died between 1914 and 1918 in the worst war the world had ever known. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and others reacted to the carnage by embracing the idea of a “league of nations” which would settle conflicts before they escalated into wars. Wilson told a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 1919 that such a league would be a “guaranty against the things which have just come near bringing the whole structure of civilization into ruin.” This league would not merely “secure the peace of the world,” it would be “used for cooperation in any international matter,” said Wilson.

Narrow, national politics intervened – as they would henceforth – and the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Versailles peace treaty that founded the League of Nations.

In the absence of U.S. cooperation and that of other key players in the following years, the League’s impact was limited. It nevertheless took some actions from its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, that showed the possibilities for its post WWII successor, the United Nations. It settled territorial disputes between Finland and Sweden, Germany and Poland, and Iraq and Turkey. It dealt with a refugee crisis in Russia. It gave rise to the Permanent Court of International Justice.

But the League had an imbalanced structure that continues to plague today’s UN – decision-making was dominated by certain nations, namely the victors from WWI (with the exception of the United States). And the League had no power of its own to stop aggressor-nations, whether by agreed-upon economic sanctions or by military means. The outbreak of World War II marked the utter failure of the League.

In the aftermath of the Second World War

If WWI was terrible, WWII was horrifically worse, claiming the lives of more than three times the number of military and civilian people as WWI.

Again, it was a U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who pushed for the creation of an international organization to be, in fact and not just in words, a guarantor of peace.

[A]s earlier, the basic dilemmas and conundrums had not changed: How to balance national sovereignty and international idealism? How to reconcile the imbalances between countries over power and influence, over resources and commitments? How, in other words, could one draft a charter that would recognize and effectively deal with the sheer fact that some countries were, in effect more equal than others? (Hanhimäki, 15)*

The answer was to entice the then-most-powerful nations into being players in the proposed organization – and into staying in the game – by giving them permanent seats at the top of the organization, with each having veto power over decisions.

To this day, 68 years since the founding of the United Nations in 1945, the five victorious powers from WWII – China, France, Great Britain, the United States and Russia – occupy permanent seats on the UN’s Security Council, with each being able to block a decision by exercising a veto that cannot be overridden. For example, the inability of key players on the Security Council to agree on ways to support peace in Syria has blocked any effective UN role in Syria, except for chemical weapons dismantling. Similarly the UN was helpless when the United States ignored France’s, Russia’s and China’s dismay and unilaterally led an invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Security Council is now enlarged by 10 members, elected by the general UN membership to two-year terms, but these 10 do not have the veto power or staying power of the “Permanent Five,” dubbed the P-5.

Which part does what in the UN system?

There’s no simple way of explaining the complexity of the United Nations and its “system” or “family of organizations,” but in the next couple of dozen paragraphs we’ll make a try. The UN began in 1945 with these six components (all beginning with “The”):

1. General Assembly, consisting of representatives from the UN’s member nations who deliberate policies, then make recommendations and decisions. Basically, it’s the UN version of the U.S. Congress or British-style parliaments, but with less legislative impact since the UN is a voluntary association.

2. Security Council, as described above.

3. Economic and Social Council (or ECOSOC), responsible today for some 70% of the human and financial resources of the UN system, including 14 specialized agencies, nine “functional” commissions, and five regional commissions.

4. Secretariat, today made up of 43,000 civil servants who staff duty stations around the world and perform the day-to-day work of the United Nations, including administering peacekeeping operations, surveying economic and social trends, and preparing studies on human rights. Basically, the Secretariat services the four other organs on this list (not counting the Trusteeship Council) and administers the programs and policies invoked by them.

5. International Court of Justice.

6. Trusteeship Council, whose historical reason for existence has disappeared, leaving it without a purpose.

The UN system has grown exponentially beyond the 1940s-era United Nations to encompass more than 50 affiliated organizations – known as programs, funds, and specialized agencies – with their own memberships, leaderships, and budget processes. For example, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization – almost always simply called UNESCO – is a legally independent organization that is affiliated with the United Nations through a negotiated agreement. Its chief executive meets twice a year with the executives of 28 other UN-affiliated organizations, including the World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This group is called the Chief Executives Board for Coordination and is chaired by the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

In contrast to the “specialized agencies” like UNESCO with its structural independence, the “funds,” “programs,” “departments,” and “commissions” (among other descriptors) of the United Nations are usually an integral part of the mother organization headquartered in New York City. They carry out the policies established by the General Assembly and Security Council.

