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United Nations


The United Nations (or simply UN) is an international organization established in 1945 for the purpose of securing world peace. It replaced its predecessor, the League of Nations, which had failed to prevent war between nations. It was founded by 51 nations led by the allied powers after World War II. Now with 193 members, the organization's structure still reflects the geopolitical circumstances at its founding. On the United Nations Security Council, the body with the ability to enforce its decisions, there are five permanent members (P5) with veto power-the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and the People's Republic of China (PRC). Neither Russia nor the PRC were originally permanent Security Council members but took over the seats of the Soviet Union (defunct since 1992) and Republic of China (UN membership withdrawn in 1971).

As an organization of governments designed to prevent war between states, it has struggled to address issues of civil and ethnic strife within countries. Since the end of the Cold War, trends in conflict have shifted from international to intra-national conflicts; nations are no longer the defining framework for conflict. The United Nations Security Council, the UN's enforcement tool, has had to cope with intra-state and non-state threats by expanding the jurisdiction of its authority, although some question the suitability of the UN intervening in internal conflict situations.1

At the UN today, issues are still dealt with in the context of relations between nations, though they are often common problems within states. Many of the governments that make up the United Nations are dictatorial or authoritarian regimes that have been imposed by force, and do not reflect the interests of the majority of their people. As a result, a sizable number of the world's peoples feel they have no representation in the United Nations. Proposals have been made to reform the UN to give non-governmental organizations (NGOs), religious leaders and other members of civil society who represent or deal better with disenfranchised people, a greater role in the United Nations.

Background and history

International security has traditionally been guaranteed by an arrangement of great powers. After the Napoleonic Wars, the Concert of Europe, consisting of France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Austria, and Prussia, created a period of international security and a climate for economic development in Europe.

After World War II, the United States, the Soviet Union, France, China, and the United Kingdom were the five great powers which made up the security backbone of the United Nations. The ideas for international law go back to the Roman Empire, and Hugo Grotius, who integrated a moral component to the traditional "Law of Nations" in his On the Laws of War and Peace (1625). He is considered the founder of modern international law. The ideas for a federation of nations are frequently traced to the nineteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant and his book Perpetual Peace (1795).

International resolution of disputes was first addressed by a Permanent Court of Arbitration established at the Hague Conference in 1899. Participation was voluntary and it did not solve problems of national aggression. After World War I, the League of Nations was established as a world organization to promote collective security, disarmament, and a legal approach to resolution of disputes. However, many nations, especially the United States, never joined the league and it became powerless to act against Italian aggression against Ethiopia in 1935, or to prevent the outbreak of World War II. The United Nations was designed to address the known shortcomings of it predecessors.

The term "United Nations" was coined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, during World War II, to refer to the Allies. Its first formal use was in the January 1942 Declaration by the United Nations, which committed the Allies to the principles of the Atlantic Charter and pledged them not to seek a separate peace with the Axis powers. Thereafter, the Allies used the term "United Nations Fighting Forces" to refer to their alliance.

Roosevelt, in the midst of a two-front war, yearned to form a new international organization, led by the great powers, because of the failure of the League of Nations. He believed that participation of all the great powers-great power unanimity and responsibility-was the key to success of this new organization. Roosevelt also wanted to maintain the Soviet Union's goodwill as it had not only borne the brunt of the fighting in Europe, but was thought necessary to join the war effort in the Pacific in order to bring about Japan's earliest possible defeat. Roosevelt, adamant in wanting full great power participation for a postwar united nations, acquiesced in the Russian installation of satellite states as its troops conquered German forces in Eastern Europe; Soviet dictator Josef Stalin alleged creating this "buffer zone" was now required for Russian security.2

The idea for the United Nations was elaborated in declarations signed at wartime Allied conferences in Moscow, Cairo and Tehran in 1943. From August to October 1944, representatives of France, the Republic of China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union met to elaborate the plans at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in Washington, D.C. Those talks were productive but inconclusive, and were followed by the Yalta Conference (a meeting of the U.S., U.K., and USSR in the Crimea) in February 1945, which produced proposals outlining the purposes of the organization, its membership and organs, as well as arrangements to maintain international peace and security and international economic and social cooperation.

