United Nations

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United Nations

Organisation des Nations Unies
Organización de las Naciones Unidas
الأمم المتحدة
联合国 (聯合國)
Организация Объединённых Наций

Flag of the United Nations
Flag of the United Nations

Map of UN member states and their dependencies as recognized by the UN
Map of UN member states and their dependencies as recognized by the UN

Formation 24 October 1945
Type International organization
Headquarters International territory on Manhattan Island, New York City
Membership 192 member states
Official languages Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish
Secretary-General Flag of South Korea Ban Ki-moon
Website http://www.un.org/
The Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon
The Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon

The United Nations (UN) is an international organization whose stated aims are to facilitate co-operation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress and human rights issues. It was founded in 1945 at the signing of the United Nations Charter by 50 countries, replacing the League of Nations, founded in 1919.

The UN was founded after the end of World War II by the victorious Allied Powers in the hope that it would act to intervene in conflicts between nations and thereby avoid war. The organization's structure still reflects in some ways the circumstances of its founding. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, each of which has veto power on any UN resolution, are the main victors of World War II or their successor states: People's Republic of China (which replaced the Republic of China), the French Republic, the Russian Federation (which replaced the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

As of 2007, there are 192 United Nations member states, encompassing almost every recognized independent state. From its headquarters in New York City, the UN and its specialized agencies decide on substantive and administrative issues in regular meetings held throughout each year. The organization is divided into administrative bodies, including the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Secretariat, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). 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. The current Secretary-General is Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, who assumed the post on 1 January 2007.


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


The foundation of the United Nations
The foundation of the United Nations
Wartime poster of the United Nations
Wartime poster of the United Nations
Stamp of the GDR version of the UNO
Stamp of the GDR version of the UNO

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. Some argue that the UN's major advantage over the League of Nations is its ability to maintain and deploy its member nations' armed forces as peace keepers. Others see such "peace keeping" as a euphemism for war and domination of weak and poor countries by the wealthy and powerful nations of the world.

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, DC. 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 Organizations 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 Security Council—Republic of China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and by a majority of the other 46 signatories.

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/

Among the notable absences are the Republic of China (Taiwan), whose seat in the United Nations was transferred to the People's Republic of China in 1971, and the Holy See (administering authority of Vatican City), which has declined membership but is an observer state.

A world map showing the members of the UN. Note that Antartica has no government except for a few research bases run by various UN countires.
A world map showing the members of the UN. Note that Antartica has no government except for a few research bases run by various UN countires.


UN headquarters in New York City
UN headquarters in New York City

The United Nations headquarters was built on an 18 acre site in New York City purchased with a donation to the UN by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1946 . Though it is in New York City, the land occupied by the United Nations headquarters is international territory . Its borders are First Avenue west, East 42nd Street south, East 48th Street north and the East River east. FDR Drive passes underneath the Conference Building of the complex.

UN European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland
UN European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland

Prior to 1949, the UN used various venues in London and New York State. There are also major UN agencies in Geneva, The Hague, Vienna, Montreal, Copenhagen, Bonn, and elsewhere.

As the main UN building is aging, the UN is in the process of negotiating to build a temporary headquarters designed by Fumihiko Maki on First Avenue (Manhattan) between 41st and 42nd Streets for use while the current building is being expanded. NewsMax reported in March 2007 that the UN planned to begin a renovation of its complex, starting 2008. The Capital Master Plan is projected to last almost 10 years and could cost close to $2 billion.


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 meets 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 . The major contributors to the regular UN budget for 2006 are United States (22%), Japan (19.47%), Germany (8.66%), United Kingdom (6.13%), France (6.03%), Italy (4.89%), Canada (2.81%), Spain (2.52%), and China (2.05%). Some member nations are in arrears on their payments, most notably the United States (see United States and the United Nations).

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.


The UN has six official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. The Secretariat uses two working languages, English and French.