For a visual overview, locate the eight-color, 14-box chart titled “The United Nations System” posted at www.un.org. Another handy resource is “What We Do: UN Agencies, Funds and Programs” at www.unfoundation.org. It outlines the better-known components of the UN system. A word to those who might wish to work within this system: there isn’t a centralized application process; you’ll need to search for each unit’s specific hiring requirements and procedures and be prepared to compete against many – perhaps hundreds – who are multilingual with graduate degrees.

The UN system performs work that almost everyone would agree is laudable – from supporting basic research aimed at improving food production to raising literacy levels around the world – but the United Nations’ foundational purpose of maintaining international peace resides largely with the Security Council. No use of international sanctions, no peacekeeping operation, no significant steps for peaceful resolution of a major conflict, can be undertaken without Security Council approval.

Stemming the flood of suffering and dying people

When massive loss of life looms, whether from natural disasters or war, the UN system is positioned to intervene, if welcomed (or at least permitted) by the host state. For natural disasters, the aid typically comes quickly. For massive deaths due to human conflict, United Nations intervention gets stymied by political considerations, resulting in ineffectiveness and delay, as occurred in the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Peacekeeping operations typically get funded by developed nations, using personnel drawn from less-developed nations. This is why the UN’s “blue helmets” or “blue berets” are disproportionately from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Jordan and countries making up the African Union.

The Security Council also largely shapes the work of the General Assembly, which is supposed to be where democracy comes to the fore on the international level. Yes, all 193 members of the UN have one vote in the General Assembly. But, no, they can’t override any Security Council decisions. Only the Security Council can pass binding resolutions, though the General Assembly can, and does regularly, pass non-binding resolutions that at least have a moral impact.

The entire UN system is coordinated by its Secretary-General, currently Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea, who gets into that position only if recommended by the Security Council.

Money flows into the UN system in two ways, via: (1) an assessment, like a tax, based on a country’s gross national income relative to other countries and (2) voluntary contributions. The UN’s peacekeeping operations are funded through the assessment, with a surcharge paid by members of the P-5 group.

Voluntary contributions from nations and other sources (e.g., the European Union and development banks) make up at least part of the budgets of many important organs, such as the UNDP, UNICEF, UNHCR and WFO, as well as UNESCO, World Health Organization, and Food and Agriculture Organization.

Nine countries account for roughly three-quarters of the operating budget of the United Nations: the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada, Spain and China. The United States is the single largest contributor at 22%, but collectively, the European Union countries contribute the lion’s share of the UN’s budget, roughly 35%.

In 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it needed $3.5 billion – its largest request ever – to meet the needs of the world’s growing numbers of refugees and displaced persons. It received $2.18 billion.

The biggest forced movements of humans today are in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan (and South Sudan), Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Colombia, and Mali. The world has 15.4 million recognized refugees – equivalent to everyone living in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco becoming refugees simultaneously – plus twice that many displaced within their own countries.

“These truly are alarming numbers,” said UNHCR head António Guterres, upon releasing a report in June 2013. “They reflect individual suffering on a huge scale and they reflect the difficulties of the international community in preventing conflicts [author’s emphasis] and promoting timely solutions for them.”

In mid-2013, nearly 97,000 uniformed UN personnel were conducting peacekeeping, truce supervision, or stabilization work in 16 areas, including Afghanistan, Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur, Sudan, Liberia, Haiti, Lebanon, and the border of India and Pakistan, Their budget was $7.57 billion, the largest single outflow of UN dollars for anything. (Yet this is miniscule, relative to the military budgets of developed nations like France and the United States.)

