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60 Ways the UN Makes a Difference

 UN basic facts 
UN in brief

Not so well known . . .
What the UN Does for Peace
What the UN does for humanitarian assistance
Image and Reality (UNDPI website, New York)
Membership of principal United Nations Organs

What the UN Does for Peace

Preserving world peace is a central purpose of the United Nations. Under the Charter, Member States agree to settle disputes by peaceful means and refrain from threatening or using force against other States.

Over the years, the UN has played a major role in helping defuse international crises and in resolving protracted conflicts. It has undertaken complex operations involving peacemaking, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. It has worked to prevent conflicts from breaking out. And in post–conflict situations, it has increasingly undertaken coordinated action to address the root causes of war and lay the foundation for durable peace.

UN efforts have produced dramatic results. The UN helped defuse the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and the Middle East crisis in 1973. In 1988, a UN–sponsored peace settlement ended the Iran–Iraq war, and in the following year UN–sponsored negotiations led to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. In the 1990s, the UN was instrumental in restoring sovereignty to Kuwait, and played a major role in ending civil wars in Cambodia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mozambique, restoring the democratically elected government in Haiti, and resolving or containing conflict in various other countries.


Halting the spread of arms and reducing and eventually eliminating all weapons of mass destruction are major goals of the United Nations. The UN has been an ongoing forum for disarmament negotiations, making recommendations and initiating studies. It supports multilateral negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament and in other international bodies. These negotiations have produced such agreements as the Nuclear Non–Proliferation Treaty (1968), the Comprehensive Nuclear–Test–Ban Treaty (1996) and the treaties establishing nuclear–free zones.

Other treaties prohibit the development, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons (1992) and bacteriological weapons (1972), ban nuclear weapons from the seabed and ocean floor (1971) and outer space (1967); and ban or restrict other types of weapons. In 1997, more than 100 nations signed the Ottawa Convention outlawing landmines. The UN encourages all nations to adhere to this and other treaties banning destructive weapons of war. The UN is also supporting efforts to control small arms and light weapons. As decided by the General Assembly, an international conference in 2001 will focus on the illicit trade in small arms.

The Vienna–based International Atomic Energy Agency, through a system of safeguards agreements, ensures that nuclear materials and equipment intended for peaceful uses are not diverted to military purposes. And in The Hague, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons collects information on chemical facilities worldwide and conducts routine inspections to ensure adherence to the chemical weapons convention.


UN peacemaking brings hostile parties to agreement through diplomatic means. The Security Council, in efforts to maintain international peace and security, may recommend ways to avoid conflict or restore or secure peace — through negotiation, for example, or recourse to the International Court of Justice.

The Secretary–General plays an important role in peacemaking. The Secretary–General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which appears to threaten international peace and security; may use "good offices" to carry out mediation; or exercise "quiet diplomacy" behind the scenes, either personally or through special envoys. The Secretary–General also undertakes "preventive diplomacy" aimed at resolving disputes before they escalate. The Secretary–General may also send a fact–finding mission, support regional peacemaking efforts or set up a local UN political office to help build trust between the parties in conflict.


The UN is increasingly undertaking activities which focus on the underlying causes of violence. Development assistance is a key element of peace–building. In cooperation with UN agencies, and with the participation of donor countries, host governments and NGOs, the United Nations works to support good governance, civil law and order, elections and human rights in countries struggling to deal with the aftermath of conflict. At the same time, it helps these countries rebuild administrative, health, educational and other services disrupted by conflict.

Some of these activities, such as the UN's supervision of the 1989 elections in Namibia, mine–clearance programmes in Mozambique and police training in Haiti, take place within the framework of a UN peacekeeping operation and may continue when the operation withdraws. Others are requested by governments, as in Liberia where the UN has opened a peace–building support office, in Cambodia where the UN maintains a human rights office, or in Guatemala where the UN is helping to implement peace agreements which affect virtually all aspects of national life.


The Security Council sets up UN peacekeeping operations and defines their scope and mandate in efforts to maintain peace and international security. Most operations involve military duties, such as observing a ceasefire or establishing a buffer zone while negotiators seek a long–term solution. Others may require civilian police or incorporate civilian personnel who help organize elections or monitor human rights. Some operations, like the one in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, have been deployed as a means to help prevent the outbreak of hostilities. Operations have also been deployed to monitor peace agreements in cooperation with peacekeeping forces of regional organizations.

Peacekeeping operations may last for a few months or continue for many years. The UN's operation at the ceasefire line between India and Pakistan in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, for example, was established in 1949, and UN peacekeepers have been in Cyprus since 1964. In contrast, the UN was able to complete its 1994 mission in the Aouzou Strip between Libya and Chad in a little over a month.

