United Nations

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This article is about the United Nations, for other uses of "UN" or "Un", see UN (disambiguation)

United Nations

Flag of the United Nations
Flag of the United Nations

Official languages English, Chinese, Arabic, French, Russian, Spanish
Secretary-General Kofi Annan (since 1997)
Established as a wartime alliance:
January 1, 1942
as an international organization:
October 24, 1945
Member states 191
Headquarters New York City, NY, USA
Official site www.un.org

1 Other official names:

  • Organisation des Nations unies
  • Naciones Unidas
  • Ühendatud Rahvaste Organisatsioon
  • Egyesült Népek Szövetsége
  • Vereinte Nationen
  • Organização das Nações Unidas
  • Организация Объединённых Наций
  • 联合国
  • امم متحدة

The United Nations, or UN, is an international organization established in 1945. The UN describes itself as a "global association of governments facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, and social equity." It was founded by 51 states and as of 2005 it consists of 191 member states, including virtually all internationally-recognized independent nations. From its headquarters in New York City, the member countries of the UN and its specialized agencies give guidance and make decisions on substantive and administrative issues in regular meetings held throughout each year.

The organization is structurally 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 counterpart bodies dealing with the governance of all other UN system agencies, for example, the WHO and UNICEF. The organization's most visible public figure is the Secretary-General.

The UN was founded at the conclusion of World War II by the victorious world powers, and the founders of the UN had high hopes that it would act to prevent conflicts between nations and make future wars impossible, by fostering an ideal of collective security. The organization's structure still reflects in some ways the circumstances of its founding; specifically, in addition to the rotating national members of the prominent United Nations Security Council, there are five permanent members with veto power — the United States of America, Russia, United Kingdom, France, and People's Republic of China (which replaced the Republic of China).


Background and history

Main articles: League of Nations, History of the United Nations

The term "United Nations" was coined by Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, to refer to the Allies. Its first formal use was in the January 1, 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.

The idea for the United Nations was elaborated in declarations signed at the 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 USSR met to elaborate the plans at the Dumbarton Oaks Estate in Washington, D.C. Those and later talks 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. These proposals were discussed and debated by governments and private citizens worldwide.

On April 25, 1945, the United Nations Conference on International Organizations began in San Francisco. In addition to the Governments, a number of non-government organizations, including Lions Clubs International were invited to assist in the drafting of the charter. 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 CouncilRepublic of China, France, the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and the United States — and by a majority of the other 46 signatories.

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


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

Membership and Structure

Main articles: United Nations member states, United Nations General Assembly observers, United Nations System, Reform of the United Nations

Communications 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 peace-loving states that accept the obligations of the UN Charter and, in the judgement of the organization, are able and willing to fulfil these obligations.[1] The General Assembly determines admission upon recommendation of the Security Council.

The United Nations is based on six principal organs, part of what is collectively called the United Nations System:

Security Council

Main article: UN Security Council

The Security Council is in practice the most powerful decision-making body of the UN, as its resolutions are backed by the will of the most powerful members of the international community. However, this does not mean that its resolutions (e.g. international sanctions) are necessarily enforced, as the UN does not have its own means to do so. Even when economic sanctions are applied, their effectiveness (e.g. against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1990s, or in abolishing apartheid in South Africa) is unclear.


UN offices occupy a portion of this complex in Vienna
UN offices occupy a portion of this complex in Vienna

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. In the case of the UN, 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 per cent; 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. On the other hand, it is in arrears with hundreds of millions of dollars (see also United States and the United Nations). Under the scale of assessments adopted in 2000, other major contributors to the regular UN budget for 2001 are Japan (19.63%), Germany (9.82%), France (6.50%), the U.K. (5.57%), Italy (5.09%), Canada (2.57%) and Spain (2.53%).

Special UN programmes not included in the regular budget (such as UNICEF, UNDP, UNHCR, and WFP) are financed by voluntary contributions from member governments. In 2001, it is estimated that such contributions from the United States will total approximately $1.5 billion. Much of this is in the form of agricultural commodities donated for afflicted populations, but the majority is financial contributions.

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, 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 WHO. Each year, the United States Department of State accredits United States delegations to more than 600 meetings of governing bodies.

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. High-level United States delegations use these opportunities to promote United States policy viewpoints and develop international agreements on future activities. Recent examples include:

International Years and related

Main article: United Nations International Years

The UN declares and coordinates "International Year of the..." 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.

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 UN 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".

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, the Russian Federation, 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 the 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.


