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United Nations

Related subjects Politics and government

Flag of the United Nations
Location of the United Nations
Map of UN member states
and their UN-recognized dependencies.
Headquarters International territory in Manhattan, New York City
Official languages Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish
Membership 192 member states
 -  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
 -  United Nations Charter June 26, 1945 

The United Nations (UN) is an international organization whose stated aims are to facilitate cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress and human rights issues. The UN was founded in 1945 to replace the League of Nations, to stop wars between nations and to provide a platform for dialogue.

There are now 192 member states, including almost every recognized independent state. From its headquarters on international territory within New York City, the UN and its specialized agencies decide on substantive and administrative issues in regular meetings held throughout the year. The organization is divided into administrative bodies, primarily:

  • The General Assembly (the main deliberative assembly);
  • The Security Council (decides certain resolutions for peace and security);
  • The Economic and Social Council (assists in promoting international economic and social cooperation and development);
  • The Secretariat (provides studies, information, and facilities needed by the UN);
  • The International Court of Justice (the primary judicial organ).

Additional bodies deal with the governance of all other UN System agencies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The UN's most visible public figure is the Secretary-General, currently Ban Ki-moon of South Korea.

The UN is financed from assessed and voluntary contributions from member states, and has six official languages Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.


The stated aims of the United Nations are to maintain international peace and security, to safeguard human rights, to provide a mechanism for international law, to promote social and economic progress, improve living standards, and fight diseases. It provides the opportunity for countries to balance global interdependence and national interests when addressing international problems. Toward these ends it ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

The organization occupies itself at present in the fields of economic development, world health, the state of the environment, the health of animals, education, and refugee work. The organization also discusses and deliberates global conflicts, wars, disarmament and peace efforts.


East German stamp from 1985 commemorating the UN.
East German stamp from 1985 commemorating the UN.

The United Nations was founded as a successor to the League of Nations, which was widely considered to have been ineffective in its role as an international governing body, in that it had been unable to prevent World War II.

The term "United Nations" (which appears in stanza 35 of Canto III of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage) was decided by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill during World War II, to refer to the Allies. Its first formal use was in the 1 January 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 UN was espoused 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 Soviet Union 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, and arrangements to maintain international peace and security and international economic and social cooperation.

On 25 April 1945, the UN Conference on International Organization began in San Francisco. In addition to the governments, a number of non-governmental organizations were invited to assist in drafting the charter. The 50 nations represented at the conference signed the Charter of the United Nations two months later on 26 June. Poland had not been represented at the conference, but a place had been reserved for it among the original signatories, and it added its name later. The UN came into existence on 24 October 1945, after the Charter had been ratified by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the Republic of China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States — and by a majority of the other 46 signatories. That these countries are the permanent members of the Security Council, and have veto power on any Security Council resolution, reflects that they are the main victors of World War II or their successor states: the People's Republic of China replaced the Republic of China in 1971 and Russia replaced the Soviet Union in 1991.

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


With the addition of Montenegro on 28 June 2006, there are 192 United Nations member states, including virtually all internationally-recognized independent states.

The United Nations Charter outlines the rules for membership:

  1. Membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations.
  2. The admission of any such state to membership in the United Nations will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.
United Nations Charter, Chapter 2, Article 4,  http://www.un.org/aboutun/charter/
A world map showing the members of the UN, according to the UN. Note that Antarctica has no government; political control of Western Sahara is in dispute; and the territories administered by the Republic of China (Taiwan) is considered by the UN to be a province of the People's Republic of China.
A world map showing the members of the UN, according to the UN. Note that Antarctica has no government; political control of Western Sahara is in dispute; and the territories administered by the Republic of China (Taiwan) is considered by the UN to be a province of the People's Republic of China.

Group of 77 (G77)

Member states of G77.
Member states of G77.

The Group of 77 at the UN is a loose coalition of developing nations, designed to promote its members' collective economic interests and create an enhanced joint negotiating capacity in the United Nations. There were 77 founding members of the organization, but the organization has since expanded to 130 member countries. The group was founded on 15 June 1964 by the "Joint Declaration of the Seventy-Seven Countries" issued at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The first major meeting was in Algiers in 1967, where the Charter of Algiers was adopted and the basis for permanent institutional structures was begun.


United Nations Headquarters.
United Nations Headquarters.