Five of the official languages were chosen when the UN was founded, and Arabic was added in 1973. There is controversy over whether the number of official languages should be reduced (for example to English only) or expanded. In 2001, Spanish-speaking countries complained that Spanish does not have equal status compared to English. There is also pressure to add Hindi as a seventh official language. There is strong resistance against downgrading the status of French.; every Secretary-General so far has spoken French and the apparent difficulty of current Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to do so fluently in his first press conference was considered a faux pas.

The UN standard for English language documents (United Nations Editorial Manual) follows British usage. The UN and all other organisations part of the UN system use Oxford spelling. The UN standard for Chinese (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 1971 simplified characters have been used.

English is an official language in 52 of UN's member states, French in 29, Arabic in 24, Spanish in 20, Russian in 4, and Chinese in 2.

Organizational structure

The United Nations system is based on five principle organs : (1) UN General Assembly, (2) UN Security Council, (3) UN Economic and Social Council, (4) UN Secretariat, and (5) International Court of Justice.

UN General Assembly

UN General Assembly.
UN General Assembly.
Interior of the Security Council chambers.
Interior of the Security Council chambers.

The UN General Assembly is the main deliberative organ of the United Nations. It is made up of all United Nations member states and meets in regular yearly sessions. As the only UN organ in which all members are represented, the assembly serves as a forum for members to discuss issues of international law and to make decisions regarding the functioning of the organization.

UN Security Council

The UN Security Council is charged with maintaining peace and security among nations. While other organs of the United Nations only make recommendations to member governments, the Security Council has the power to make decisions that member governments must carry out under the United Nations Charter. 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 debate of a resolution unacceptable to it. The ten temporary seats are held for two-year terms with member states voted in by the UN General Assembly on a regional basis. The presidency of the Security Council is rotated alphabetically each month.

The Security council has been criticized for being unable to act in a clear and decisive way when confronted with a crisis. Recent examples include the Iranian nuclear program and the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. The veto power of the five permanent members has been cited as the cause of this problem. The makeup of the security council dates back to the end of World War II, and this division of powers no longer represents the state of the world. Critics question the effectiveness and relevance of the Security Council because enforcement relies on the member nations and there usually are no consequences for violating a Security Council resolution.



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

The countries of the UN and its specialized agencies — the "stakeholders" of the system — give guidance and decide on substantive and administrative issues in regular meetings held throughout each year. Governing bodies made up of member states include not only the General Assembly, Economic and Social Council, and the Security Council, but also counterpart bodies dealing with the governance of all other UN System agencies. For example, the World Health Assembly and the Executive Board oversee the work of WHO.

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. Recent examples include:

  • The UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992, led to the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to advance the conclusions reached in Agenda 21, the final text of agreements negotiated by governments at UNCED;
  • The International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, Egypt, in September 1994, approved a programme of action to address the critical challenges and interrelationships between population and sustainable development over the next 20 years;
  • The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in September 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 June 1996 in Istanbul, Turkey, considered the challenges of human settlement development and management in the 21st century.
  • ICARA 2 or ICARA II: International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa established in 1984.

UN International Years and Observation Days

The UN declares and coordinates "International Year of the..." and 'International Day of the...' in order to focus world attention on important issues and remembrance days. Using the symbolism of the UN, a specially designed logo for the year, and the infrastructure of the UN System is used to coordinate events worldwide, the various years have become catalysts to advancing key issues of concern on a global scale.

  • UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites
  • UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador
  • United Nations Peace Messenger Cities

Peace and Security

Arms control and disarmament

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 and the UN Disarmament Commission. 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.

The Conference on Disarmament is a forum established by the international community for the negotiation of multilateral arms control and disarmament agreements. It has 65 members representing all areas of the world, including all known nuclear-weapon states, except for North Korea . While the conference is not formally a UN organization, it is linked to the UN through a personal representative of the Secretary-General; this representative serves as the secretary general of the conference. Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly often request the conference to consider specific disarmament matters. In turn, the conference annually reports its activities to the Assembly.


