To do good human rights reporting, understanding the UN and how it works is very important.
The UN is a rich source of information, learning, and contacts. It has agencies focused on many different sectors and issues — like children, women, health, poverty, population, disability, and education. The UN employs thousands of human rights advocates and defenders all over the world, including an international peacekeeping force, the Blue Berets. It has research and statistics departments that churn out papers and numbers about practically every aspect of human life. It has hundreds of offices and employs thousands of people all over the world.
The main UN offices
The main offices of the UN are in New York City in the US. The UN also has offices in Geneva (Switzerland), Vienna (Austria), and Nairobi (Kenya), which perform a variety of functions. UN headquarters and offices:
- Headquarters in New York City
- Geneva — UN Office in Geneva (UNOG)
- Vienna — UN Office in Vienna (UNOV)
- Nairobi — UN office in Nairobi (UNON)
Who leads the UN?
The Secretary-General is the UN’s leader and spokesperson. According to the UN’s founding document, the UN Charter, the Secretary-General is the UN’s “chief administrative officer.” The current Secretary-General is António Guterres of Portugal, who was appointed on 1 January 2017. Each Secretary-General serves for five years, but the same person can be reappointed for several terms.
Funding and Independence of the UN
The UN is funded by member states and by voluntary contributions. Each member state contributes according to its means, calculated as a percentage of gross national income. This means that the richest states pay the most. At present, the US pays the most, but to ensure that the UN does not become overly dependent on any one state, the maximum a state can contribute is 22% of the UN’s total budget.
Six official languages
The UN has six official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.
THE VATICAN CITY
The tiny Vatican City, the home of the Roman Catholic Church, is recognized as a sovereign state. The Vatican City has fewer than 1,000 citizens, including the Pope, his Cardinals, the clergy, and the Swiss Guards who protect the Vatican Palace. The Vatican City has chosen not to become a member but has permanent observer status at the UN.
The UN Charter
The founding document of the UN is the UN Charter. The UN Charter is a multilateral treaty that serves as the UN’s constitution. It is the highest authority of international law, is legally binding on all parties, and overrides any other treaties or agreements that member states sign.
Any sovereign state can join the UN. The first 51 member states joined when they signed the UN Charter in 1945. Since then, membership has steadily increased and today the UN has 193
member states — every country in the world except the Vatican City. The youngest member of the UN is the Republic of South Sudan, which formally separated from Sudan on July 9, 2011, following an internationally monitored referendum held in January 2011. South Sudan was admitted as a new member state of the UN on July 14, 2011.
EXPULSION AND SUSPENSION FROM THE UN
Article 5 of the UN Charter says that a member state may be suspended or expelled from the UN if the UN Security Council has taken preventive or enforcement action against it. The member may be reinstated on the recommendation of the Security Council. Article 6 of the UN Charter says that a member of the UN who has persistently violated the principles contained in the Charter may be expelled by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council. No member states have been suspended or expelled from the UN under Articles 5 and 6. But in a few cases, states have been suspended or expelled from participating in UN activities by other means:
In 1971, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 2758, recognizing the People’s Republic of China instead of the Republic of China (Taiwan) as the legitimate representative of China in the UN. This effectively excluded Taiwan from the UN but avoided formal expulsion by the Security Council, which would have been subject to veto by the US, which at that time recognized Taiwan.
- SOUTH AFRICA
In 1974, the Security Council considered a draft resolution recommending the expulsion of South Africa from the UN in compliance with Article 6. At that time, South Africa’s apartheid policies of legally entrenched racial domination of white South Africans over black South Africans violated the UN Charter’s principles of equality and freedom. However, the resolution was vetoed by three permanent members of the Security Council: France, the UK, and the US. In response, the General
Assembly suspended South Africa from participation in the work of the General Assembly. The suspension lasted for 20 years, until 1994 when South Africa finally held democratic elections.
In March 2011, the General Assembly unanimously voted to suspend Libya from the UN Human Rights Council, citing the Gaddafi regime’s use of violence against anti-government protesters. In a statement, the General Assembly said that Libya had committed “gross and systematic violations of human rights.” The suspension was temporary. In November 2011, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to reinstate Libya’s membership on the Human Rights Council after its new government pledged to defend human rights and establish the rule of law.
