United Nations Organization UPSC l United Nations Brief Overlook

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In addition to the six ‘principal organs’ outlined in the previous session, the UN system includes a number of other committees, funds, programmes and agencies. The work of some of these bodies is often featured in the news – the World Health Organization, UN Refugee Agency and World Food Programme, for example. Others are less well known. Those featured below give a flavour of the breadth of the UN’s activities.

  • The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental  UN body made up of 47 Countries. It is responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is the UN official tasked with this mandate. The Commissioner supports the work of the Council and UN’s human rights treaties.
  • The International Telecommunication Union is the UN’s specialised agency for information and communications technnology. It works on issues such as access to the internet and internet governance, the allocation of radio spectrum and satellite orbits, and connections between telephone networks around the world.
  • The International Civil Aviation Organization is the UN agency responsible for aviation regulations and practices. It ensures that today’s air transport network – which operates nearly 100,000 flights a day – operates safely and effectively.
  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime leads global efforts to fight illicit drugs, organised crime and terrorism.
  • The UN Office for Outer Space Affairs promotes international cooperation on the peaceful uses of outer space. It maintains a register of objects launched into space, provides training on technology, and helps to provide satellite images during natural disasters.



The work of the UN is financed by member countries through three budgets: the regular budget, the peacekeeping budget and ‘voluntary funding’.

Payments towards the regular budget are compulsory for all nations, although these differ widely. For example, in 2006, the UK was assessed at 6.13% of the annual budget, whereas Liberia was assessed at 0.001%. Payments towards the peacekeeping budget are not required for the poorest nations; to make up for this, the five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States) make extra payments.

If a member country becomes two years behind with these compulsory dues, it loses its vote in the General Assembly (although the General Assembly can vote to relax this requirement in individual cases). Many countries routinely make late payments, making it very hard for the UN to carry out its work.

‘Voluntary funding’ is used to finance the UN’s development and humanitarian programmes, such as the UN Children’s Fund. Countries may choose which, if any, of these programmes they wish to fund.


The founding of the United Nations in 1945 symbolized the hope of a war-weary generation for a new era of international cooperation that would bring peace and progress to humankind. This promise has been partially fulfilled. The UN has presided over significant advances in international law; developed mechanisms for peacekeeping; built programmes for poverty alleviation; and facilitated the peaceful transition to independence of scores of former colonies, radically changing the make-up of today’s world.

But many have been left behind. While the UN has helped to foster economic and social development, major disparities remain within and between countries. One fifth of the world’s population still subsists on less than £1 of income a day and millions lack access to basic necessities. And a mixed record in resolving conflict and preventing mass atrocities has blighted the organisation’s reputation.

At a time when many countries are turning their attention inward to domestic concerns, some commentators have predicted the demise of the UN. Others counter this view with descriptions of the organization’s indispensability in a rapidly globalizing and interconnected world.

The truth is somewhere in between. The UN will never fulfil the hopes of its most ardent advocates and its inevitable mistakes will continue to provide fuel for its detractors. But as a place for nations to convene, as a setter of important global norms, and as a provider of key services from emergency food relief to human rights monitors and peacekeepers, the UN will surely remain a significant factor.

Unlike its predecessor, the League of Nations, it has proved resilient and adaptable, surviving repeated divisions among its members, and the emergence of other multilateral bodies. This is because the story of the UN is not merely that of its constituent parts. It is the story of the ‘international community’. By combining broad membership with privileges for the powerful, by giving smaller and poorer Countries a platform and voice, and by working with new actors such as NGOs and businesses, the UN has managed to foster the development of an ‘international community’, which is now expected to address both immediate crises and longer-term problems.

There is certainly no shortage of challenges that require international cooperation; the United Nations, both flawed and indispensable, will continue to be called upon.

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