Since the end of the Second World War, the United Nations has always maintained a lofty objective of international peace and stability. Despite this benevolent goal, the UN has become one of the most controversial global organizations on the planet.
What Is the United Nations?
Following the First World War, the League of Nations was formed to settle conflicts between nations. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson formed the international diplomatic entity in January 1920. Despite its 26-year existence, it was considered a failure because it lacked unanimity and the presence of significant powers, such as Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States. It folded in April 1946.
But global players refused to concede diplomatic defeat, forming another group that turned out to be successful in the sense that it still stands today and is the go-to institution to resolve disputes worldwide.
The UN’s path to existence started in January 1942 when representatives of 26 nations at war with the Axis power convened in Washington, D.C. Officials signed the Declaration of the United Nations endorsing the Atlantic Charter. This was a pledge to maximize their resources against the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan). A year later, the Quebec Conference was held, where leaders drafted a declaration that demanded “a general international organization, based on the principle sovereign equality of all nations.” They also created various task-oriented extensions, like the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank.
In June 1945, the United Nations was officially established as an intergovernmental organization in the aftermath of the Second World War. Leaders worldwide had wanted to erect an entity to avoid the consequences of global conflict and maintain the peace that had been secured after the war. Three nations had taken the lead to get the UN started: the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Russia.
Representatives from 50 nations convened in San Francisco to draw up the United Nations Charter that went into effect in October 1945. The Charter begins:
“We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind; and 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 establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained; and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”
Today, the UN is headquartered in New York City with 193 members and two observer states. It maintains an International Court of Justice, as well as dozens of specialized agencies, funds, and programs. In addition to the IMF and the World Bank, the UN also runs the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the International Labor Organization (ILO).
In 2020, the UN ran a $3.1 billion budget, with the U.S. contributing more than a fifth. If the UN requires additional resources, member nations will offer donations, including peacekeeping forces.
It is determined to develop friendly relations between countries, promoting the principles of equal rights and self-determination. It attempts to ensure peace and unilateral respect by offering food and medical assistance during emergencies, promoting higher living standards, providing humanitarian support across the globe, and acting as the central body to resolve international economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems.
The UN’s official languages are English, French, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, and Russian. It has four primary leaders: Secretary-General António Guterres, Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed, General Assembly President Volkan Bozkır, and Economic and Social Council President Munir Akram. The head of the powerful Security Council is the United Kingdom.
Scandals at the UN
The UN had been inundated with accusations of corruption and fraud for its recently abolished Oil-for-Food program. The initiative’s premise was to permit Iraq to trade crude oil for basic needs to survive sanctions imposed on the country. An independent inquiry, led by former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker, had uncovered billions of dollars in kickbacks that involved many UN officials, including Kojo Anna, the son of then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Does UN peacekeeping have a sexual abuse problem? Many media outlets and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have published reports and accounts detailing sexual abuse and a child sex ring that has produced thousands of victims with no arrests. Guterres announced new measures to combat sexual abuse and exploitation. Still, critics say this is just noise because the UN had commissioned a report a decade earlier without accomplishing anything significant.
Other external controversies highlight the UN’s lackluster presence, with a recent study finding that more than 40 million people are forced to be slaves. Many of the slaves are concentrated in Africa and the Middle East.
Does the UN Have a Future?
The United Nations has transformed into a meme, mocked for its ineffective leadership and lack of action. There is an old joke: “I feel like the United Nations right now, I say I’m doing work, but I’m not.” Ultimately, there is a lot of handwringing and promises to do something while sending the bill to Uncle Sam. But while its inept management may be comical, it has also spawned tragic affairs that have impacted the lives of impoverished people. Does the UN have a future? As long as countries continue to believe that reforms are on the way, and the UN sells the next global crisis that requires the necessity of the international organization, it will always be around.