Dramatic jump in peacekeeping

A dramatic increase in UN peacekeeping operations followed a 1992 “Agenda for Peace,” nurtured by then-Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The policy document was endorsed at a meeting of heads of state convened by the Security Council. It defined four consecutive stages to prevent or control conflicts: preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding (i.e., identifying and supporting ways to help strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid future conflict).

For the first time ever, the Agenda for Peace implied that the UN did not necessarily require the consent of all parties in the conflict to intervene.

One of the early success cases of the Agenda for Peace was in Mozambique, where between 1992 and 1994, about 6,000 UN peacekeepers helped oversee its transition from a state of civil war to democratic elections.

The balance sheet for UN peacekeeping in the 1990s, however, was mostly negative, with its disastrous failure to stabilize Somalia – festering to this day – and to prevent ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda.

Obviously, the foundational reason for the United Nations – being a guarantor of peace – is far from being achieved.

“The basic problems for the UN as the overseer of international security was and remains simple: how to deal with conflicts – be they between or within states – without offending the national sovereignty of its member states [editor’s emphasis],” writes Jussi M. Hanhimäki, a native of Finland who is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

From the beginning the UN recognized the economic roots of much violent conflict, putting these words in its charter: “to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples.”

This statement reflected awareness that the global Great Depression after WWI, coupled with the punitive reparations imposed on WWI’s losers, incubated the aggressive ultra-nationalism that resulted in the next world war.

Efforts to alleviate poverty around the world, however, have been confounded (in part) by different nations’ political and economic ideologies. The United States, for instance, has always promoted global capitalism as the best way for all countries in the world to develop. But is it? If other modes of development were better in certain situations, would the UN system have room to explore them under its current funding and leadership system?

Doug Hostetter, a 1966 graduate of EMU who directs Mennonite Central Committee’s UN Office, has observed over the last five years growing involvement by global corporations in UN discussions.

Viewed in the most positive light, this corporate involvement – often in the form of underwriting the costs of conferences and participating in them – shows private-public cooperation to address some of the world’s most intractable problems. Viewed in terms of vested interests, however (as Hostetter says he views matters), the corporations are mainly interested in maximizing their profits, regardless of the impact on the most vulnerable in the world.

Impact of unwieldy structure on functioning

As mentioned earlier, the UN system consists of more than 50 organizations and entities, labeled by dozens of acronyms, with the majority beginning with “UN” or “W” for “World,” plus ones like ECOSOC, FAO, GATT, IAEA, ICJ, ILO, IMF, ITU, MSC, OHCHR and ONUC.

Excluding the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the UN system has about 83,000 on its payroll, most of them working out of offices or “duty stations” around the globe. The single largest chunk of employees is within the Secretariat, headquartered in New York City. Secretariat employees also work from office centers in Addis Ababa, Bangkok, Beirut, Geneva, Nairobi, Santiago and Vienna.

Annual expenditures in the entire UN system, excluding the banking entities, topped $41.5 billion in 2011, according to the UN Chief Executives Board for Coordination.

Compensation varies within the system, but at the United Nations itself, salary scales (found at the “pay and benefits” section of careers.un.org) for two sample locations in the fall of 2013 – New York City and Addis Abba, Ethiopia – ranged from a minimum of $77,338 for entry-level professionals to a maximum of $203,620 for senior-level professionals, including cost of living adjustments for these locations. Rent subsidies, allowances for dependents, grants for children’s schooling, extra pay for hardship and hazardous work are routinely granted in addition to salaries.

In 2005, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan sought to strengthen the Secretariat’s office of internal oversight in order “to review all mandates older than five years to see whether the activities concerned are still genuinely needed or whether the resources assigned to them can be reallocated in response to new and emerging challenges.” This is just one example of many initiatives in recent decades aimed at streamlining the United Nations, some of them successful.

“There is no point in mincing words,” writes Jussi M. Hanhimäki. “The UN is a structural monstrosity, a conglomeration of organizations, divisions, bodies and secretariats, all with their distinctive acronyms that few can ever imagine being able to master.” He notes that “the UN has a tendency not to reform but to build new structures on top of already existing ones,” causing limited resources to be “squandered due to lack of operational coherence.”

