The UN is an Amazing Organization – But It Still Has Many Problems

Three of the most striking observations made during my two weeks at two different UN conferences were: a) the amount of people at least in their 60s or 70s talking about issues which directly affect youth, while there are hardly any youth in the room for the discussion; b) the extreme resistance to change by those who claim to have been participating in the UN for years, ultimately pushing the agenda: ‘This is the way we have always done it, so this is the way we will keep doing it’; and finally, c) the amount of people who blatantly stated ‘I’ve only been here a short period of time, and I really don’t understand how the UN works – but I want to make this one point that, if I actually knew anything about the UN, I would know makes absolutely no sense.’

My friend Karol repeatedly warned me: “There are things wrong with the UN; there is a reason I returned to Mexico to work with a project that has direct involvement on the ground.” Many of my friends who have previously worked with the UN have also warned me: “The UN is not has glamorous as our experiences in Model UN make us believe.” But still in my head I wanted to think the UN would be different than my experiences in Model UN (most of which were ultimately the reason I retired from MUN). The reality, though, is that those people who are so outrageous in MUN end up in the UN. Or worse, the people involved in the UN have little to no previous knowledge of how the UN really works so they end up making the same mistakes that new MUN delegates make – only this time it actually has an affect on the international stage.

I try to think of solutions to the three observations, and I honestly come up with a lot. For example:

A) A lot of Youth try to get involved in the UN through Missions from governments, without realizing there are more ways. There are Youth Forums; there are NGOs; there are IGOs; there are millions of ways to become involved, we just have to look harder to find them. Thankfully the UN is seeing many more Youth becoming involved (my theory is the exponential increase in Model UN participation since the 1990s), but it is imperative that this trend continue. Want to come to the UN? Want to be involved in international policy creation? Find a way! Because there always is one. (If anyone wants help finding possible avenues to become involved, message me and I can help!)

B) An organization that does not evolve, dies. That is a reality. Even the UN is a product of evolution of International Politics: before the League of Nations (the UN’s predecessor), there had never before been an organization that had all the world’s governments dicuss internaitonal policies, especially not with the involvement of civil society. And when the UN was created, it made the necessary changes to prevent the same fate as the League.

C) If you are going to work with the UN, you need to take the online free courses that teach you about how the UN works; and most importantly  do not speak if you are going to first state that you have no idea what you are talking about. If you do not know about a topic, you are not qualified to comment on it. This is an issue worldwide; it was something I saw in classes at UBC, and it is a mistake people continue to make all throughout their lives. And it is something we must recognize that we do and stop ourselves before we make such a mistake. True high level discourse cannot occur if those speaking lack a basic knowledge of a topic but chose to speak anyway.

If passionate, intelligent people can work together to implement these suggestions (and many others, because there are plenty of improvements that any organization can make), the United Nations could be an organization that maintains peace and security in the world for decades to come. It just takes the willpower, and pure stubbornness, of a good group of people – then we can change the world (again).

What is An Nongovernmental Organization (NGO)? (AKA What Is Lena Working With This Week?)

When most people hear ‘the United Nations’ (and this applies to Model UN people too!), most will think: “A place where governments meet together and talk.” Well yes, on a basic level that is what the UN does. But it goes much deeper than that.

The United Nations is composed of 193 ‘Member States’ (nations which have ratified the United Nations Mandate and have been first recommended for membership by the Security Council, then later accepted by the General Assembly vote.) As the UN Charters says, memership “is open to all peace-loving States that accept the obligations contained in the United Nations Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able to carry out these obligations.” But Member States only make up a small portion of the representation at the UN; there are two other big groups: permanent observers and civil society.

Permanent Observers: this category includes non-member states, meaning nations that have not been accepted as UN Member States but are recognized by the UN (specifically the Holy See and Palestine; there are also nations not recognized by the UN that are not given status at the UN, namely Taiwan and Kosovo); and Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs), which are basically organizations that work towards specific issues by acting as a facilitator between governments and civil society  (here is a list of all the different ones).

