United Nations headquarters in New York City

The United Nations, or UN, is an international organization made up of states. Almost all countries are members. It was founded on October 24, 1945 in San Francisco, California, following the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in Washington, DC, but the first General Assembly, with 51 nations represented, was not held until January 10, 1946 (held in Westminster Central Hall, London). From 1919 to 1946, there existed a somewhat similar organization under the name of League of Nations, which can be considered the UN's precursor. UN membership is open to all "peace-loving states" that accept the obligations of the UN Charter and, in the judgment of the organization, are able and willing to fulfill these obligations. The General Assembly determines admission upon recommendation of the Security Council. As of September 2003 there were 191 members; see United Nations member states.

Table of contents
1 Background and history
2 Arms Control and Disarmament
3 Human Rights
4 International Conferences
5 Financing
6 Communications
7 Reforming the UN
8 United Nations System
9 Related articles
10 External links

Background and history

The idea for the United Nations was elaborated in declarations signed at the wartime Allied conferences in Moscow and Tehran in 1943. United States president Franklin Delano Roosevelt suggested the name "United Nations" and the first official use of the term occurred on January 1, 1942 with the Declaration by the United Nations. During World War II, the Allies used the term "United Nations" to refer to their alliance. From August to October 1944, representatives of France, the Republic of China (now on Taiwan), 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 organisations, 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 Council - Republic of China, France, USSR, United Kingdom, and the United States - and by a majority of the other 46 signatories.

United Nations headquarters, view from East River
The U.S. Senate, by a vote of 89 to 2, gave its consent to the ratification of the UN Charter on July 28, 1945. In December 1945, the Senate and the House of Representatives, by unanimous votes, requested that the UN make its headquarters in the U.S. The offer was accepted and 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 UN headquarters officially opened on January 9, 1951. Under special agreement with the U.S., certain diplomatic privileges and immunities have been granted, but generally the laws of New York City, New York State, and the U.S. apply.

While the principal headquarters of the UN are in New York, there are major agencies located in Geneva in Switzerland, The Hague in The Netherlands and elsewhere.

On October 25, 1971, Resolution 2758 was passed by the General Assembly, effectively unseating the government of the Republic of China in Taipei, previously serving as the representative of China on the Security Council, and recognising the government of the People's Republic of China in Beijing as the only legitimate government of China. The Resolution declared "that the representatives of the Government of the People's Republic of China are the only lawful representatives of China to the United Nations." Multiple attempts by the Republic of China on Taiwan to re-join the UN have never passed committee. (For more on the issue of Taiwan, see China and the United Nations.)

The founders of the UN had high hopes that it would act to prevent conflicts between nations and make future wars impossible. Those hopes have obviously not been realised. From about 1947 until 1991 the division of the world into hostile camps during the Cold War made this objective impossible. 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. In recent years, however, the rise of the United States to a position of global dominance has created renewed doubts about the role and effectiveness of the UN (See the United States and the United Nations).

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 (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 UN 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 U.K., and the U.S.). 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.

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 Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), 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 play a 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.

See also: United Nations Convention on the Abolition of Slavery

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, ECOSOC, 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 U.S. Department of State accredits U.S. 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 U.S. delegations use these opportunities to promote U.S. policy viewpoints and develop international agreements on future activities. Recent examples include:

  • The UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992, led to the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to advance the conclusions reached in Agenda 21, the final text of agreements negotiated by governments at UNCED;
  • The World Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, Egypt, in September 1994, approved a program of action to address the critical challenges and interrelationships between population and sustainable development over the next 20 years;
  • The World Summit on Trade Efficiency, held in October 1994 in Columbus, Ohio, cosponsored by UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the city of Columbus, and private-sector business, focused on the use of modern information technology to expand international trade;
  • The World Summit for Social Development, held in March 1995 in Copenhagen, Denmark, underscored national responsibility for sustainable development and secured high-level commitment to plans that invest in basic education, health care, and economic opportunity for all, including women and girls;
  • The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in September 1995, sought to accelerate implementation of the historic agreements reached at the Third World Conference on Women held in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1985; and
  • The Second UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), convened in June 1996 in Istanbul, Turkey, considered the challenges of human settlement development and management in the 21st century.


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 percent; this is the rate at which the U.S. is assessed. The U.S. is the only member that is assessed this rate, though it is in arrears hundreds of millions of dollars;(see also United States and the United Nations) 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%), Germany (9.82%), France (6.50%), the U.K (5.57%), Italy (5.09%), Canada (2.57%) and Spain (2.53%).

Special UN programs 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 US 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.


The six official languages of the United Nations include those of the founding nations: Chinese, English, French, Russian. In addition, two widely spoken tongues -- Arabic, Spanish -- were added later. All formal meetings are interpreted at least in these official languages. And all official documents, in print or online, are translated in all six languages.

Reforming the UN

In recent years there have been many calls for "reform" of the UN. But there is little clarity, let alone consensus, about what reform might mean in practice. Both those who want the UN to play a greater role in world affairs and those who want its role confined to humanitarian work use the language of “UN reform,” but they mean very different things. In the US, the term is frequently used to mean "make changes that will reduce the UN's power to hamper the US", while outside the US the term is usually a code for "make changes that will increase the UN's power over countries, including the US".

The most frequently mooted change to the UN structure is to change the permanent membership of the Security Council, which reflects the power structure of the world as it was in 1945. One proposed change is to admit more members: the candidates usually mentioned are India, Japan and Germany. Another is to abolish the United Kingdom and France's seats and give a seat to the European Union: but since the EU is not a state this would require a change to the UN Charter (or it would require that the EU becomes a state).

Another change frequently suggested is to remove the veto power enjoyed by the permanent members of the Security Council. It is hard to see any of the current members surrendering the veto power. The US in particular would strongly oppose this on the grounds that it would make the actions of the US subject to international approval, and would also increase the likelihood of resolutions critical of Israel being passed.

At another level, calls for reforming the UN demand to make the UN administration (usually called "the bureaucracy") more transparent, more accountable, and more efficient. In the United States, and particularly in the US Congress, this is linked to demands that the UN adopt policies which encourage the development of free market economies and cease what are seen as socialist and anti-American policies and actions.

Another frequent demand is that the UN become "more democratic." This raises fundamental questions about the nature and role of the UN. The UN is not a world government, rather a forum for the world's sovereign states to debate issues and determine collective courses of action. Since the large majority of the world's states are now democracies, the UN is in a sense an "indirect democracy" already - the majority of countries cast votes at the UN in accordance (at least in theory) with the wishes of the electorates that elected them.

For the UN to become more democratic in a direct sense, three things would presumably have to happen:

  • Representation would need to be based more on population, rather than the present strict one-state-one-vote principle. An assembly where Liechtenstein has the same voting power as the People's Republic of China cannot claim to be democratic.
  • The veto power of the Security Council would have to be removed.
  • The UN would have to be given some power of governance over its members, just as a national government has power of governance over its citizens. In other words, it would have to become, to some degree, a world government. This would imply having the power to impose sanctions to members which would not follow the UN's determined courses of action.

It is likely that the small countries, which make up the majority of the current members of the General Assembly, would oppose the first of these changes, while the current permanent members of the Security Council would oppose the second, and probably the third as well.

United Nations System

Main article: United Nations System

The United Nations System has six principal organs:

For more information on the organizational structure see the main article.

Related articles

External links