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close this bookWIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 07, No. 3 - Critical Issues in Health and the Environment (WIT, 1995, 16 pages)
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View the documentPoint of view: The United Nations: 50 Years of Conflict, 50 Years of Development, 5.6 Billion People

Special Focus

In their coverage of United Nations activities over the past 50 years, the international press has tended to devote most of its attention to peace and security issues. Yet, over the course of its 50-year lifespan, the United Nations has played an increasingly pivotal role in many other important and diverse activities, activities that directly affect the lives of individuals and communities the world over. What follows is an overview of significant United Nations programs, past and present, in commemoration of this year's 50th Anniversary of the U.N.


The astonishing economic and social transformations that have taken place globally over the past 50 years have been significantly affected in their direction and shape by the United Nations. The international development agenda, as outlined by programs of the successive International Development Decades beginning in 1961, has aimed at attaining accelerated economic and social progress among developing nations, along with the development and implementation of policies formed in concert with the U.N. family of organizations.

While the international community's attention has often focused primarily on immediate political concerns, the U.N. has consistently adopted a broader view in its efforts to achieve a more equitable model for improving the lives of inhabitants of member nations. Some 80% of U.N. energies have been devoted to improving public health and quality of living through the development and implementation of programmes within its various departments.

Signing the UN Charter on June 26,1945, in San Francisco

SOURCE: UN Chronicle, Volume 32, Number 2, June 1995

Two fundamental facts have guided U.N. efforts in this regard: three quarters of the world's population live among developing economies, and 1.3 billion of those live in abject poverty; while the world's 23 richest nations have a combined per capita income of $22,000, the 40 poorest nations have a combined per capita income of just $390, a ratio that continues to widen. To address this enormous disparity in distribution of world resources, the U.N. has consistently stressed the need to reshape international economic relations. In 1974, the General Assembly adopted a declaration and action plan, the New International Economic Order (NIEO), outlining measures to narrow the widening economic gap between the northern and the southern hemisphere nations.

The principal mechanism within the U.N.'s organizational structure for realizing this goal has been the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). ECOSOC is the central forum for discussion and policy formulation on development issues. ECOSOC not only provides a platform from which the voices of previously disenfranchised populations are now heard, but acts as the coordinating body for the integration of global developmental goals and practices.

Young villagers wave their certificates proving that the health worker has completed their vaccination.

SOURCE: World Health, May-June 1993

Such goals are given practical expression through ECOSOC programs ranging from technical cooperation and assistance, to surveys, studies, and documentation, to the sponsorship of international conferences and conventions, to the development of comprehensive development planning projects. Annually, the U.N. disburses more than $10 billion in projects that include constructing irrigation systems and organizing primary health and education networks and facilities. Coupled with monies from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), the U.N. has loaned out almost $500 billion since 1946.


The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) focuses on increased participation in the world economy for developing countries, as well as "countries in transition" to a market economy after the breakup of the Soviet system. UNCTAD is the main organ of the General Assembly on international trade issues, investment, finance, and technology transfer. It has successfully negotiated special trade preferences that enable developing nations to export products to developed nations, and has led the way in mobilizing support for the world's least developed nations.

The U.N. Development Program (UNDP) is the central coordinating organization for U.N. development actions worldwide, and has funded over 5,000 projects valued at about $5.6 billion. UNDP programs are designed to help build government management capabilities, to develop human resources, and to orchestrate technology transfer in close cooperation with 187 member states, other U.N. agencies, and non-governmental organizations. In response to a reassessment of global economic development models (see World Ecology Report, Summer '95) the UNDP now emphasizes four specific areas of concern in its development agenda: poverty alleviation, employment opportunities, empowering women, and natural resources conservation and regeneration. Recognizing that all four of these areas of concern are integrally related, UNDP project guidelines provide a model for development assistance used by both private and public policy organizations.


The U.N. has played a central role in shaping global action to protect the environment and in placing environmental considerations high on the international agenda. Led by the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) - established after the groundbreaking Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 in Stockholm - programmes have been put in place to protect, and monitor the ozone layer, to regulate hazardous waste materials, to prevent depletion of natural resource bases, especially in the ocean, and to combat desertification and deforestation. Together with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, UNEP orchestrates a wide range of environmental resource monitoring and research programmes. UNEP has provided the management and organizational expertise to meet specific environmental emergencies, such as the oil spill in the Arabian Gulf during the 1991 Gulf Conflict.


