What Is The United Nations?

Flag and Seal of the United Nations.
Flag and Seal of the United Nations.


The United Nations (UN) is an intergovernmental organization that has 193 countries counted among its members. It can take action on such internationally relevant issues as those confronting humanitarianism. Namely, these include peace and security, climate change, sustainable development, human rights, disarmament, terrorism, humanitarian and health emergencies, gender equality, effective governance, and agricultural output. The UN is the largest group of countries in the world. It enables dialogue and negotiations among its members in order to solve the world's most pressing problems together. Therefore, it is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and important bodies in the world today.


The UN is called upon for help, leadership, and coordination in the event of natural disasters. In the face of challenges like climate change, terrorism, disease, or poverty, the UN provides a platform for international cooperation. In situations where there is peace to keep between warring factions, the UN arranges peacekeepers, oversees elections, and creates stability. The UN provides for forums within which its members can express their respective views across multiple arenas. The include the General Assembly (GA), the Security Council (SC), the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and other bodies and committees. The work of the UN reaches every corner of the globe. Although best known for peacekeeping, conflict prevention, and humanitarian assistance, there are many other ways the UN and its systems affect billions of lives and make the world a better place at all times. The UN works on a broad range of issues, from sustainable development, environmental and refugee protection, disaster relief, anti-terrorism, disarmament, and non-proliferation, to promoting democracy, human rights, gender equality, and the advancement of women. It also facilitates for its members efficient practices related to governance, economic and social development, international health, clearing landmines, expanding food production, and more. These are all done in order to achieve its goals and coordinate efforts for a safer world for this and future generations alike. In short, the United Nations' work is relevant to build a better world for humanity and to keep peace throughout the world.


The UN officially came into existence on October 24, 1945. On this day, the United Nations Charter, which was adopted and signed on June 26, 1945, came into effect. United Nations Day is celebrated on October 24 each year. In 1945, representatives of fifty countries met in San Francisco, in the US state of California at the United Nations Conference on International Organization to draw up the United Nations Charter. The San Francisco Conference, which convened on April 25, 1945, was presided over by President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, and attended by representatives of fifty nations, including nine continental European states, 21 North, Central, and South American republics, seven Middle Eastern states, five British Commonwealth nations, two Soviet republics (in addition to the USSR itself), two East Asian nations, and three African states. The delegates deliberated on the basis of proposals worked out by representatives from China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These had previously been crafted at Dumbarton Oaks, District of Columbia, United States between August and October of 1944. The Charter was signed on June 24, 1945 by the representatives of the fifty countries. Poland, which was not represented at the Conference, signed it shortly thereafter to become one of the original 51 Member States. The UN officially came into existence on October 24, 1945, when the Charter had been ratified by China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as by a majority of other signatories.

The League of Nations and the UN (Before 1945)

The brainchild of Americans Woodrow Wilson and Edward House, Englishmen Robert Cecil and Jan Smuts, and others, the League of Nations was an organization of countries established in 1919 subsequent to the end of the First World War. Strangely enough, the United States never joined. This League, despite its intentions, ultimately failed in its goal of keeping peace through the arbitration of international disputes, as evidenced by the rise of the Axis of Japan, Nazi Germany, and Italy to follow. It was replaced by the UN at the end of the Second World War. On April 18, 1946, the League transferred all of its assets to the UN.

The League’s main purpose of collective security was to avert war. In the 1920s, the League of Nations participated in the attempted reconciliation of Germany with France and Great Britain. However, these efforts failed in the face of the territorial aggression in the 1930s by Italy, Germany, and Japan. The League soon stopped functioning as a collective-security organization, although its social and economic activities continued until the end of the Second World War. However, in the early 1940s, the growing Second World War became the real push for the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union to start framing the original UN Declaration. This declaration was signed by 26 nations in January of 1942, as a formal act of opposition to Germany, Italy, and Japan, demmed as the Axis Powers. The name "United Nations" was coined by United States' President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and it was first used in the Declaration by the United Nations in the Declaration of January 1, 1942.

The UN: Timeline of Notable Events

November 1956: First Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly (GA) met on the Suez Canal Crisis and decided to create the first UN Peacekeeping force. This force was referred to as the UN Emergency Force (UNEF).

September 1960: Seventeen newly independent States, sixteen from Africa, join the UN. This was the biggest increase in membership in a single year.

June 1972: The first UN Environment Conference was held in Stockholm, Sweden. This led to the establishment of the UN Environment Program (UNEP), headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.

November 1974: First World Food Conference was held to examine the global problem of food production and consumption.

June 1975: The First World Conference on Women was held in Mexico City.

November 1981: The GA adopted the Declaration regarding the elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief.