The United Nations headquarters is a golden rectangled building in New York City. It is located in the Turtle Bay neighbourhood, on the east side of Midtown Manhattan, on spacious grounds overlooking the East River. Though the building is in New York City, the land occupied by the United Nations Headquarters is considered international territory. FDR Drive passes underneath the Conference Building of the complex. There are also major UN agencies in Geneva, The Hague, Vienna, Montreal, Copenhagen, Bonn, and elsewhere.


Major contributors to the regular
UN budget for 2006
Member Nation (the list is not complete) Contribution (% of total UN budget)
United States 22.00%
Japan 19.47%
Germany 8.66%
United Kingdom 6.13%
France 6.03%
Italy 4.89%
Canada 2.81%
Spain 2.52%
China 2.05%
Mexico 1.88%
Australia 1.59%
Brazil 1.52%

The UN is financed from assessed and voluntary contributions from member states. The regular two-year budgets of the UN and its specialized agencies are funded by assessments. 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 their Gross National Income (GNI), with adjustments for external debt and low per capita income.

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 revised the scale of assessments to reflect current global circumstances. As part of that revision, the regular budget ceiling was reduced from 25% to 22%. The U.S. is the only member that has met the ceiling.In addition to a ceiling rate, the minimum amount assessed to any member nation (or 'floor' rate) is set at 0.001% of the UN budget. Also, for the least developed countries (LDC), a ceiling rate of 0.01% is applied.

The current operating budget is estimated at $4.19 billion (refer to table for major contributors).

A large share of UN expenditures addresses the core UN mission of peace and security. The peacekeeping budget for the 2005-2006 fiscal year is approximately $5 billion (compared to approximately $1.5 billion for the UN core budget over the same period), with some 70,000 troops deployed in 17 missions around the world. UN peace operations are funded by assessments, using a formula derived from the regular funding scale, but including a weighted surcharge for the five permanent Security Council members, who must approve all peacekeeping operations. This surcharge serves to offset discounted peacekeeping assessment rates for less developed countries. As of 1 January 2007, the top 10 providers of assessed financial contributions to United Nations peacekeeping operations were: the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, China, Canada, Spain and South Korea.

Special UN programmes not included in the regular budget (such as UNICEF and UNDP) are financed by voluntary contributions from member governments. Most of this is financial contributions, but some is in the form of agricultural commodities donated for afflicted populations.


Under the Charter, the official languages are Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. Later the Arabic language was added as a language of the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council. Five of the official languages were chosen when the UN was founded (the languages of the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Spanish, which was the official language of the largest number of nations at the time). Arabic was added in 1973; the number of Arabic-speaking member states had increased substantially since 1945, and the 1973 oil crisis provided the catalyst for the addition. The Secretariat uses two working languages, British English (not American English) and French.

The UN standard for English language documents (United Nations Editorial Manual) follows British usage and Oxford spelling (en-gb-oed). The UN standard for Chinese ( Standard Mandarin) changed when the Republic of China (Taiwan) was succeeded by the People's Republic of China in 1971. From 1945 until 1971 traditional characters were used, and since 1972 simplified characters have been used.

Organizational structure

The United Nations system is based on five principal organs (formerly six - the Trusteeship Council suspended operations in 1994); the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Secretariat, and the International Court of Justice.

General Assembly

UN General Assembly.
UN General Assembly.

The General Assembly is the main deliberative assembly of the United Nations. Composed of all United Nations member states, the assembly meets in regular yearly sessions under a president elected from among the member states. Over a two-week period at the start of each session, all members have the opportunity to address the assembly. Traditionally, the Secretary-General makes the first statement, followed by the president of the assembly. The first session was convened on 10 January 1946 in the Westminster Central Hall in London and included representatives of 51 nations.

When the General Assembly votes on important questions, a two-thirds majority of those present and voting is required. Examples of important questions include: recommendations on peace and security; election of members to organs; admission, suspension, and expulsion of members; and, budgetary matters. All other questions are decided by majority vote. Each member country has one vote. Apart from approval of budgetary matters, resolutions are not binding on the members. The Assembly may make recommendations on any matters within the scope of the UN, except matters of peace and security that are under Security Council consideration.

Conceivably, the one state, one vote power structure could enable states comprising just eight percent of the world population to pass a resolution by a two-thirds vote. However, as no more than recommendations, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which a recommendation by member states constituting just eight percent of the world's population, would be adhered to by the remaining ninety-two percent of the population, should they object.

Security Council

Interior of the Security Council chambers.
Interior of the Security Council chambers.

