The United Nations: an overview

Recently, I visited the United Nations in New York. I went on a very informative tour of the facilities and learned a lot about what the United Nations does and what is within their remit.

In my quest to understand what I perceived to be the failure of the United Nations to carry out their purpose, I had overlooked and taken for granted a lot of the important work that the UN does.  In a future post I hope to explain what the UN does but in this post I shall concentrate on the structure of the UN.

As an absolute beginner in this realm, I’m drawing heavily from these sources: The Charter of the United Nations, Wikipedia, The UN website and the notes I took during my tour.  I can’t promise that this post will be of any more value than visiting those sources or taking the tour but I do hope to simplify the workings of the UN to enable me to move on to my main question: Is the UN relevant?

The United Nations

The United Nations is an international organisation that was formed at the end of World War II to replace the League of Nations. The League of Nations had formed at the end of the World War I and their primary purpose was to prevent future wars. They did not, however, have their own armed force and they depended on their members to enforce resolutions and uphold economic sanctions. The League of Nations proved spectacularly incapable of preventing Axis aggression and as first Germany and then other totalitarian states withdrew from the League of Nations, World War II began.

Today, the United Nations has 192 member states and its main headquarters are in New York City. The United Nations buildings are international territory. The United Nations has five main administrative bodies:

  • The General Assembly
  • The Security Council
  • The Economic and Social Council
  • The Secretariat
  • The International Court of Justice (situated in the Hague)

The General Assembly

This is the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) hall. It was amazing to stand there and reflect on the powers that come together in this room from time to time. Each of the member states has one seat in the General Assembly and one vote.  All members states are considered equal here and this is the only organ of the UN where all member nations have equal representation.

The UNGA meets from September to December each year.  During the first two weeks, each member state has a chance to address the assembly.

The UNGA is the main deliberative assembly of the UN. "Deliberative assembly" basically means that all the members have an equal vote and they meet to decide on the courses of action to be taken by the entire group.  The UNGA may discuss anything relating to the present Charter or relating to the organs of the United Nations but they may not discuss anything that is currently under discussion in the United Nations Security Council.  The UNGA discusses the $2.4billion budget for the UN; decides on which member states should be admitted, suspended or expelled from the UN; appoints non-permanent members to the Security Council and makes recommendations in the form of General Assembly Resolutions.

The public used to be able to sit in on the UNGA but this was stopped after the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre.

The Security Council

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is charged with the maintenance of international peace and security. The UNSC has five permanent members: United States of America, United Kingdom, China, France and Russia. Ten other non-permanent members are elected to serve two-year terms.

Under chapter 6 of the Charter, the UNSC has the power to investigate disputes and advise parties to reach peaceful solutions to their disputes.  The recommendations made under this provision are not binding on UN members. 

Chapter 7 of the Charter moves beyond disputes to acts of aggression or threats and breaches of peace.  Here, the UNSC may make recommendations and take certain actions. Actions will not at first involve armed force and include calling upon members to interrupt economic relations, cease communications or sever diplomatic relations.

If such action is proved to be inadequate, the UNSC has the power to take such [armed] action as may be necessary to restore international peace and security.  Decisions taken under chapter 7 are binding on UN members and all members have to provide armed forces, facilities, right of passage and assistance to such actions if called upon to do so.

The UNSC can also refer matters to the International Criminal Court, where the ICC would not otherwise have jurisdiction and it recommends the role of the Secretary-General to the General Assembly.

I think this is measuring up to be quite a mammoth post so I will stop here and continue on the weekend with The Economic and Social Council and The Secretariat.  I will probably dedicate an entire post to the International Court of Justice as it is perhaps most relevant to this blog.

The Charter of the United Nations
The UN website

Darfur: eyewitness accounts

When I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) I attended the installation From Memory to Action: Meeting the Challenge of Genocide. This is an interactive installation that you walk through and in the first room, there are a series of screens with various people talking about their experiences with genocide.

The walk through installation has three sections, from top to bottom: Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur

One of the people I saw talking was Brian Steidle. Brian had gone to Darfur as an observer and he was so shocked by what he saw there, that he has returned to the US and now spends his time sharing his story, experiences and photographs that he took in Darfur. His aim is to raise awareness of what is happening there.

I really appreciated this first video as Brian tries to explain in terms that we may understand, in Western historical and military terms, what is actually happening in Darfur. The benefit of this is that the conflict in Darfur often seems so far away and he puts it in language that enables you to relate to what is happening.