Civil Society: this is the category that I am working with this week. It includes two groups: Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Both are given ‘observer status’ which can be revoked should a member state object to their classification with the UN (hence why they are not part of the ‘Permanent Observers’ – civil society’s status is not permanent). I would provide a list of CSOs and NGOs working with the UN, but honestly there isn’t a single list. Why? Because each branch of the UN has their own list of CSOs and NGOs which they work with (technically all NGOs/CSOs are issued UN passed through ECOSOC [because of how the UN is organized] but they work with different groups underneath the 6 main bodies of the UN, and each of these groups have different lists of CSOs/NGOs they work with.)

What exactly is an NGO then? Also known as civil society groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are similar to lobbyists groups in the US government. Specifically at the UN: NGOs are organizations which work to advocate for their causes to be addressed on the international stage via the UN, and will work with the UN to advocate for their positions on said causes.  NGOs are non-profit organizations whose staff are largely civilian volunteers who work towards specific goals (some work on poverty, some work on stabilization in post-conflict zones, some work on education; if you can think of an issue the world is facing, there is probably an NGO which addresses the issue.) In the US alone, there is an estimated 1.5 million NGOs. (This link also has a ton of technical information on NGOs if you would like to learn more!)

How are NGOs funded? Normally NGOs are funding through private donors (individuals, foundations, or corportations) and/or grants provided by governments and IGOs. Sometimes NGOs are even be funded by other, larger NGOs. It is imperative for NGOs to fundraise because the projects an NGO will be able to do depends on how much funding the NGO receives. For example, an NGO I volunteered for a few years ago – My Ugandan Child – had a group of people (myself, Karol, and two other volunteers) draft a document of all the possible grants and funds the NGO could apply to in order for MUC to fund its pojects.  Important note – some NGOs will refuse funds from governments or corporations if they feel accepting the donation would impede their ability to remain neurtral.  For more information on how NGOs are funded and how funding sources may affect NGO’s operations, click here.

How do NGOs achieve their goals? There are actually two types of NGOs. The first works on the ground in the areas that need the most help, therefore working directly with civilians (MyWorld works with civilians on the ground in Mexico to increase education about the SDGs while also using their volunteers to complete tasks which help achieve the SDGs). The other type, though, works on the policy level (meaning they work only with the UN or with governments, without having projects that work with civilians.) Important note – it is possible for an NGO to work on both levels. MyWorld, for example, has their work on the ground in Mexico, but also attends UN conferences (like CSocD) to discuss the issues it is addressing on the ground, and works with the local and federal governments to implement policies which better help the implementation of the SDGs.

Summary: NGOs are independent lobbyists groups which work with international organizations and national governments. They can be used to advocate for their causes to be addressed on the international stage via the UN and work with the UN to advocate for their positions on said causes, or they can work on the ground in communities to address their causes through specific projects.

Final note – to be perfectly honest, when I first started writing this post I thought it would be super easy to explain NGOs. But really, NGOs are such a big beast on the international stage; they are super difficult to explain because there are so many different types and they do so many different things. So, if you think I have missed anything or if there is more information that you would like to know, tell me and I’ll fix/add it.

What is Social Development? (AKA What Does ‘Commission on Social Development’ Mean?)

So, funny story. A little over a year ago, I came to the UN with my best friend (shout out to Joy!) who is a super smart human being and was invited to the UN to take an exam for a job with the Young Professional Programme at the UN. Basically this is a programme that recruits young professionals in order for them to start a career as a civil servant at the UN. And Joy’s preferred UN department: Social Development. What I didn’t realize, though, is what Social Development means. And being the type of person that I am, I never actually bothered asking Joy what it meant. Fast forward a year and two months – I’m sitting at the UN at the 54th Session of the  UN Commission for Social Development being taught what I was too stubborn to ask about before.

