The United Nations

The United Nations (UN) is an international governance organization made up of independent states. It was founded in 1945 after the horrors of the Second World War – including the genocide of Jews, known as the Holocaust - were better known. The founding countries of the UN shared the hope that a new global government would be more successful than the League of Nations that had been founded following the First World War, and would be able to prevent tragedies like genocide from happening again. The main aims of the UN are set out in its Charter:

  • promoting human rights,
  • maintaining international peace, and
  • reducing poverty and injustice.

There are currently 192 member countries, called Member States, in the UN - almost every country in the world. Each Member State has one equal vote, regardless of size or economic status. The UN has facilitated the signing of over 500 multi-national treaties on a broad range of issues including: human rights, international crime, refugees, disarmament, trade and commodities, and the oceans. Governance at the UN is seldom easy; since the UN is made up of sovereign states, it depends on the cooperation of its Member States to accept, fund and carry out its decisions. The process of consensus building is complex and incremental, especially when addressing matters of peacekeeping and international politics, and must take into account national sovereignty as well as competing global needs.

The UN was designed to have six main bodies: General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Trusteeship Council (now largely inoperative), International Court of Justice (which only deals with civil law matters referred to it) and Secretariat. The UN has six official languages: English, French, Russian, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese. The UN main headquarters are in New York City, but several of the larger UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization and the High Commission for Human Rights, are headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland – but all UN land and buildings are international territory.

The UN Charter

The United Nations Charter is the treaty that established the United Nations. It was initially signed on 26 June 1945 at the founding meeting of the UN in San Francisco. The Charter describes the principles, functions, and structures of the United Nations and is legally binding on all Member States of the UN.

The UN Charter sets out the four main purposes of the United Nations, which are to:

  • keep peace throughout the world
  • develop friendly relations among nations
  • help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease and illiteracy and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms
  • be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations to achieve these goals

The Charter also sets out the main principles of the UN, which include:

  • recognition of the sovereignty of all of its members,
  • that members settle their international disputes by peaceful means, and
  • that members refrain from using or threatening to use armed force against any other state.

The UN General Assembly

The General Assembly is where most of the discussion, debate and decision-making among Member States over the world’s most pressing problems take place. Every Member State is entitled to representation and one vote in the General Assembly. The decisions made in the General Assembly drive the work of the UN. Decisions are usually not called for until there is broad agreement among Member States. When a vote has to be called on UN priority matters (such as peace, security, budgetary matters or the admission of new members) a 2/3-majority vote is required. All other matters require a simple majority of more than half the votes cast, however a vote is not usually called until a substantial majority of Member States has indicated support. Although the decisions of the General Assembly cannot force any state to take particular actions, General Assembly Resolutions are considered to be an indication of world opinion.

The UN Security Council

The mandate of the Security Council is set out in the UN Charter, especially chapters six and seven. The UN Charter gives the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. The Council is the only UN body that can order the use of force to implement its decisions. The Council is made up of five permanent members and ten non-permanent members. The permanent members of the Security Council are the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom. Non-permanent members are Member States elected to the Security Council and serve two-year terms. The last time Canada was a member of the Security Council was in 1999-2000. Canada lost its bid to be voted in to serve on the Security Council in 2010.

Every member of the Security Council has one vote, but not all the votes are of equal weight. For a proposal before the Security Council to pass, it must receive an affirmative vote from at least nine members. However, if one of the permanent members votes against the proposal, the adoption of that proposal will be prevented. This is called the veto or “great power unanimity” and will prevent the adoption of a proposal even if it has received nine affirmative votes. All Member States are required to carry out a decision of the Security Council.

The Security Council may convene at any time, day or night, whenever it determines there is a threat to international peace. The Council may first try to resolve an issue through peaceful means, such as mediation. If a dispute results in fighting, the Security Council may issue ceasefire directives or send peacekeeping forces to the area to reduce tensions. The Security Council may also order economic sanctions, collective military action or an arms embargo to prohibit commerce and trade in weaponry with the countries involved in the dispute.

