“The U.N. is like your conscience. It can’t make you do the right thing, but it can help you make the right decision.”

–Margaret Huang

 

The United Nations Charter was signed at a conference in San Francisco in June 1945, led by four countries: Britain, China, the Soviet Union and the United States.

When the Charter went into effect on Oct. 24 of that year, a global war had just ended. Much of Africa and Asia was still ruled by colonial powers. After fierce negotiations, 50 nations agreed to a Charter that begins, “We the peoples of the United Nations.”

In 1948, the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These include the right to not be enslaved, the right to free expression, and the right to seek from other countries asylum from persecution. In principle, nations small and large, rich and poor, have equal voice in the Assembly, with each country getting one vote. But the genuine power resides elsewhere- the Security Council. The 15-member Security Council is by far the most powerful arm of the United Nations. It can impose sanctions, as it did against Iran over its nuclear program, and authorize military intervention, as it did against Libya in 2011.

Critics say it is also the most anachronistic part of the organization. Its five permanent members are the victors of World War II: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States. The other 10 members are elected for two-year terms, with seats set aside for different regions of the world. The current secretary general, António Guterres, a Portuguese politician, took the reins last year. He was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from June 2005 to December 2015.

When Mr. Guterres took on the role of secretary general, he inherited a body facing the unenviable task of demonstrating the United Nations’ relevance in a world confronting challenges that were inconceivable 73 years ago.