The UN Is Complicated, So Here is a Dictionary to Help Figure It Out

by Helmut Volger. This article first appeared on PassBlue.

To provide readers who want information about the United Nations that is intelligent and concise yet comprehensive is a challenging task for every author: he or she must outline a puzzling system of principal organs, specialized agencies, programs, funds, commissions and committees that produces large piles of resolutions, declarations and conventions on topics such as peacekeeping, development assistance, global health, migration, environmental protection and human rights.

In April 2018, the 15 members of the UN Security Council visited a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh that houses 600,000 people. Here, Karen Pierce, the British ambassador, hugs a resident of the camp while Lise Gregoire-van Haaren, the deputy ambassador of Netherlands, is behind her. CAROLINE GLUCK/UN PHOTO

To provide a useful orientation in the seemingly chaotic UN system calls for somebody who has worked extensively inside it but who has also studied and analyzed it thoroughly from the outside: the author of such a book is Jacques Fomerand, a French political scientist and former UN official, who has done both. From 1977 till 1991, he worked in the UN Secretariat, and from 1992 to 2003, he was director of the New York office of the United Nations University. Retiring in 2003, he has been teaching in academic institutions in the United States and France.

Fomerand’s book, the second edition of the “Historical Dictionary of the United Nations,” published by Scarecrow Press in December 2017 (the first was published in 2007), contains more than 840 pages of updated information about the UN.

Why is the book titled “Historical Dictionary”? It contains both a historical analysis of the UN as well as a dictionary with entries from A to Z.

The initial chapters are dedicated to the history the UN: the first chapter consists of a detailed chronology, mapping out the expansion and differentiation of the organizational structures of the UN and the tasks of its organs. The chronology makes plain the abundance of tasks the world organization is dealing with: you can take any year you like and you will find a multitude of international conventions adopted by the General Assembly, numerous Security Council decisions on peacekeeping matters and human-rights violations as well as world conferences on global problems held by specialized agencies of the UN.

The densely packed schedule of meetings of the different UN bodies demonstrates impressively the broad range of UN activities and the necessity to tackle many global problems promptly and efficiently.

While the chronology provides an informative overview on UN activities, the second chapter, an “introduction,” weighs the achievements and failures of the UN in its main fields of work. Fomerand has written it in the form of a long essay of about 60 pages in elegant English.

It outlines the institutional developments of the UN in reaction to the changing system of international relations and relates the scope of UN activities explicitly to the national interests of its member states, saying, “The United Nations is rarely more than the sum of its parts, and generally it mirrors the divisions as well as the hopes and convictions of the world’s governments.”

While the chronology addresses apparently students and journalists who read the book, the essay is probably more interesting to UN historians or expert journalists seeking information on fundamental trends of the UN system.

The central part of the book, the third chapter, consists of the dictionary in the strict sense of the word, the A to Z entries. Comprising more than 600 pages, it contains about a thousand entries, thoroughly cross-referenced.

The great value of this chapter lies in the broad range of items covered by the entries: not only the large and small UN bodies but also international panels and commissions, world conferences, important UN resolutions, peacekeeping missions, human-rights conventions, legal terms (such as R2P, or Responsibility to Protect), and conflict areas. A range of important UN personalities and, last but not least, a large number of UN-related nongovernmental organizations are also included.

Each entry is informative about the legal mandate, organizational structure and functional history as well as on past and present achievements and problems. Fomerand criticizes structural problems of the UN, emphasizes positive aspects often overlooked by less-informed UN critics and provides a good basis for the reader’s own UN evaluation.

To give an example: In the entry “Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc),” Fomerand criticizes its large workload — “the scope of its agenda has expanded beyond manageable proportions” — but he sees an important benefit of Ecosoc in its subsidiary organs, saying, “ECOSOC has produced useful albeit unheralded work originating . . . from its subsidiary machinery.”

The A-Z entries are a treasure trove of well-structured information on the historical development, the political conditions and the present problems and opportunities of the UN, written in clear, frank language.

The above-mentioned chapters are complemented by a detailed bibliography, providing an overview of relevant UN publications, information sources and secondary literature.

Fomerand’s dictionary is a rich source of information for everybody who is interested in the UN, from the newspaper reader to the student of international politics to the UN expert.

“Historical Dictionary of the United Nations,” by Jacques Fomerand, 9781538109700

Originally published at on June 2, 2018.



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Independent Coverage the United Nations. A project of The New School’s Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, supported by the Carnegie Corporation.