What is the United Nations? How Effective is the United Nations in Global Governance?

By Bill Nordick

1. Introduction

This article attempts to answer the question What is the United Nations? Moreover, the article represents a detailed analysis of the level of effectives of the UN in global governance. The article starts with discussing the role of functions of the UN, explaining the roles and functions of each UN’s six organs in an individual manner. This has been followed by identification of gaps in global governance and discussions about the role of the UN in terms of the extent of filling each gap.

Furthermore, the article critically analyses the overall level of effectiveness of the UN in global governance and discusses the potentials for increasing the level of effectiveness in the UN in global governance by proposing a set of recommendations.

Increasing level of integration and cooperation between counties in various levels creates a need for reputable international bodies that could assist in facilitating international relations, and more importantly, deal with disagreements and conflicts that may occur in international relations. The reality of the present nature of global governance is the outcome of conflict between the need to introduce global rules and regulations, and the willingness of retaining control over national boundaries.

The is a set of reputable international organisations currently operating in the global scale such as The United Nations, The World Trade Organisation,  The World Bank, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and others, and each of these organisations engages in global governance with varying levels of effectiveness depending on their aims and objective, resources, sources of funds and other factors.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   The United Nations (UN) is an international organisation “committed to maintaining international piece and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights” (UN at a Glance, 2016, online). Founded on October 24, 1945, the UN comprises 193 member countries, and currently has more than 100,000 peacekeepers engaged in 16 peacekeeping projects (UN at a Glance, 2016, online).

UN has six main organs: General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, United Nations Trusteeship Council, and International Court of Justice. Apart from these organs, the UN comprises 15 agencies, as well as, several programs and bodies.  The work of the UN is carried out by the Secretariat, according to the direction set out by the General Assembly and other UN organs. The UN General – Secretary oversees the implementing policies and decisions of the General Assembly and UN organs.

2. What is the United Nations?

The UN has been established in the end of The Second World War with the primary purpose of preventing more wars, once the failure of League of Nation became evident. Initially comprising only 51 states, the organisation has been steadily enlarged to include 193 member states by August 2011.

The organisation boasts with providing food to more than 90 million people in 73 countries, helping to more than 36 million refugees, saving more than 2,5 million people every year globally through vaccination and treatment, and advancing democracy  and helping with elections in 30 countries (UN, 2016, online). The UN visibly positions itself to be totally separate from the private sector. Moreover, it has been argued that the UN has been specifically granted with significant powers so that the organisation could possess enough authority and resources to be able to stop any state mistreating its citizens or other countries, as well as, be able to stop wars between states.

2.1 General Assembly

Referred to as ‘Parliament of Nations’ (Martin, 2008), the General Assembly, is the place where decisions are taken on important issues related to global piece and security on the basis of each member state having a single vote. Acceptance of new states into the organisation is decided by two-thirds majority.

General Assembly sessions are organised annually, and there is a provision for emergency meetings if such necessity arises. For example, emergency session has been organised after attacks on the World Trade Centre in the US on September 11, 2001.


2.2 Security Council

The UN Security Council comprises 15 members, with members from The UK, USA, China, Russian Federation, and France being permanent members. The remaining members of the Security Council are elected during General Assembly sessions to serve a two-year term.

The power of vetoing the proposals of the Security Council is granted only to permanent members. Calling for negotiations is the initial instrument employed by the Security Council in dealing with the threats to the international peace. Moreover, the Security Council has authorities of imposing economic or diplomatic sanctions, blocking communication to the country by air and sea, and even authorising military action whenever necessary.


2.3 Economic and Social Council

The main activities of Economic and Social Council of the UN relates to the coordination of economic and social aspects of the UN, and its family organisations. This UN organ plays a critical role in promotion of international cooperation for economic and social development.

The Economic and Social Council comprises 54 members serving terms of three years, with 18 members are elected every year by the General Assembly. There are no restrictions in terms of numbers of times members can be elected in the Economic and Social Council in a consequent manner.


2.4 United Nations Trusteeship Council

Trusteeship Council of the UN is set up in order to facilitate the supervision of eleven Trust Territories that belong to member countries with the ultimate aim of preparing these territories for self-government or independence.

The operations of the Trusteeship Council have practically ceased on 1994, after the last territory under the trust of the UN, Palau gained independence in the same year. Accordingly, there are no annual meetings within this specific UN body, and meetings can be arranged at an occasional manner according to the decision of the President of the Trusteeship Council.

