United Nations

There are few people on the planet who haven't heard of the United Nations (UN). Whether it be through news reports of an ongoing conflict or humanitarian mission, or countries working together to tackle problems such as hunger, poverty, or gender inequality, the UN is likely to be involved. 

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Table of contents

    As the world's leading international organisation the UN has a broader global reach than any other international organisation. But what exactly does the UN do and how is it structured? In what follows, we will explore the United Nations and its mission to answer these questions.

    History of the United Nations

    The United Nations was created in 1945 at a gathering of international governments called the San Francisco Conference. The Conference took place as the Second World War was drawing to a close in Europe, and the United Nations was established in order to ensure that the horrors of war would not be repeated.

    The predecessor: the League of Nations

    This wasn't the first attempt to create an international organisation to promote collective security. In 1919, at the end of the First World War, several states came together to share their vision for a post-war world and create the League of Nations. The First World War had led to the break-up of large European empires - the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires among them. The League wanted to make sure that this new Europe would be a beacon of peace, rather than a source of conflict in the world.

    The League of Nations struggled to achieve this goal from the outset. One problem was the absence of key global powers among its members - especially the United States of America. US President Woodrow Wilson was a key figure in encouraging European countries to join the League, and his 14-point Plan laying out conditions for future peace in Europe was a source of inspiration for its founding members.

    Wilson tried to convince the US Congress that the United States should join the League, but he was strongly opposed by members of the Republican Party. The absence of the United States among the members of the League of Nations was a major blow to its credibility.

    After the fall out of the First World War the president of the United States Woodrow Wilson set out his 14-point Plan as a way to rebuild Europe after the atrocities of the war. The war had resulted in the break-up of the German, Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and many new states emerged from this break-up.

    In his plan, President Wilson outlined his vision for a world in which relations between states were governed by mutual agreements and treaties, shaped by free trade between nations and peace was ensured by an overall reduction in weapons. His plan also established the principle of self-determination for new states in Europe. For example, he argued that an independent Polish state should be established in those parts of the former Russian Empire where 'indisputably Polish populations' lived.

    Even though it was intended to welcome all countries as members, in reality, many countries never joined the League of Nations or left it after a few years of membership. The Soviet Union was excluded, as communist regimes were not allowed to join. The League of Nations had no army at its disposal, nor could it impose economic sanctions on nations that were not acting in line with the goal of collective security. This meant that the League was often reduced to simply watching events play out with no means of stopping them.

    Examples of this powerlessness include the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, but the League was also powerless to prevent the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany.

    Eventually, Germany, Italy, and Japan (as well as Spain) left the League of Nations in the 1930s. The start of the Second World War in September 1939 indicated the total failure of the League in achieving its goal of preventing another global conflict.

    The UN after the Second World War

    When the UN was founded after the Second World War, its members sought to ensure that it would be more effective than the League of Nations in achieving the goal of global security. Firstly, there were no restrictions on communist or non-democratic regimes joining the organisation. Secondly, the world's biggest military powers (the USA, the UK, France, the Soviet Union, and China) were given the power as permanent members to veto (block) any decisions against them by the UN's Security Council. This was seen as a key way to ensure that potentially hostile powers would remain engaged in the work of the organisation.

    In terms of membership, the UN has been far more successful than the League of Nations before it. At its inception, the UN had 52 members, while today there are 193 countries among its members.

    Structure of the UN

    The United Nations is comprised of six main parts:

    • The General Assembly.

    • The Security Council.

    • The International Court of Justice.

    • The Trusteeship Council.

    • The Secretariat.

    • The Economic and Social Council.

    The General Assembly represents all 193 members of the UN. In the General Assembly, every member is given a vote and has a voice. In addition to being a major representative body, it is also the UN's most important mechanism for deliberating and formulating policy. To admit a state into the UN as well as to decide on security and budgetary issues, a two-thirds majority is required from the members of the General Assembly.

    United Nations The UN General Assembly Hall StudySmarterFig. 1 - The UN General Assembly Hall

    Global peace and security are maintained through the UN Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC also has military capabilities at its disposal and can therefore give authorisation for UN military intervention to bring about resolutions to issues that arise.

