UNITED NATIONS – in a nutshell

As you know I am in New York but what am I doing here? When people ask me where I work, I have a standardised sentence by now which is very concrete, honest and will keep them from asking any further questions:

“I work for the United Nations Headquarters at the Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) of the Secretariat. Within this Department, I work for the Office of ECOSOC support and coordination (OESC) and within THAT in the NGO Branch”. Deep breath!
We knew the UN is not an easy enterprise to get into, but I did a lot about it in my studies and still admit that it probably took me still2 months of my 6-months internship to get comfortable with the diverse abbreviations, responsibilities and regulations.

So here a quick overview of the UN – in a nutshell. Behind that bureaucratic monster lies one of the most glamourous and idealistic undertakings and one of the most politicized institutions of the world.

Where to start? In 1945, the second world war was over IMG_3776(at least in some parts of the world) and the “leaders of the peace” came together with the honorable aim of preventing a third World War. This noble undertaking cumulated into the establishment of the United Nations (even though there had already existed an organization called the League of Nations, which was established after WWI to prevent a Second World War and obviously – failed!). However, the United Nations with its initial 51 memberstates has since grown into an organization with 193 members and has just recently celebrated its 70th birthday (I was there to eat the hopefully “bluest” cake of my life).

The UN Headquarters were built in 1952 in New York (the US was at that time very pro-UN and the only country which was willing and stable enough to host the newly established organization). Now, there are also additional headquarters in Geneva (WHO, UNHCR, UNOCHA, UNRISD and a lot of disarmament stuff), Vienna (Industry, Drugs, IAEA etc.) and Nairobi (UNEP, UN Habitat). Once on UN grounds you are not in officially in the US anymore, which explains that the UN has some special visa requirements/allowances and of course a separate security system (which is a pain in the ass every early morning to get into). The UN is sort of headed by the Secretary General, currently His High Excellency Ban Ki Moon from Korea. However, there will be elections for a new Secretary General this year, which is a hotly debated topic, since these elections are both supposed to be much more transparent than they have been historically, as well as the headway for the FIRST female UN Secretary General (read more on the election process here and on the current candidates here).

Okay, so far so good. What does the UN do? The UN consists of 6 major parts, which are very nicely called the ‘principle organs’.

The big shit – General Assembly and Security Council

Everyone knows the General Assembly, the biggest organ of the UN. The GA is, where all 193 member states (plus two observer states Palestine and the Holy See (Vatican)) meet every September for the GA sessions.

The beginnings of such sessions are called ‘General Debates’, this is the time when all the heads of states come to the UN to meet and greet and have some backdoor talks/deals in the delegates lounge. After that, the GA debates a looot of issues. The heads of states obviously have other stuff to do, so the missions to the UN (all the memberstates have some sort of mini-embassy with a team for the UN) send delegates to the different commissions of the GA to work on Resolutions. The main committees are:

  • The First Committee: Disarmament and International Security
  • The Second Committee: Economic and Financial (ECOFIN)
  • The Third Committee: Social, Cultural, and Humanitarian (SOCHUM)
  • The Fourth Committee: Special Political and Decolonization (SPECPOL)
  • The Fifth Committee: Administrative and Budgetary and general
  • The Sixth Committee: Legal.

Then there’s of course the Security Council, the probably best known of the organs, with its permanent members (France, UK, US, Russia, China) and its current non-permanent members of Angola, Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine, Uruguay and Venezuela. The non-permanent members are elected by the GA for a two-year term. The UNSC is responsible for international peace and security (really a simple task one would think for 15 member states representatives – haha) and can to this end issue peacekeeping operations, sanctions and if necessary the use of force (military interventions). However, the infamous veto rights of the permanent members make this even more difficult than it could be. For example the ongoing beef over the Middle East has led Russia to call a meeting on Yemen and the bombings conducted there by Saudi Arabia with support of the UK and US for every meeting on Syria in which the other members condemned the Russian bombings of the country (which were in favor of the Syrian government). The idea of the UNSC was to bring the states together to talk instead of fighting their wars militarily at the loss of their people. While this has worked in a way – at least they’re not fighting each other openly, more obvious than anywhere else in the UN system the security council is a place of national politics, where it should not have any place.