“We on the ground didn’t distinguish between the government and the Janjaweed as two separate groups; they were one entity. It’s as if you had a regular army unit with say the 101st Airbourne fighting with a Special Forces unit. Fighting side by side, killing innocent people” – Brian Steidle

Brian spoke at the USHMM on 27 July 2005 in an event called In Darfur, My Camera Was Not Enough. This video highlights some of the terrible human suffering that has occurred in Darfur.

I’ve included the last video (in two parts) because it is quite well done and really moving.

He was armed with only a camera and a pen”.

The video includes a large amount of the photos Brian took as well as his verbal logs which give great insight into what he encountered.

They clearly stated they knew the government was supporting the Janjaweed. They said there is no grey area, it is either genocide or not. Are people being killed because they are Africans and not Arabs? Yes. It was plain and simple to them. He said everyone knew these things. Everyone. Why then won’t we? The countries of the world, UN, US; call it like we see it? What is going on here is most definitely crimes against humanity and most definitely genocide. There is no question about that. They are being burned alive only because they are too dark”Brian Steidle

I can honestly say there is no longer any question in my mind. When will they do something about this? They say the crisis in Darfur has been elevated above more worthy crises but refugee camps do not spring up for no reason and populate themselves overnight. Gross human rights violations are occurring in this region – what will it take to make us realise this?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Human Rights 

I’m a bit late to the party but I have just discovered that today is Bloggers Unite for Human Rights Day.  I’ve decided to share what I learned during my recent visit to the United Nations in New York.  I was quite surprised to find that certain things, like being able to rest from work, are addressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and I think you might be surprised by some of the items too. 

The UDHR was adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations on 10 December 1948.  It is important in that the UN was the first united body to adopt such a charter and member nations are urged to uphold these rights in their countries.  The UDHR is non-binding resolution though which means it does not pass into law.  I’ll talk about this in more detail later.

The language in the UDHR is quite grand and so I have taken the following simplified version from the website of Human Rights Education Associates:

Simplified Version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Summary of Preamble

The General Assembly recognizes that the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, human rights should be protected by the rule of law, friendly relations between nations must be fostered, the peoples of the UN have affirmed their faith in human rights, the dignity and the worth of the human person, the equal rights of men and women and are determined to promote social progress, better standards of life and larger freedom and have promised to promote human rights and a common understanding of these rights.

A summary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

1. Everyone is free and we should all be treated in the same way.

2. Everyone is equal despite differences in skin colour, sex, religion, language for example.

3. Everyone has the right to life and to live in freedom and safety.

4. No one has the right to treat you as a slave nor should you make anyone your slave.

5. No one has the right to hurt you or to torture you.

6. Everyone has the right to be treated equally by the law.

7. The law is the same for everyone, it should be applied in the same way to all.

8. Everyone has the right to ask for legal help when their rights are not respected.

9. No one has the right to imprison you unjustly or expel you from your own country.

10. Everyone has the right to a fair and public trial.

11. Everyone should be considered innocent until guilt is proved.

12. Every one has the right to ask for help if someone tries to harm you, but no-one can enter your home, open your letters or bother you or your family without a good reason.

13. Everyone has the right to travel as they wish.

14. Everyone has the right to go to another country and ask for protection if they are being persecuted or are in danger of being persecuted.

15. Everyone has the right to belong to a country. No one has the right to prevent you from belonging to another country if you wish to.

16. Everyone has the right to marry and have a family.

17. Everyone has the right to own property and possessions.

18. Everyone has the right to practise and observe all aspects of their own religion and change their religion if they want to.

19. Everyone has the right to say what they think and to give and receive information.

20. Everyone has the right to take part in meetings and to join associations in a peaceful way.

21. Everyone has the right to help choose and take part in the government of their country.

22. Everyone has the right to social security and to opportunities to develop their skills.

23. Everyone has the right to work for a fair wage in a safe environment and to join a trade union.

24. Everyone has the right to rest and leisure.

25. Everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living and medical help if they are ill.

26. Everyone has the right to go to school.

27. Everyone has the right to share in their community's cultural life.

28. Everyone must respect the 'social order' that is necessary for all these rights to be available.

29. Everyone must respect the rights of others, the community and public property.

30. No one has the right to take away any of the rights in this declaration.

- [Source:]

Some of these rights seem obvious, things that we take for granted. It is hard to imagine that people could take these rights away from us.  In my lifetime, I have lived through Apartheid South Africa where black people could not own property, could not vote in government elections, could not gain education above a certain level and were not able to apply for professional jobs that were reserved for white people.  They certainly could not travel freely within the country nor could they marry outisde of their colour. 

This was clearly in violation of several of the rights listed above and the United Nations imposed several layers of sanctions on South Africa which crippled the economy.  In the early 80’s, the government began to bow to this pressure, first repealing certain of these apartheid laws and then beginning a process of all-out reform.  This resulted in the unbanning of the ANC, the release of Mandela and the first democratic elections which saw the ANC gain power in 1994.

