How the United Nations Works

Flags of U.N. member states at headquarters in New York. See pictures of the United States flag.
UN/DPI Photo. Photo by A. Brizzi

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 12 different countries including Mali, 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.?

Raising 16 new member flags at U.N. Headquarters in 1960
UN/DPI Photo. Photo by M. Bordy

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 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.


U.N. Charter with U.S.S.R., U.K. and U.S. signatures
UN/DPI Photo. Photo by M. Bolomey


The General Assembly hall
UN/DPI Photo

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 United Nations Security Council adopting resolution 1244 in 1999, authorizing the establishment of an international civil and security presence in Kosovo
UN/DPI Photo

The goal of the Security Council, according to the U.N. Charter, is to focus on peace and security:

[U.N.] Members confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and agree that in carrying out its duties under this responsibility the Security Council acts on their behalf... The Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.

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:
Mexico and Angola, mindful of their close trade ties with the United States, are also leaning toward backing the U.S.-British position, diplomats say. Shattered by civil war, Angola relies on income from the sale of oil and desperately needs U.S. aid, while Mexico does not want to anger its powerful neighbor. France is leaning on Cameroon and Guinea to vote no or abstain. Both nations are poor and don't want to offend Washington or Paris. For Guinea...the dilemma is acute, since Washington is its main aid donor and Paris its second-largest donor. Washington now is offering military training, and Britain is offering $6.2 million in aid.

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 Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures. These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations. Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.

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:

All Members of the United Nations, in order to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security, undertake to make available to the Security Council, on its call and in accordance with a special agreement or agreements, armed forces, assistance, and facilities, including rights of passage, necessary for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security.

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.


Other Organs

Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressing the Security Council
UN/DPI Photo. Photo by Susan Markisz

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 Trusteeship Council, New York, 1992
UN/DPI Photo. Photo by A. Brizzi

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.



U.N. headquarters in New York
UN/DPI Photo. Photo by A. Brizzi

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.