United Nations

The term “United Nations” was first officially used on 1 January 1942, representatives of 26 nations pledged their governments to continue fighting together {via Atlantic Charter and Declaration by United Nations} to defeat the Axis powers and to obtain a “just” peace. This was soon after entry of America in WW-II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and Germany’s declaration of war on the United States in December 1941. The blueprint of United Nations was drawn in the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in 1944. The United Nations charter was signed in 26 June 1945 and it entered into force on 24 October 1945. Its headquarters are at International territory in New York City, USA.

Members of United Nations

With the addition of South Sudan on 14 July 2011, there are currently 193 United Nations member states, including all fully recognized independent states apart from Vatican City.  The Holy See, which holds sovereignty over the state of Vatican City, is a permanent observer in United Nations. Palestine is another non-state observer member.

Current Leaders of United Nations

Current leaders of United Nations are as follows:

  • Secretary ‑ General : Ban Ki-moon
  • Deputy Secretary-General : Jan Eliasson
  • General Assembly President: Mogens Lykketoft
  • Economic and Social Council President: Oh Joon
  • Security Council President – Koro Bessho

Four major principal aims of United Nations

The four principal aims of the United Nations are as follows:

  • To safeguard peace and security in order “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”
  • To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.
  • To uphold respect for international law.
  • To promote social progress and better standards of life.

Key Principles enshrined in UN Charter

The summary of key principles of UN charter is as follows:

  • Sovereign equality of all its members
  • To enjoy rights and benefits of being a UN member, all countries shall fulfill obligations assumed by them in good faith.
  • Members shall be settling international disputes by peaceful means
  • Members shall be refraining from threat or use of force against territorial integrity of each other.
  • Members shall be giving every assistance in every need of United Nations. and shall refrain from giving assistance to any state against which united nations is taking preventive or enforcement
  • UN will ensure that the states which are not members of the United Nations act in accordance with these principles with regard to international peace and security.
  • UN will not intervene in matters related to domestic matters of members.

Veto Power in UN

The UN charter had given superior powers to five of the founding members of the UN-China, France, Great Britain, United States and USSR-that allowed them to prevent any decisions that they viewed inimical to their interests from being made. They became the Permanent Five {P-5} of the UN Security Council,. This strategy, it was thought, would provide the key countries, with an incentive to remain part of the UN. It also provided them with the means of neutralizing the world organization. Though its founders were keenly aware of the failures of the League of Nations, most of its ideals and many structural elements were at the core of the UN Charter. Most evidently, the UN Charter and the League Covenant cited the promotion of international security and the peaceful settlement of disputes as key goals. But the UN Charter was different some important aspects.

Headquarters of United Nations

The headquarters UN are located at Turtle Bay neighbourhood of Manhattan, on spacious grounds overlooking the East River in a complex in New York City.  The complex has served as the official headquarters of the United Nations since its completion in 1952. Thus Turtle Bay is also sometimes called UN.

The United Nations has three additional, subsidiary, regional headquarters or headquarters districts. These are located in Geneva (Switzerland), Vienna (Austria), and Nairobi (Kenya). These adjunct offices help represent UN interests, facilitate diplomatic activities, and enjoy certain extraterritorial privileges, but only the main headquarters in New York contains the seats of the principal organs of the UN, including the General Assembly and Security Council.

All 15 of the United Nations’ specialized agencies are located outside New York at these other headquarters or in other cities.

The lead architect for the headquarters building was the real estate firm of Wallace Harrison.

UN as a Legal Personality

United Nations is NOT a State. Shortly after its establishment the UN sought recognition as an international legal person due to the case of Reparations for Injuries Suffered in the Service of the United Nations with the advisory opinion delivered by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The question arose whether the United Nations, as an organisation, had “the capacity to bring an international claim against a government regarding injuries that the organisation alleged had been caused by that state.” The Court stated: the Organization was intended to exercise and enjoy, and is in fact exercising and enjoying functions and rights, which can only be explained on the basis of the possession of a large measure of international personality and the capacity to operate upon an international plane .

Thus, UNO is an international person. Legal personality and rights and duties are NOT the same as those of a State. Being a Legal Person, UNO is a subject of international law and capable of possessing international rights and duties, and that it has capacity to maintain its rights by bringing international claims.

United Nations System

United Nations had six principal organs previously.

  1. General Assembly (the main deliberative assembly);
  2. Security Council (for deciding certain resolutions for peace and security);
  3. Economic and Social Council (for assisting in promoting international economic and social cooperation and development);
  4. Secretariat (for providing studies, information, and facilities needed by the UN);
  5. International Court of Justice (the primary judicial organ);
  6. United Nations Trusteeship Council

The 6th organ Trusteeship Council suspended operations in 1994, upon the independence of Palau, the last remaining UN trustee territory. Thus, today UN system has five principal organs.  Except ICJ, all four organs are located at the main United Nations Headquarters located on international territory in New York City. ICJ is located in The Hague, while other major agencies are based in the UN offices at Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi.