External References to UN Security Council Resolutions

UN peacekeepers are sent to various regions where armed conflict has recently ceased, or temporarily frozen, in order to enforce the terms of peace agreements and to discourage the combatants from resuming hostilities, for example in East Timor until its independence in 2001. These forces are provided by member states of the UN, and participation in peace keeping operations is optional; at this point only 2 nations, Canada and Portugal, have participated in all peacekeeping operations. The UN does not maintain any independent military. 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 several dozen military conflicts continue to rage around the globe. But the breakup of the Soviet Union also left the U.S. in a unique position of global dominance, creating a variety of new challenges for the UN.

United Nations peacekeeping light armed mechanised vehicle in Bovington tank museum, Dorset
United Nations peacekeeping light armed mechanised vehicle in Bovington tank museum, Dorset

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. In December 2000, the UN revised the assessment rate scale for the regular budget and for peacekeeping. The peacekeeping scale is designed to be revised every six months and was projected to be near 27% in 2003. The US intends to pay peacekeeping assessments at these lower rates and has sought legislation from the U.S. Congress to allow payment at these rates and to make payments towards arrears.

The UN Peace-Keeping Forces (called the Blue Helmets) received the 1988 Nobel Prize for Peace. 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.

UN Peacekeepers rape accusations in Congo, Haiti, Liberia, and Sudan

In December 2004, during the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, at least 68 cases of alleged rape, prostitution and pedophilia and more than 150 other allegations have been uncovered by UN investigators, all perpetrated by UN peacekeepers, specifically ones from Pakistan, Uruguay, Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa and Nepal. Peacekeepers from 3 of those nations are also accused of obstructing the investigation. Also, a French UN logistics expert in Congo was also charged of rape and child pornography in the same month.

The BBC reported that young girls were abducted and raped by UN peacekeepers in Port-au-Prince. Similar accusations have been made in Liberia and in Sudan.

Successes and failures in security issues

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. 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.
  • An 80% drop in genocide and politicide.

The Report, published by Oxford University Press, 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.

The Report singles out several specific investments that have paid off:

  • A sixfold increase in the number of UN missions mounted to prevent wars, from 1990 to 2002.
  • A fourfold increase in efforts to stop existing conflicts, from 1990 to 2002.
  • A sevenfold increase in the number of ‘Friends of the Secretary-General’, ‘Contact Groups’ and other government-initiated mechanisms to support peacemaking and peacebuilding missions, from 1990 to 2003.
  • An elevenfold increase in the number of economic sanctions against regimes around the world, from 1989 to 2001.
  • A fourfold increase in the number of UN peacekeeping operations, from 1987 to 1999.

These efforts were both more numerous and, on average, substantially larger and more complex than those of the Cold War era.

In the area of Peacekeeping, successes include:

  • The US Government Accountability Office concluded that UN Peacekeeping is eight times less expensive than funding a U.S. force.
  • 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, and four are not or not-yet-at peace.

However, in many cases UN members have shown reluctance to achieve or enforce Security Council resolutions. Iraq is said to have broken 17 Security Council resolutions dating back to June 28, 1991 as well as trying to bypass the UN economic sanctions. For nearly a decade, Israel delayed implementing resolutions calling for the dismantling of Jewish communities in "occupied territories". Such failures stem from UN's intergovernmental nature — in many respects it is an association of 192 member states who must reach consensus, not an independent organization. Even when actions are mandated by the 15-member Security Council, the Secretariat is rarely given the full resources needed to carry out the mandates.

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 Congo (DRC), 1998-2002 (with fighting reportedly continuing), 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.
  • 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 the provisions of UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701 calling for disarmament of Lebanese paramilitary groups such as Fatah and Hezbollah.
  • Sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers. Peacekeepers from several nations have been repatriated from UN peacekeeping operations for sexually abusing and exploiting girls as young as 8 in a number of different peacekeeping missions. This abuse is ongoing despite many revelations and probes by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services. A 2005 internal UN investigation found that sexual exploitation and abuse has been reported in at least five countries where UN peacekeepers have been deployed, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire, and Liberia. The BBC carried a similar report, and also cited a member of the World Food Programme as an offender.