ECOSOC and the rest

“We the peoples of the United Nations determined […] to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and […] to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom […] have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims”

These are the parts of the beginning of the UN Charter, which allude to the responsibilities of the UN that go beyond security and to a more encompassing peace. There are three organs, responsible for these aims, which are the International Court of Justice in the Hague, where disputes between states can be settled peacefully. It is the main court for international law. There is also one organ which is currently inactive – a good sign if you think about it. The Trusteeship Council was responsible for questions of colonized territories up until in 1994 the last nation, Palau, finally became decolonized. So as the UN itself and especially the membership in the GA was growing, the Trausteeship Council lost importance. Today its chambers are used by the other organs of the system for their sessions and meetings. I don’t know much about the history and exact tasks of the Trusteeship Council, but maybe that’s worth some research…

The organ I was mostly involved with during my time at the UN is the Economic and Social Council of the UN. The ECOSOC is responsible for the coordination of the work of the specialised agencies of the UN and also gives policy recommendations related to social and economic questions and working towards sustainable development. In the words of the ECOSOC website: By emphasizing combined economic, social and environmental concerns, ECOSOC encourages agreement on coherent policies and actions that make fundamental links across all three. It has 54 members and is currently headed by Mr. Oh Joon from Korea, whom I’ve met several times (once he gave a speech to us, in which he was remotely comparing the ECOSOC to a bathroom – only in the best sense of course!). Together with the secretariat and the agencies, ECOSOC hosts a bunch of conferences, high-level meetings and fora, such as the Youth Forum, the Conference on Financing for Development and the Development Cooperation Forum – just to name a few. Also, the ECOSOC is the only of the organs, which, according to the Charter has to interact with civil society. Nowadays, also the other organs try to include civil society more into their consultations, but ECOSOC has the most coordinated mechanism to include civil society, which is called consultative status (more on that in another blogpost). Even though, compared to the Security Council, ECOSOC has less power to provide binding decisions, in my opinion it is just as interesting – maybe more so, because, referencing one of the many speechmakers I listened to on ECOSOCs anniversary

The Security Council tries to fix what’s already broken and deals with conflicts which have erupted, whereas ECOSOC is the organ responsible to avoid these conflicts in the first place and fix the root causes of poverty, war and disaster.

What’s up with the UN ?

People from within my field usually have a very strong opinion of the UN, either they adore and hail it as the one and only institution in the world where all nations come together to talk instead of fight – or they reject it as one more corrupted and hypocritical institution where world leaders close their backdoor deals and where little is achieved for the common good. I agree with both of these assessments. The UN IS a bureaucratic monster, where efficiency is often lost in outdated systems and politicized issues. There was just one great article published by a former high-level UN employee in the New York Times in which the author says:

The organization is a Remington typewriter in a smartphone world.

I agree with all the points, which he makes in a much better informed way than I ever could. There are severe shortcomings in the planning of the work, the timing, the personnel and the implementation, that make even the most committed advocate of the UN doubt it is (in UN slang:) Fit for purpose. I’ll write more about some of the aspects which have seriously made me doubt during my UN time in following posts. But there’s another thing that we should keep in mind and that helped me to overcome my frustrations at least a little. The UN is a gigantic experiment – to overcome political realism, to see what becomes of idealism and it has done and does still do some good, as pointed out by Al Jazeerah in this video and by the Guardian in their interactive guide to the UN.

In the end, as always, it’s not clear cut. Who knows where we would be now without the UN, or without the nuclear bomb, or without democracy… I really like this quote by the former UN Secretary General, even though it is already very used:

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3 thoughts on “UNITED NATIONS – in a nutshell

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