United Nations

The United Nations (UN) is an international organization whose stated aims are to facilitate co-operation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress and human rights issues.

The United Nations was founded in 1945 to replace the League of Nations, in the hope that it would intervene in conflicts between nations and thereby avoid war. The organization began with fifty countries signing the United Nations Charter. The organization’s structure still reflects in some ways the circumstances of its founding. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, each of which has veto power on any UN resolution, are the main victors of World War II or their successor states (alphabetical order): the People’s Republic of China (which replaced the Republic of China); the French Republic; the Russian Federation (which replaced the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics); the United Kingdom; and the United States of America.

As of 2007, there are 192 United Nations member states, encompassing almost every recognized independent state. From its headquarters in New York City, the UN and its specialized agencies decide on substantive and administrative issues in regular meetings held throughout each year. The organization is divided into administrative bodies, including the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Secretariat, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Additional bodies deal with the governance of all other UN System agencies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The UN’s most visible public figure is the Secretary-General. The current Secretary-General is Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, who assumed the post on 1 January 2007.


The stated aims of the United Nations are to prevent war, to safeguard human rights, to provide a mechanism for international law, and to promote social and economic progress, improve living standards and fight diseases. It gives the opportunity for countries to balance global interdependence and national interests when addressing international problems. Toward these ends it ratified a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

League of Nations and History of the United Nations

The United Nations was founded as a successor to the League of Nations, which was widely considered to have been ineffective in its role as an international governing body, in that it had been unable to prevent World War II. Some argue that the UN’s major advantage over the League of Nations is its ability to maintain and deploy its member nations’ armed forces as peace keepers. Others see such “peace keeping” as a euphemism for war and domination of weak and poor countries by the wealthy and powerful nations of the world.

The term “United Nations” was decided by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill during World War II, to refer to the Allies. Its first formal use was in the 1 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.

On 25 April 1945, the UN Conference on International Organizations began in San Francisco. In addition to the governments, a number of non-governmental organizations were invited to assist in drafting the charter. The 50 nations represented at the conference signed the Charter of the United Nations two months later on 26 June. Poland had not been represented at the conference, but a place had been reserved for it among the original signatories, and it added its name later. The UN came into existence on 24 October 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.

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


With the addition of Montenegro on 28 June 2006, there are 192 United Nations member states, including virtually all internationally-recognized independent states.

The United Nations Charter outlines the rules for membership:

1. Membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations.

2. The admission of any such state to membership in the United Nations will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.

Among the notable absences are the Republic of China (Taiwan), whose seat in the United Nations was transferred to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, and the Holy See (administering authority of Vatican City), which has declined membership but is an observer state.


The United Nations headquarters was built on an 18 acre site in New York City purchased with a donation to the UN by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1946 . Although it is in New York City, the land occupied by the United Nations headquarters is international territory.

Prior to 1949, the UN used various venues in London and New York State. There are also major UN agencies in Geneva, The Hague, Vienna, Montreal, Copenhagen, Bonn, and elsewhere.

As the main UN building is aging, the UN is in the process of negotiating to build a temporary headquarters for use while the current building is being expanded . UN planned to begin a renovation of its complex, starting 2008. The Capital Master Plan is projected to last almost 10 years and could cost close to $2 billion.


The UN is financed from 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 their gross national income (GNI), with adjustments for external debt and low per capita income.

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 revised the scale of assessments to reflect current global circumstances. As part of that revision, the regular budget ceiling was reduced from 25% to 22%. The U.S. is the only member that meets the ceiling. In addition to a ceiling rate, the minimum amount assessed to any member nation (or ‘floor’ rate) is set at 0.001% of the UN budget. Also, for the least developed countries (LDC), a ceiling rate of 0.01% is applied.

The current operating budget is estimated at $4.19 billion . The major contributors to the regular UN budget for 2006 are United States (22%), Japan (19.47%), Germany (8.66%), United Kingdom (6.13%), France (6.03%), Italy (4.89%), Canada (2.81%), Spain (2.52%), and China (2.05%). Some member nations are in arrears on their payments, most notably the United States .

Special UN programmes not included in the regular budget (such as UNICEF and UNDP) are financed by voluntary contributions from member governments. Most of this is financial contributions, but some is in the form of agricultural commodities donated for afflicted populations.


The UN has six official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.Five of the official languages were chosen when the UN was founded . Arabic was added in 1973. The Secretariat uses two working languages, English and French.

There is controversy over whether the number of official languages should be reduced (for example to English only) or expanded. In 2001, Spanish-speaking countries complained that Spanish does not have equal status compared to English. There is also pressure to add Hindi as a seventh official language.

Organizational structure

The United Nations system is based on five principal organs : (1) UN General Assembly, (2) UN Security Council, (3) UN Economic and Social Council, (4) UN Secretariat, and (5) International Court of Justice.

The UN General Assembly is the main deliberative organ of the United Nations. It is made up of all United Nations member states and meets in regular yearly sessions. As the only UN organ in which all members are represented, the assembly serves as a forum for members to discuss issues of international law and to make decisions regarding the functioning of the organization.

