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  • Sun, 14, Aug, 2016 - 5:00:AM

The UN, explained

United Nations General Assembly / Chris Erbach / Wikimedia Commons

The United Nations. It’s a name that appears in virtually every world news story every day, but few people know what, exactly, the UN does - or what it even is. Villainesse explains what the world body is all about.

What is the United Nations?

The UN was founded in 1945, in the closing days of World War II, with the goal of rebuilding a shattered planet and the hope that a unified globe would prevent a world war from ever happening again. More nations joined as they declared independence from colonisers, and today 193 countries – almost all nations on earth, including countries like North Korea – are a part of the UN.

Who leads the UN?

The head of the UN is known as the Secretary-General. Although they are the de facto spokesperson for the UN, the actual power they wield is very small, though their opinions can be seen as very influential.

A Secretary-General is able to serve a maximum of two five-year terms. While they are appointed by the General Assembly, which is made up of every country that is part of the UN, it is upon the recommendation of the Security Council. The process is hardly democratic. The Secretary-General usually comes from a small, traditionally neutral country, such as Sweden, because of fears one nation – like the United States – would have too much of an influence on the world.

A woman has never been Secretary-General, though there are no rules against a woman leading the body.

So what does the UN do?

In short: a lot.

The UN’s main objectives, as laid out in its founding charter, include maintaining international peace and security, promoting human rights, fostering social and economic development, protecting the environment, and providing humanitarian aid in famines, natural disasters, and armed conflict. To achieve these ends, the UN has a dizzying array of specialised organisations, from the International Court of Justice (which prosecutes war criminals and gross human rights abusers) to the Universal Postal Union (which helps ensure mail is delivered). The problem, though, is – ironically – actually taking action.

Why is it so controversial?

The UN has been opposed since its inception by conspiracy theorists who feel it’s a plot for the “New World Order” to take over. While that’s a far-fetched notion, there is a problem with the way the UN currently functions.

Five of the largest nations that won World War II – the UK, France, US, China and Russia – are known as “veto-wielding members” of the UN’s Security Council. What that means is any decision by the Security Council – such as condemning North Korea for nuclear weapons tests, or trying to investigate who shot down the MH17 passenger plane in 2014 – can be overturned by one of those five countries. It is particularly a problem because the US and Russia – bitter Cold War enemies who again are going through a period of frosty relations – will sometimes veto actions simply because the other side is in favour of action, or to “remind the world” how important they are.

While it has been proposed on numerous occasions to do away with the veto-wielding system, no serious effort has ever materialised. Both Russia and the United States have actually threatened to leave the UN if they lost their veto-wielding power. Since the UN’s headquarters are located in New York City, that would also mean the UN would need a new headquarters if the US withdrew.

Why have we been hearing about Helen Clark and the UN?

After serving as prime minister, Clark became involved with the UN, where she’s currently the administrator of UN Development Programme (UNDP), the third-highest position in the entire UN. The first woman to lead the UNDP, she’s also the chair of the UN Development Group, which is a committee of the heads of all the various UN funds, programmes and departments who work together on issues related to development.

Lately, though, Clark’s name has been in the news because she’s running to replace current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose term expires at the end of this year. However, she appears to be facing long odds to become the first New Zealander – and the first woman – to lead the UN: in two informal polls which asked voters who they preferred to become the next Secretary-General, Clark came in sixth both times. The leader in both polls, despite widespread calls that the time has come for a woman to lead? A European man – clearly a sign the UN has a long way to go in terms of equality.

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