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What Is the United Nations?

Now in its seventh decade, the United Nations is well known throughout the world. But how many people know what it does or how it works? Or why, as nearly 200 leaders converge this week for the 74th session of its annual General Assembly, the institution has struggled to keep the promise of its founders: making the world better and more peaceful?

From the ashes of World War II
The United Nations Charter was signed at a conference in San Francisco in June 1945, led by Britain, China, the Soviet Union and the United States.

When the Charter took effect on Oct. 24 of that year, a global war had just ended. Much of Africa and Asia was still ruled by colonial powers.

After fierce negotiations, 50 nations agreed to a Charter that begins, “We the peoples of the United Nations.”

That opening line is notable because today, the United Nations can, to some, seem to serve the national interests of its 193 members — especially the most powerful. Their priorities can stand in the way of fulfilling the Charter’s first two pledges: to end “the scourge of war” and to regain “faith in fundamental human rights.”

Human rights: Aspirations vs. reality
In 1948, the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These include the right to not be enslaved, the right to free expression, and the right to seek from other countries asylum from persecution. According to the United Nations Foundation, it is the most translated document in the world.

However, many of the rights expressed — to education, to equal pay for equal work, to nationality — remain aspirational.

General Assembly: Big podium, small powers
Each fall, the United Nations General Assembly, the main decision-making body of the organization where each member has one vote, becomes the stage where presidents and prime ministers give speeches that can be soaring, clichéd, or somewhere in between. Despite the recommended 15-minute time limit, many leaders exceed it. Some have delivered long, incoherent tirades, such as one given by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan strongman, in 2009. (The longest General Assembly speech ever given was by Fidel Castro, at four hours and 29 minutes, on Sept. 26, 1960.)

At last year’s General Assembly, President Donald J. Trump delivered a speech that sharply criticized multilateralism, a cornerstone of the international cooperation espoused by the United Nations. “America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control and domination,” he declared. In 2017, Mr. Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if it threatened the United States or its allies.

The General Assembly speeches offer plenty of star power, but critics contend that they amount to little more than a glorified gabfest.

For the rest of the session, the General Assembly is the arena where largely symbolic diplomatic jousts are won and lost. Hundreds of resolutions are introduced annually. While some earn a great deal of attention — like one in 1975 that equated Zionism with racism — they are not legally binding.

In principle, nations small and large, rich and poor, have equal voice in the Assembly. But the genuine power resides elsewhere.

Security Council: Powerful but often paralyzed
The 15-member Security Council is by far the most powerful arm of the United Nations. It can impose sanctions, as it has done against North Korea over its nuclear arsenal and missiles, and authorize military intervention, as it did against Libya in 2011.

Critics say it also is the most anachronistic part of the organization. Its five permanent members, known as the P5, are the victors of World War II: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States. The other 10 members are elected for two-year terms, with seats set aside for different regions of the world.

Efforts to expand the permanent membership to include powers that have emerged since 1945 — such as India, Japan and Germany — have been stymied. For every country that vies for a seat, rivals seek to block it.

Any member of the permanent five can veto any measure, and each has regularly used this power to protect either itself or allies. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has cast a veto 16 times on Council resolutions, many concerning Israeli-Palestinian relations. Russia has done so 22 times in that period.

Problems keeping the peace
The Security Council’s job is to maintain international peace. Its ability to do so has been severely constrained in recent years, largely because of bitter divisions between Russia and the West.

The Council has been unable to defuse major conflicts, particularly those in which permanent members have a stake. Most recently, its starkest failure has been the handling of the nearly nine-year-old conflict in Syria, with Russia backing the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and the United States, Britain and France supporting some opposition groups.

It also failed to halt the fighting in Yemen between its Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition, despite a disastrous humanitarian situation and reports from its own investigators of war crimes on both sides.

North Korea, an ally of China, has also consistently defied the United Nations, ignoring prohibitions against its nuclear program and missile tests.

Secretary General: Global reach, vague role
The Charter is vague in defining the duties of the secretary general, the United Nations’ top official. Nine people have held the position, all men. The secretary general is expected to show no favoritism to any particular country, but the office is largely dependent on the funding and good will of the most powerful nations.

The Security Council — notably its five permanent members — chooses the secretary general, by secret ballot, to serve a maximum of two five-year terms. It is difficult for the secretary general to remain independent of the P5’s influence.

Without a military force, the secretary general’s coercive power is limited, but the position enjoys a bully pulpit. The current secretary general, António Guterres, a Portuguese politician now in his third year, has sought most conspicuously to advance international cooperation against warming temperatures. At a climate summit Mr. Guterres convened on Monday, he told participants that without more aggressive action their grandchildren would suffer, and “I refuse to be an accomplice in the destruction of their one and only home.”

Goals endangered: Climate change and the 2030 objectives
The United Nations Climate Action Summit at the General Assembly on Monday meant to highlight concrete promises by leaders to wean the global economy from fossil fuels to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The United States, having vowed to pull out of the 2015 Paris Agreement, the pact among nations to jointly fight climate change, said nothing at all. A host of countries made only incremental promises.

In 2015, the General Assembly also unanimously endorsed the Sustainable Development Goals, a 17-item list of 2030 objectives that includes addressing climate change, pollution, poverty and hunger; and eliminating gender discrimination. Mr. Guterres is using part of this year’s General Assembly to sound the alarm that the deadline could be missed. “We are not on track,” he said. “We are not doing enough.”

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