    The UN Security Council (UNSC) was established to act as a guarantor of global peace and security. The UNSC can authorise a UN peacekeeping mission - or even military intervention - in order to achieve peace. It does this by using a military force made up of personnel from the UN's member states.

    The Security Council is comprised of 15 members, of these 15 members there are 5 permanent members. The five permanent members are the USA, China, France, Russia, and the UK. The 10 other members are elected by the general assembly and are rotated every 2 years. Every member of the Security Council is given a single vote but permanent members are given the power of veto. This has often led to criticism of the UNSC, with the accusation that permanent members use their veto powers to protect themselves and their allies from decisions made by the majority of UNSC members.

    The five permanent members of the Security Council were on the winning side of the Second World War and that is why they were able to assume this permanent position.

    The Economic and Social Council was established in 1946 as a founding UN Charter body and is a forum for discussion of the world's economic, social, and environmental challenges, as well as recommendations for policy action. Several UN agencies and their economic and social activities are overseen by the Economic and Social Council. The 54 members of the Council coordinate organisations such as the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) to name a few. The Economic and Social Council seeks to tackle some of the world's most pressing challenges.

    The day-to-day running of the UN is the responsibility of the UN Secretariat, which is made up of staff from all over the world. The Secretariat administers the programmes set up by the other principal components of the United Nations.

    To ensure that the 11 Trust Territories for which the UN was granted responsibility after the dissolution of the League of Nations were prepared for self-government or independence, a Trusteeship Council was established to provide international supervision. The Trusteeship Council suspended its operations in 1994 after the last of these territories became independent, but it was never formally dissolved, and it could meet again at any time if necessary.

    The 11 Trust Territories of the UN were Western Samoa, Rwanda-Urundi, Cameroon under British administration, Cameroon under French administration, Togoland under French administration, Togoland under British administration, New Guinea, Italian Somaliland, Nauru, the territory of the Pacific Islands, and Tanganyika. The last of these territories to become formally independent was Palau, which had belonged to the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. With Palau's independence, the work of the Trusteeship Council came to an end.

    UN member states can resolve disputes through the International Court of Justice (ICJ). There are 15 judges on the court who are elected by the General Assembly to serve terms of nine years. The court also deals with cases of territorial sovereignty and border disputes.

    The purpose of the United Nations

    The United Nations Charter sets out the purpose of the UN. This document was written in 1945 and every state that becomes a member of the UN must pledge to uphold the terms set forth in it.

    Article I of the UN Charter outlines the four main aims of the UN:

    1. The maintenance of international peace and security. This also encompasses a commitment to actively prevent and remove any threats to peace and security.

    2. The development of friendly relations between nations and the respect for equal rights and the right of peoples to self-determination.

    3. Upholding, respecting and encouraging fundamental human rights and freedoms, tackling discrimination, and fostering international cooperation.

    4. To act as a global force to harmonise the actions of its member states in pursuit of these common goals and to promote social progress.

    Goals of the United Nations

    The UN seeks to promote international respect, tolerance, and understanding and it is the only international organisation in which membership is open to any country in the world. It doesn't exclude members based on systems of government or types of regime, which means that countries with authoritarian or totalitarian governments can join the UN as well as liberal, democratic countries.

    If membership of the UN is open to all states in the world, why are there some countries that choose to not be members of the UN? This is because some countries (such as Taiwan or Western Sahara for example) are not formally recognised as independent states by the majority of UN members.

    As previously mentioned, one of the main purposes of the UN is to promote social progress, seeking to improve the standard of living for every individual across the globe. This has led to the UN becoming an important player in global humanitarian activities and economic development.

    The UN Development Programme (UNDP) was established in 1965 and has since become one of the largest organisations in the world working to help less wealthy countries develop. The UNDP is a global leader in trying to find solutions to the challenges that some countries face when trying to develop their economies, such as war, poverty, access to education, and environmental disasters. The UNDP was also responsible for drawing up the Millenium Development goals in 2000.

    The eight Millennium Development Goals were adopted by all UN members at the start of the new millennium and included aims to tackle global issues such as extreme poverty, literacy levels, HIV/Aids, and primary education. The Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) were expected to be achieved by the year 2015, which meant member states had 15 years to implement them.

