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United Nations

Flag of the United Nations.svg
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 website

1 Other official names:

  • 국제연합
  • Persatuan Bangsa-Bangsa
  • Organisation des Nations Unies
  • Organización de las Naciones Unidas
  • Ühendatud Rahvaste Organisatsioon
  • Egyesült Nemzetek Szövetsége
  • Vereinte Nationen
  • Forente Nasjoner
  • Organizzazione delle Nazioni Unite
  • Organização das Nações Unidas
  • Organizatia Natiunilor Unite
  • Yhdistyneet Kansakunnat
  • Organizacja Narodów Zjednoczonych
  • 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,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.

As the UN main building is aging, the UN is in the process of building a new location designed by Fumihiko Maki.

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 (which replaced the Soviet Union), United Kingdom, France, and the People's Republic of China (which replaced the Republic of China).

Background and historyEdit


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. The street address is 760 United Nations Plz New York, NY 10017, US

Membership and StructureEdit

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 CouncilEdit

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.


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%) Spain (2.53%) and Brazil (2.39%).

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. Some of this is in the form of agricultural commodities donated for afflicted populations, but the majority is financial contributions.

Aims and activitiesEdit

International conferencesEdit


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 relatedEdit

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 disarmamentEdit

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

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 rightsEdit

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 developmentEdit

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), the High Commissioner for Refugees with project in over 116 countries, as well as peacekeeping projects in over 24 countries. At times, UN relief workers have been subject to attacks.

Further information: Attacks on humanitarian workers

The UN is also involved in supporting development, e.g. 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. It has helped reduce infant and maternal mortality in 100 countries.

The UN publishes the Human Development Index (HDI) annually, 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 Yugoslavia (ICTY), the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and the Ad-Hoc Court for East Timor.

Treaties and international lawEdit

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 Edit

See separate article UN, Criticism and Controversies

The UN in popular cultureEdit

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:

Similar-themed World or Galactic Bodies that model the UN in some way include:


  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 Palestinian Authority (Palestine) have some international diplomatic recognition from selected states, but are not UN members. The Political status of Taiwan makes the Republic of China the only nation ever removed from the Security Council.

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

  • 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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