UN Security Council

The UN Security Council is charged with maintaining peace and security among nations. While other organs of the United Nations 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. The decisions of the Council are known as United Nations Security Council Resolutions.

The Security Council is made up of 15 member states, consisting of five permanent seats and ten temporary seats. The permanent five are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. These members hold veto power over substantive but not procedural resolutions allowing a permanent member to block adoption but not debate of a resolution unacceptable to it. The ten temporary seats are held for two-year terms with member states voted in by the UN General Assembly on a regional basis. The presidency of the Security Council is rotated alphabetically each month.

The Security council has been criticized for being unable to act in a clear and decisive way when confronted with a crisis. Recent examples include the Iranian nuclear program and the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. The veto power of the five permanent members has been cited as the cause of this problem. The makeup of the security council dates back to the end of World War II, and this division of powers no longer represents the state of the world. Critics question the effectiveness and relevance of the Security Council because enforcement relies on the member nations and there usually are no consequences for violating a Security Council resolution.

International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), located in The Hague, Netherlands, is the main court of the UN. Its purpose is to adjudicate disputes among states. The court has heard cases related to war crimes, illegal state interference and ethic cleansing, among others. The ICJ was created in 1946 and continues to hear cases.

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.There is a “relationship agreement” between the ICC and the UN that governs how the two institutions regard each other legally.



When an issue is considered particularly important, the General Assembly may convene an international conference to focus global attention and build a consensus for consolidated action.

UN International Observances

The UN declares and coordinates international observances to focus world attention on important issues and remembrance days. Using the symbolism of the UN, a specially designed logo for the year, and the infrastructure of the UN System, various days and years have become catalysts to advancing key issues of concern on a global scale. For example, World Tuberculosis Day, Earth Day and International Year of Deserts and Desertification .

Peace and Security

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”. The advent 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 (24 January 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”.


UN peacekeepers are sent to various regions where armed conflict has recently ceased, or temporarily frozen, in order to enforce the terms of peace agreements and to discourage the combatants from resuming hostilities, for example in East Timor until its independence in 2001. These forces are provided by member states of the UN, and participation in peace keeping operations is optional; at this point only 2 nations, Canada and Portugal, have participated in all peacekeeping operations. The UN does not maintain any independent military. All UN peacekeeping operations must be approved by the Security Council.

The founders of the UN had envisaged that the UN would act to prevent conflicts between nations and make future wars impossible. Those hopes have not been fully realized. During the Cold War (from about 1945 until 1991), the division of the world into hostile camps made peacekeeping agreement extremely difficult. Following the end of the Cold War, there were renewed calls for the UN to become the agency for achieving world peace, as several dozen military conflicts continue to rage around the globe. But the breakup of the Soviet Union also left the U.S. in a unique position of global dominance, creating a variety of new challenges for the UN.

The UN Peace-Keeping Forces (called the Blue Helmets) received the 1988 Nobel Prize for Peace. In 2001, the UN and Secretary General Kofi Annan won the Nobel Peace Prize “for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world.” The UN maintains a series of United Nations Medals awarded to military service members who enforce UN accords.

Peacekeeping Assessments

UN peace operations are funded by assessments, using a formula derived from the regular funding scale, but including a weighted surcharge for the five permanent Security Council members, who must approve all peacekeeping operations.

Successes in security issues

A large share of UN expenditures addresses the core UN mission of peace and security. The peacekeeping budget for the 2005-2006 fiscal year is approximately $5 billion (compared to approximately $1.5 billion for the UN core budget over the same period), with some 70,000 troops deployed in 17 missions around the world. Statistics include:

* a 40% drop in violent conflict;

* an 80% drop in the most deadly conflicts; and

* an 80% drop in genocide and politicide.

The report, argued that international activism-mostly spearheaded by the UN-has been the main cause of the post-Cold War decline in armed conflict, though indicated the evidence for this contention is mostly circumstantial.

Failures in security issues

In many cases UN members have shown reluctance to achieve or enforce Security Council resolutions. Iraq is said to have broken 17 Security Council resolutions dating back to June 28, 1991 as well as trying to bypass the UN economic sanctions. For nearly a decade, Israel delayed implementing resolutions calling for the dismantling of Jewish communities in “occupied territories”. Such failures stem from the UN’s intergovernmental nature – in many respects it is an association of 192 member states who must reach consensus, not an independent organization. Even when actions are mandated by the 15-member Security Council, the Secretariat is rarely given the full resources needed to carry out the mandates.

Human rights

The pursuit of human rights was a central reason for creating the UN. World War II atrocities and genocide led to a ready consensus that the new organization must work to prevent any similar tragedies in the future. An early objective was creating a legal framework for considering and acting on complaints about human rights violations.

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, though not legally binding, was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all. The Assembly regularly takes up human rights issues.

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.

Human Rights Council

On 15 March 2006 the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to replace the United Nations Commission on Human Rights with the UN 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.