The Security Council is charged with maintaining peace and security among countries. While other organs of the United Nations can only make 'recommendations' to member governments, the Security Council has the power to make binding decisions that member governments have agreed to carry out, under the terms of Charter Article 25. The decisions of the Council are known as United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The Security Council is made up of 15 member states, consisting of five permanent seats and ten temporary seats. The permanent five are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. These members hold veto power over substantive but not procedural resolutions allowing a permanent member to block adoption but not to block the debate of a resolution unacceptable to it. The ten temporary seats are held for two-year terms with member states voted in by the General Assembly on a regional basis. The presidency of the Security Council is rotated alphabetically each month.

The Security Council has been criticised for being unable to act in a clear and decisive way when confronted with a crisis.

Economic and Social Council

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) assists the General Assembly in promoting international economic and social cooperation and development. ECOSOC has 54 members, all of whom are elected by the General Assembly for a three-year term. The president is elected for a one-year term and chosen amongst the small or middle powers represented on ECOSOC. ECOSOC meets once a year in July for a four-week session. Since 1998, it has held another meeting each April with finance ministers heading key committees of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Viewed separate from the specialized bodies it coordinates, ECOSOC's functions include information gathering, advising member nations, and making recommendations. In addition, ECOSOC is well-positioned to provide policy coherence and coordinate the overlapping functions of the UN’s subsidiary bodies and it is in these roles that it is most active.


The United Nations Secretariat is headed by the Secretary-General, assisted by a staff of international civil servants worldwide. It provides studies, information, and facilities needed by United Nations bodies for their meetings. It also carries out tasks as directed by the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the UN Economic and Social Council, and other UN bodies. The United Nations Charter provides that the staff be chosen by application of the "highest standards of efficiency, competence, and integrity," with due regard for the importance of recruiting on a wide geographical basis.

The Charter provides that the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any authority other than the UN. Each UN member country is enjoined to respect the international character of the Secretariat and not seek to influence its staff. The Secretary-General alone is responsible for staff selection.

The Secretary-General's duties include helping resolve international disputes, administering peacekeeping operations, organizing international conferences, gathering information on the implementation of Security Council decisions, and consulting with member governments regarding various initiatives. Key Secretariat offices in this area include the Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter that, in his or her opinion, may threaten international peace and security.

International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), located in The Hague, Netherlands, is the primary judicial organ of the United Nations. Established in 1945 by the United Nations Charter, the Court began work in 1946 as the successor to the Permanent Court of International Justice. The Statute of the International Court of Justice, similar to that of its predecessor, is the main constitutional document constituting and regulating the Court.

It is based in the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, sharing the building with the Hague Academy of International Law, a private centre for the study of international law. Several of the Court's current judges are either alumni or former faculty members of the Academy. Its purpose is to adjudicate disputes among states. The court has heard cases related to war crimes, illegal state interference and ethnic cleansing, among others, and continues to hear cases.

A related court, the International Criminal Court (ICC), began operating in 2002 through international discussions initiated by the General Assembly. It is the first permanent international court charged with trying those who commit the most serious crimes under international law, including war crimes and genocide. The ICC is functionally independent of the UN in terms of personnel and financing, but some meetings of the ICC governing body, the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute, are held at the UN. There is a "relationship agreement" between the ICC and the UN that governs how the two institutions regard each other legally.


Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations is the head of the Secretariat, one of the principal organs of the United Nations, and acts as the de facto spokesman and leader of the United Nations.


The UN Charter provides little guidance for the selection of the Secretary General. The Charter states that "the Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council". Over the years the process has changed, but always requires bartering and negotiation on the part of the five veto holding members of the Security Council.

In practice, a few details have remained consistent:

  • the Secretary-General is appointed for a renewable five year term;
  • no Secretary-General has served more than two terms;
  • candidates are selected using geographic rotation;
  • no candidate has been elected from the country of a permanent member of the Security Council; and
  • the General Assembly has never rejected a candidate recommended by the Security Council.

List of Secretaries-General

No. Name Country of Origin Length of Service Note
1 Trygve Lie Flag of Norway Norway February 1946-November 1952 Resigned
2 Dag Hammarskjöld Flag of Sweden Sweden April 1953-September 1961 Died in a plane crash while over Africa
3 U Thant Flag of Burma Burma November 1961-December 1971 First non-European leader of UN
4 Kurt Waldheim Flag of Austria Austria January 1972-December 1981
5 Javier Pérez de Cuéllar Flag of Peru Peru January 1982-December 1991 First Secretary General from South America
6 Boutros Boutros-Ghali Flag of Egypt Egypt January 1992-December 1996 First Secretary General from Africa
7 Kofi Annan Flag of Ghana Ghana January 1997-December 2006
8 Ban Ki-moon Flag of South Korea South Korea January 2007-Present

Peace and security

UN peacekeeping missions. Dark blue indicates current missions, while light blue represents former missions.
UN peacekeeping missions. Dark blue indicates current missions, while light blue represents former missions.

