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The United Nations System Today: Linking with International Relations Theory

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In this week you will:
  • Learn about the workings of two main UN organs, the Security Council and the General Assembly, and
  • Learn about the links between theories of international relations and the United Nations.

To prepare for your tutorials this week you should:

  1. Listen to the lecture
  2. Complete the readings and make notes
  3. Listen to the interviews with Professors Freestone and Wolfers
  4. Listen to the interview with Professor Hill
  5. Read the section of the UN's Programmes/Funds, Specialized Agencies and Functional Commissions
  6. Think about topics that the UN is currently debating, or could potentially consider for debate, that you would be interested in discussing in class
  7. If you have time look at the extension reading.

Readings and Resources

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Lecture: The UN Today

Susan Engel and Josh Pallas (2015) International Relations Theory and the UN: A Short Primer.

Meyer, Scott James, The Changing Role of the UN General Assembly (October 31, 2012). International Bar Notes, The International Bar Association, Summer 2011 Available at SSRN.


Malone, David M., An Evolving UN Security Council (Oct-Dec 2007). Indian Journal of International Law, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 594-615, October-December 2007, accessed on 3rd March 2014 Available at SSRN.

Interview with Professor David Freestone on International Law, Multilateral Agreements and International Organisations

Professor David Freestone is at the George Washington University Law School. He previously worked in the World Bank as a Senior Adviser, Deputy General Counsel, Chief Counsel and Head of the Environment and International Law Group. He is a Senior Adviser to the US Office of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He is a Visiting Professor at the UN University Institute of Advanced Studies and on the List of Experts in Environmental Law appointed by the Secretary-General of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Here David is interviewed by Susan about the importance of international law, the intricacies of multilateral negotiations and the role of international organisations like the IUCN in multilateral and international negotiations.

Professor Ted Wolfers on Decolonisation and the UN

Edward (Ted) Wolfers is an Honorary Professorial Fellow here at the University of Wollongong. He was the Foundation Professor of Politics at the UOW, has been a key adviser to the Government of Papua New Guinea on a range of issues and an Expert at regional meetings of the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization. Today he is speaking to Susan about the role of the UN in decolonisation historically and the remaining 17 territories that are still on the Special Committee on Decolonization’s list of territories.

These territories are: The 17 non-self-governing territories are Gibraltar, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Western Sahara, American Samoa, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Guam, Montserrat, Pitcairn, Saint Helena, Turks and Caicos Islands, United States Virgin Islands, Tokelau and the Falkland Islands.

For more details on the UN and decolonisation, including the Special Committee on Decolonization see their UN webpage.

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Did you know

The role of the UN's General Assembly's Main Committees

For more on the role of each of the UN General Assembly's Main Committees see these short youtube clips from UN Germany:

  • First Committee (Disarmament and International Security Committee) is concerned with disarmament and related international security questions .
  • Second Committee (Economic and Financial Committee) is concerned with economic questions.
  • Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee) deals with social and humanitarian issues.
  • Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization Committee) deals with a variety of political subjects not dealt with by the First Committee, as well as with decolonization.
  • Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary Committee) deals with the administration and budget of the United Nations
  • Sixth Committee (Legal Committee) deals with international legal matters.

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Did you know

The UN's Programmes/Funds, Specialized Agencies and Functional Commissions

The UN has a whole range of programmes and agencies, some of which predate the UN itself and have been incorporated into the UN structure, like the International Telecommunication Union which was established in 1874 and is now a UN Specialized Agency.

The 16 Specialized Agencies all report to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and it is responsible for coordinating their activities. But, in practice, ECOSOC’s authority over these agencies is quite limited as each one has its own constitution, rules, membership, governance, and financial resources. The Agencies are generally concerned with setting standards and regulating activity in areas of their specialty and these covers a wide range of topics including: telecommunications; food production and security (Food and Agricultural Organization); health (World Health Organization); and maritime cooperation (International Maritime Organization).

The Bretton Woods twins – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank– are also Specialized Agencies. These two organisations provide much of the global financial architecture. The IMF is responsible for orderly exchange conditions; monitoring international economic conditions; and loans for member states with balance of payments problems. The World Bank provides long-term loans and technical assistance for developing countries. They are called the Bretton Woods twins because they were created at a conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, United States in July 1944 – note that this was before the San Francisco Conference of April-June 1945, which developed the United Nations Charter.

ECOSOC is more directly responsible for the Functional and Regional Commissions which have broad responsibilities around economic, social and human rights. There are Functional Commissions on everything from population, human rights and social development to narcotics, crime prevention and forest. There are five Regional Commissions which acts as the regional outposts of the UN in their respective regions. They promote economic integration at the subregional and regional levels and the regional implementation of internationally agreed development goals. They focus a lot on dialogue, knowledge sharing and networking at the regional level. The Programmes and Funds report to the General Assembly, generally through their executive board. They are financed through voluntary contributions rather than assessed contributions. They were mostly developed to address particular humanitarian and development concerns like refugees (Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees), development (UN Development Programme) or children’s well-being (UN Children’s Fund).

The UN also has a number of specialised Research and Training Institutes on crime, disarmament, social development, the advancement of women and on training and research. There is also a separate UN University, which is the academic and research arm of the UN.

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Case Study
Case Study: Emeritus Professor Stephen Hill AM on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

UNESCO was established in 1945 in order to promote peace between nations through collaboration in education, science and cultural arenas. Its priorities change over time with peace building and equitable and sustainable development the current overarching objectives and Africa and gender equality priority themes. It works through both running specific programs and projects and through its work in policy analysis, monitoring and benchmarking; policy advice; international and regional cooperation, knowledge-sharing and partnerships; and training.

Emeritus Professor Stephen Hill AM of the University of Wollongong was the Regional Director, Asia and Pacific and Ambassador for UNESCO from 1995 to 2005. Prior to joining UNESCO, Stephen was Director of the Centre for Research Policy, at UOW following 17 years as Foundation Professor of Sociology. In this clip, he is talking to Susan about his role in UNESCO and in a major organisational reform that he headed.