Development aid in particular is subject to “duplication and overlap [that] have reduced efficiency and increased administrative costs within the UN and its sister organizations,” such as the World Bank, says Hanhimäki.

Everett Ressler, a 1970 graduate of EMU, draws a different conclusion from his 40 years in international development and humanitarian work. “The UN functions as a crucible in which people from all countries strive to work together for the common good, including the resolution of differences,” he says. “What has surprised me is not that there are challenges and disappointments but that so much continues to be achieved despite them. The limited but unique role of the UN is often wrongly portrayed, and its contributions are undervalued.” (Ressler retired from UNICEF in 2008 after 14 years of what he describes as “ building capacities to prepare and respond more effectively in crisis situations.”)

Peace is central, ongoing focus

Turning to the peace field: building a peaceful world has been at the UN’s heart since it was founded, garnering its agencies or people Nobel Peace Prizes in 1945, 1954, 1957, 1961, 1965, 1969, 1981, 1988, 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2013. The 1992 Agenda for Peace was endorsed at the Security Council level.

In the summer of 2005, the first “people building peace” conference was held at the UN headquarters in New York City. This conference attracted about 1,000 delegates from 119 countries, including 15 CJP students and several who are currently CJP professors, Catherine Barnes, Barry Hart, and Lisa Schirch. Sitting together in the majestic Grand Assembly room, Hart and Schirch reported being thrilled to see many CJP graduates, partners and colleagues from around the world.

In 2006 the UN formed a Peacebuilding Commission, charged with coordinating the efforts of multiple actors, including UN agencies and international donors, in stabilizing post-conflict countries. Currently on the stabilization list are Burundi, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, and the Central African Republic. The Commission has a budget titled the Peacebuilding Fund from which it disperses about $100 million annually for activities and projects aimed at preventing these countries from relapsing into conflict.

Burundi, for example, was one of the first countries receiving support from the Peacebuilding Fund, with an initial allocation of $35 million in 2007 aimed at “making the hard-won peace in Burundi irreversible,” said Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, referring to the end of a decade of civil war in the mid-2000s. The UN has remained in Burundi ever since, supporting security sector and justice system reforms, radical improvement in governance and human rights, and improved living conditions.

Yet the path to peace remains perilous in Burundi, as Peacebuilder magazine recently learned from Jean-Claude Nkundwa, a CJP graduate student who did research in his home country in the summer of 2013. As a teenager in Burundi in the early 1990s, Nkundwa witnessed genocidal killings and lost family members to ethnic cleansing.

In an article posted at insightonconflict.org (dated Oct. 23, 2013), Nkundwa described what he saw during his recent visit: muzzled dissent, the fostering of militant youth groups by the ruling regime, and discrimination against out-of-power ethnic and regional groups. He said President Nkurunziza, serving a second five-year term after being elected in 2005 and re-elected in 2010, has disregarded human rights and rule of law (including, it appears, the law barring him from running for election again).

But the last thing Nkundwa wants is for the UN to give up, as if Burundi were hopeless. On the contrary, he says:

The international community needs to play a more proactive role right now. It must assert itself and pressure the Burundian government to create political space to allow the opposition to operate without intimidation and harassment. The international indifference to the war in Rwanda in 1994 led to the genocide of one million people. Surely, there are some lessons learned, and the international community should not repeat the same mistakes in Burundi.

Realize, though, that the UN is operating in Burundi with the permission of its ruling regime. This long-standing dilemma of the UN’s – i.e., that it is supposed to be a servant of its member-nations, almost regardless of what the leadership of a particular nation is doing – began to be addressed in the early 2000s with a series of formal discussions on whether each state has a “responsibility to protect” its people.

In 2005, the UN members agreed that each of them has a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. (It’s dubbed the “R2P” principle.) And, when states fail to do this, the international community has the right and responsibility to act in a “timely and decisive manner” – through the UN Security Council and in accordance with the UN Charter – to protect the people facing these crimes.

This principle has since been invoked in the cases of Libya (controversially), Côte d’Ivoire, South Sudan, and Yemen.

The goals are worthy, but how to implement them?