2.5 International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice, also referred to as The Hague represents a justice organ of the UN. It is the only UN organ that is located outside of the USA. The primary function of the Court is “to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorised United Nations organs and specialised agencies” (The Court, 2016, online).

There are 15 judges in the Court, elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council for a nine-year term. Considered to be an administrative organ, English and French languages have been adopted as the official languages of the Court.

3. Major UN Programs and Initiatives and their Impact on Global Governance

The UN has a complex system and there is a wide range of UN programs and initiatives launched in order to achieve its objectives and each of them has certain implications on the nature of global governance. The most noteworthy programs and initiatives include Global Compact, The United Nations Volunteers program, World Food Program and others.

Global Compact initiative has been launched by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 1999 with the aims of encouraging private entities towards the adoption of socially responsible policies and programs that contribute to sustainability.

However, the practical benefits of the Global Compact have been widely criticised for the absence of specific measures or sanctions to deal with non-compliance. Moreover, critics argue that businesses with compromised reputations and track records have been included in the program in some occasions, and it is not compulsory for businesses to demonstrate further progress in corporate social responsibility in order to continue their participation in the program.

The majority of UN programs and initiatives are implemented through partnerships with the private sector, and civil society. Accordingly, the UN Office for Partnership aims to serve as an infrastructure for the facilitation of collaboration between the UN organs and programs, and the private sector and various foundations. The organisational structure of the UN Office for Partnerships is represented in Figure 1.

What is the United Nations

Figure 1 Organisational structure of the UN Office for Partnerships

Source: Dossal (2010)

The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program has been developed in order to contribute to development initiatives in about 150 states with the assistance of volunteers. Specifically, graduate volunteers with work experience of several years are attracted mainly to promote democracy and human rights in various parts of the globe with minimum financial compensation to support themselves. UNV is considered to be one of the most successful programs initiated by the UN due to its highly positive contribution to major causes with minimum financial expenses.

Founded on the basis of voluntary contributions, World Food Program has been branded as the largest humanitarian organisation in the world. The World Food Program employs more than 10,000 members of staff, the majority of whom are engaged in operations in the field.

A set of economists cast a doubt about the positive implications of the World Food Program to African countries. Specifically, it has been claimed that contrary to expectations, World Food Program fuels bribery in Africa in a way that the aid gets stolen by local politicians to bribe upper echelons or to be sold in black market with highly negative implications for local farmers.

4. Gaps in Global Governance and the UN

In set of gaps in international governance created by increasing forces of globalisation has been blamed for the emergence of contradictions and misunderstandings on the global scale. The major gaps in global governance can be specified as knowledge, normative, policy, institutional, and compliance gaps.

4.1 Knowledge gaps

The knowledge gap in global governance relates to the gap in comprehending the nature of the problem, or gap in appreciating the level of intensity of an international challenge. The differences in ways the issue of global warming being perceived by various states can be mentioned as a stark instance of a knowledge gap.

The issue associated with nuclear weapon represents another area of a knowledge gap that needs to be addressed. This specific issue did not exist at the time when the UN Charter was being signed, and accordingly, the positions of each individual country towards nuclear weapons is being selected according to their interests leading to arguments that are difficult to deal with.


4.2 Normative gaps

Normative gap in global governance relates to differences in viewpoints of countries in terms of devising appropriate responses to global challenges and international disputes. The UN has been described as “an essential arena in which states codify norms in the forms of resolutions and declarations (soft law) and conventions and treaties (hard law)” (Weiss and Thakur, 2010, p.10).

However, the reputation of the UN and the range of instruments available to the organisation to reinforce its norms and decisions need to be increased to a significant extent in order to achieve progress in elimination of the normative gap in international relations.

4.3 Policy gaps

In its basic form, policy gap in global governance deals with the questions of ‘who should respond and how’ (Koivisto, 2012) to the global challenges and international disputes. It has been stated that “the source of ideas to fill policy gaps is likely to be governments and intergovernmental organisations. When policy is made in the absence of institutions, it takes on an ad hoc character” (Weiss, 2012, p.51).

Therefore, the elimination of policy gap can be justly specified as a necessary condition for an effective functioning of global governance. Accordingly, clear and unambiguous guidelines need to be included in the UN Charter in terms of the manners of development of international policies.


4.4 Institutional gaps

The institutional gap in global governance relates to the absence or lack of match between policies that have been formulated and the level of capacity to implement these policies in practice. It is important to specify that institutions in institutional gaps can be perceived in two forms. On one hand, institutions can be formal organisations with stated aims and objectives.

