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The United Nations: An Introduction for Students

The UN System

The basic structure of the United Nations is outlined in an organizational chart. What the structure does not show is that decision-making within the UN system is not as easy as in many other organizations. The UN is not an independent, homogeneous organization; it is made up of sovereign states, so actions by the UN depend on the will of Member States, to accept, fund or carry them out. Especially in matters of peace-keeping and international politics, it requires a complex, often slow, process of consensus-building that must take into account national sovereignty as well as global needs.

The Specialized Agencies, while part of the UN system, are separate, autonomous intergovernmental organizations which work with the UN and with each other. The agencies carry out work relating to specific fields such as trade, communications, air and maritime transport, agriculture and development. Although they have more autonomy, their work within a country or between countries is always carried out in partnership with those countries. They also depend on funds from Member States to achieve their goals.

Photo Recently, international conferences organised by the UN have gained significance. UN conferences have been held since the 1960s, but with the Conference on Environment and Development, known as the Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, they turned into real fora for deciding on national and international policy regarding issues that affect everyone such as the environment, human rights and economic development. Since the Earth Summit, UN conferences have turned into forums in which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can voice their concerns alongside those of governments. Such conferences focus world attention on these issues and place them squarely on the global agenda. Yet, once the international agreements produced by these conferences are signed, it is still up to each individual country to carry them out. With the moral weight of international conferences and the pressures of media and NGOs, Member States are more likely to endorse the agreements and put them into effect.

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