Activities that the UN system undertakes without fail, year in and year out, are convene conferences, issue reports, and make heartfelt declarations on what the world needs to do to move closer to most people’s desire for justice, peace, and prosperity (or at least a chance at decent survival) for all.

Terminology has changed over the years at the United Nations. “Human security” is the latest term referring to the right of people to live in safety and dignity and earn their livelihood – which, of course, is what long-standing UN units concerned with poverty reduction, education, health, agriculture, peace, and so forth have been trying to do for decades.

The Millennium Development Goals, declared under former Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000 to guide the UN through 2015, called for eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, gender equality, better health, environmental sustainability, and “a global partnership for development.”

“We have to connect the dots [between] climate change, [the] food crisis, water scarcity, energy shortages and women’s empowerment as well as global health issues,” says Annan’s successor, Ban Ki-Moon. “These are all interconnected issues.”

Except for the emphasis on environmental sustainability, Annan’s and Ban’s stated aspirations for a better world can be found in the 1945 UN Charter, its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and its supplemental 1966 International Bill of Human Rights.

It’s the implementation of these grand goals that continues to bedevil the UN system.

Look at the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, for example. In a given week, it may hold meetings on: who is using torture for what purposes; the rights of indigenous people in the face of gold prospecting, lumbering, ranching, and drilling for oil; abuses endured by women in the Middle East and Africa; and legal protections that developed countries should extend to their migrant workers. Yet, to the dismay of its staff no doubt, the human rights commission is basically toothless. It can make recommendations; it can try to shame entities into making changes. But it lacks implementation tools.

As for peace work, when is the Security Council going to respond to early signs of an impending conflict and authorize preventive measures before it’s a full-fledged crisis, with tens- or hundreds-of-thousands or millions dead?

Why we need the UN system

Despite the weaknesses of the UN system, it is the place in which the world places its hopes when the going gets really tough. Every day the UN system directly helps millions of people, at the comparatively modest cost of about $6 annually for each of the world’s inhabitants.

A 2010 poll by the United Nations Foundation and Better World Campaign found that a strong majority of Americans support the UN system and its efforts to end global poverty, provide humanitarian relief after disasters, and lay the groundwork for peace around the world. Specifically, the UN system:

1. Articulates important objectives for the world. It thus raises consciousness everywhere on issues like the abuse of girls and women and the rights of indigenous peoples.

2. Feeds the hungry and houses the homeless when they are recognized as groups of displaced people or refugees from conflict, abuse, or natural disaster. Tries to get them back to their homeplaces whenever it can.

3. Dispatches well-qualified advisors – in almost any humanitarian, educational, cultural, security, governance, or developmental field you can name – in response to invitations by governments. Designates UNESCO World Heritage sites.

4. Issues educational materials and underwrites trainings that are especially valued by governments that have few resources.

5. Acts as a moral counterweight to reprehensible acts around the world, calling individuals and governments to be accountable.

6. Sponsors cross-national biomedical, environmental, and scientific initiatives aimed at reducing preventable diseases and improving living standards.

7. Remains the only globally recognized organization that aspires to recognize and uphold the rights and needs of one and all, mediating between those who come into conflict. As such, it is an essential instrument for global peace.

In a June 2013 interview, UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said:**

My answer to those who criticize the UN is that the UN is as strong as the member states want it to be. The UN is a reflection of the world as it is, whether you like it or not. Democracy is not everywhere, human rights violations take place, wars and huge inequalities exist. But if we forget the UN Charter, if we forget the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, if we forget what our work and the world should be, then we have failed. My job as well as yours at the Alliance for Peacebuilding is to reduce the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be. It is relevant for the UN and for the Alliance for Peacebuilding. This is what we are fighting for, every day.

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* The themes broached in this article owe much to Jussi M. Hanhimäki and his excellent booklet, The United Nations – A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 2008.
** Jan Eliasson was interviewed by Melanie Greenberg, Alliance for Peacebuilding’s president and chief executive officer. The Alliance’s director of human security, Lisa Schirch, is a research professor at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, publisher of Peacebuilder magazine.

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