On the other hand, institutions can be perceived as specific patterns of behaviour in some ways similar to culture. Nevertheless, an institutional gap occurs when there is an absence of infrastructure in order to ensure the implementation of formulated policies in practice.

4.5 Compliance gap

The compliance gap in the global governance, as the name suggests, relates to non-compliance to rules and regulations imposed by international bodies. A wide range of factors may fuel a compliance gap such as lack of political will or resources, conflict of interests associated with the implementation and others.

The compliance mechanism of the UN is far from perfection due to the fact that the UN organs do only suggest recommendations and they do not possess powers and tools to enforce their decisions, with the UN Security Council being an only exception.

5. The Level of Effectiveness of the UN in Global Governance

The performances of individual organs of the UN, and its programs and initiatives discussed above have certain implications on the current pattern of global governance.

The current level of effectiveness of the UN in global governance is best analysed through three individual spectrums: its role in maintaining international security, encouraging and facilitating global economic and social cooperation, and contributing to a greater level of environmental sustainability.

5.1 The Role of the UN in International Security

One of the primary objectives of the UN has been specified as preventing wars and maintaining international security. In order to achieve this objective, currently the UN has deployed more than 100,000 peacekeepers in 16 operations around the globe (UN at a Glance, 2016, online).

Previous peacekeeping operations initiated by the UN with various levels of success include engagements in Gulf War, Korea, Somalia, and Bosnia. Figure 2 below represents the duration and geographical locations of its present peacekeeping operations.

What is the United Nations

Figure 2 The United Nations peacekeeping operations

Source: United Nations Publications (2008)

However, there are instances where the acts of genocide were simply ignored by the UN, significantly undermining its reputation and attracting criticism, the failure in Rwanda being an obvious example. On 1994 within the duration of 100 days more than 800 people mainly Tutsis were murdered by official Hutu militiamen. During the same period, despite having information about the problem to a certain extent the UN peacekeeper forces in the region were reduced from 2000 to 270 (Spalding, 2008).

Furthermore, one of the main inefficiencies of the UN in terms of contributing to international security relates to the fact that decision proposals can be easily vetoed by any permanent member of the Security Council. Moreover, the UN has proven to be powerless in occasions where global superpowers got involved in international conflicts. The invasion of Iraq by the US in 2003 can be mentioned as the most noteworthy example to prove this point.

Moreover, there are critical arguments that the way the Security Council is composed fails to take into account the realities of modern geopolitical situation. Specifically, The UK and France have gained membership in the Security Council solely for winning Second World War more than six decades ago, at the same time when countries with larger economies such as Brazil, India and Japan do not have membership in the Council.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that there are no agreed guidelines and principles in the UN Charter, according to which new members in the Security Council can be accepted (Weiss, 2010).

The role of the UN in maintaining international security is greatly compromised by the fact that the organisation does not have its own troops and it has to borrow troops from member states in order to enforce compliance to the decisions of the Security Council.

5.2 The Role of the UN in Global Economic and Social Cooperation

Dealing with economic disputes in an objective manner and setting agreed standards in a global scale is a basic necessity in effective facilitation of international trade and creating platform for the increasing forces of globalisation. The UN claims to be performing this important function partially through International Monetary Fund (IMF), a specialised agency under the umbrella of the UN.

However, IMF has been a point a criticism for ineffective governance structure, high level of politicisation of decision making processes, leadership challenges faced by its current chief Christine Lagarde, and the absence of specific performance assessment criteria for the organisation.

Millennium Development Goals is positioned as an important initiative for encouraging global economic development and effectively addressing serious economic challenges in undeveloped countries. Agreed upon by all UN member states, Millennium Development Goals aims to reduce the numbers of people with income of under USD 1 a day by 50 per cent, insuring the completion of primary schools by all children and reducing the numbers of people that do not have access to safe drinking water, as well as, sanitation by 50 percent, all by 2015 (Jha, 2012).

This ambitious project is criticised for being unrealistic, and it has been stated that the objectives of Millennium Development Goals are not based on sound calculations (Martin, 2005). Moreover, additional criticism relate to the absence of provision to support farmers within the project, despite the fact that the majority of people in undeveloped areas are found to engage in farming, and there are also concerns regarding the measurement of some objectives such as improving maternal health, and reducing the levels of child mortality.

It is often stated that the UN is not able to achieve its objectives to a full extent due to financial difficulties in member states. For example, Unicef calls governments to provide adequate schooling and education to children, however there are some poor countries on African and Asian continents that are not able to achieve this objective due to deeply rooted financial constraints.