December 1980: UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was signed by 117 States and two entities. This was the largest number of signatures ever achieved in a treaty on its first day.

September 1987: The Montreal Protocol was signed. It was intended to reduce the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances.

June 1992: The “Earth Summit” was held in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. It was attended by leaders from more than hundred countries. It created “Agenda 21”, a plan of action for sustainable development.

June 1993: The World Conference on Human Rights was held in Vienna, Austria.

October 1995: A special commemorative meeting was held at the UN Headquarters culminating the observance of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations.

August 2002: World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Johannesburg, South Africa. The summit recommended several measures to reduce poverty and to protect the environment.

October 2003: The United Nations Convention Against Corruption was adopted.

December 2010: The UN Secretary-General launched a global appeal to decriminalize homosexuality, as well as for the passing of other measures to safeguard the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people around the globe.

January 2014: The UN responded to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa with its first-ever emergency health mission (UNMEER) to facilitate the affected countries' efforts in coping with the crisis.

The UN: Structure, Duties, and Powers

The UN system is based on six principal organs. All of these integral organs were established in 1945 when the UN was created. These organs are the General Assembly, the Security Coumcil, the ECOSOC, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice, and the UN Secretariat. The Trusteeship Council suspended its operations in 1994, after the independence of Palau, the last remaining UN Trustee Territory.

The General Assembly (GA) is the main deliberative, policymaking, and representative organ of the UN. It can be considered as the "Parliament of the World", wherein all 193 Member States of the UN are represented. Decisions on important questions, such as those on peace and security, the admission of new members and, budgetary matters, require a two-thirds majority. Meanwhile, other decisions require only a simple majority.

Under the UN charter, the Security Council has been assigned the primary responsibility of maintaining international peace and security. The SC is arguably the most powerful organ of the UN. The SC recommends to the GA the appointment of the Secretary-General and the admission of new member countries to the UN. Together with the GA, the SC elects the judges of the International Court of Justice. While other organs of the UN can only make recommendations to the member states, the SC has the power to make binding decisions that member states have agreed to carry out.

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is at the heart of the UN system to advance the three dimensions of sustainable development. Namely, these are the spheres of economic, social, and environmental development. The ECOSOC is responsible for coordination, policy review, policy dialogue, and making recommendations. It is also responsible for the implementation of internationally agreed-upon development goals, as well as for the follow-up on major UN conferences and summits.

The Trusteeship Council was created to provide international supervision for the eleven Trust Territories that had been placed under the administration of seven Member States, and ensure that adequate steps were taken to prepare the Territories for self-government and independence. The Council suspended its operation on November 1, 1994, because that was when the last of the Trust Territories had attained their self-government or independence.

The International Court of Justice is the judicial organ of the UN. Unlike other organs, which are located in New York City, the International Court of Justice is located at the Peace Palace in the Hague (the Netherlands). The Court’s role is to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes referred to it by member states, and to give counsel on legal questions referred to it by other UN organs and specialized agencies.

The Secretariat comprises the Secretary-General and the UN staff members who carry out the day-to-day work of the UN as mandated by the other principal organs.

Controversies & Criticisms

The UN is over seventy years old, and its developmental strategies are often under attack from many fronts. It is widely regarded as bureaucratically unwieldy, very expensive, and even weakened by poor personnel and recruitment practices. Questions have also been raised in regards to the relevance of the UN in dealing with the new challenges confronting global security today. The world has changed much since the creation of the UN. Despite the fact that the number of UN members has nearly quadrupled, the Security Council, which virtually controls all of the UN's major decision-making, is still comprised by the victors of the Second World War.

Despite its great work in peacekeeping and protecting human rights, the UN has also been dismissed as a den of dictatorships, and for having a giant bureaucracy. Many say that though the UN supposedly goes to war in the name of peace, it has been a quiet bystander through multiple genocides. That said, UN reform is not a politically neutral exercise. Many people would like to see a stronger and more effective multilateral organization, but the mighty member governments are usually opposed to a robust institution, and they often use their power to block any change that might threaten their own dominance.

The UN of Tomorrow

Without a doubt, the UN is the most significant political innovation of the Twentieth Century. However, if the UN is to continue to achieve its unique and vital global roles into the 21st Century, it must reinvent itself to accommodate the changing and growing aspirations of its constituent members. Fortunately, there is hope. In 2011, the Secretary-General announced the appointment of a senior UN official to lead the Change Management Team, and to spearhead efforts meant to implement a reform-oriented agenda. This was aimed at streamlining and improving the efficiency of the world body as a whole. The UN recognizes that such change is a must, and is working towards achieving it.


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