In the U.S., churches took leadership in attempting to establish a worldwide organization so that nations could resolve their differences before conflicts escalated into war. In 1944, the Federal Council of Churches-the predecessor of the National Council of Churches of Christ-created a Commission to Study the Bases of a Just and Durable Peace, chaired by John Foster Dulles (who later became secretary of state). After Dumbarton Oaks, the Federal Council of Churches issued a provocative statement observing:

The organization proposed has many of the characteristics of a military alliance of a few great powers. Certain provisions seem to envisage a division of the world into regional spheres of influence dominated by one or another of the great powers. Reliance is placed primarily on force unrelated to any explicitly agreed upon principles of justice. Further, the proposed organization should be more adequately endowed with curative functions needed to deal with the causes of war and with creative functions needed to draw the nations together in fellowship.3

It has been suggested that religious organizations sought to include universal elements in the thinking and language that led to the final United Nations Charter, but in the end, language that referred to the fundamental bases of building peace, especially with religious connotations, was removed in order to appease the Soviet Union.

It was at Yalta that the voting procedure of the United Nations Security Council was agreed upon. Although at Dumbarton Oaks, it was generally agreed that permanent members of the Security Council could exercise a veto; Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Stalin at Yalta decided the five permanent members (including France and China) could veto anything other than procedural issues. Having secured Stalin's agreement to participate in the United Nations, Roosevelt then accepted that the USSR be given three votes in the United Nations General Assembly: one for the USSR itself, and one each for the Soviet socialist republics of Ukraine and Byelorussia (now Belarus). The Soviet Union thus gained the ability to veto future UN Security Council resolutions as the price of its entry into the UN, as well as gained two additional General Assembly seats.

Overall, the emerging UN appeared to be a great power creature bent to meet Soviet security demands and insistence that a few great powers be able to swiftly make decisions and carry them out. This understandably gave the impression to many that the UN was going to be less a viable peacemaking institution and more a vehicle for great powers to maintain peace through spheres of influence.

Did you know?
The United Nations was established after World War II for the purpose of securing world peace

On April 25, 1945, the United Nations Conference on International Organization began in San Francisco with delegates from 50 nations. Some civil society representatives did participate in delegations, but in the end, significant input of civil society and religious organizations in particular, in the UN's inception appears to have been negligible. Apart from, but during the San Francisco Conference, further bilateral discussion on the use of the Security Council veto took place between the U.S. and Soviet Union, which paved the way for full Soviet acceptance.4 The 50 nations represented at the conference signed the Charter of the United Nations two months later on June 26. Poland, which was not represented at the conference (but for which a place among the original signatories had been reserved) added its name later, bringing the total of original signatories to 51. The UN came into existence on October 24, 1945, after the charter had been ratified by the five permanent members of the Security Council and by a majority of the other 46 signatories.

Chapter XVIII, Article 109 of the UN Charter stipulates that a general conference of members for the purpose of reviewing the current charter may be held at a date and place to be decided by two-thirds of the General Assembly and nine members of the Security Council. Article 109 further stipulates:

If such a conference has not been held before the tenth annual session of the General Assembly following the coming into force of the present Charter, the proposal to call such a conference shall be placed on the agenda of that session of the General Assembly, and the conference shall be held if so decided by a majority vote of the members of the General Assembly and by a vote of any seven members of the Security Council. (Emphasis added)5

Initially, the body was known as the United Nations Organization (UNO), but by the 1950s, English speakers were referring to it as the United Nations, or UN.

The UN describes itself as a "global association of governments facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, and social equity." As of 2017, it consists of 193 member states and 2 observer states, including virtually all internationally-recognized independent nations.6


UN Headquarters in New York City

The UN is headquartered in Manhattan, New York City, United States. The organization is divided into administrative bodies, including the UN General Assembly, UN Security Council, UN Economic and Social Council, UN Trusteeship Council, UN Secretariat, and the International Court of Justice, as well as specifically created international bodies dealing with international problems, for example, the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The organization's most visible public figure is the Secretary-General, currently Ban Ki-moon, who assumed office in January 2007.

The United Nations Headquarters building was constructed on Manhattan Island in 1949-1950 beside the East River on land purchased by an $8.5 million donation from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer. The complex officially opened on January 9, 1951. While the principal headquarters of the UN are in New York City, there are major agencies located in Geneva, The Hague, Vienna, Bonn, Bangkok, and elsewhere.

Membership and Structure

The six official languages of the United Nations include those of the founding nations: Chinese, English, French, Russian as well as Spanish (UN Charter, Article 111) and Arabic (S/RES/528 (1982)). All formal meetings and all official documents, in print or online, are interpreted in all six languages.