Main article: Peacekeeping

External References to UN Security Council Resolutions

  • All UN Security Council Resolutions — listed by year:[2]
  • Security Council Resolutions by country:

UN peacekeepers are sent to various regions where armed conflict has recently ceased, 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; 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 high hopes that it would act to prevent conflicts between nations and make future wars impossible, by fostering an ideal of collective security. Those hopes have obviously not been fully realized. From about 1947 until 1991 the division of the world into hostile camps during the Cold War made agreement on peacekeeping matters extremely difficult. Following the end of the Cold War, there were renewed calls for the UN to become the agency for achieving world peace and co-operation, as several dozen active military conflicts continue to rage around the globe. The breakup of the Soviet Union has also left the United States in a unique position of global dominance, creating a variety of new challenges for the UN.

UN peace operations are funded by assessments, using a formula derived from the regular scale, but including a surcharge for the five permanent members of the Security Council (who must approve all peacekeeping operations); this surcharge serves to offset discounted peacekeeping assessment rates for less developed countries. In December 2000, the UN revised the assessment rate scale for the regular budget and for peacekeeping. The peacekeeping scale is designed to be revised every six months and is projected to be near 27% in 2003. The United States intends to pay peacekeeping assessments at these lower rates and has sought legislation from the U.S. Congress to allow payment at these rates and to make payments towards arrears.

Total UN peacekeeping expenses peaked between 1994 and 1995; at the end of 1995 the total cost was just over $3.5 billion. Total UN peacekeeping costs for 2000, including operations funded from the UN regular budget as well as the peacekeeping budget, were on the order of $2.2 billion.

The UN Peace-Keeping Forces received the 1988 Nobel Prize for Peace. In 2001 the United Nations and Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the UN, won the Nobel Peace Prize "for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world."

For participation in various peacekeeping operations, the United Nations maintains a series of United Nations Medals which are awarded to military service members of various countries who enforce UN accords. The first such decoration issued was the United Nations Service Medal, awarded to UN forces who participated in the Korean War. The NATO Medal is designed on a similar concept and both the UN Service Medal, and the NATO Medal, are considered international decorations instead of military decorations.

Human rights

The pursuit of human rights was one of the central reasons for creating the United Nations. 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 General Assembly regularly takes up human rights issues. The UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), under ECOSOC, is the primary UN body charged with promoting human rights, primarily through investigations and offers of technical assistance. As discussed, the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the official principally responsible for all UN human rights activities (see, under "The UN Family", the section on "Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights").

The United Nations and its various 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 United Nations 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 United Nations is also a forum in which 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 or Security Council resolutions or ICJ rulings.

Humanitarian assistance and international development

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 some other disaster. Major humanitarian arms of the UN are the World Food Programme (which helps feed more than 100 million people a year in 80 countries) and the High Commissioner for Refugees. At times UN relief workers have been subject to attacks.

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

Current UN humanitarian projects include United Nations High Commission for Refugees project in over 116 countries, United Nations Peacekeeping projects in over 24 countries and feeds over 89 million people each year through the World Food Program.

Annually, the UN publishes the Human Development Index (HDI), a comparative measure listing and ranking countries based on poverty, literacy, education, life expectancy, and other factors.

The UN promotes human development through various agencies and departments:

The UN has helped run elections in countries with little democratic history including recently in Afghanistan and East Timor. The UN also runs international criminal tribunals, including the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda ICTR, for the former YugoslaviaICTY, the Special Court for Sierra Leonne, and the Ad-Hoc Court for East Timor.

Treaties and international law

The UN negotiates treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to avoid potential international disputes. Disputes over use of the oceans may be adjudicated by a special court.

The International Court of Justice is the main court of the United Nations. Its purpose is to adjudicate disputes amoung states. The ICJ began in 1946 and continues to hear cases. Important cases include: Congo v. France, where the Democratic Republic of Congo accused France of illegally detaining former heads of state accused of war crimes. Nicaragua v. United States, where Nicaragua accused the United States of illegally arming the Contras. This case led to the Iran-Contra affair.

Criticism and Controversies

Reforming the UN

In recent years there have been many calls for reform of the United Nations. There is, however, little clarity, let alone consensus, about what "reform" might mean in practice. Some want the UN to play a greater or more effective role in world affairs, others want its role reduced to humanitarian work. In 2004 and 2005, allegations of mismanagement and corruption regarding the Oil-for-Food Programme for Iraq under Saddam Hussein led to renewed calls for reform.

An official reform programme was initiated by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan shortly after starting his first term on January 1, 1997. Reforms mentioned include changing the permanent membership of the Security Council (which currently reflects the power relations of 1945); making the bureaucracy more transparent, accountable and efficient; making the UN more democratic; and imposing an international tariff on arms manufacturers worldwide.