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 ( 24 January 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, the UN Disarmament Commission, and the Conference on Disarmament. Items on the agenda include consideration of the possible merits of a nuclear test ban, outer-space arms control, efforts to ban chemical weapons and land mines, nuclear and conventional disarmament, nuclear-weapon-free zones, reduction of military budgets, and measures to strengthen international security.


Peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

UN peacekeepers are sent to regions where armed conflict has recently ceased (or paused) to enforce the terms of peace agreements and to discourage combatants from resuming hostilities. Since the UN does not maintain its own military, peacekeeping forces are voluntarily provided by member states of the UN. All UN peacekeeping operations must be approved by the Security Council.

The founders of the UN had envisaged that the UN would act to prevent conflicts between nations and make future wars impossible. Those hopes have not been fully realized. During the Cold War (from about 1945 until 1991), the division of the world into hostile camps made peacekeeping agreement extremely difficult. Following the end of the Cold War, there were renewed calls for the UN to become the agency for achieving world peace, as there are several dozen ongoing conflicts that continue to rage around the globe.

The UN Peace-Keeping Forces (called the Blue Helmets) received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988. In 2001, the UN and Secretary General Kofi Annan won the Nobel Peace Prize "for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world."

The UN maintains a series of United Nations Medals awarded to military service members 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 are considered international decorations instead of military decorations.

Successes in security issues

UN peacekeeping light armed mechanised vehicle in Bovington Tank Museum, Dorset.
UN peacekeeping light armed mechanised vehicle in Bovington Tank Museum, Dorset.

The Human Security Report 2005, produced by the Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia with support from several governments and foundations, documented a dramatic, but largely unrecognized, decline in the number of wars, genocides and human rights abuses since the end of the Cold War. Statistics include:

  • a 40% drop in violent conflict;
  • an 80% drop in the most deadly conflicts; and
  • an 80% drop in genocide and policide.

The report argued that international activism — mostly spearheaded by the UN — has been the main cause of the post–Cold War decline in armed conflict, though the report indicated the evidence for this contention is mostly circumstantial.

In the area of Peacekeeping, successes include:

  • A 2005 RAND Corp study found the UN to be successful in two out of three peacekeeping efforts. It also compared UN nation-building efforts to those of the U.S., and found that of eight UN cases, seven are at peace, whereas of eight U.S. cases, four are at peace.

Failures in security issues

In many cases UN members have shown reluctance to achieve or enforce Security Council resolutions. Such failures stem from the UN's intergovernmental nature — in many respects it is an association of 192 member states who must reach consensus, not an independent organization.

Other serious security failures include:

  • Failure to prevent the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, which resulted in the killings of nearly a million people, due to the refusal of Security Council members to approve any military action.
  • Failure by MONUC (UNSC Resolution 1291) to effectively intervene during the Second Congo War, which claimed nearly five million people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 1998-2002, and in carrying out and distributing humanitarian aid.
  • Failure to intervene in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre: despite the fact that the UN designated Srebrenica a "safe haven" for refugees and assigned 600 Dutch peacekeepers to protect it, the peacekeeping force was not authorised to use force.
  • Failure to successfully deliver food to starving people in Somalia; the food was instead usually seized by local warlords. A U.S./UN attempt to apprehend the warlords seizing these shipments resulted in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu.
  • Failure to implement provisions of United Nations Security Council Resolutions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • Failed to prevent or help sufficiently in the area of Darfur genocide: a crisis still exists in that area.

Peace enforcement

The UN has not only acted to keep the peace but also occasionally intervened in armed conflicts, the first of which was the Korean War (1950-1953). More recently, the UN authorized the intervention in Iraq after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Human rights and Humanitarian Assistance

The pursuit of human rights was a central reason for creating the UN. 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 Assembly regularly takes up human rights issues.

The UN and its 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 UN 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 UN has helped run elections in countries with little democratic history, including recently in Afghanistan and East Timor.

The UN is also a forum 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, Security Council resolutions, or International Court of Justice rulings.

