Imagine a child asked you, “what does the UN do?” It’s a simple question, and to answer it, you might search the Internet for news stories involving the UN. A couple of hours later, you might say to the child, “well, when it comes to important things – things that matter for people everywhere – there isn’t much that the UN does not do.” Most people are familiar with hearing about the UN’s involvement in urgent humanitarian crises, such as the refugee situation in Syria and the surrounding countries. Many would also know that the UN is simultaneously involved in the political side of this crisis, trying to bring parties together to end the armed conflict. But away from the spotlight of immediate crises, the UN is involved in many other less ‘newsworthy’ aid situations – two recent examples are in Kachin state in Burma, and the Seleka area in the Central African Republic. And the UN is likewise involved in many other conflicts, whether they are currently active or are in temporary ceasefire. Even less reported is the work of the UN and its agencies in other areas – international tax reform, meteorological cooperation, international air navigation, scientific, educational and cultural cooperation, and the list goes on.

The Charter

At that point, our imaginary child might say, “so why does it do so many things? What is the UN for?” Answering this question leads us to examine the UN Charter. The Preamble of the Charter is perhaps the most stirring and ambitious mission statement of any organization, and it is worth quoting, and taking time to ponder:


  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,


  • to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
  • to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
  • to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
  • to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,


Accordingly, our respective Governments,… do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.”

Saving the future from war… reaffirming faith in human rights… establishing respect for international law… promoting social progress… any one of these tasks is world-changing in its scope, and the UN seeks to accomplish all four! And all this on a budget that is a mere fraction of the annual GDP of even quite small nations. The scale of the UN’s work explains why it is involved, indeed has to be involved, in so many areas of international cooperation. And implicit in all these goals is the fact that, while there are many nations and cultures across the world, there is one humanity. All of the agencies, processes and programmes of the UN exist purely to work out all the concrete implications of this fact. And the very name of the organization, containing both “Nations” (implying division) and “United” (implying wholeness) reveals the dynamic, creative tension which lies at the heart of the UN’s very existence.

A Positive Product of Conflict

As the Preamble reminds us, the United Nations arose out of the ashes of global war, in response to the impelling need to find a new way of dealing with conflict among nations. Thus it is, in a peculiar sense, a positive product of conflict. When allowed to run its course, conflict evokes a strong resolve from the human soul to find a different path to peace; to search more deeply to find the initial cause of conflict. Conflict teaches us that when wrong choices are made, they should not be repeated. The founders of the United Nations were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. They envisioned and created a world forum where human consciousness can be lifted to a new level, where the creative capacity of the human mind and heart can resolve potential conflicts before they erupt into war. It is a pathway that calls for the sharing of responsibility for the state of the world, and, most importantly, the principles on which the UN is founded evoke from its members a greater spiritual will to serve the needs of all humanity. Inspired from above – by the universal soul – the UN enables human beings to reach out through its many service agencies.

Because it is dedicated to humanity as a whole, and because its keynote is service, the UN is naturally magnetic to all people of goodwill. Of course, it is a thoroughly human organization, with faults and failings. For example, its original organizational structure was far from ideal, and it suffers from significant obstacles to reform. As the ex-Director of the Global Policy Forum, James Paul, notes, “The UN needs reform. On that everyone agrees. But people disagree sharply on what kind of reform is needed and for what purpose. NGO leaders aim for a more democratic UN, with greater openness and accountability. Technocrats seek more productivity and efficiency from the UN staff. Delegates favor reforms that conform to national interests and promote national power. Idealists offer plans for a greatly expanded body that would reduce states’ sovereignty. While conservatives push for a downsized UN with sharply reduced powers. Agreement is exceedingly hard to come by.” 1 Moreover, the individuals who staff it, no matter how talented and idealistic, make mistakes and misjudgments, like everyone else. Given the enormity and complexity of the tasks in which they are engaged, it would be surprising if it were otherwise. Yet the very fact of the UN’s existence shows that in 1945, humanity entered on a new phase in the evolution of consciousness, one in which the good of all was for the first time enshrined as the guiding star of humanity’s collective action.

The Keynote of Service

As already noted, service is a major keynote of the UN, and it achieves this through a bewildering variety of agencies, institutes and programmes, from the well-known, such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme, to more obscure bodies like the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency. One relatively recent addition is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), formed in 1988 to tackle the emerging issue of human impact on the global climate. Even more recently, UN Women was formed in July 2010 from four preceding UN bodies. A major co-ordinating body for many of these agencies is the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Less well known than the Security Council and the General Assembly, ECOSOC is the central forum for discussing international economic and social issues and for formulating policy recommendations. It plays a key role in fostering international cooperation for development. It also consults with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), thus maintaining a vital link between the United Nations and civil society.

As we have seen from the Charter, the UN is concerned with re-affirming faith in human rights. One of the most important ways it does this is through the most famous of its Declarations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). We live in a time where human rights are widely regarded as unexceptional, and are seen as the most useful way to guarantee morality in the public sphere. So much so, that, even in countries where governments are oppressive, they still feel obliged to defend their human rights records. It is easy to underestimate what a huge advance this is. Much of the credit for this fact is due to the worldwide influence that the UDHR has achieved in its sixty-five years of existence. Written in the aftermath of World War Two, it was intended to give effect to the UN Charter’s provisions on human rights. It has become a kind of gold standard, against which national behaviour is measured. It is a profoundly spiritual document, for it espouses a vision of universal freedom and brotherhood that transcends all differences of cultural, religious or social conditioning.2

While it is not legally binding itself, the UDHR has served as the seed for further, more detailed Declarations, and also the legally binding Conventions such as the two International Covenants, on civil and political rights, and on economic, social and cultural rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. As these are legal documents, they are correspondingly more complicated and extensive. And while they have been widely adopted, many nations also make specific reservations to some provisions, if they feel they conflict with their national laws.

Nevertheless, the UN, its Charter, its subsidiary agencies, the Declarations and Conventions, and specific development targets, such as the Millennium Development Goals (the subject of our next article) are significant spiritual achievements for humanity, even if their purposes are as yet only partially realized. They are living, dynamic expressions of the intention to create right human relations. They are embodiments of high principles which resonate with all people of goodwill. As such, they call for our active cooperation and support.

1. UN Reform: An Analysis, p.1, James Paul, Global Policy Forum, 1996 (

2. For a more in-depth discussion, see the World Goodwill Commentary The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Signpost to Freedom. Also available is the Commentary on the UN – The United Nations: Humanity’s Challenge.

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