Social Development sounds like it would mean fixing poverty and gender inequality and other social problems that plague the world. It doesnt. And I looked like a fool when I realized this (thank you Joy for not laughing too hard at my ignorance!)

Yes, Social Development does discuss the issues mentioned above, but it is actually the discussion of how to mobilize change on different social and government levels via NGOs and youth involvement. This mobilization is designed to address issues like poverty, gender inequality, indigenous issues, etc. As my amazing friend Karol (founder of MyWorld Mexico, and Sustainable Development expert who inviting me to CSocD) – “How do we work together through the different sectors to achieve progress on these issues, while ensuring we protect the environment and close the inequality gap.”

Turns out I’ve actually been working on Social Development for years (through MyWorld and other projects Karol and I have worked on together) and I never realized it! Whoops 😅 haha

What are the Sustainable Development Goals? (AKA What is Lena Discussing at the UN this Week?)

One of the largest topics on the international stage – and the focus of the conference I am attending this week – is the ‘Sustainable Development Goals‘ (SDGs). Now, I totally expect everyone who has never been in Model UN not to understand what this means – the SDGs are rarely mentioned in national politics. But the SDGs are one of the leading driving forces for national policy. So what exactly are they?

First, a history lesson:

At the turn of the century (2000), the world banded together through the United Nations to create a series of eight goals -agreed  to be reached by 2015 – named the ‘Millennium Development Goals‘ (MDGs). The first of their kind (the world had never before set a series of goals that every nation was expected to help achieve) these goals were: ending extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and empowerment of women; reducing child mortality; improve maternal health; combating HIV/AIDs and other devastating diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and developing a global partnership for development. And underneath each of these goals were 18 ‘targets’ and 48 ‘indicators’ that were designed to measure the progress of the implementation of the MDGs.

To be perfectly honest, by 2015 (when the goals were due to be completed), the majority of the goals had not been fully met [a fact which leads many people to say ‘Look! The UN has failed!’] But no. The UN did not fail. Because due to the MDGs, there was a mass movement worldwide to increase the quality of life worldwide. Example: While universal access to sanitation had gotten worse in the 15 years, universal access to clean water has increased to 91% of the world’s population. The United Nations actually released a report which states both their failures and successes.

So summary: No, the MDGs were not fully met. But yes, they were a success because they did make a difference. (World Vision, a NGO at the UN has a very good article on this.)

When the national governments saw the successes of the MDGs, they realized there should be something to replace them: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (aka the SDGs). These goals included the millennium development goals which had not been reached, and extended them by adding 9 more goals. The list:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all age
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Common questions:

Are the SDGs legally binding?  No. But nations implement these goals because they help increase the nation’s citizen’s quality of life. Often there are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which work to shame nations into implementing the goals if the nations are failing to do so. (What I am actually doing this week is working with an NGO which does exactly this in Mexico, ‘MyWorld Mexico’.) Ultimately these goals embody national accountability towards increasing the quality of life for their citizens.

How are the SDGs implemented? Two ways – governments passing laws that implement policies which achieve these goals, and grassroots NGO movements (aka ‘boots on the ground’: volunteers implementing the policies with fellow citizens in the communities that need it most). MyWorld Mexico is actually a network of people and NGOs which work through both of these avenues: it mobilizes volunteers in Mexico to help their fellow citizens by completing tasks (like taking clothes to the homeless) that will help achieve the SDGs; and it also polls citizens to find out which SDGs are most important to them, and lobbies the government to implement policies which achieve the most valued goals.

How were the SDGs created? The SDGs were actually created through long discussions between governments and development experts in a process that started in 2011. They were created through a multi-year consultation of all parties involved (UN officials, governments, NGOs, civilians, basically a ton of different people – including millions of votes collected by MyWorld to show what civilians believed they needed) and a 2 month drafting process. The final document was passed by 193 world leaders in September 2015, and went into effect on January 1st, 2016.