Human Rights Council

The purpose of the Human Rights Council is to address human rights violations. The Council is the successor to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which was often criticised for the high-profile positions it gave to member states that did not guarantee the human rights of their own citizens

The United Nations General Assembly established the Human Rights Council on 15 March 2006. The council has 47 members distributed by region, which each serve three year terms, and may not serve three consecutive terms. A candidate to the body must be approved by a majority of the General Assembly. In addition, the council has strict rules for membership, including a universal human rights review. While some members with questionable human rights records have been elected, it is fewer than before with the increased focus on each member state's human rights record.

Indigenous rights issues

On 17 September 2007 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a declaration outlining the rights of some 370 million indigenous peoples around the world.

Following two decades of debate, the "United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples" was approved. The Declaration outlines the individual and collective rights to culture, language, education, identity, employment and health, thereby addressing post-colonial issues which had confronted Indigenous peoples for centuries. The Declaration aims to maintain, strengthen and encourage the growth of Indigenous institutions, cultures and traditions. It also prohibits discrimination against Indigenous peoples and promotes their active participation in matters which concern their past, present and future.

The declaration was approved when 143 member states voted in its favour. Eleven member states abstained and four voted against the text Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

Treaty bodies

The United Nations linked human rights treaty bodies are committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties. There are now seven UN-linked human rights treaty bodies, including the Human Rights Committee and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Secretariat services are provided regarding all of those by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Humanitarian assistance

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 other disasters. Major humanitarian branches of the UN are the World Food Programme (which helps feed more than 100 million people a year in 80 countries), the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees with projects in over 116 countries, as well as peacekeeping projects in over 24 countries.

At times, UN relief workers have been subject to attacks.

Social and Economic Development

The UN is involved in supporting development, e.g. by the formulation of the Millennium Development Goals. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) is the largest multilateral source of grant technical assistance in the world. Organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), UNAIDS, and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria are leading institutions in the battle against diseases 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 also promotes human development through various related agencies. The World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund (IMF), for example, are independent, specialized agencies and observers within the UN framework, according to a 1947 agreement. They were initially formed as separate from the UN through the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1944.

The UN annually publishes the Human Development Index (HDI), a comparative measure ranking countries by poverty, literacy, education, life expectancy, and other factors.

Millennium Development Goals

The Millennium Development Goals are eight goals that all 192 United Nations member states have agreed to try to achieve by the year 2015. The United Nations Millennium Declaration, signed in September 2000, commits the states to:

  1. eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;
  2. achieve universal primary education;
  3. promote gender equality and empower women;
  4. reduce child mortality;
  5. improve maternal health;
  6. combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases;
  7. ensure environmental sustainability; and
  8. develop a global partnership for development.


Since its founding, there have been many calls for reform of the United Nations. But there is little clarity, let alone consensus, about how to reform it. Some want the UN to play a greater or more effective role in world affairs, others want its role reduced to humanitarian work. There have also been numerous calls for the UN Security Council's membership to be increased to reflect the current geo-political state, for different ways of electing the UN's Secretary-General, and for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly.

Reform program

An official reform programme was begun by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan soon after starting his first term in 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.

In September 2005, the UN convened a World Summit that brought together the heads of most member states, calling the summit "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take bold decisions in the areas of development, security, human rights and reform of the United Nations." Kofi Annan had proposed that the summit agree on a global "grand bargain" to reform the UN, revamping international systems for peace and security, human rights and development, to make them capable of addressing the extraordinary challenges facing the UN in the 21st century.

World leaders agreed on a compromise text, including the following notable items:

  • the creation of a Peacebuilding Commission to provide a central mechanism to help countries emerging from conflict;
  • an agreement that the international community has the right to step in when national governments fail to fulfill their responsibility to protect their citizens from atrocious crimes;
  • a Human Rights Council (established in 2006);
  • an agreement to devote more resources to UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS);
  • several agreements to spend billions more on achieving the Millennium Development Goals;
  • a clear and unambiguous condemnation of terrorism "in all its forms and manifestations";
  • a democracy fund;
  • an agreement to wind up the Trusteeship Council due to the completion of its mission.

Management Reform

The UN has been accused of bureaucratic inefficiency and waste. During the 1990s the United States, currently the largest contributor to the UN, gave this inefficiency as a reason for withholding their dues. The repayment of the dues was made conditional on a major reforms initiative. In 1994 the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) was established by the General Assembly to serve as an efficiency watchdog. Further management reforms have been proposed through the World Summit, including changes to the OIOS, the establishment of an ethics office, and a review of UN mandates that are older than five years.

