The UN: The Power of Influence

After the events of the Second World War, the United Nations was established to promote international cooperation and prevent further global warfare. A common misconception sees the United Nations as an international governing body. As we live in a world of international anarchy, each state is sovereign and reports to no higher power but its own.[1] The UN cannot act as a world government without infringing on states’ sovereignty. This brings into question the ability of the United Nations to enforce its will. To see if the UN has truly made any significant changes since its formation, one must examine its campaigns and projects to see if they have had any influence on the world.

UN Women UN Women's HeForShe Campaign Special Event (Flickr @UNWomen)

UN Women
UN Women’s HeForShe Campaign Special Event (Flickr @UNWomen)

Last week, UN Women goodwill ambassador Emma Watson spoke at a special event for a new gender equality campaign called “HeForShe”, a project for which Watson called on “everyone to participate.”[2] The campaign stresses the importance of men getting involved in ending gender inequality[3]The video of her speech spread quickly via social media and struck conversation worldwide, including among fellow celebrities who soon declared their support for the movement as well. This is not the first time popular figures have been used to promote UN campaigns. In 2013, a campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality named “Free & Equal” was introduced with “fun.” and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis among its supporters.[4] The use of popular figures and social media as a means of promotion is not a new one, but one that has become more prevalent as the popularity of social media increases. Both “HeForShe” and “Free & Equal” have interactive websites where one can show their support through a Tweet, or a post on Facebook. “Free & Equal” has also used traditional forms of advertisements as a source of promotion, using public transit and television as mediums. The campaign even produced a LGBT Bollywood music video. While both campaigns are big on promotion and have made their names using social media and popular figures, it is unclear whether they have influenced people’s opinions and ideas on women and the LGBT population due in large part to their recent launch dates.

The UN has also introduced different agencies over the years for refugees, children, and the environment. One popular project set up by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1997 was the Kyoto Protocol.[5] With 191 member states and the EU, the Kyoto Protocol set binding obligations on states to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Although almost all members of the UN signed the protocol, both the United States and Canada have not enforced it.[6] The international treaty was aimed at developed, industrialized nations, as they are principally responsible for the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.[7] However lack of participation from two of the largest developed industrialized nations cripples the protocol’s efficacy. While the world can aspire toward meaningful change on the question of environmental protection, the UN’s inability to enforce projects, such as this, is a significant hindrance on efforts to make a difference. Another agency for environmental protection is UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme. Holding summits on climate change and leading clean ups of the Mediterranean[8], this agency has helped several nations adopt sustainability plans and projects of their own. The important thing to remember when thinking of efforts such as these by the UN is that they are largely promotional. With no power to enforce, the United Nations can only urge and motivate its members to participate in its projects. Although it can call for sanctions and voluntary embargoes on certain states, it is at the member states’ discretion to support these actions or not, limiting the UN to the power of influence to diplomacy.

To say the United Nations has made no difference at all would be untrue, as it has provided a sense of security and hope to the world at large. In an anarchic world where every state is on its own,[9] an international governing body may seem appealing. Although the UN cannot quite be a world government because it cannot place laws and restrictions on member states, it can resemble one in the realm of human rights and peacekeeping. It formulates certain norms of international behaviour that make war and the violation of human rights more difficult. It presents its members with a charter which decrees that its four main purposes are to “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, 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.[10]” States are not legally bound in any way to this charter, however it does set the norms for how most states operate and work together.[11]

The United Nations does not have any authority over sovereign states, yet its international influence has motivated individuals to come together and try to improve the world socially, environmentally, and politically. During its 70 years of operation, the UN has made several impressive gains. Having no military power, it requires military contributions (troops and police) by member states.[12] Nicknamed “the Blue Berets”, Peacekeepers are seen as one of the most influential projects to come out of the United Nations. Other popular UN projects include UNAIDS, UNICEF (United Children’s Fund), and the UN World Food Program. Together, these organizations have helped decrease the number of deaths by aids by nearly 1 million in the past 10 years, the number of deaths of children under five by half from 1990-2011, and continues to feed 104 million people in 80 countries annually[13]. Most of its power might lie in the hands of humanitarianism, but that might just be enough power it needs to truly transform the world for the better.

 

 


 

[1] Cynthia Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction. Routledge, Chapter 2.

[2] http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2014/9/emma-watson-gender-equality-is-your-issue-too

[3] http://www.heforshe.org/

[4] https://www.unfe.org/

[5] http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/items/2830.php

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyoto_Protocol

[7] Ibid.

[8] http://www.cleanuptheworld.org/PDF/en/clean-up-the-mediterranean-project-overview–e–final.pdf

[9] Cynthia Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction. Routledge, Chapter 2.

[10] http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/preamble.shtml

[11] Joe Sills, The Role of the United Nations in Forming Global Norms, 2002

[12] http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/resources/statistics/contributors.shtml

[13] http://theflame.unishanoi.org/opinion/2013/10/30/top-9-greatest-achievements-of-the-united-nations/