It is difficult for the UN to achieve its objectives in global governance partially because not all member states are highly motivated to cooperate. Moreover, there is a lack of clear guidelines and policies in terms of dealing with states refusing to adhere to agreed principles and not complying with the UN requirements


5.3 The Role of the UN of Fostering Environmental Sustainability

A set of global environmental issues such as global warming and carbon footprint need to be dealt with through achieving cooperation in an international scale. The UN has attempted to address these issues to a certain extent by initiating a range of programs to contribute to environmental sustainability.

A long-term environmental program entitled Sustainable United Nations (SUN), aims to achieve a range of objectives including identifying, quantifying and justifying opportunities for emission reduction, providing effective guidelines, tools and methodologies, and facilitating the exchange of information in an effective manner (UNEP, 2012). Figure 3 provides a comprehensive range of tools employed by the UN to deal with environmental sustainability.

What is the United Nations

Figure 3 Range of tools employed by SUN

Source: UNEP (2012)

The SUN program objectives can be criticised for failing to meet SMART objectives, where the acronym stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. In other words, UN objectives formulated for SUN program are limited with the formulation of plans in a general manner without specifying deadlines and quantifiable objectives.

Moreover, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), perceived to be as the world’s leading environmental agency is an umbrella organisation for all environmental initiatives of the UN and it is comprised of six individual divisions: Early Warning and Assessment, Environmental Policy Implementation, Technology, Industry, and Economics, Environmental Law and Conventions, and Communications and Public Information.


6. Potential for Increasing the Level of Effectiveness of the UN in Global Governance

There is a great potential for the UN to increase the level of its effectiveness in terms of global governance to a significant extent. This can be achieved through implementing a set of suggestions that include modernising the composition of the US Security Council to reflect the realities of the current geo-political environment, granting the UN its own troops, and the organisation being granted with instruments to deal with non-compliance on behalf of member countries. The rationale behind the formulation of these recommendations are provided below in a greater detail

Firstly, the composition of the UN Security Council has to be modernised in order to reflect the realities of the current geo-political environment, as well as, to become more objective. In its present form, the decisions of the Security Council can be vetoed by any of its five permanent members greatly compromising its potential to contribute to international stability.

This situation needs to be improved by dismissing the veto powers of Security Council permanent members, at the same time when altering upgrading its composition to include a range of additional countries such as Japan, Brazil, India, Canada and others depending on their size, economic power and the extent of their engagement in international relations.

Secondly, the UN should be granted its own troops in order to be able to increase the level of effectiveness of the Security Council in general, and to be able to reinforce its decisions in particular. The current pattern of borrowing troops from member states in inefficient in many levels as it is associated with a waste of time, and it al compromises the overall effectiveness of the Security Council. Thus, the level of funding of the UN is recommended to be increased by member states, to allow it to have its own troops.

Thirdly, the UN should be granted with instruments to deal with non-compliance on behalf of states. Currently, apart from the UN Security Council that can impose sanctions or engage in military interventions, the remaining organs of the UN can only make recommendations and there are no instruments in place to deal with non-compliance to its decisions.

This situation substantially undermines the role of the UN in effective global governance, and accordingly, the organisation needs to be granted with powers such as imposing economic and political sanctions towards the member states that refuse to cooperate in relation to economic, environmental and other important issues.

7. Conclusions

So, What is the United Nations? Global governance deals with organising across international boundaries and global governance can also be explained as governance without governments. Effective facilitation of global governance in practical levels is associated with a set of significant contradictions and challenges.

The UN, with its six main organs and a wide range of programs and initiatives is engaged in global governance, also in a highly limited scope. There is a great potential for this scope to be enhanced and the level of effectiveness of the UN to be increased significantly. There are certain gaps in global governance, namely, knowledge, normative, policy, institutional, and compliance gaps that need to be addressed by the UN in an effective manner.

To summarise, due to the ever-intensifying levels of economic and political globalisation the importance of global governance has increased than even before. Among international organisations that are currently functioning, the UN is best positioned to assume the role of the main global administrator due to the large numbers of member states it has, as well as, vast experiences in dealing with various aspects of international relations.

However, there is an urgent need for the UN to be modified and improved in order to be able to meet the complex challenges of the reality such as increasing level of inter-dependence of states, the challenges of international terrorism, and the problems of environmental sustainability becoming more urgent.

This article makes recommendations of modernising the composition of the US Security Council to reflect the realities of the current geo-political environment, granting the UN its own troops, and the organisation being granted with instruments to deal with non-compliance on behalf of member countries.


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Category: Politics