An impossible hybrid: the structure of the United Nations

Chapter 2

An impossible hybrid: the structure of the United Nations

In an interview with Time magazine in the summer of 1955, Dag Hammarskjöld expressed his frustration over the UN’s public image. He worried, in particular, that many people considered the organization—at the time barely ten years old—as a bureaucratic monstrosity incapable of addressing the real concerns of real people. Equally important, Hammarskjöld thought that such disaffection was distancing the UN from the very people it was designed to serve. There was but one solution. As Hammarskjöld explained: “Everything will be all right—you know when? When people, just people, stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it as a drawing they made themselves.”1

The second UN Secretary-General’s remarks are indicative of one of the central problems of the world organization. In 1955 the UN was indeed present but distant, not the least because the UN worked in so many different fields, through so many different agencies, and with such a variety of different goals. It was, as it still remains, “a weird Picasso abstraction,” an organizational hybrid, its many functions impossible to explain in plain language. There is no point in mincing words: the UN is a structural monstrosity, a conglomeration of organizations, divisions, bodies, and secretariats all with their distinctive acronyms that few can ever imagine being able to master. This, alone, explains many of the UN’s problems.

The central point, though, is that the rationale behind the creation of this hybrid—the Picasso abstraction in Hammarskjöld’s words—is simple: it was made up by people from many nations, with divergent backgrounds and goals. Equally important, the founders of the UN (and the designers of its structure) were faced with the everlasting dilemma: how to reconcile national interests—national security, national prosperity, national laws—with international aspirations—international security, global development, universal justice, and human rights. The structure that was created reflected this dilemma and is one of the reasons for the outcome: a painting that is part abstraction, part real.

The UN “family”

In 1945 the six principal organs of the UN were the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Trusteeship Council, International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat. With the exception of the Trusteeship Council, which became obsolete with the completion of the decolonization process it oversaw, these organs still constitute the basic superstructure of the UN. All of them meet regularly, and their members vote and make decisions, issue declarations, and debate the issues of the day. Yet the functions of these organs are vastly different: while the GA is basically the parliament of the UN and the Security Council its executive committee, the Secretariat is the operational body of—or the bureaucracy that runs—the UN.

The UN “family,” though, is much larger, encompassing fifteen agencies and several programs and bodies. Some of the organizations, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), were founded during the League of Nations era in the 1920s. Many more have been created since 1945 to address the specific problems that the UN has been called to solve. Much of this proliferation—and the ensuing complexity of the UN—is the result of a rapid growth in membership that, in the decades following the founding of the organization, contributed to the escalation of the tasks that the UN has been charged to undertake. As a result, new bodies and programs have been (and continue to be) added on a regular basis. Others, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), were originally meant to be temporary but have since been transformed into permanent organs. Many, inevitably, overlap with others.


Chart 2.1 The United Nations System

To top it all off, the UN has a hybrid set of “subsidiaries” and partners. Throughout its history, the UN has associated with almost three thousand NGOs. This was already envisioned in 1945: article 77 of the UN Charter explicitly states that the UN “may make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations [NGOs] which are concerned with matters within its competence.” In practice this means that every year the UN works together with hundreds of NGOs to undertake humanitarian tasks in the world’s conflict zones. For example, between 1995 and 2002 the UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (UNMIBH) oversaw that country’s process of peacebuilding—most significantly the establishment of the rule of law—after a nasty war. Throughout the period it participated with close to forty local NGOs that offered their expertise on a wide range of competencies ranging from the clearing of land mines to protecting the environment.

In addition to their cooperation with the many UN missions, NGOs also act as lobbying groups for various causes. In 2007, for example, thirty-two NGOs issued an open letter “urging” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to pressure Sudan’s reluctant government into permitting a Joint African Union/United Nations Peacekeeping Force to enter the conflict-ridden Darfur region. This example hints at another way in which the UN has increasingly been forced to admit the limits of its own capacities and forge alliances elsewhere. Particularly since the early 1990s, the UN has “subcontracted” peacekeeping tasks to non-UN institutions (such regional organizations as NATO or the African Union) or even to private security companies. In 2001 the latter even formed their own NGO, the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), which acts as a public relations lobbying group for firms that in previous times would have been referred to as bands of mercenaries.

