United Nations

UN flag

UN flag

The United Nations (UN) was founded in 1945 at the end of World War II as a universal international organization, open to membership for all states within the international system. Unlike the OSCE, the UN is a legally binding organization—all states that sign its Charter are obligated to fulfill the commitments contained therein.


The UN includes all of the participating states in the OSCE except the Holy See (Vatican City).

Chapter VI

Chapter VI of the UN Charter deals with the “pacific settlement of disputes,” and calls upon all states to pursue peaceful means such as negotiation and conciliation to resolve any dispute that might endanger international peace and security.

Although the Charter gives primacy to the Security Council to deal with such disputes, it also acknowledges that under certain conditions conflicts may be submitted to the International Court of Justices or to the General Assembly for resolution.

Chapter VII

Chapter VII of the UN Charter on “action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression” deals with overt situations where violent conflict appears imminent or has already broken out. Responsibility for Chapter VII activities is lodged primarily with the Security Council, which may apply sanctions against violators or authorize the use of force by some or all members of the United Nations to enforce security collectively within the international system.

Chapter VIII

Chapter VIII of the United Nations Charter explicitly recognizes the role of regional arrangements for dealing with peace and security. In Article 52 it specifically requires member states to “make every effort to achieve pacific settlement of local disputes through such regional arrangements or by such regional agencies before referring them to the Security Council.” However, enforcement actions undertaken under regional arrangements generally require authorization from the Security Council.

Since 1995, the OSCE has been recognized as a regional security institution under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, and thereby it has also accepted an obligation to keep the Security Council informed of activities that it undertakes or even contemplates undertaking for the maintenance of international peace and security.

UN role in security

The UN role in the security field has also grown considerably beyond the level of activity contemplated in 1945 when the Charter was adopted. Perhaps most important has been the development of UN “peacekeeping” operations, falling between pacific settlement of disputes and actual engagement of military forces in a full-scale collective security mission.

Originally these operations consisted largely of the interposition of UN “blue berets” between combatants after a cease-fire had been agreed upon, intended largely to prevent a resumption of direct hostilities. Since the end of the Cold War, however, UN operations have also entered into “peace-making” and “peace enforcement” in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, as well as providing military assistance for complex humanitarian emergencies. These latter missions may place UN forces in situations where they may have to engage in combat operations rather than police lines of division between parties that have previously agreed to a cease-fire.

Preventive diplomacy

Preventive diplomacy has been identified as a principal area of activity for the UN Secretary General and his staff of special emissaries, thereby giving the UN a special role in the same domain where the OSCE is also active.

This conflict prevention function has generally been performed by senior UN officials based in New York or Geneva rather than by missions permanently stationed in the field, as has generally been the case for OSCE activity on conflict prevention. Of course, a number of UN agencies such as the UN High Commission for Refugees and the UN Development Program maintain offices in many countries throughout the world and often play an indirect, and at times even a direct role in conflict prevention. In some specific cases, the UN and the OSCE have worked together to prevent the re-ignition of violence in post-conflict situations. An example is when the Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo serves under the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

Other UN agencies

In addition to the Security Council, there are a number of other UN agencies and programs that work in the peace and security field, and some of these frequently overlap with the areas normally covered by the OSCE.

  • UN Secretary General’s “Good Offices”
  • International Court of Justice
  • UN Commission on Human Rights
  • Election Assistance Unit
  • UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
OSCE overlap with UN

Many of the functions that have been created in the OSCE, especially since 1990, overlap and even duplicate functions of the United Nations. This naturally raises the question about when states will turn to the UN versus those occasions when they should utilize the OSCE to deal with particular threats to international peace and security.

One key determinant in states’ consideration is their influence in the organization under consideration and the likelihood of using it to achieve their goals. There is also the view that efforts to deal with threats to peace should originate at the regional level before coming to the UN, while efforts to take enforcement action should generally be launched with specific authorization by the UN Security Council.

In general the OSCE participating states have sought to obtain UN authorization for OSCE's major activities. At the same time, states have found that the OSCE brings regionally relevant expertise and mechanisms for resolving and/or containing the negative impacts of conflicts within and between OSCE participating states. This makes OSCE an important actor also for relieving an overburdened UN from having to assume too many responsibilities for peace maintenance in Europe, allowing the UN to concentrate on other global regions.