Featured Article: “What Is the United Nations? Its History, Its Goals and Its Relevance”
This week, nearly 200 world leaders have converged at the United Nations for the 74th session of its annual General Assembly. Presidents and prime ministers came together for the world’s most prominent diplomatic forum, amid crises ranging from climate change to the looming threat of armed conflict between Iran and the United States.
In this lesson, students will examine the United Nations, its history and its principles, and consider this question: Is this international institution relevant in 2019?
The annual United Nations General Assembly convened this week against a backdrop of crises — from a warming planet to economic uncertainty to flaring conflicts that threaten to further entangle the United States in a volatile Middle East. Nearly 200 leaders, including President Trump, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, President Jair M. Bolsonaro of Brazil and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, came to the world’s most prominent diplomatic stage for five days of speeches and hundreds of meetings.
At the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23, the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg delivered a speech criticizing world leaders for their inaction on protecting the environment, telling them that “you are failing us.”
If you could speak before the United Nations, what issue would you want to address? If you had the world’s attention, what would you say? What impact would you hope your words could have?
Questions for Writing and Discussion
Read the article, then answer the following questions:
1. The United Nations Charter begins, “We the peoples of the United Nations.” Why, according to this article, is this opening statement notable in 2019? What were the primary pledges of the charter? How relevant are they today?
2. How does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in 1948, remain “aspirational?” Which of the rights enumerated in the declaration are most meaningful to you?
3. What are the structure and purpose of the General Assembly? What does the writer mean by “In principle, nations small and large, rich and poor, have equal voice in the Assembly. But the genuine power resides elsewhere”? Why is the General Assembly “the arena where largely symbolic diplomatic jousts are won and lost”?
4. How does the Security Council differ from the General Assembly? Why is it “powerful” but often “paralyzed”? Why do critics say it is the “most anachronistic part” of the United Nations? Do you agree? What changes to the existing structure would you recommend?
5. Why has it been so challenging for the Security Council to meet its essential mission to maintain international peace? What recent examples demonstrate these challenges?
6. What did you learn about the United Nations from the article? What did you find most interesting, provocative or surprising? To what extent, in your opinion, has the organization succeeded in its mission, as stated in its charter? What do you think has been its greatest success and its greatest failure during its 74-year history?
Does your school have a Model U.N. club? If so, you might interview the teachers and students involved. How well does the club mirror the structures and procedures of the real United Nations? What have students learned from participating? What examples can they give of the types of simulations the club has done?
Or, read a 2013 Times article, “The Dog-Eat-Dog World of Model U.N.” all about college Model United Nations conferences that have turned MUN, as it’s called, into “a full-fledged sport, with all the competitiveness and rowdiness that suggests.”
Finally, to experience Model U.N. yourself, you might take a look at the free MyDiplomat resource offered by the United Nations Association of the United States of America. Via the website or related app, you can do a simulation like the “International Zombie Pandemic,” going through the stages of responding to prompts like “The United Nations has called an emergency session to respond to the rapidly spreading Global Zombie Pandemic. We need your diplomatic leadership to save humanity.”