    The Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations

    United Nations Sustainable Development Goals StudySmarter SFig. 2 - Sustainable Development Goals

    In 2015, the UNDP published 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which had similar aims to the Millennium Development Goals of 2000, but with a target date of 2030. Many of the SDGs are similar to the Millennium Development Goals before them, which has caused some to question whether the global community has failed to achieve the goals it set in 2000 and has simply given itself more time to achieve them. On the other hand, there has been a noticeable decrease in global poverty, for example, since the Millennium Development Goals were adopted.

    The Sustainable Development Goals are broader than the MDGs and have a greater emphasis on the environment and the effects of climate change. Let's take a look at the 17 sustainable development goals.

    The UN Sustainable Development Goals
    1. No poverty. 2. Zero hunger.3. Good Health and well being.4. Quality education.5. Gender equality.
    6. Clean water and sanitation.7. Affordable clean energy. 8. Decent work and economic growth. 9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure.10. Reduced inequality.
    11. Sustainable cities and communities.12. Responsible consumption and production.13. Climate action.14. Life below water.15. Life on land.
    16. Peace, justice and strong institutions.17. Partnership for the goals.

    Whilst some of these goals may appear vague, the UN has made sure that the goals are accompanied by very specific numerical targets, which will allow observers to assess clearly whether or not the goals have been fully or partially achieved, or not at all. For example, one measure of the third goal - Good health and wellbeing - is to 'reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births' by 20301.

    The United Nations Global Compact

    The United Nations Global Compact is an agreement that aims to strengthen the sustainability and social responsibility of businesses worldwide. It also sets out how firms can report their progress in implementing the principles of the agreement.

    The ten principles of the UN Global Compact include protecting human rights, improving labour conditions, protecting the environment, and tackling corruption. Companies, labour groups, and civil society organisations are able to sign up and join forces under the Global Compact Programme. Currently, 13,000 corporations participate in the UN Global Compact making it the world's largest corporate sustainability initiative. The two main objectives of the compact are as follows:

    1. To integrate the Ten Principles into global business practices worldwide.

    2. To engage in actions that further UN goals, such as the MDGs and SDGs.

    United Nations The United Nations Building in Geneva StudySmarterFig. 3 - The United Nations building in Geneva

    United Nations - Key takeaways

    • The United Nations was established in 1945 and served as a successor of the League of Nations.
    • Any sovereign and independent nation can apply for membership in the UN General Assembly. Some countries are blocked from membership in practice because other member states don't recognise their independence.
    • The UN has six major components with different responsibilities. The General Assembly is the only component in which all 193 members are given membership.
    • The purpose of the UN is to establish collective security and maintain peace globally.
    • The UN is also heavily involved in development initiatives and has created both millennium development goals and sustainable development goals.


    1. United Nations. 'Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages'. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Sustainable Development.
    2. Fig. 1 - The UN General assembly hall in New York (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UN_General_Assembly_hall.jpg) by Patrick Gruban (https://www.flickr.com/photos/19473388@N00) licenced by CC-BY-SA 2. 0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
    3. Fig. 3 Flags ONU Geneva (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flags_onu_geneva.jpg) by Yann (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Yann) licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about United Nations

    What is the United Nations?

    The United Nations is the world's largest international organisation, bringing countries together to discuss issues of global importance and to take measures to guarantee global peace and security. 

    What is the purpose of the United Nations?

    The purpose of the UN is to establish collective security and maintain peace globally.

    How many countries are in the United Nations?

    There are 193 member states of the UN. 

    When was the United Nations formed?

    The United Nations was formed in 1945 and serves as a successor of the League of Nations.

    What does the United Nations do?

    The United Nations brings together its 193 member states, as well as a number of observer organisations, to discuss and take action on globally important issues, particularly in the area of global peace and security. Through the United Nations Development Programme, the UN is involved in development initiatives around the world, tackling issues such as healthcare, gender equality and environmental sustainability. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council? 

    What conference brought about the establishment of the United Nations?

    What served as the inspiration behind the League of Nations?


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