At international level, the United Nations (UN) is the institution with primary responsibility for the maintenance of peace and collective security under international law. Due to its universal membership, the UN enjoys a particularly high level of legitimacy. Over recent decades, the UN has generated significant impetus for the global peace and security agenda – notable examples being the ground-breaking Agenda for Peace and the report In Larger Freedom – and this resonates in policy-making and strategic approaches at the national level.
The UN thus has an effect at many different levels, influencing the way in which the international community intervenes in armed conflicts. First and foremost, the United Nations acts as a forum for voting and decision-making by the international community. In addition, it has a wide range of diplomatic, security and development policy instruments at its disposal which it can deploy for the purpose of conflict management. These instruments are steadily evolving, particularly at the interface between traditional UN peace operations (peacekeeping) and medium- to long-term post-conflict engagement (peacebuilding), and there is increasing linkage with other UN programmes and mechanisms whose primary purpose is development, notably UNDP.
Alongside the UN’s peace operations and development programmes, the humanitarian organisations within the UN system (e.g. UNHCR, WFP and OCHA) generally have a strong presence in conflict and post-conflict regions. Like national aid agencies, they have a very specific role to play, with their work being oriented towards humanitarian principles.