Change can happen and the United Nations has played a vitally important part in bringing about change in countries like South Africa.

So why are situations in Zimbabwe, Darfur and Sri Lanka being allowed to happen?  Zimbabwe, Sudan and Sri Lanka are all member states! 

“There has been criticism that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, who are all nuclear powers, have created an exclusive nuclear club whose powers are unchecked. Unlike the General Assembly, the United Nations Security Council does not have true international representation. This has led to accusations that the UNSC only addresses the strategic interests and political motives of the permanent members, especially in humanitarian interventions: for example, protecting the oil-rich Kuwaitis in 1991 but poorly protecting resource-poor Rwandans in 1994” - Wikipedia

It seems that one of the biggest factors at play is that it is diplomatically difficult for the United Nations to place political pressure on their member states.  Perhaps it is time to make the UDHR binding, to make member states reapply periodically for membership and adhere to a more stringent set of membership requirements?  Would that remove the diplomatic hurdle and spur the UN security forces into action?  I don’t know the answer to that question yet but I will keep you up to date on what I learn.

Rwanda: UN extends ICTR term

© AFP [source]

Link: UN extends Rwanda genocide tribunal term [AFP]

Following on from this story, the UN has agreed to extend the lifetime of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to next year. It was originally meant to wrap up in December 2008 and this was extended to December 2009 but this latest extension has increased the term to December 2010.

The UN has urged the court to takes all possible measures to complete their work in this time.

Rwanda: Tharcisse Renzaho sentenced to life

Link: Rwanda governor jailed for life for genocide [Reuters]

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has found Tharcisse Renzaho guilty of of genocide, two counts of murder as crimes against humanity and two counts of rape as crimes against humanity. One of the charges was that he ordered the removal and killing of sixty Tutsi boys in a church-run pastoral centre. He broadcast orders over Radio Rwanda “asking police, soldiers and militia to construct and supervise roadblocks to intercept, identify and kill Tutsis” [Reuters].

This ruling was the 39th judgement to date with six of those ending in acquittal.

A list of all cases including details and case statuses is available at the ICTR website under cases –> status of cases.

Edit to above: I did not realise it previously but apparently Renzaho was the governor of Kigali at the time of his crime. This man was meant to protect the people, not massacre them.

A Passion to Understand: update

It has been over three weeks since I posted in this blog but there has been a good reason for that as I’ve been on holiday and visited New York and DC.  What I post about in this blog generally relates to current affairs or my journey in understanding various political and social situations and so I thought it wasn’t appropriate to schedule posts while I was away. 

My journey though, my passion to understand, has grown exponentially while I have been away.  A lot of what I did on my holiday had to do with that journey.

United Nations, New York

One of the questions I have asked in the past weeks was ‘Is the United Nations relevant?’  While I was in New York, I took a tour around the United Nations and took copious notes about what they do and how they work.  Most importantly, I learned about what is within their remit and what are their limitations.  I’ll consolidate my notes shortly and post about everything I learned.

New York Public Library

I visited the New York Public Library to try and answer another burning question I have had lately as to why the situations in Darfur and Sri Lanka have not been labelled as genocide.  I spent some time reading up on the matter and took notes from the Encyclopedia of Genocide.  The next post I do will probably be an introduction into what I learned here and an insight into why the term has not been used in Darfur and other regions.

Holocaust Museum, Washington DC

I also visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.  This is a fantastic museum and although I wasn’t able to tour the main exhibit, I did visit the section on genocide.  I learned about the war in the former Yugoslavia and the genocide that occurred there.  This was very rewarding and I am pleased as I have been wanting to learn more about that situation for some time.

My activities might seem like strange things for a person to do on their vacation but this trip was very much a voyage of discovery for me.  I travelled alone and had a lot of time to think about where I want to go with my life.  Well, I know where I want to go.  I want to work for the UN or one of the aid organisations and go into these places and help communities and individuals recover.  I want to make the statement “Never Again” become a reality.  This might not be realistic though and so I learned more about what I can do in the meantime and I have decided on three areas to focus on in the short term:
- I’ll continue keeping an eye on current affairs and maintaining this blog
- I've identified a couple of areas in which to do some independent self-study (i.e. those discussed above)
- there are a couple of short-courses and free courses that I can enrol on to expand on my knowledge

I haven’t made a decision yet but I thought I’d draw attention to two free courses from Open University called Who counts as a refugee? and The Holocaust.  These are free courses at an advanced level and take about 10 and 12 hours of study respectively.