Human rights

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 or Security Council resolutions or ICJ rulings.

Human Rights Council

On 15 March 2006 the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to replace the United Nations Commission on Human Rights with the UN Human Rights Council. Its purpose is to address human rights violations. The UNCHR had repeatedly been criticized for the composition of its membership. In particular, several of its member countries themselves had dubious human rights records, including states whose representatives had been elected to chair the commission.

The new council has stricter rules for peacekeeping membership including a universal human rights review and a dramatic increase in the number of nations needed to elect a candidate to the body, from election-by-regional-slate on the 53-member Economic and Social Council to a majority of the 192 member General Assembly.

On 9 May 2006 elections were held to elect all 47 members to the council. Seats are allocated by region: Africa (13), Asian (13), Eastern Europe (6), Latin American and Caribbean (8) and Western Europe and other (7). Members of the council serve for three year terms, and may not serve three consecutive terms .

While some governments with poor records were elected, such as Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Azerbaijan, some other rights violators that ran for election did not receive enough votes: Iran, Venezuela, Thailand, Iraq, and Kyrgyzstan This change in membership has been cited as a positive first step for the council .

There are now seven UN-linked human rights treaty bodies, including the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Secretariat services are provided regarding six of those (excluding the latter) by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Inaction on genocide and human rights

The UN has been accused of ignoring the plight of people across the world, especially in parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Current examples include the UN's inaction toward the Sudanese government in Darfur, the Chinese government's ethnic cleansing in Tibet, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the wake of the Rwandan Genocide, the UN and the international community in general drew severe criticism for its inaction. Despite international news media coverage of the violence as it unfolded, most countries, including France, Belgium, and the US, declined to intervene or speak out against the massacres. Canada continued to lead the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). However, the UN did not authorize UNAMIR to intervene or use force to prevent or halt the killing.

Humanitarian assistance and international development

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 arms of the UN are the World Food Programme (which helps feed more than 100 million people a year in 80 countries), 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 (see Attacks on humanitarian workers).

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

The UN promotes human development through various agencies and departments:

  • World Health Organization (WHO) eliminated smallpox in 1977 and is close to eliminating polio.
  • World Bank / International Monetary Fund (IMF), which 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.
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
  • United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
  • United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

On 9 March 2006, Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for those in the Horn of Africa threatened with starvation.

UN also had an agency called the World Food Council with the goal of coordinating national ministries of agriculture to help alleviate malnutrition and hunger. It was suspended in 1993.

Treaties and international law

The UN negotiates treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to avoid potential international disputes. Disputes over use of the oceans may be adjudicated by a special court.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the main court of the UN. Its purpose is to adjudicate disputes among states. The ICJ began in 1946 and continues to hear cases. Important cases include:

  • Congo vs. France, where the Democratic Republic of Congo accused France of illegally detaining former heads of state accused of war crimes; and Nicaragua vs. United States, where Nicaragua accused the United States of illegally arming the Contras (this case led to the Iran-Contra affair).
  • In 1993, in response to "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia, the UN Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. In 1994, in response to the Rwandan genocide, the council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The jurisprudence of these two courts established the current understanding of rape committed in furtherance of an armed conflict as a war crime.
  • In 1998 the General Assembly called a conference in Rome 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. 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.
  • In 2002, the UN established the Special Court for Sierra Leone in response to the atrocities committed during the Sierra Leone Civil War.

There is also a SCIU (Serious Crimes Investigation Unit) for East Timor.


In recent years 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 (that is, more members from Africa, South America and Asia). Renewed calls for reform came in 2004 and 2005, after allegations of mismanagement and corruption of the Oil-for-Food Programme for Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Bureaucratic inefficiency

The UN has been accused of inefficiency and waste due to its cumbersome and excessive bureaucracy. 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 a ruling of the General Assembly to serve as an efficiency watchdog. A reform program has been proposed, but has not yet approved by the General Assembly.