Other prominent UN System agencies include the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

United Nations Official Languages

There are six official languages of United Nations viz. Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. There are also two working languages in the secretariat viz. English and French. Four of the official languages are the national languages of the permanent members of the Security Council (the United Kingdom and the United States share English as  de facto official language); Spanish and Arabic are the languages of the two largest blocs of official languages outside of the permanent members (Spanish being official in 20 countries, Arabic in 26). Five of the official languages were chosen when the UN was founded; Arabic was added later in 1973.

Documents of United Nations

United Nations documents have a symbol, which serves as a unique identifier. Each symbol is composed of letters and numbers, which indicates the organ to which the document is being submitted or the organ that is issuing the document. For example, all UNGA documents start with A/. All language versions of a document carry the same symbol.

UN General Assembly (UNGA)

This is the main deliberative assembly of the United Nations. It is composed of all members of United Nations. It 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.

Voting and Resolutions at UNGA
  • 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.

United Nations Security Council (UNCA)

The Security Council is charged with maintaining peace and security among countries.

  • Please note that 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.
  • Thus while the UNGA resolutions are generally non-binding, UNCA resolutions are binding as well as non-binding.

The Security Council is made up of 15 member states, consisting of 5 permanent members–China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States–and 10 non-permanent members, currently Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Colombia, Gabon, Germany, India, Lebanon, Nigeria, Portugal, South Africa. The five permanent 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.

United Nations Secretariat

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 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.

Secretary-General of the United Nations

The UN’s most visible public figure is the Secretary-General, currently Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, who is in the office since 2007. He replaced Kofi Annan and was re-elected for a second term in 2011. The second term would end in December, 2016.

Secretary-General acts as the de facto spokesperson and leader of the UN.  Envisioned by Franklin D. Roosevelt as a “world moderator”, the position is defined in the UN Charter as the organization’s “Chief Administrative Officer”, but the Charter also states that the Secretary-General can bring to the Security Council’s attention “any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security“, giving the position greater scope for action on the world stage. The position has evolved into a dual role of an administrator of the UN organization, and a diplomat and mediator addressing disputes between member states and finding consensus to global issues.

Appointment of Secretary General

The Secretary-General is appointed by the General Assembly, after being recommended by the Security Council, where the permanent members have veto power The General Assembly can theoretically override the Security Council’s recommendation if a majority vote is not achieved, although this has not happened so far. There are no specific criteria for the post, but over the years, it has become accepted that the post shall be held for one or two terms of five years, that the post shall be appointed on the basis of geographical rotation, and that the Secretary-General shall not originate from one of the five permanent Security Council member states.

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.

International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court (ICC), it came into being on 1 July 2002 with the entering into force of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court which was adopted on 17 July 1998. It is the first permanent international court charged with trying those who commit the most serious crimes under international law, including war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression (although it cannot exercise jurisdiction over this crime prior to 2017).

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 the States Parties to the Rome Statute, are held at the United Nations.

There is a “relationship agreement” between the ICC and the UN that governs how the two institutions regard each other legally.

United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

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 which 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.

Specialized institutions of United Nations

Many UN organizations and agencies exist to work on particular issues. Some of the most well-known agencies are the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the World Bank and the World Health Organization. It is through these agencies that the UN performs most of its humanitarian work. Examples include mass vaccination programmes (through the WHO), the avoidance of famine and malnutrition (through the work of the WFP) and the protection of vulnerable and displaced people (for example, by the UNHCR). The United Nations Charter stipulates that each primary organ of the UN can establish various specialized agencies to fulfil its duties.

The following table lists the UN specialized institutions:

NoAcronymsAgencyHeadquartersEstablished in
1FAOFood and Agriculture Organization Rome, Italy1945
2IAEAInternational Atomic Energy Agency Vienna, Austria1957
3ICAOInternational Civil Aviation Organization Montreal, Canada1947
4IFADInternational Fund for Agricultural Development Rome, Italy1977
5ILOInternational Labour Organization Geneva, Switzerland1946 (1919)
6IMOInternational Maritime Organization London, United Kingdom1948
7IMFInternational Monetary Fund Washington, D.C., USA1945 (1944)
8ITUInternational Telecommunication Union Geneva, Switzerland1947 (1865)
9UNESCOUnited Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Paris, France1946
10UNIDOUnited Nations Industrial Development Organization Vienna, Austria1967
11UPUUniversal Postal Union Bern, Switzerland1947 (1874)
12WBWorld Bank Washington, D.C., USA1945 (1944)
13WFPWorld Food Programme Rome, Italy1963
14WHOWorld Health Organization Geneva, Switzerland1948
15WIPOWorld Intellectual Property Organization Geneva, Switzerland1974
16WMOWorld Meteorological Organization Geneva, Switzerland1950 (1873)
17UNWTOWorld Tourism Organization Madrid, Spain1974


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