The Office of Internal Oversight Services is being restructured to more clearly define its scope and mandate. It will receive more resources. In addition, to improve the oversight and auditing capabilities of the General Assembly, an Independent Audit Advisory Committee (IAAC) is being created. In June 2007, the Fifth Committee created a draft resolution for the terms of reference of this committee.

An ethics office was established in 2006, responsible for administering new financial disclosure and whistleblower protection policies. Working with the OIOS, the ethics office also plans to implement a policy to avoid fraud and corruption.

The Secretariat is in the process of reviewing all UN mandate that are more than five years old. The review is intended to determine which duplicative or unnecessary programmes should be eliminated. Not all member states are in agreement as to which of the over 7000 mandates should be reviewed. The dispute centres on whether mandates that have been renewed should be examined. As of September 2007, the process is ongoing.

Personnel policy

The UN and its agencies are immune to the laws of the countries where they operate, safeguarding UN's impartiality with regard to the host and member countries. This independence allows agencies to implement human resources policies that may even be contrary to the laws of a host - or a member country.

Despite their independence in matters of human resources policy, the UN and its agencies voluntarily apply the laws of member states regarding same-sex marriages, allowing decisions about the status of employees in a same-sex partnership to be based on nationality. The UN and its agencies recognize same-sex marriages only if the employees are citizens of countries that recognize the marriage. This practice is not specific to the recognition of same-sex marriage but reflects a common practice of the UN for a number of human resources matters. It has to be noted though that some agencies provide limited benefits to domestic partners of their staff and that some agencies do not recognise same-sex marriage or domestic partnership of their staff.

Specialized Organizations

There are many UN organizations and agencies that function to work on particular issues.

International Atomic Energy Agency

IAEA flag.
IAEA flag.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is an intergovernmental forum for scientific and technical cooperation in the field of nuclear technology. It seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy and to inhibit its use for military purposes. The IAEA was set up as an autonomous organization in 29 July 1957. Prior to this, in 1953, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower envisioned the creation of this international body to control and develop the use of atomic energy, in his " Atoms for Peace" speech before the UN General Assembly. The organization and its Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize announced on 7 October 2005. Its current membership is 144 countries.

International Civil Aviation Organization

ICAO flag.
ICAO flag.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was founded in 1947. It codifies the principles and techniques of international air navigation and fosters the planning and development of international air transport to ensure safe and orderly growth. Its headquarters are located in the Quartier international de Montréal of Montreal, Canada.

The ICAO Council adopts standards and recommended practices concerning air navigation, prevention of unlawful interference, and facilitation of border-crossing procedures for international civil aviation. In addition, the ICAO defines the protocols for air accident investigation followed by transport safety authorities in countries signatory to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, commonly known as the Chicago Convention.

International Fund for Agricultural Development

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) was established as an international financial institution in 1977, as one of the major outcomes of the 1974 World Food Conference and a response to the situation in the Sahel. IFAD is dedicated to eradicating rural poverty in developing countries.

International Labour Organization

The International Labour Organization (ILO) deals with labour issues. Its headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland. Founded in 1919, it was formed through the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles, and was initially an agency of the League of Nations. It became a member of the UN system after the demise of the League and the formation of the UN at the end of World War II. Its Constitution, as amended to date, includes the Declaration of Philadelphia on the aims and purposes of the Organization. Its secretariat is known as the International Labour Office.

International Maritime Organization

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), formerly known as the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO), was established in 1948 through the United Nations to coordinate international maritime safety and related practices. However the IMO did not enter into full force until 1958.

Headquartered in London, the IMO promotes cooperation among governments and the shipping industry to improve maritime safety and to prevent marine pollution. IMO is governed by an Assembly of members and is financially administered by a Council of members elected from the Assembly. The work of IMO is conducted through five committees and these are supported by technical sub-committees. Member organizations of the UN organizational family may observe the proceedings of the IMO. Observer status may be granted to qualified non-governmental organizations.

The IMO is supported by a permanent secretariat of employees who are representative of its members. The secretariat is composed of a Secretary-General who is periodically elected by the Assembly, and various divisions including, inter alia, marine safety, environmental protection, and a conference section.