Human rights are fundamental to the UN. The UN’s work in human rights is carried out by many bodies and agencies. Some of these are directly concerned with particular human rights, for example, UN Women, which promotes gender equality and women’s empowerment [www.unwomen.org]. Others focus on particular issues, but take a human rights approach, or a rights-based approach, to dealing with these issues, for example, the World Health Organization [www.who.int].
The United Nations System
“UN System” is an umbrella term that is used to refer to all the international organizations, treaties, and conventions that were created by the UN, and which the UN manages and enforces.
The main structures in the UN System
The five main UN bodies are the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Secretariat, and International Court of Justice.
UN General Assembly
The UN General Assembly (UNGA) is comprised of the 193 member states of the UN, represented by their delegates. Each member state is regarded as equal in the UN and each state’s vote is of equal value. The General Assembly is the most representative body of the UN and ultimately approves all UN treaties and instruments. It also elects the members of the Security Council, Economic and Social Council, and the Human Rights Council. Additionally, it oversees the subsidiary programs of the UN as well as the charter-based committees, treaty-based committees, and other committees.
The General Assembly may also adopt resolutions. On most issues, a resolution is adopted if the majority of states vote for it. On important issues, a two-thirds majority is needed for adoption. Important issues include peace and security, the election of members to other bodies of the UN System, admission, suspension, and expulsion of member states, and the UN budget. Only General Assembly resolutions related to organizational matters such as budget or subsidiary organs are binding on members. Other resolutions of the General Assembly are non-binding, which means that they are considered as recommendations to member states.
UN Security Council
The Security Council’s job is to maintain world peace and security, and so it considers all matters that are likely to affect peace and security. It has the power to impose sanctions (for example, economic sanctions, bans on arms sales, or diplomatic sanctions against states). The Security Council can also authorize military action; for example, it imposed a “no-fly zone” over Libya in 2011. The “no-fly zone” enabled NATO bombers to prevent Colonel Muammar Gaddafi from deploying his air force to attack rebel positions. The council can also deploy UN peacekeeping troops to areas where there is conflict. Peacekeepers include soldiers, civilian police officers, and civilians drawn from many countries. Their role is to protect civilians and monitor the maintenance of peace and compliance with peace agreements. They also help reintegrate former combatants into society.
The Security Council has also authorized the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. There are 15 member states of the Security Council. Of these, five states — China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US — are permanent members. The permanent members — known as the P5 — each have the power to veto a resolution; that is, to prevent a resolution from being passed by voting against it. The P5 states may also abstain from voting on a resolution, but abstention does not prevent the resolution from being adopted.
The other 10 nonpermanent members of the Security Council are elected by the General Assembly every two years. Decisions of the Security Council related to international peace and security are binding on member states.
UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
ECOSOC is the main forum for discussing international economic and social issues, and for drafting policy recommendations for discussion by the General Assembly and other bodies in the UN System. It also oversees several functional commissions, regional commissions, and expert bodies related to economic and social issues.
Headed by the Secretary-General, and employing an international staff, the Secretariat provides support services to UN bodies for their meetings; for example, research, information, logistics, and other tasks.
International Court of Justice (ICJ)
The ICJ is the judicial body of the UN. It is based in The Hague, Netherlands, and acts as a world court. Its main function is to hear and rule on legal disputes between states and to provide advisory opinions on questions submitted to it by the organs of the United Nations or specialized agencies authorized to make such requests
It is easy to confuse the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is a UN body that rules on legal disputes between states, with the International Criminal Court (ICC) which tries individuals for crimes against humanity, genocide, and other international crimes. The ICC is not a UN body and is not part of the UN System.
Human Rights Bodies within the UN System
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the main UN body dealing with human rights. It offers expertise and support to the different human rights monitoring agencies in the UN System. The High Commissioner at the time of writing is Michelle Bachelet of Chile, who succeeded Zeid Raad Al Hussein of Jordan on 1 September 2018.