On June 17, 2005, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill to slash funds to the UN in half by 2008 if it does not meet with certain criteria laid out in the legislation. This reflects of years of complaints about anti-American and anti-Israeli bias in the United Nations. The United States of America is estimated to contribute about 22% of the UN's yearly budget, making this bill potentially devastating to the UN. The Bush administration and several former US ambassadors to the UN have warned that this may only strengthen anti-America sentiment around the world and would only serve to hurt current UN reform movements. As of June 17, the bill still has yet to be passed by a Congress, which seems to be split on the issue; thus it is unknown whether it will take effect.

Failure to act (or succeed) in security issues

In general, the UN has shown a reluctance to act upon its resolutions, or prevent nations ignoring its resolutions, making it appear weak and evoking comparisons to the League of Nations. This was highlighted in 2003 by controversy surrounding the United States-led invasion of Iraq which conducted in the face of strong disapproval by a majority of members; by Iraq's converse direct defiance of UN weapons and humanitarian resolutions; and by Israel's decade-long defiance of resolutions calling for the dismantling of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. These and similar failures stem from the UN's intergovernmental nature — in many respects it is an association of member states, and not an organization in its own right.

Hypocrisy in committee membership

Inclusion on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights of nations, such as Sudan, Cuba and Libya, which demonstrably have abysmal records on human rights, and also Libya's chairmanship of this Commission, has been an issue. These countries, however, argue that Western countries, with their history of colonialist aggression and brutality, have no right to argue about membership of the Commission.

Oil for food scandal

See also: Oil-for-food

The Oil-for-Food Programme established by the United Nations in 1996 and terminated in late 2003, was intended 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 2003 amidst allegations of widespread abuse and corruption; the former director, Benon Sevan of Cyprus, was first suspended, and then resigned from the United Nations as an interim progress report[9] of a UN-sponsored investigatory panel led by Paul Volcker concluded that Sevan had accepted bribes from the former Iraqi regime and recommended that his UN immunity be lifted, to allow for a criminal investigation.[10]

Under UN auspices, over US$65 billion worth of Iraqi oil was sold on the world market. Officially, about US$46 billion used for humanitarian needs, with additional revenue paying Gulf War reparations through a Compensation Fund, supporting UN administrative and operational costs for the programme (2.2 per cent), and paying costs for the weapons inspection programme (0.8 per cent).

Also implicated in the scandal is United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose son Kojo Annan is alleged to have illegally procured UN oil-for-food contracts on behalf of a Swiss company, Coctecna.

The UN in popular culture

The existence of the UN as a large, world-encompassing government organization has prompted many ideas about world government and world democracy. The UN is also often the subject of conspiracy theories.

An education activity called Model United Nations has grown popular in schools worldwide. Model UN has students simulate (usually) a body in the United Nations system, like the Economic and Social Council, the Economic and Finance Committee of the General Assembly, or the Executive Committee of UNICEF, to help them develop skills in debate and diplomacy.

The United Nations has been shown in several films. In the 1958 film North by Northwest, director Alfred Hitchcock wanted to film in the U.N but did not have permission. Shots were secretly done and recreated on a sound stage. The 2005 film The Interpreter is the first feature to be filmed on location in the United Nations. It features Nicole Kidman as an interpreter who becomes involved in international intrigue.

Fictional UN branches appear in many books, movies, and video games, including:


  1. ^  With the exception of the Holy See, the sole permanent observer state, all internationally recognized independent countries are members. Other political entities, notably the Republic of China (Taiwan), Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara), and Palestine, have de facto independence/sovereignty and/or some international diplomatic recognition from selected states, but are not UN members.

See also

Further reading

  • An Insider's Guide to the UN, Linda Fasulo, Yale University Press (November 1, 2003), hardcover, 272 pages, ISBN 0300101554
  • United Nations:The First Fifty Years, Stanley Mesler, Atlantic Monthly Press (March 1, 1997), hardcover, 416 pages, ISBN 0871136562
  • United Nations, Divided World: The UN's Roles in International Relations edited by Adam Roberts and Benedict Kingsbury, Oxford University Press; 2nd edition (January 1, 1994), hardcover, 589 pages,ISBN 0198279264
  • A Guide to Delegate Preparation: A Model United Nations Handbook, edited by Scott A. Leslie, The United Nations Association of the United States of America, 2004 edition (October 2004), softcover, 296 pages, ISBN 1880632713
  • "U.S. At War - International." Time Magazine XLV.19 May 7, 1945: 25-28.

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"[[11]]"Agenda for Peace: B.-Boutros Ghali

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