International Telecommunication Union

ITU flag.
ITU flag.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was established to standardize and regulate international radio and telecommunications. It was founded as the International Telegraph Union in Paris on 17 May 1865. Its main tasks include standardization, allocation of the radio spectrum, and organizing interconnection arrangements between different countries to allow international phone calls — in which regard it performs for telecommunications a similar function to what the UPU performs for postal services. It has its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, next to the main United Nations campus.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations leads international efforts to defeat hunger. Serving both developed and developing countries, FAO acts as a neutral forum where all nations meet as equals to negotiate agreements and debate policy. FAO's mandate is to raise levels of nutrition, improve agricultural productivity, better the lives of rural populations and contribute to the growth of the world economy. FAO is the largest of UN agencies and its headquarters are in Rome, Italy.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

UNESCO flag.
UNESCO flag.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is a specialized agency of the United Nations established in 1945. Its stated purpose is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science, and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and the human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the UN Charter.

United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), French/Spanish acronym ONUDI, is a specialized agency in the United Nations system, headquartered in Vienna, Austria. The Organization's primary objective is the promotion and acceleration of industrial development in developing countries and countries with economies in transition.

Universal Postal Union (UPU)

The Universal Postal Union, headquartered in Berne, Switzerland, coordinates postal policies between member nations, and hence the world-wide postal system. Each member country agrees to the same set of terms for conducting international postal duties.

World Bank

The World Bank, a part of the World Bank Group (WBG), makes loans to developing countries for development programmes with the stated goal of reducing poverty. The World Bank differs from the World Bank Group in that the former only comprises the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Development Association, while the latter incorporates these entities in addition to three others.

World Health Organization (WHO)

WHO flag.
WHO flag.

The World Health Organization (WHO) acts as a coordinating authority on international public health. Established on 7 April 1948, and headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the agency inherited the mandate and resources of its predecessor, the Health Organization, which had been an agency of the League of Nations.

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)

The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) (French: Organisation mondiale de la propriété intellectuelle or OMPI) is a specialized agency of the United Nations created in 1967 and headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. Its purpose is to encourage creative activity and to promote the protection of intellectual property throughout the world. The organisation administers several treaties concerning the protection of intellectual property rights.

World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

WMO flag.
WMO flag.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) originated from the International Meteorological Organization (IMO), which was founded in 1873. Established in 1950, WMO became the specialized agency of the United Nations for meteorology (weather and climate), operational hydrology and related geophysical sciences. It has its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

Other activities


Conferences and International Observances are other activities of the United Nations. Over the lifetime of the UN, over 80 colonies have attained independence. The General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples in 1960 with no votes against but abstentions from all major colonial powers. Through the UN Committee on Decolonization, created in 1962, the UN has focused considerable attention on decolonization. It has also supported the new states that have arisen as a result self-determination initiatives. The committee has overseen the decolonization of every country larger than 20,000 km² and removed them from the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, besides Western Sahara, a country larger than the UK only relinquished by Spain in 1975.


The Berlin born polar bear Knut will be the official mascot animal for the Conference on biodiversity to be held in Bonn 2008. He is the symbol figure of global climate change.
The Berlin born polar bear Knut will be the official mascot animal for the Conference on biodiversity to be held in Bonn 2008. He is the symbol figure of global climate change.

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. Examples include:

  • International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa ( ICARA 2) 1984;
  • The UN Conference on Environment and Development (the 1992 Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil discussed issues including climate change, biodiversity, and sustainable development and led to the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development;
  • The International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, Egypt in 1994, approved a programme of action to address the critical challenges between population and sustainable development over the next 20 years;
  • The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China in 1995, sought to accelerate implementation of the historic agreements reached at the Third World Conference on Women;
  • The Second UN Conference on Human Settlements ( Habitat II), convened in 1996 in Istanbul, Turkey, considered the challenges of human settlement development and management in the 21st century; and
  • In 1998, the General Assembly called a conference to establish an International Criminal Court (ICC), where it adopted the "Rome Statute". The ICC became operational in 2002 and began its first case in 2006.

UN International Observances

The UN declares and coordinates international observances, periods of time to observe some issue of international interest or concern. Using the symbolism of the UN, a specially designed logo for the year, and the infrastructure of the United Nations System, various days and years have become catalysts to advancing key issues of concern on a global scale. For example, World Tuberculosis Day, Earth Day and International Year of Deserts and Desertification.