Since the UN deployed its first peacekeepers in 1948, some 118 countries have voluntarily provided more than 750,000 military and civilian police personnel. They have served, along with thousands of civilians, in 54 peacekeeping operations. Currently, some 35,400 military and civilian police personnel are deployed in 15 operations.

UN action for peace

… in Africa

UN peace efforts have taken many forms over the years, including the long campaign against apartheid in South Africa, active support for Namibian independence, some 20 peacekeeping operations and a number of electoral support missions. The UN has helped repatriate refugees to Mozambique, provided humanitarian assistance in Somalia and Sudan and undertaken diplomatic efforts to restore peace in the Great Lakes region. It has helped prevent new unrest in the Central African Republic, and it is helping to prepare for a referendum on the future of Western Sahara. At the request of the Security Council, the Secretary–General recently provided a comprehensive analysis of conflicts in Africa along with recommendations on how to promote durable peace. Most recently, the Security Council established new peacekeeping operations, in Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia and Eritrea.

… in Asia

The UN family continues working to strengthen Cambodian civil society, human rights and democracy following the massive 1992–1993 UN peacekeeping mission in that country.

In Afghanistan, the UN Special Mission has worked since 1993 to facilitate national reconciliation and reconstruction needed as a result of the country's protracted civil war. In spite of intense diplomatic efforts by the Secretary–General and his special envoys, fighting has continued at great humanitarian cost, severely hindering attempts by the UN system to provide assistance to the Afghan people.

In East Timor, UN–brokered talks between Indonesia and Portugal culminated in the May 1999 agreement which paved the way for a popular consultation on the status of the territory. Under the agreement, a UN mission supervised voter registration and the August ballot, at which 78 per cent of East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia over autonomy within that country. When the results were announced, militias opposing independence unleashed a campaign of violence, forcing some 200,000 East Timorese to flee their homes. The Security Council in September 1999 authorized the dispatch of an international security force, which helped to restore order. The UN Transitional Administration has replaced the international force and is overseeing East Timor's transition towards independence.

… in Europe

The UN worked strenuously towards resolving the conflict in the former Yugoslavia while providing relief assistance to some 4 million people. In 1991, the UN imposed an arms embargo, while the Secretary–General and his envoy conducted diplomatic efforts to end the fighting. From 1992 to 1995, UN peacekeepers sought to bring peace and security to Croatia, helped protect civilians in Bosnia and Herzegovina and helped ensure that the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was not drawn into the war.

Following the 1995 Dayton–Paris peace agreements, four UN missions helped secure the peace. The largest of them, the UN Transitional Administration in Eastern Slavonia, oversaw the reintegration of this territory into Croatia.

In Kosovo (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), the UN established in 1999 an interim international administration following the end of NATO air bombings and the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces. The Security Council vested in the UN administration unprecedented authority over the territory and people of Kosovo, including all legislative, executive and judiciary powers. Under the umbrella of the UN, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations are working with the people of Kosovo to create a functioning, democratic society with substantial autonomy.

… in the Americas

UN peacemaking and peacekeeping have been instrumental in resolving protracted conflicts in Central America. In 1989, in Nicaragua, the peace effort led to the voluntary demobilization of the resistance movement, whose members turned in their weapons to the UN. In 1990, a UN mission observed Nicaragua's elections — the first UN–observed elections in an independent country.

In El Salvador, peace talks mediated by the Secretary–General ended 12 years of fighting, and a UN peacekeeping mission verified implementation of all agreements. In Guatemala, UN–assisted negotiations ended a 35–year civil war. Today, the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala works to see that the comprehensive peace agreements are fully implemented.

In Haiti, following international action to restore the democratically elected government, the UN has continued its work to consolidate democratic institutions.

… in the Middle East

UN concern over the Arab–Israeli conflict spans five decades and five full–fledged wars. The UN has defined principles for a just and lasting peace, including in two benchmark Security Council resolutions — 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) — which remain the basis for an overall settlement.

The UN has supported other initiatives aimed at solving underlying political problems and has despatched various peacekeeping operations to the region. The UN's first military observer group was set up in 1948 and maintains its presence in the area to this day. The UN's first peacekeeping force was also set up there, during the Suez crisis of 1956. Two peacekeeping forces are currently in the region. One, established in 1974, maintains an area of separation on the Golan Heights between Israeli and Syrian troops. The other, established in 1978, contributes to stability in southern Lebanon; in 2000, it verified the withdrawl of Israeli forces from the area

Elsewhere in the region, a UN observer mission monitors the demilitarized zone between Iraq and Kuwait following restoration of Kuwait's sovereignty in 1991.

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