UN membership is open to all states that accept the obligations of the UN Charter and, in the judgment of the organization, are able and willing to fulfill these obligations.7 The General Assembly determines admission upon recommendation of the Security Council.

Security Council

The United Nations Security Council is the most powerful organ of the United Nations. It is charged with maintaining peace and security between nations. While other organs of the UN only make recommendations to member governments, the Security Council has the power to make decisions that member governments must carry out under the United Nations Charter. A decision of the council is known as a resolution. Since 1965, the Security Council has been composed of the original five permanent members (P5)-the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, and China-plus ten non-permanent members. Non-permanent members serve for two years, five elected each year by the General Assembly, and are chosen to achieve equitable regional representation.

General Assembly

The United Nations General Assembly is made up of all United Nations member states and meets in regular yearly sessions, beginning in September, and in special sessions, under a president elected annually from among the representatives of five regional groups of states.

As the only UN organ in which all members are represented, the assembly serves as a forum for members to express official government positions, launch initiatives on international questions of peace, economic progress, and human rights. It can initiate studies, make recommendations, develop and codify international law, promote human rights, and further international economic, social, cultural, and educational programs.


António Guterres, United Nations secretary-general, took office January, 2017

The United Nations Secretariat is headed by the United Nations secretary-general, who is assisted by a staff of international civil servants worldwide. It provides studies, information, and facilities needed by United Nations bodies for their meetings. It also carries out tasks as directed by the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the UN Economic and Social Council, and other UN bodies. The United Nations Charter provides that the staff be chosen by application of the "highest standards of efficiency, competence, and integrity," with due regard for the importance of recruiting on a wide geographical basis.

The term of office of the secretary-general is five years, elected by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council (closed session "straw votes" of candidates for secretary-general usually precede the council's formal recommendation). Most often, a secretary-general can be re-elected to a second five-year term. The current Secretary-General is António Guterres, who replaced Ban Ki-moon in 2017.8

The secretary-general's duties include helping resolve international disputes, administering peacekeeping operations, organizing international conferences, oversight of the implementation of Security Council decisions, and consulting with member governments regarding various initiatives. Key Secretariat offices in this area include the Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, and the Department of Political Affairs.

List of secretaries-general

  1. Trygve Lie (Norway) - February 1946 until his resignation in November 1952
  2. Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden) - April 1953 until his death in September 1961
  3. U Thant (Myanmar) - November 1961 - December 1971
  4. Kurt Waldheim (Austria) - January 1972 - December 1981
  5. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (Peru) - January 1982 - December 1991
  6. Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt) - January 1992 - December 1996
  7. Kofi Annan (Ghana) - January 1997 - December 2006
  8. Ban Ki-moon (South Korea) - January 2007 - December 2016
  9. António Guterres (Portugal) - January 2017

Economic and Social Council

Main article: United Nations Economic and Social Council

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations assists the General Assembly in promoting international economic and social cooperation and development. ECOSOC has 54 members, 18 of whom are elected each year by the General Assembly for overlapping three-year terms. The president is elected for a one-year term. Each member of ECOSOC has one vote, and decisions are made by a majority of the members present and voting. ECOSOC meets once a year in July for a four-week session. Since 1998, it has held another meeting each April with finance ministers heading key committees of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Viewed separate from the specialized bodies it coordinates, ECOSOC's functions include information gathering, advising member nations, and making recommendations. ECOSOC seeks advice from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and has granted many NGOs consultative status.9 ECOSOC is well-positioned to provide policy coherence and coordinate the overlapping functions of the UN's subsidiary bodies and NGOs.

Trusteeship Council

Main article: United Nations Trusteeship Council

The United Nations Trusteeship Council was established to help ensure that non-self-governing territories were administered in the best interests of the inhabitants and of international peace and security. The trust territories, most of them former mandates of the League of Nations or territories of nations defeated at the end of World War II, have all now attained self-government or independence, either as separate nations or by joining neighboring independent countries. The last was Palau, which became a member of the United Nations in December 1994.

Its mission fulfilled, the Trusteeship Council suspended its operation on November 1, 1994, although under the United Nations Charter it continues to formally exist.

International Court of Justice

Main article: International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) (also known as the World Court) is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, located in the Peace Palace at The Hague, Netherlands. Established in 1946 as a successor to the Permanent Court of International Justice under the League of Nations, its main functions are to settle disputes submitted to it by states and to give advisory opinions on legal questions submitted to it by the General Assembly or Security Council.