On 9 May 2006 elections were held to elect all 47 members to the council. Seats are allocated by region: Africa (13), Asian (13), Eastern Europe (6), Latin American and Caribbean (8) and Western Europe and other (7). Members of the council serve for three year terms, and may not serve three consecutive terms.

While some governments with poor records were elected, such as Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Azerbaijan, some other rights violators that ran for election did not receive enough votes: Iran, Venezuela, Thailand, Iraq, and Kyrgyzstan This change in membership has been cited as a positive first step for the council.

There are now seven UN-linked human rights treaty bodies, including the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

Inaction on genocide and human rights

The UN has been accused of ignoring the plight of people across the world, especially in parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Current examples include the UN’s inaction toward the Sudanese government in Darfur, the Chinese government’s ethnic cleansing in Tibet, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Despite international news media coverage of the violence as it unfolded, most countries, including France, Belgium, and the US, declined to intervene or speak out against the massacres.

Humanitarian assistance and international development

Humanitarian assistance

In conjunction with other organizations, such as the Red Cross, the UN provides food, drinking water, shelter and other humanitarian services to populaces suffering from famine, displaced by war, or afflicted by other disasters. Major humanitarian arms of the UN are the World Food Programme (which helps feed more than 100 million people a year in 80 countries), the High Commissioner for Refugees with projects in over 116 countries, as well as peacekeeping projects in over 24 countries.

International development

The UN is also involved in supporting development, e.g. by the formulation of the Millennium Development Goals. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) is the largest multilateral source of grant technical assistance in the world. Organizations-like the World Health Organization (WHO), UNAIDS, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria-are leading institutions in the battle against diseases around the world, especially in poor countries. The UN Population Fund is a major provider of reproductive services. It has helped reduce infant and maternal mortality in 100 countries.

The UN also promotes human development through various related agencies. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), for example, are independent, specialized agencies and observers within the UN framework, according to a 1947 agreement. They were initially formed as separate from the UN through the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1944.

The UN annually publishes the Human Development Index (HDI), a comparative measure ranking countries by poverty, literacy, education, life expectancy, and other factors.

Millennium Development Goals

The Millennium Development Goals are eight goals that all 192 United Nations member states have agreed to try to achieve by the year 2015. The United Nations Millennium Declaration, signed in September 2000, commits the states to:

1. eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;

2. achieve universal primary education;

3. promote gender equality and empower women;

4. reduce child mortality;

5. improve maternal health;

6. combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases;

7. ensure environmental sustainability; and

8. develop a global partnership for development.


In recent years there have been many calls for reform of the United Nations. But there is little clarity, let alone consensus, about how to reform it. Some want the UN to play a greater or more effective role in world affairs, others want its role reduced to humanitarian work. There have also been numerous calls for the UN Security Council’s membership to be increased to reflect the current geo-political state (that is, more members from Africa, South America and Asia).

Bureaucratic inefficiency

The UN has been accused of inefficiency and waste due to its cumbersome and excessive bureaucracy. During the 1990s the United States, currently the largest contributor to the UN, gave this inefficiency as a reason for withholding their dues. A reform program has been proposed, but has not yet approved by the General Assembly.

Oil-for-Food Programme

The Oil-for-Food Program was established by the UN in 1996. Its purpose was to allow Iraq to sell oil on the world market in exchange for food, medicine, and other humanitarian needs of ordinary Iraqi citizens who were affected by international economic sanctions, without allowing the Iraqi government to rebuild its military in the wake of the first Gulf War. It was discontinued in late 2003 amidst allegations of widespread abuse and corruption.

Reform programme

An official reform programme was begun by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan soon after starting his first term on 1 January 1997. Reforms mentioned include changing the permanent membership of the Security Council ; making the bureaucracy more transparent, accountable and efficient; making the UN more democratic; and imposing an international tariff on arms manufacturers worldwide.

Although the UN member states achieved little reform of UN bureaucracy, Annan continued to carry out reforms under his own authority. He established an ethics office, responsible for administering new financial disclosure and whistleblower protection policies.

Personnel policy

The UN and its agencies are immune to the laws of the countries where they operate, safeguarding UN’s impartiality with regard to the host and member countries. This independence allows agencies to implement human resources policies that may even be contrary to the laws of a host- or a member country. For instance, a person who is otherwise eligible for employment in Switzerland, where the International Labour Organization (ILO) has its headquarters, may not be employed by the ILO unless he or she is a citizen of an ILO member state.


There is a smoking ban within the UN headquarters, but some member nations allow smoking in their UN embassies. Moreover, users of illegal drugs are ineligible for employment in the UN.

Same-sex marriages

Despite their independence in matters of human resources policy, UN agencies voluntarily apply the laws of member states regarding same-sex marriages, allowing decisions about the status of employees in a same-sex partnership to be based on nationality. They recognize same-sex marriages only if the employees are citizens of countries that recognize the marriage.

Model United Nations

An educational activity called the Model United Nations has grown popular in schools worldwide. The programme has students simulate a body in the UN System to help them develop skills in debate and diplomacy. Conferences are held by colleges and high schools. Students debate topics that the UN addresses and try to represent their country’s views to reach a solution.

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