You hear about the United Nations (U.N.) constantly in the news, although you might not always realize it. For example:
- "Peacekeeping" operations are sponsored by the United Nations. Currently, the U.N. has peacekeeping forces in more than a dozen different countries including Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Cyprus and Lebanon (full list).
- The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is a U.N. agency that inspects the nuclear programs of nations to ensure that nuclear materials are not being diverted for military use.
- The Security Council is a U.N. organization that makes some of the most important international decisions on the planet.
- The Earth Summit and the Kyoto Protocol were U.N.-sponsored efforts -- the largest international environmental efforts ever.
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a U.N. document ratified by the members of the General Assembly.
- The World Court or International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Netherlands, acts as the judicial portion of the United Nations and hears cases and international disputes from around the world.
- The World Health Organization is a U.N. program.
- UNICEF is a U.N. program. Originally, UNICEF helped children affected by WWII.
The U.N. has this remarkable influence because nearly every nation on the planet is a member.
In this article, you will learn the basics of the United Nations so you can grasp the scope and reach of its operations. The next time you hear about the U.N. on the news, you will have a much better understanding of this international organization.
What is the U.N.?
The United Nations was born on October 24, 1945, shortly after World War II (which officially ended on August 15, 1945). Its primary goals focus on world peace and the international desire to prevent another world war.
The U.N. has 192 member nations -- nearly every nation on the planet (see UN.org: List of Member States for a complete list). All of them have signed on to the U.N. Charter, which was originally written in 1945 by the representatives of 50 different countries.
The U.N. Charter sets up an organization that includes six "organs." Two of these -- the General Assembly and the Security Council -- are in the news quite a bit. The others are less visible.
The General Assembly
In the General Assembly, every member nation gets one vote.
Any "important question" for the general assembly requires a two-thirds majority for approval. According to the U.S. State Department, important questions include:
- recommendations on peace and security
- election of members to organs
- admission, suspension, and expulsion of members
- budgetary matters
All other matters are decided with a simple majority.
Many of the proceedings of the General Assembly are embodied in resolutions.
(Click here for the U.N. Charter's description of the General Assembly.)
In the next section we'll learn about the U.N. Security Council.
The Security Council
The goal of the Security Council, according to the U.N. Charter, is to focus on peace and security:
The Security council has five permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States) and 10 members elected by the general assembly that serve two-year terms (currently Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Germany, Guinea, Mexico, Pakistan, Spain and Syria). Historically, this organization was developed to encourage all of the allies from WWII to participate in the new United Nations when it was forming.
On important matters, it is necessary to get nine members of the Security Council to agree. However:
- The five permanent members each have veto power, and any one of them can block any resolution of the Security Council.
- The smaller nations on the Security Council often get into extremely uncomfortable positions that can force them to vote in certain ways. In the Associated Press article "France battles U.S. to line up U.N. votes" (March, 2003), you can see the type of wrangling that occurs in the Security Council:
Unlike the General Assembly, the Security Council is able to actively enforce its decisions. It can use economic sanctions or deploy forces as described in the U.N. Charter:
The forces used are all contributed by the member nations and form coalitions that serve the commanders chosen by the Security Council. The Charter spells this out as well:
You can see that, when all members of the Security Council decide that force is needed, the United Nations can bring together an impressive arsenal to solve international problems. That is what happened in the 1991 Gulf War.
In the next section, we'll discuss the other U.N. organs.
The Secretariat, headed by the Secretary-General, is a bureaucracy that keeps the U.N. running on a day-to-day basis.
The Secretary-General has a great deal of power in the U.N.. He can, for example, personally mediate disputes. He can bring matters before the Security Council. He is elected to a five-year term by the General Assembly, but his election can be vetoed by any of the permanent members of the Security Council.
The Economic and Social Council has 54 elected members chosen by the General Assembly. It makes recommendations in, as the name indicates, economic and social matters.
The International Court of Justice (a.k.a. the World Court) has 15 judges elected by the General Assembly (with Security Council approval). In this court, nations bring cases against other nations.
The sixth organ specified by the U.N. Charter is the Trusteeship Council, but it ceased operations in 1994.
Its job was to oversee territories such as those taken from conquered nations in WWII. The last territory either became a nation or merged with a nation in 1994.
Funding for the U.N. comes from the member nations. The General Assembly is in charge of ratifying a budget and deciding how much money each nation will pay into the system. Money gets divided into three areas:
- The normal U.N. operating budget
- The peacekeeping budget
- Voluntary contributions, mostly for humanitarian efforts
According to the U.S. State Department:
- In 2001, the U.S. paid $612 million toward the operating budget, $716 million toward peacekeeping and $2.2 billion toward voluntary contributions.
- In the normal operating budget, the U.S. covered 22% of the budget. Other big contributors: Japan (19.6%), Germany (9.8%), France (6.5%), the U.K. (5.6%), Italy (5.1%), Canada (2.6%) and Spain (2.5%).
For more information on the United Nations and related topics, check out the links on the next page.