A related court, the International Criminal Court (ICC), began operating in 2002 through international discussions initiated by the General Assembly. It is the first permanent international court charged with trying those who commit the most serious crimes under international law, including war crimes and genocide. The ICC tries those who could not be brought to justice by their own people, given that the ICJ was created to handle only inter-state cases.


The UN system is financed in two ways: assessed and voluntary contributions from member states. The regular two-year budgets of the UN and its specialized agencies are funded by assessments. The General Assembly approves the regular budget and determines the assessment for each member. This is broadly based on the relative capacity of each country to pay, as measured by national income statistics, along with other factors.

The assembly has established the principle that the UN should not be overly dependent on any one member to finance its operations. Thus, there is a “ceiling” rate, setting the maximum amount any member is assessed for the regular budget. In December 2000, the assembly agreed to revise the scale of assessments to make them better reflect current global circumstances.

As part of that agreement, the regular budget ceiling was reduced from 25 to 22 percent; this is the rate at which the United States is assessed. The United States is the only member that meets that ceiling; all other members' assessment rates are lower. Under the scale of assessments adopted in 2000, other major contributors to the regular UN budget for 2001 are Japan (19.63 percent), Germany (9.82 percent), France (6.50 percent), the United Kingdom (5.57 percent), Italy (5.09 percent), Canada (2.57 percent), and Spain (2.53 percent).

Special UN programs not included in the regular budget (such as UNICEF, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the World Food Programme are financed by voluntary contributions from member governments.

Aims and activities

International conferences

The member countries of the UN and its specialized agencies-the "stakeholders" of the system-give guidance and make decisions on substantive and administrative issues in regular meetings held throughout each year. Governing bodies made up of member states include not only the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, and the Security Council, but also counterpart bodies dealing with the governance of all other UN system agencies. For example, the World Health Assembly and the Executive Board oversee the work of the World Health Organization. Each year, the U.S. Department of State accredits delegations to more than six hundred meetings of governing bodies.

When an issue is considered particularly important, the General Assembly may convene an international conference or special session to focus global attention and build a consensus for consolidated action. Recent examples include:

  • 2007 Global Compact Leaders Summit: "Facing Realities: Getting Down to Business" (Geneva, Switzerland, July 5-6, 2007)
  • ECOSOC 2007 High-Level Segment: First Annual Ministerial Review and Launch of the Development Cooperation Forum (Geneva, Switzerland, July 2-5, 2007)
  • Seventh Global Forum on Reinventing Government (UNHQ Vienna, Austria, June 26-29, 2007)
  • Committee on the Rights of the Child (45th Session) (UNHQ New York, May 21-June 8, 2007)
  • Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (38th Session) (UNHQ New York, May 14-June 1, 2007)
  • United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (6th Session) (UNHQ New York, May 14-25, 2007)
  • World Tourism Forum - For peace and sustainable development (Porto Alegre, Brazil, November 29-December 2, 2006)
  • Human Rights Council (resumed 2nd session; 3rd session) (Geneva, Switzerland, November 27-December 8, 2006)
  • Web 4 Dev Conference (UNHQ New York, November 20-22, 2006)
  • International Forum on the Eradication of Poverty (UNHQ New York, November 15-16, 2006)
  • United Nations Climate Change Conference (Nairobi, Kenya, November 6-17, 2006)
  • Internet Governance Forum (Athens, Greece, October 30-November 2, 2006)
  • Human Rights Committee (88th Session) (Geneva, Switzerland, October 16-November 3, 2006)
  • Human Rights Council (2nd Session) (Geneva, Switzerland, September 18-October 6, 2006)
  • Mid-term Comprehensive Global Review of the Programme of Action for Least Developed Countries for the Decade 2001-2010 (UNHQ New York, September 18-19, 2006)
  • High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development (UNHQ New York, September 14-15, 2006)
  • Ad Hoc Committee on a Comprehensive and Integral International Convention on Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities (8th Session) (UNHQ New York, August 14-25, 2006)
  • Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (36th Session) (UNHQ New York, August 7-25, 2006)

International Observances

The UN declares and coordinates international days, weeks, years, and decades in order to focus world attention on important issues. Using the symbolism of the UN, a specially designed logo for the year, and the infrastructure of the UN system to coordinate events worldwide, the various years have become catalysts to advancing key issues on a global scale. Some recent and upcoming observances include:

