What Does the United Nations Do Today?

peacekeeping, human rights among missions of un

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The United Nations grew out of its predecessor, the League of Nations. As an international organization, it concerns itself with international peace and security. Which functions does it perform today?

General Assembly Chamber United Nations Headquarters, New York City
At the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, the 193 Member States of the United Nations meet in the General Assembly Hall to discuss international issues. Photo by steve estvanik / Shutterstock

The first international organization dedicated to peacekeeping around the world was the League of Nations, which was founded in 1920. The League disbanded in 1946, but much of its spirit carried over to the United Nations (UN), which enacts international sanctions and establishes peacekeeping operations, among other things.

The UN General Assembly recently made headlines when it approved a nonbinding resolution calling for Russia to end hostilities in Ukraine and remove its forces from the country. Ukraine and several of its allies drafted the resolution before it was passed by a vote of 141 to 7, with 32 abstentions. Unsurprisingly, Russia and Belarus were among the seven nations that voted against the resolution.

The UN is very different today than it was when it was founded in 1945, often contentious and prone to infighting. But, ultimately, what does it do? In his video series International Economic Institutions: Globalism vs. Nationalism, Dr. Ramon Degennaro, CBA Professor in Banking and Finance at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, looks at the UN and its modern functions.

How Is Today’s UN Different Than in the Past?

“The United Nations today isn’t what Roosevelt and Churchill had in mind; they envisioned an international organization built around the United States and its mostly European allies, with several countries in the Western Hemisphere included for good measure,” Dr. Degennaro said. “These countries were supposed to work closely together, with relatively few major disagreements.”

When the UN turned 70 in 2015, Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the UN at the time, sang its praises at its inception, saying it had been a wonderful institution with great promise. However, fewer than half of its 193 member nations today are democracies, costing the group much of its cohesion. What was its goal at its inception?

“The UN’s first resolution came on January 24, 1946,” Dr. Degennaro said. “The general assembly resolved to work toward the peaceful use of atomic energy, and to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. Since its first peacekeeping operation in May of 1948, the UN has been engaged in peacekeeping missions at a rate of more than one a year.”

Today, the UN runs 11 major programs and funds. One of the best-known is the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF. It also runs 15 specialized agencies, including the World Bank and the World Health Organization. While these are autonomous groups, the UN notes that it shares “special relationships” with them.

According to the UN website, the United Nations is “committed to maintaining international peace and security; developing friendly relations among nations; [and] promoting social progress, better living standards, and human rights.”

How Is the United Nations Structured?

The UN General Assembly is what most people think of when asked what the UN is. It’s a deliberative body that discusses questions of international relations, makes recommendations about them, performs studies, and approves a budget based on the results of its votes. It defers to the actions of a subgroup known as the UN Security Council before making decisions.

“The International Court of Justice is the judicial organ of the United Nations,” Dr. Degennaro said. “It consists of 15 judges, each serving nine-year terms. The General Assembly and the Security Council elect judges every three years, and judges can serve up to three terms. In principle, the International Council of Justice settles legal disputes between nations, and Chapter XIV of the UN Charter authorizes the Security Council to enforce those rulings.”

However, Security Council enforcement is subject to veto by any one of the five permanent members of the council. These are China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Getting them all to agree to one judicial ruling is a task in and of itself. As Dr. Degennaro said, if 192 nations want something to happen, but China or the United States or one of the other permanent members don’t, then it doesn’t happen.

International Economic Institutions: Globalism vs. Nationalism is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily