About the United Nations
About the United Nations
The United Nations was established on 24 October 1945 by 51 countries committed to preserving peace through international cooperation and collective security. Today, nearly every nation in the world belongs to the UN: membership now totals 189 countries.
When States become Members of the United Nations, they agree to accept the obligations of the UN Charter, an international treaty which sets out basic principles of international relations. According to the Charter, the UN has four purposes: to maintain international peace and security, to develop friendly relations among nations, to cooperate in solving international problems and in promoting respect for human rights, and to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations.
UN Members are sovereign countries. The United Nations is not a world government, and it does not make laws. It does, however, provide the means to help resolve international conflict and formulate policies on matters affecting all of us. At the UN, all the Member States - large and small, rich and poor, with differing political views and social systems - have a voice and vote in this process.
The United Nations has six main organs. Five of them - the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council and the Secretariat - are based at UN Headquarters in New York. The sixth, the International Court of Justice, is located at The Hague, the Netherlands.
The General Assembly
All UN Member States are represented in the General Assembly - a kind of parliament of nations which meets to consider the world's most pressing problems. Each Member State has one vote. Decisions on "important matters," such as international peace and security, admitting new members, the UN budget and the budget for peacekeeping, are decided by two-thirds majority. Other matters are decided by simple majority. In recent years, a special effort has been made to reach decisions through consensus, rather than by taking a formal vote.
At its 2000/2001 session, the Assembly is considering more than 170 different topics, including globalization, nuclear disarmament, development, protection of the environment and consolidation of new democracies. The Assembly cannot force action by any State, but its recommendations are an important indication of world opinion and represent the moral authority of the community of nations.
The Assembly holds its annual regular session from September to December. When necessary, it may resume its session, or hold a special or emergency session on subjects of particular concern. When the Assembly is not meeting, its work is carried out by its six main committees, other subsidiary bodies and the UN Secretariat.
The Security Council
The UN Charter gives the Security Council primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. The Council may convene at any time, day or night, whenever peace is threatened. Under the Charter, all Member States are obligated to carry out the Council's decisions.
There are 15 Council members. Five of these - China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States - are permanent members. The other 10 are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Member States have discussed making changes in Council membership to reflect today's political and economic realities.
Decisions of the Council require nine yes votes. Except in votes on procedural questions, a decision cannot be taken if there is a no vote, or veto, by a permanent member.
When the Council considers a threat to international peace, it first explores ways to settle the dispute peacefully. It may suggest principles for a settlement or undertake mediation. In the event of fighting, the Council tries to secure a ceasefire. It may send a peacekeeping mission to help the parties maintain the truce and to keep opposing forces apart.
The Council can take measures to enforce its decisions. It can impose economic sanctions or order an arms embargo. On rare occasions, the Council has authorized Member States to use "all necessary means," including collective military action, to see that its decisions are carried out.
The Council also makes recommendations to the General Assembly on the appointment of a new Secretary-General and on the admission of new Members to the UN.
The Economic and Social Council
The Economic and Social Council, under the overall authority of the General Assembly, coordinates the economic and social work of the United Nations and the UN family. As the central forum for discussing international economic and social issues and for formulating policy recommendations, the Council plays a key role in fostering international cooperation for development. It also consults with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), thereby maintaining a vital link between the United Nations and civil society.
The Council has 54 members, elected by the General Assembly for three-year terms. It meets throughout the year and holds a major session in July, during which a special meeting of Ministers discusses major economic and social issues. Beginning in 1998, the Council expanded its discussions to include humanitarian themes.
The Council's subsidiary bodies meet regularly and report back to it. The Commission on Human Rights, for example, monitors the observance of human rights throughout the world. Other bodies focus on such issues as social development, the status of women, crime prevention, narcotic drugs and environmental protection. Five regional commissions promote economic development and strengthened economic relations in their respective regions.
The International Court of Justice
The International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, is the main judicial organ of the UN. Consisting of 15 judges elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council, the Court decides disputes between countries. Participation by States in a proceeding is voluntary, but if a State agrees to participate, it is obligated to comply with the Court's decision. The Court also provides advisory opinions to the General Assembly and the Security Council upon request.
The UN system
The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank group and twelve other independent organizations known as "specialized agencies" are linked to the UN through cooperative agreements. These agencies, among them the World Health Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization, are autonomous bodies created by intergovernmental agreement. They have wide-ranging international responsibilities in the economic, social, cultural, educational, health and related fields. Some of them, like the International Labour Organization and the Universal Postal Union, are older than the UN itself.
In addition, a number of UN offices, programmes and funds -- such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) - work to improve the economic and social condition of people around the world. These bodies report to the General Assembly or the Economic and Social Council.
All these organizations have their own governing bodies, budgets and secretariats. Together with the United Nations, they are known as the UN family, or the UN system. They provide an increasingly coordinated yet diverse programme of action.
UN Terms and Concepts
Halting the spread of arms and reducing and eventually eliminating all weapons of mass destruction are major goals of the United Nations. The UN has been an ongoing forum for disarmament negotiations, making recommendations and initiating studies. It supports multilateral negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament and in other international bodies. These negotiations have produced such agreements as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968), the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (1996) and the treaties establishing nuclear-free zones.
Other treaties prohibit the development, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons (1992) and bacteriological weapons (1972), ban nuclear weapons from the seabed and ocean floor (1971) and outer space (1967); and ban or restrict other types of weapons. In 1997, more than 100 nations signed the Ottawa Convention outlawing landmines. The UN encourages all nations to adhere to this and other treaties banning destructive weapons of war. The UN is also supporting efforts to control small arms and light weapons. As decided by the General Assembly, an international conference in 2001 will focus on the illicit trade in small arms.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, through a system of safeguards agreements, ensures that nuclear materials and equipment intended for peaceful uses are not diverted to military purposes. And in The Hague, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons collects information on chemical facilities worldwide and conducts routine inspections to ensure adherence to the chemical weapons convention.
UN peacemaking brings hostile parties to agreement through diplomatic means. The Security Council, in efforts to maintain international peace and security, may recommend ways to avoid conflict or restore or secure peace - through negotiation, for example, or recourse to the International Court of Justice.
The Secretary-General plays an important role in peacemaking. The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which appears to threaten international peace and security; may use "good offices" to carry out mediation; or exercise "quiet diplomacy" behind the scenes, either personally or through special envoys. The Secretary-General also undertakes "preventive diplomacy" aimed at resolving disputes before they escalate. The Secretary-General may also send a fact-finding mission, support regional peacemaking efforts or set up a local UN political office to help build trust between the parties in conflict.
The UN is increasingly undertaking activities which focus on the underlying causes of violence. Development assistance is a key element of peace-building. In cooperation with UN agencies, and with the participation of donor countries, host governments and NGOs, the United Nations works to support good governance, civil law and order, elections and human rights in countries struggling to deal with the aftermath of conflict. At the same time, it helps these countries rebuild administrative, health, educational and other services disrupted by conflict.
Some of these activities, such as the UN's supervision of the 1989 elections in Namibia, mine-clearance programmes in Mozambique and police training in Haiti, take place within the framework of a UN peacekeeping operation and may continue when the operation withdraws. Others are requested by governments, as in Liberia where the UN has opened a peace-building support office, in Cambodia where the UN maintains a human rights office, or in Guatemala where the UN is helping to implement peace agreements which affect virtually all aspects of national life.
The Security Council sets up UN peacekeeping operations and defines their scope and mandate in efforts to maintain peace and international security. Most operations involve military duties, such as observing a ceasefire or establishing a buffer zone while negotiators seek a long-term solution. Others may require civilian police or incorporate civilian personnel who help organize elections or monitor human rights. Some operations, like the one in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, have been deployed as a means to help prevent the outbreak of hostilities. Operations have also been deployed to monitor peace agreements in cooperation with peacekeeping forces of regional organizations.
Peacekeeping operations may last for a few months or continue for many years. The UN's operation at the ceasefire line between India and Pakistan in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, for example, was established in 1949, and UN peacekeepers have been in Cyprus since 1964. In contrast, the UN was able to complete its 1994 mission in the Aouzou Strip between Libya and Chad in a little over a month.
Since the UN deployed its first peacekeepers in 1948, some 118 countries have voluntarily provided more than 750,000 military and civilian police personnel. They have served, along with thousands of civilians, in 54 peacekeeping operations. Currently, some 35,400 military and civilian police personnel are deployed in 15 operations