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Introducing the United Nations

How did the United Nations originate?

The United Nations (UN) was formally convened in San Francisco in 1945, just after the surrender of Japan ended World War II. Representatives of 51 independent nations signed the UN Charter, which was created rapidly by leaders of the victorious nations. And within just a few years, a remarkable number of UN organizations were assembled, and new treaties were signed.

What organizations comprise the UN?

These are the principal organizations of the UN:

  • The General Assembly (GA) is the main policymaking body. Today, it consists of all 193 member states, each with one vote. It meets every year in September in New York. The General Assembly president is elected for a one-year term. President of the General Assembly for 2021–2022 is Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives.
  • The UN Security Council (SC) is responsible for maintaining international peace and security. It includes five permanent members (among the most powerful nations, also known as the “great powers”) and 10 nonpermanent members elected by the General Assembly. The President of the Security Council rotates monthly among all 15 member states.
  • The Secretariat includes the Secretary General and a large administrative staff. The Secretary-General is Chief Administrative Officer of the organization, appointed by the General Assembly at the recommendation of the Security Council for a five-year, renewable term. The current Secretary General is António Guterres of Portugal, who has served since 2017.
  • The Economic and Social Council focuses on economic, social, and environmental issues. It has 54 Members, elected to serve by the General Assembly for overlapping three-year terms.
  • The Trusteeship Council was established in 1945 to oversee 11 Trust Territories and their administration by member states. By 1994, all 11 territories had gained independence, and the Trusteeship Council ceased meeting.
  • The International Court of Justice is the UN’s principal judicial organ. Its seat is at the Peace Palace in the Hague, Netherlands. The President of the International Court of Justice is Joan Donoghue of the United States.

These organizations also govern many subsidiary organizations that perform numerous functions. Each organization has a standard acronym that can easily be recognized.

Chart published by the United Nations Department of Global Communications.

How has the UN evolved?

Almost 80 years after its founding, the UN remains constitutionally almost unchanged, though its function has changed dramatically as global ties have become increasingly important.

The GA has grown dramatically, expanding from 51 to 193 members; the SC has remained structurally unchanged except that the governments of China and Russia have changed greatly; and the number of subsidiary organizations has grown with the complexity of international relations.

How is the UN financed?

The UN—headquartered in New York City with regional offices around the world—is financed mainly by contributions from member states, which are determined based on assessments set by the UN. There are also voluntary contributions, as for UNICEF (the Children’s Fund) and the UN Development Program.

What are other important bodies of the UN?

Four well-known UN organizations are UNESCO, WHO, IAEA, and IPCC:

  • UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization) was founded in 1945 and headquartered in Paris. One of its most successful programs is its list of World Heritage Sites.
  • WHO (World Health Organization), founded in 1948 and headquartered in Geneva, collects and assesses health data worldwide, most recently on the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is one of the many national organizations affiliated with WHO.
  • IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), founded in 1957 by a treaty among great powers, supports peaceful use of atomic energy and limits production and use of nuclear weapons. It reports to both the General Assembly and the Security Council.
  • IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme to provide member states with scientific information for use in developing climate policies. It has made six comprehensive reports, most recently in 2022.

Worksheet: Exploring UN Organizations

You are invited to explore the United Nations through the exercise described below—on your own, along with others, or with students.

Step 1. Choose two UN organizations from the above chart, The United Nations System. These are the organizations on which you will focus your research.

Step 2. Once you have selected your organizations, conduct an online search to find answers to the following questions:

  • What is the name and the purpose of the organization?
  • What are the name and national origin of the director of the organization?
  • How many member states are included in the organization?
  • Describe an example of a current activity of the organization.

Step 3. Write brief answers to these three further questions:

  • Briefly identify the organization.
  • Do you believe that the work of this organization is worthwhile for global society?
  • What is an example of a change in global affairs that may result from activity of this organization?
  • Do you have further comments or questions about the United Nations?

Step 4. If you wish to submit your results as a comment to the blog, please do so. If several results come in, they will be summarized in a report (but not reproduced).

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