Case Study - The Power of the Veto

In 2009, Russia used its veto to end the UN peacekeeping mission in Georgia. This use of the veto was controversial because of Russia’s involvement in the dispute taking place between Georgia and the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions. How could other countries try to intervene to maintain peace when Russia, one of the countries involved in the dispute, had the power to veto?

International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the primary judicial body of the United Nations. It is a civil court that deals primarily with disputes between Member States and does not have the jurisdiction to prosecute individuals accused of crimes. Criminal matters are dealt with by the International Criminal Court, which is independent from the UN, and will be discussed in a later section.

The International Court of Justice is located at the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands and is composed of 15 judges from 15 different countries. The ICJ has two main roles: it settles disputes referred to it by Member States and gives opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized bodies of the UN. When making a decision, the Court will apply international law, including: international treaties and conventions, international custom, general principles of law, existing judicial decisions, and sometimes the writings of international scholars and academics.

Only Member States are able to submit disputes, called “contentious cases,” to the ICJ for hearing. Furthermore, all parties to the dispute must agree that the ICJ has the power to hear the matter and that they will be bound by the decision of the Court. If a party to a dispute believes another party has not lived up to their obligations under a decision of the ICJ, it can appeal to the Security Council, which has the power to decide what measures to take to enforce the judgment.

The General Assembly and Security Council, as well as other authorized UN agencies are permitted to ask the Court to provide an advisory opinion on legal questions. These opinions are intended to help resolve complicated legal issues arising within the UN system. Advisory opinions are not legally binding, but they are generally influential and well respected.

UN Treaty-making and Monitoring

All treaties must be approved by at least a simple majority of the United Nations General Assembly. This means that at least 50% of the 192 Member States must vote in favour of the treaty. Once a treaty has been approved by the General Assembly, Member States are able to sign on to it. For most treaties, a specified number of states must sign on for the treaty to be ‘activated.’ When the required number of signatures is reached, the treaty enters into force. However, the signing of a treaty alone does not make it binding on states. States must also take further steps to ratify the treaty and officially agree to be bound by its terms. Once ratified, states must take steps to implement the treaty into their domestic law. This typically involves making laws and policies that incorporate the terms of the treaty into the domestic laws of the state.

**************Treaty process chart***************

Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with international operations - such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Equality Now, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which all focus on human rights - monitor how countries are following up on their promises to implement a particular treaty. International NGOs like these issue their independent reports, called alternative, or “shadow” reports, on progress and problems in a country under review, making presentations to the UN body that monitors the treaty as well as to local and international media.

Although the UN does not officially recognize these NGO reports as part of the treaty monitoring system, they have become important sources of ‘speaking truth to power.’ The independent experts who are members of treaty monitoring bodies often consider these shadow reports to be credible sources of information that they might not otherwise have access to.

As a Canadian example, West Coast LEAF monitors British Columbia’s implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

UN Peacekeeping

“Of all our dreams today there is none more important - or so hard to realize - than that of peace in the world. May we never lose our faith in it or our resolve to do everything that can be done to convert it one day into reality.”

Lester B. Pearson

One of the major operations of the United Nations Security Council is the establishment of peacekeeping missions in countries facing conflict. Peacekeepers are people employed within the UN system to monitor the implementation of a ceasefire and oversee the resolution of conflict. Peacekeepers may assist in the promotion of human security, disarming opponents, repatriating refugees, strengthening the rule of law, delivering humanitarian relief and training local police forces. Peacekeepers may also be involved in peacemaking activities, such as helping those involved in a conflict settle their differences peacefully by encouraging negotiation rather than resorting to the use of arms. Peacekeepers may be soldiers, military observers or civilian police.

Lester B. Pearson, Canada’s 14th Prime Minister, first proposed the idea of peacekeeping during the Suez Canal crisis in the 1950s and received the Nobel Peace Prize as a result. Since then, peacekeeping has been an important part of Canada’s participation in the international community. Canadian peacekeepers have served in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Middle East, Haiti, Cambodia and many other countries, but they have not always been successful – for example, during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. While much has now been written about the world’s failure to stop the genocide, the story of Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire - a Canadian peacekeeper who commanded the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda and attempted to stop the genocide - will be most familiar to Canadians.