The U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 - better known as the Rio Earth Summit - catalyzed a global effort to integrate environmental considerations into economic and social development agendas in order to achieve sustainable development.

Since the 1992 Earth Summit, a number of national and regional governments have implemented sustainable development commissions to continue the work begun by UNCED. Currently, the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) meets annually to monitor global implementation of the Earth Summit Plan of Action, known as Agenda 21, and to provide a high-level forum for policy discussions and consensus building. CSD, provides assistance on sustainable development practices to nations and communities throughout the world.


The U.N.'s achievements in the areas of human health constitute one of its most resounding success stories. The World Health Organization (WHO) has provided the interagency leadership in such areas as providing universal immunization for polio, tetanus, measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, and tuberculosis among global populations, especially children. In 1974 only five percent of children among developing nations were immunized against these diseases; today, as a direct result of U.N. efforts, more than 80% are immunized, saving the lives of more than three million children every year.

Through oral rehydration therapy, water and sanitation, and other health and nutrition measures, the U.N.'s agencies have provided the leadership necessary to cut child mortality rates in half since I960. Average life expectancy has doubled among developing nations over the last 30 years, rising from 37 to 67 years of age.

Illiteracy among Bangladeshi women is estimated at 74%

SOURCE: Unesco Sources, April 1995


The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) was established in 1969 to help developing nations solve their population problems and to raise awareness of population issues in both developing and industrialized nations. UNFPA programs in over 150 countries have helped governments formulate strategies for providing reproductive health and family planning services, to disseminate information about gender awareness and empowerment, and to conduct contraception research. UNFPA has from the outset placed the strongest emphasis in its programmes on the active participation and leadership of women, enabling millions of people to make informed, educated decisions about the number and timing of children. This has given some families - and especially many women - greater control over their lives.

In 1974, the first global inter-governmental conference on population was held in Bucharest and a World Population Plan of Action was initiated. Ten years later, the International Conference on Population held in Mexico City integrated approaches to population control and economic development, and adopted a formal policy of improving the status of women and increasing their participation and leadership potential in all aspects of economic and social development. In 1994 the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo adopted a 20-year Program of Action endorsing a new strategy for addressing global population issues. The most crucial aspect of this new strategy is the development of political, economic, and social mechanisms for the empowerment of women in all parts of the world, especially through education and accessibility to health and reproductive services.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has been one of the U.N.'s highest profile and greatest success stories. Since I960, under-five mortality has been cut in half and primary school enrollment has doubled. UNICEF continues its efforts to reduce the number of preventable childhood deaths from communicable diseases not only through medical programmes but through the reduction of poverty, especially among developing nations.

At the World Summit for Children in 1990, representatives from over 150 nations - including 71 heads of state - formally adopted 27 specific health and development goals to dramatically improve the lives of children by the year 2000. Guided by UNICEF, more than 100 countries have finalized national programs to translate such calls for action into reality. As a result, approximately 2.5 million fewer children will die in 1996 than died in 1990, and millions more will be saved from the horror of debilitating afflictions caused by extremes of poverty and disease.

In 1989, the General Assembly unanimously adopted the Conventions on the Rights of Child to help ensure implementation of comprehensive standards pertaining to children's health, education, social development, personal freedom, and physical protection from abuse and ill treatment, including child labor and sexual exploitation.


Among the most pressing of world problems today is the health of people living and working in urban centers. Since 1976, when the first U.N.-sponsored Habitat Conference took place in Vancouver, the U.N. has assisted governments in the development and management of human settlements, especially among urban areas. Currently, Habitat operates over 220 technical cooperation programmes with budgets totalling over $180 million, and over the past five years Habitat projects have consistently resulted in national investment commitments ranging from $1 to $3 billion per year.

As the final in a series of major U.N. conferences, the City Summit - or Habitat II - will take place in Istanbul in June of 1996. Habitat II will help shape the economic and social development agenda for the 21st century by bringing together local authorities, the private sector, and nongovernmental interests under one roof. The overall goal of the conference is to make the world's cities, towns, and villages healthy, safe, and socially equitable environments for the better sustenance of human life.