Oil-for-Food Programme

The Oil-for-Food Program was established by the UN in 1996. Its purpose was 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. It was discontinued in late 2003 amidst allegations of widespread abuse and corruption. The former director, Benon Sevan of Cyprus, first was suspended, then resigned from the UN, as an interim progress report PDF (3.67  MiB) of a UN-sponsored investigation led by Paul Volcker concluded that Sevan had accepted bribes from the Iraqi regime, and recommended that his UN immunity be lifted to allow for a criminal investigation.

Under UN auspices, 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%).

Also implicated in the scandal was Kofi Annan's son Kojo Annan, alleged to have illegally procured UN Oil-for-Food contracts on behalf of the Swiss company Cotecna. India's foreign minister, Natwar Singh, was removed from office because of his role in the scandal.

The Australian government set up the Cole Inquiry in November 2005 to investigate whether the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) breached any laws with its contracts with Iraq during the Oil-for-Food Programme. AWB paid Saddam Hussein's regime almost $300 million, through a front company called 'Alia', to secure wheat contracts to Iraq. Australia's Prime Minister (John Howard), Deputy Prime Minister ( Mark Vaile), and Foreign Minister ( Alexander Downer) denied knowing about such bribes when they were called to testify before the inquiry. It has been suggested that although the Australian Government did not monitor AWB effectively enough to stop the bribes, the UN should have been more forceful in requesting the Australian Government to investigate. The Cole Inquiry is scheduled to report on 24 November 2006.

Reform programme

An official reform programme was begun by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan soon after starting his first term on 1 January 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, in a plenary session of the General Assembly's 60th session. The UN called 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 with such notable items as:

  • the creation of a Peacebuilding Commission to provide a central mechanism to help countries emerging from conflict;
  • the agreement that the international community has the right to step in when national governments fail to fulfill their responsibility to protect their citizens from atrocity crimes;
  • a Human Rights Council (created 9 May and becoming operational 19 June);
  • an agreement to devote more resources to UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services;
  • several agreements to spend billions more on achieving 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.

Although the UN member states achieved little reform of UN bureaucracy, Annan continued to carry out reforms under his own authority. He established an ethics office, responsible for administering new financial disclosure and whistleblower protection policies. As of late December 2005, the Secretariat was completing a review of all General Assembly mandates more than five years old. That review is intended to provide the basis for decision-making by the member states about which duplicative or unnecessary programmes should be eliminated.

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 Borgen Project estimates that $40 to 60 billion each year is needed to achieve all eight goals.

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;
  8. Develop a global partnership for development.

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. Hiring and firing practices, working hours and environment, holiday time, pension plans, health insurance, life insurance, salaries, expatriation benefits and general conditions of employment are governed by UN rules and regulations. This independence allows agencies to implement human resources policies which may even be contrary to the laws of a host- or a member country. For instance, a person who is otherwise eligible for employment in Switzerland, where the International Labour Organization (ILO) has its headquarters, may not be employed by the ILO unless he or she is a citizen of an ILO member state.


There is a smoking ban within the UN headquarters, but some member nations allow smoking in their UN embassies. Moreover, users of illegal drugs are ineligible for employment in the UN.

Same-sex marriages

Despite their independence in matters of human resources policy, UN 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. They recognize same-sex marriages only if the employees are citizens of countries that recognize the marriage. Some agencies provide limited benefits to domestic partners of their staff.

Model United Nations

An educational activity called the Model United Nations has grown popular in schools worldwide. The programme (usually) has students simulate a body in the UN System to help them develop skills in debate and diplomacy. Conferences are held by colleges and high schools. Committees typically included are General Assembly committees, ECOFIN committees, the Security Council, and a large range of specialized committees such as a Historical Security Council or the Senior Management Group. Students debate topics that the UN addresses and try to represent their country's views to reach a solution.

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