Looking across the East River from Hunter's Point South in Long Island City, New York, you cannot miss the regal rectangular building located on a spacious 18-acre site stretching from 42nd to 48th Street right along 1st Avenue in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of Manhattan. This complex has served as the official headquarters of the United Nations since its completion in 1952 with the oblong 39-story Secretariat as its visual centerpiece.
Demystifying the UN can be a daunting task. After all, its name is instantly recognized; its functions, organizational set up and its true significance, however, are minimally understood. Founded in 1945 on the basis of a Charter and with the proclaimed main purpose of “saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, the UN replaced the flawed League of Nations, carrying the hope of mankind for a brighter future.
Over the last 68 years, the UN’s mission and membership have been broadened dramatically. Now boasting 193 member states, the most universal of all international organizations, the UN is asked to tackle the world’s most intractable problems—global scale challenges that transcend borders but directly or indirectly affect us all. Its operational scope spans the globe and encompasses nearly all areas of human endeavor. The organization maintains peace and security in some of the toughest places in the world. Peacekeepers in blue helmets patrol the streets of Kinshasa and Port-au-Prince observing cease-fires, demobilizing former combatants and training law enforcement and police forces. The UN’s humanitarian workers serve in areas of critical need, feeding the hungry, providing relief to the displaced. When disaster strikes, UN staff is already on the ground ready to respond. In developing and least-developed countries, the UN works to stimulate economic growth, create employment opportunities and lift people out of poverty. It empowers women, promotes the rule of law, fights to exterminate HIV/AIDS and other diseases, oversees elections, advocates for Human Rights, clears landmines, protects refugees, and encourages environmental sustainability. And when it comes to international relations, the organization steps in to mediate between warring factions, settle disputes, encourage friendly relations and promote a culture of peace.
Confronting all these challenges requires one heck of a sophisticated and robust system. That would explain why the United Nations’ organizational chart is a multilayered network with a multitude of linkages and different reporting mechanisms originating from the organization’s 6 main organs (General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, International Court of Justice, Trusteeship Council and Secretariat). Hiding behind complex acronyms and abbreviations entirely cryptic to the outsider are the branches of the UN family: subsidiary organs, agencies, funds and programs that specialize on a diverse range of topics and issues from children, drug trafficking, industrial development to reproductive health and family planning, cultural concerns, the environment and nutrition.
At the top of the secretariat structure, both literally and functionally (since his office is located on the 38th floor of the Secretariat building) sits the de facto spokesperson and leader of the United Nations: The Secretary General. The post, designated in technical terms the “chief administrative officer” of the world body, is currently filled by the Korean Ban Ki-Moon and requires quite the institutional and diplomatic balancing act. Alternating in roles between world moderator, moral leader, public face, chief mediator and scapegoat, the incumbent, like his predecessors, “transcends a merely administrative role by his authority to bring situations to the attention of various UN organs, by his position as an impartial party in effecting conciliation, and especially by his power to “perform such … functions as are entrusted to him” by other UN bodies.”
Appearing to some like an elusive secret society, on any given day, behind the closed doors at Turtle Bay, where the world’s best minds meet, it is world diplomacy in action: life-changing decisions are taken, far-reaching resolutions passed, sanctions adopted, statements given and new plans, strategies and concepts negotiated. Criticized by some as a bureaucratic nightmare, a weak-kneed and redundant talk-shop without teeth, or a place where suited bureaucrats butt heads, the world body’s true importance as a global entity must be looked at as a platform where compromises are arranged, and diverse causes are reconciled; all to nurture the United Nations so that it can perform the increasing functions required of it. In today's rapidly changing world of interdependence, globalization, and transnational threats that cross state lines, the great global challenges of our time require an overarching resource for the people of the world to invoke in coping with the plethora of problems that do not recognize boundaries and call for institutionalized intergovernmental approaches. Described by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan as “problems without passports”, these global challenges overload the traditional state system and challenge the Westphalian order.
Working on these threats through the collective security system of the United Nations and with their allies allows countries to share the burden, costs, risks, responsibilities, and benefits of promoting a more peaceful and just world. Old-fashioned retail diplomacy, aimed at pooling energies and rallying nations to solve common problems may be hard work. However, the United Nations, as the only truly global organization, is the only place where all countries and peoples of the world can come together to collaborate and create comprehensive solutions to global issues. As such, the world body plays a crucial role as an agenda setter, as a forum and an operational actor throughout the world. The truth is the UN, like any institution, has shortcomings which demand reform and such should be sought collectively and carefully by the member states. It is worth remembering that the UN was created in an entirely different international environment that presupposed external aggression, never equipped or intended to tackle every challenge. For the first 45 years of its existence, the world body lived in the deadlock of the cold war, prevented from fulfilling some of its core missions but discovering other critical tasks in that conflict’s shadow. Today, in a world where people are killed in civil wars, ethnic cleansing and acts of genocide, fuelled by weapons widely available in the global arms bazaar, the demands entrusted in the organization have grown exponentially. Many times, unrealistic expectations are set for the UN by those outside the organization while the reality of the excellent work performed by the world body goes unnoticed.
In the totality of its enormous responsibilities, the United Nations is a highly effective institution which serves the dire needs of millions across the globe and without whose presence would add an insurmountable charge to the work of its member states. So while some critics continue to write institutional obituaries for the UN, the reality remains unchanged: Despite its shortcomings, the United Nations is the most universal and legitimate international organization with the greatest potential for expansion, and as such, remains an indispensable resource, constantly reminding us of its value. In the words of the second Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld: "The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell." As you take a relaxing stroll on the piers and glance over to the other side from LIC, take a deep breath and try to visualize the important multilateral exchanges happening in the historical structure right in front of you. Even on a regular day, as a visitor of this urban park, you are truly in the presence of world history in the making.
"Anna Fritzsche has been following and studying the United Nations for most of her adult life. A world affairs enthusiast, she attended Yale University and also holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She currently works for a UN-affiliated organization."