This structural complexity also reflects an effort to create an organization that would avoid some of the problems faced by the League of Nations and one that could adapt to the changing international environment as needed. The League had had as many similar organs as the UN. For example, there had been the League Council (an executive committee that resembled the UN Security Council) and the League Assembly (the rough equivalent of the UN General Assembly). The UN’s organization was ultimately based on a combination of inherited structures, new challenges, and historical lessons.

The Security Council

The Security Council is the central organ of the entire UN system. It has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. To that effect, the SC was granted wide powers that would make it an active participant in international affairs. It could investigate any dispute or situation that might lead to international friction and it was authorized to decide on economic sanctions or military action. The SC was therefore mandated to use its powers both as a means of preventing a conflict and as a way of enforcing a state’s compliance with a specific decision or resolution.

The wide powers granted to the Security Council can be understood as a result of the desire to build a more effective guardian of international peace and security than the League of Nations had been. Few at the time or afterwards have disputed the need for such an organization. But the structure of the SC is not unproblematic. It reflects one of the central tensions that have overshadowed the UN—and often hampered its effectiveness. In particular, its two-tiered membership organization, which gave disproportionately more power to five of the major victorious powers of World War II, recognized Great Power prerogatives as an important element of the UN Charter. The nation-state and narrow national interests were thus juxtaposed against the universal ideals that were at the foundation of the UN.

Chapter 7 of the UN Charter defines the Security Council’s prerogatives. Some of the key articles include:

Article 39

The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Article 40

In order to prevent an aggravation of the situation, the Security Council may, before making the recommendations or deciding upon the measures provided for in Article 39, call upon the parties concerned to comply with such provisional measures as it deems necessary or desirable. Such provisional measures shall be without prejudice to the rights, claims, or position of the parties concerned. The Security Council shall duly take account of failure to comply with such provisional measures.

Article 41

The Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures. These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.

Article 42

Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.

Article 43

1. All Members of the United Nations, in order to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security, undertake to make available to the Security Council, on its call and in accordance with a special agreement or agreements, armed forces, assistance, and facilities, including rights of passage, necessary for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security.…

The Security Council was initially made up of eleven members (or states), a number that was increased to fifteen in 1965. Of these, five—the United States, Great Britain, France, China, and Russia (until 1991 the Soviet Union)—are permanent members (known as the P-5). The other ten are nonpermanent members, elected by the UN General Assembly for two-year terms. Their selection reflects an effort to find some—but hardly perfect—regional balance: Africa has three seats, while Western Europe and Oceania, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean each get two. The last seat is reserved for Eastern Europe. Each year five of these ten nonpermanent members leave the SC and are replaced.

Two key features differentiate the Security Council from the League Council. First, the decisions of the Security Council are binding and require a majority of nine out of fifteen—rather than unanimity as was the case in the League—to be passed. Second, the permanent members are clearly more powerful than the nonpermanent ones: any one of the five can block a decision by using its right of veto. This clause has prompted numerous calls for reform: the five permanent members may have been the “great powers” of 1945; they certainly were the key victorious powers of World War II. This is not automatically the case in the twenty-first century, though. But since the founding of the UN the only major reform has been the increase in the number of nonpermanent members in 1965.

The concentration of power in the hands of five countries has been a subject of criticism in large part because the SC exercises a broad range of powers over the rest of the UN system. For example, the SC can recommend the admission of new member states, it basically chooses the Secretary-General, and, with the GA, it selects the judges of the International Court of Justice.

Faulty or not, the Security Council and its five permanent members simply overshadow all other organs of the UN.

The General Assembly

If the UNSC is where the UN—or those countries that are members of the SC at any given time—usually reacts to the many conflicts around the globe, the General Assembly (GA) is the forum where each of the 193 member states can make its case heard. As the main deliberative organ of the United Nations, it is in many ways akin to a national parliament. Each member state, regardless of its size, has one vote. This arrangement seems to make the GA much like the U.S. Senate, where each of the fifty states is represented by two senators regardless of the size of the population or landmass of a given state. The situation is in some ways absurd: the tiny island of Tuvalu with its 11,600 citizens has equal representation with the People’s Republic of China and India, each with more than 1 billion.


4. Nikita Khrushchev, premier of the USSR, at a meeting of the UN General Assembly in September 1960. His visit to the UN is best remembered for the day the fiery Soviet leader banged his shoe on the lectern to reinforce his oratory.

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