What is the United Nations?

The United Nations (UN) is the meeting place for almost all of the world’s nation states - there are only four independent states which aren’t in the UN (Taiwan, Kosovo, Vatican City, Palestine) It’s basically a forum for countries to talk, make decisions and take action on how to deal with global issues like war, climate change and world poverty.²

The United Nations was founded in 1945, essentially to maintain international peace and make sure we’d never fight another world war again. Since then, it’s expanded into a huge international organisation which sets the agenda on a whole range of issues from poverty (United Nations Development Programme) to trade (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) to health (World Health Organisation).³ 

One of the most well-known things the UN did was set the Millennium Development Goals, a list of goals for the global economy to achieve within fifteen years. The most ambitious one – cutting poverty in half by 2015 – was achieved, according to the their reports.

Another huge undertaking by the UN is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - a list of thirty rights and freedoms that everybody in the world is entitled to, no matter who they are.⁴ A lot of economic ideas play into these rights: the right to economic security in terms of housing, food, water, and sanitation, for example, and the right to freely choose your employment and have protection against unemployment.⁵

In one sense, the UN has succeeded – we haven’t had another world war since it was created. But a lot of people criticise the organisation as inept, unequal and wasteful. Decision-making power within the UN is unequally distributed, particularly in its most powerful body, the Security Council, who make decisions on when it is right and legal to go to war. Only 5 countries permanently sit on the Council; the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China (the biggest victors of World War II in 1945.) These countries have a veto power, which means they can stop any vote, even if it has the support of the wider international community. For example, over the last 20 years, out of a total of 24 vetoes, 15 have been used by the USA to protect Israel.⁶

Managing 193 countries’ relationships is inevitably a bureaucratic task – another big criticism of the UN is that it’s too bureaucratic to be effective. It’s cost global governments almost half a trillion dollars already, and is currently spending $40 billion dollars a year.⁷ Some question whether this represents money well-spent.