2000-International Year for the Culture of Peace; and International Year of Thanksgiving
2001-International Year of Volunteers; United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations; and International Year of Mobilization against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance
2002-International Year of Mountains; International Year of Culture Heritage; and International Year of Ecotourism
2003-International Year of Freshwater
2004-International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and Its Abolition; and International Year of Rice
2005-International Year of Microcredit; and International Year for Sport and Physical Education
2006-International Year of Deserts and Desertification
2008-International Year of the Potato; International Year of Planet Earth; International Year of Sanitation; and International Year of Languages

Arms control and disarmament

The 1945 UN Charter envisaged a system of regulation that would ensure the "least diversion for armaments of the world's human and economic resources." Ironically, the first use of nuclear weapons came only weeks after the signing of the Charter and provided immediate impetus to concepts of arms limitation and disarmament. In fact, the first resolution of the first meeting of the General Assembly (January 24, 1946) was entitled "The Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy" and called upon the commission to make specific proposals for the "elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction." In 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established in conjunction with the United Nations to help both with peaceful uses of atomic energy and to monitor the proliferation of nuclear materials for weapons of mass destruction. The IAEA is presently focused on Iran's nuclear program and the dismantling of North Korea's.

The UN has established several forums to address multilateral disarmament issues. The principal ones are the First Committee of the General Assembly and the UN Disarmament Commission. Items on the agenda include consideration of the possible merits of a nuclear test ban, outer-space arms control, efforts to ban chemical weapons, nuclear and conventional disarmament, nuclear-weapon-free zones, reduction of military budgets, and measures to strengthen international security.

The Conference on Disarmament is the sole forum established by the international community for the negotiation of multilateral arms control and disarmament agreements. It has 66 members representing all areas of the world, including the five major nuclear-weapon states (the People's Republic of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). While the conference is not formally a UN organization, it is linked to the UN through a personal representative of the secretary-general; this representative serves as secretary general of the conference. Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly often request the conference to consider specific disarmament matters. In turn, the conference annually reports on its activities to the General Assembly.

Human rights

The pursuit of human rights has been a central theme of the United Nations. World War II atrocities and genocide led to a ready consensus that the new organization must work to prevent similar tragedies in the future. An early objective was creating a legal framework for considering and acting on complaints about human rights violations. The United Nations is particularly concerned with the rights of minorities, refugees, women, children, and others who do not have a political voice.

The UN Charter obliges all member nations to promote "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights" and to take "joint and separate action" to that end. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all. In contrast to the development of the UN Charter, the declaration had more significant input from civil society. It is not legally binding and was not ratified by many nations, including the United States, because it is seen as an infringement on national sovereignty; however, it exerts significant moral force in international relations.

The General Assembly regularly takes up human rights issues. Many nations were not satisfied with a voluntary declaration, and proceeded to adopt two Human Rights Covenants in 1966, whose observance was obligatory after ratification, which has been done by most of the nations of the world. The combined Declaration and the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights make up what is called the International Bill of Human Rights. In addition, the UN has adopted several important human rights treaties under which nations make specific commitments: the rights of women, elimination of racial discrimination, torture, children, and migratory workers.

The UN and its agencies are central in upholding and implementing the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A case in point is support by the UN for countries in transition to democracy. Technical assistance in providing free and fair elections, improving judicial structures, drafting constitutions, training human rights officials, and transforming armed movements into political parties have contributed significantly to democratization worldwide. The UN has helped run elections in countries with little democratic history, including recently in Afghanistan and East Timor.

The UN is also a forum to support the right of women to participate fully in the political, economic, and social life of their countries. The UN contributes to raising consciousness of the concept of human rights through its covenants and its attention to specific abuses through its General Assembly, Security Council resolutions, or International Court of Justice rulings.

In 2002, the International Criminal Court came into existence, whose development had been greatly shaped and hastened by civil society action.

Human Rights Council

In April 2006, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to replace the United Nations Commission on Human Rights with the United Nations Human Rights Council. Its purpose is to address human rights violations. The UNCHR had repeatedly been criticized for the composition of its membership. In particular, several of its member countries themselves had dubious human rights records, including states whose representatives had been elected to chair the commission.

The new Council has stricter rules for peacekeeping membership including a universal human rights review and a dramatic increase in the number of nations needed to elect a candidate to the body, from election-by-regional-slate on the 53-member Economic and Social Council to a majority of the 192 member General Assembly.

In May 2006, elections were held to elect all 47 members to the council. While some governments with poor records were elected, such as C