If the MDGs weren’t reached, why did we bother implementing the SDGs? Again – yes, the MDGs were not fully met. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t make an effect. Instead of having all the work done by the MDGs be given up when they were finished, the international community decided to create this wider set of goals to continue the amazing work the MDGs sparked. Plus, the SDGs give a clear set of goals for many of the UN organizations to work towards (like the conference I am attending).

Final note: This is a super basic description of the SDGs (and MDGs), so if anyone is interested in a more in-depth description, let me know!

How Is International Law Enforced?

Contrary to what many may believe, there is not actually a military branch to the United Nations (there is something called the ‘UN Peacekeepers’ but they are only deployed by the Security Council and are mainly responsible for helping countries stabilize after conflict or after natural disaster. And they are not allowed to use force.)  So if there is not military or judicial enforcement unit for international law, how does the international community enforce international law? Through three concepts: ‘Reciprocity’, ‘Collective Action’, and ‘Shaming’.

Reciprocity‘ is the international community’s fancy word for ‘If you won’t, I won’t.’ And it is what it sounds – the basis of International Law relies on each country maintaining their promise to each other that they will not break whatever agreement is in place. A perfect example of this is the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC): at the time the BWC was created, the world was still in the midst of the Cold War. Unfortunately this meant that the international community had yet to agree on a method through which enforcement of international treaties could be verified. The result of this was many countries agreeing to fulfill their commitments to the BWC – as long as everyone else maintained their commitments as well. This is called agreeing to the treaty ‘with reservations’ (specifically: should a country be attacked with a Biological Weapon, they would reciprocate towards the offending party with a Biological Weapon of their own.)  And this has prevented nations from using Biological Weapons – both fear of retaliation and the uncertainty of what would be used during a retaliatory attack deter nations from being the first to strike.

For a more recent example – when the Trump Regime banned Iranian citizens from entering the US, Iran reciprocated by banning US citizens from entering Iran.

‘Collective Action’ is also what it sounds like: several nations ban together against an offending state to punish the offending state for their breach of international law. A good example of this would be the Gulf War – when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the UN Security Council passed a Resolution (which is binding international law – if you would like to know why, let me know!) calling for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. When they did not, the United States and its NATO allies, as well as Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations joined together in a collation to retaliate against Iraq.

While Collective Action is one of the fundamental methods of maintaining international law, it does pose a significant issue (aptly named the ‘Collective Action Problem‘). Summary: While nations may agree to come to each other’s aid, when the time does come some nations may decide to break the original agreement of mutual protection.

Like the others, ‘Shaming’ is again what it sounds like. By nature, nations do not like having negative press related to their actions and will respond in order to prevent further bad press. Example: the US’s investigation into torture practices after the April 2004 CBS News report showing leaked photos and reports from Abu Ghraib prison proving torture and prisoner abuse. This method is most commonly used for violations of international law which are widely regarded as deplorable by both governments and civilians (i.e. human rights abuses, use of chemical weapons, the use of any weapons of mass destruction in general, etc.) This method is not commonly used by fellow governments, though, but rather by international organizations such as Human Rights Watch [if you would like to learn more about this incredible organization, I will happily explain more – just let me know!] In the case of the Abu Ghraib prison photos, it was in fact a news organization which spread the negative press that changed the US policy on torture (side note – torture has been outlawed since 1948 via the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the 1984 Convention against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. All of these are ratified by the United States, meaning the US must abide by them.)

Too long, didn’t want to read? Here is a summary – application of international law relies on three concepts (Reciprocity, Collective Action, and Shaming) in order to hold nations responsible for their commitments made in international law. Each of these are basically pressure tactics by other nations.

BUT WAIT! Is there a court which settles disputes of international law when they do happen? Yes, it is called the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and it is a principal body of the United Nations. There is also the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) which was created 1899, nearly 50 years before the ICJ. (I’ll write a post about the difference between them as well.) But even the decisions by these courts have no real enforcement techniques – they each rely on the 3 techniques discussed above.

Interesting right?