Controversy and criticism

There has been controversy and criticism of the UN organization and its activities since at least the 1950s. In the United States, an early opponent of the UN was the John Birch Society, which began a "get US out of the UN" campaign in 1959, charging that the UN's aim was to establish a "One World Government." In 1967, Richard Nixon, while running for President of the United States, criticized the UN as "obsolete and inadequate" for dealing with then-present crises like the Cold War. Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan to be United States Ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in a 1983 opinion piece in The New York Times that the process of discussions at the Security Council "more closely resembles a mugging" of the United States "than either a political debate or an effort at problem solving." In a February 2003 speech, soon before the United States invasion of Iraq (for which he had been unable to get UN approval), George W. Bush said, "free nations will not allow the United Nations to fade into history as an ineffective, irrelevant debating society." In 2005, Bush appointed John R. Bolton to the position of Acting U.S. Ambassador to the UN; Bolton had made several statements critical of the UN, including saying, in 1994, "There is no such thing as the United Nations. There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States."

Security Council criticism

The Security Council has been criticized for being unable to act in a clear and decisive way when confronted with a crisis. The veto power of the five permanent members has often been cited as the cause of this problem. However, according to UN Charter interpretations that were made law by the General Assembly's 'Uniting for Peace' resolution, adopted 3 November 1950, the Assembly may make any recommendations necessary to restore international peace and security, in cases where the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity between its permanent members, fails to act in situations where there appears to be a threat to international peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression. Given this, the position that reform of the Security Council veto power is a necessary prerequisite to ensuring the effectiveness of the UN Organization, has been questioned.

The makeup of the Security Council dates back to the end of World War II, and this division of powers is often said to no longer represent the current power realities in the world. Critics question the effectiveness and relevance of the Security Council, because responsibility for the enforcement of its resolutions lies primarily with the Council members themselves, and there are often no consequences for violating a Security Council resolution.

Inaction on genocide and human rights

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which existed from 1946 to 2006, was criticized for producing a disproportionate number of resolutions blaming Israel for its treatment of the Palestinian people while ignoring other human rights violators. It was also criticized for letting countries accused of violating human rights, such as Cuba and the Sudan, become members of the commission. The commission was dissolved in 2006, as part of a reform of the United Nations.

The commission's successor, the United Nations Human Rights Council was soon accused of perpetuating the UNCHR's anti-Israel bias while ignoring the plight of other oppressed people, for example in Darfur. Similar criticism has been echoed by Secretaries-General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon and U.S. President George W. Bush. Doru Costea, the current UNHRC President admitted an anti-Israel bias and hoped for reform of the Council. This "mea culpa" was contradicted by accusations from the Canadian delegation of personal interference by Costea.

Accusations of bias in the Arab-Israeli conflict

The United Nations has been accused of producing a disproportionate amount of resolutions and decisions related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and of showing anti-Israel bias in these decisions. Through the UNRWA, the UN has been accused of perpetuating the plight of Palestinian refugees. Using its Security Council Veto, the United States has often blocked decisions, "critical of Israel".

Oil-for-Food Programme

The Oil-for-Food Programme was established by the UN in 1996 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. Over $65 billion worth of Iraqi oil was sold on the world market. Officially, about $46 billion was used for humanitarian needs. Additional revenue paid for Gulf War reparations through a Compensation Fund, UN administrative and operational costs for the Programme (2.2%), and the weapons inspection programme (0.8%).

The programme was discontinued in late 2003 amidst allegations of widespread abuse and corruption. Benon Sevan, the former director, was suspended and then resigned from the UN, as an interim progress report of a UN-sponsored investigation concluded that Sevan had accepted bribes from the Iraqi regime, and recommended that his UN immunity be lifted to allow for a criminal investigation. Beyond Sevan, Kojo Annan was alleged to have illegally procured Oil-for-Food contracts on behalf of the Swiss company Cotecna. India's foreign minister, K. Natwar Singh, was removed from office because of his role in the scandal. And the Cole Inquiry investigated whether the Australian Wheat Board breached any laws with its contracts with Iraq.

Other controversies

There have been other controversies involving the United Nations. Examples include:

  • The UN has been accused of tolerating antisemitism: UN officials have been accused of ignoring Holocaust denial by Iranian officials, and some critics have viewed what they call the UN's singling-out of Israel as itself indicative of antisemitism.
  • UN ambulance caught on tape transporting armed Palestinian forces in 2004.
  • Allegations of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers during UN peacekeeping missions in Congo, Haiti, Liberia and Sudan.
  • Free City of Danzig issue. Danzig was a special mandate under the direct protection by the League of Nations which were not protected by the United Nation.

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