The U.N. International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) assists the world's rural poor through its system of providing credit for the improvement of food production, distribution, employment, and nutrition among the poorest and most marginalized groups. IFAD has benefited over 230 million people in over 100 developing nations since its inception at the 1974 World Food Conference in Rome.


SOURCE: First Call for Children, July-September 1995

The U.N. International Labor Organization (ILO) is the U.N. focal point for labor and employment issues. For its work in creating jobs, improving working conditions, developing comprehensive safety standards, and protecting workers' rights the ILO was awarded a 1969 Nobel Peace Prize. The ILO acts as the U.N.'s investigative arm, and responds to abuses in all parts of the world. Currently, the ILO is working to improve working conditions for over 100 million people among three separate continents.

The U.N. Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) encourages and financially assists developing nations in their promotion and acceleration of industrialization. UNIDO has brought together northern- and southern-hemisphere economic interests, as well as provided a forum for north-south and east-west investment by promoting entrepreneurship and self-reliance.


This necessarily brief overview has not even touched on some of the U.N.'s most important achievements and ongoing works, particularly those related to human rights, education, crime and drug control, and decolonization. During the past 50 years, the United Nations has not only recognized the integral nature of global issues, but has also achieved specific goals through the implementation of vast projects. At this, its 50th birthday, the United Nations has committed itself to redoubling its efforts on behalf of people everywhere.

SOURCES: The United Nations at 50, UNDPI, Aug. '95; Secretariat News, March '95, June '95, July '95, Aug. '95; Diplomatic World Bulletin, July 16-23, July 24-31 '95; ECOSOC Press Release, June '95, July '95, Aug. '95; UNDP Media Advisory, Aug. '95; GoBetween, Apr/May '95, Jun/Jul '95, Aug/Sept '95; NGLS Roundup, July '95, Aug. '95; WHO Press Release, July '95, Aug. '95; Child Survival-World Development Newsletter, Jun/Jul '95, Aug/Sept '95; UNDPI Programme Update, Aug. '95.


· United Nations: A Working Paper for Restructuring, by Stassen. Minneapolis: 1994.
· Una Nueva Carta de las Naciones Unidas, by Vasquex. Mexico City: 1993.
· Eroding the United Nations Charter, by Blum. Boston: 1993.
· World Peace through World Law, by dark and Sohn. Ann Arbor: 1992.
· The United Nations Charter and the World Court, by Elias. Lagos: 1989.
· U.N. Charter as an Instrument of Peace, by Eftimov. Moscow: 1986.

Women and the U.N.: 1945-1995

1945: UN Charter - the first international instrument to establish principle of equality for men and women - is adopted.

1946: Commission on the Status of Women is established to promote women's political, economic and social rights.

1949: Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others is adopted by the General Assembly.

1951: International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopts Convention Concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for work of Equal Value.

1952: General Assembly adopts Convention on Political Rights of Women, first global endorsement of political rights, including the right to vote.

1953: Convention on the Nationality of Married Women is adopted, granting women the right to retain or change their nationalities regardless of their husbands' actions.

1969: Convention Concerning Discrimination in Respect to Employment and Occupation is adopted.

1962: General Assembly adopts Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages.

1967: Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is adopted.

1975: The World Conference of the International Women's Year (Mexico City) adopts first World Plan of Action. First Decade for Women: Equality, Development, Peace is proclaimed.

1970: Voluntary Fund for the UN Decade on Women (UNIFEM) and the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) are established by the General Assembly.

1979: General Assembly adopts Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

1980: The World Conference of the UN Decade for Women (Copenhagen) reviews progress at mid-Decade.

1985: The third UN conference on women adopts the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women to the Year 2000.

Voluntary Fund for UN Decade for Women becomes UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), and autonomous organization within the UN Development Programme.

1986: First World Survey on the Role of Women in Development is published.

1991: The World's Women: Trends and Statistics is published, a compilation of data on the global situation of women.

1992: UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro) recognizes key role of women in sustainable development.

1993: Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women is adopted by the General Assembly.

World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna) integrates violence against women and other women's rights issues into overall UN human rights agenda.

1994: International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo) marks first time empowerment of women is seen as an integral part of development.

1995: Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing) will review and debate critical areas of concern and adopt a proposed Platform for Action.

Agenda of World Summit for Social Development reflects full range of Women's issues; draft declaration contains commitment to ensuring equality.

SOURCE: UN Chronicle, June 1995