What is the United Nations (UN)?

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The United Nations (UN) is an international organization that works to maintain peace and security, protect human rights, deliver humanitarian aid, promote sustainable development, and uphold international law around the world.

🤔 Understanding the UN

The United Nations – most commonly referred to as the UN – formed in 1945 following World War II when 50 countries globally joined forces to draft the UN Charter to ensure such an event didn’t happen again. The UN General Assembly – its main representative body – is today comprised of 193 countries and headquartered in New York City. Each year, the full organization meets to discuss important international security matters, admit new members, and elect a new General Assembly president. Beyond the General Assembly, the UN today has four other active organs: the Security Council, Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Secretariat, and International Court of Justice. The UN also includes 15 specialized agencies, such as the World Health Organization, that are all independent but overseen by the ECOSOC.


According to the United Nations (UN) Charter, one of the agency’s primary roles is to maintain peace and security in the international community. The UN participates in peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations around the world to mitigate conflicts and protect civilians in the process. The UN Security Council, which is made up of 15 member countries, is responsible for initiating and overseeing the progress of these initiatives. Since 1948, the UN has initiated 71 peacekeeping operations. As of 2020, there are 14 of these currently underway. The longest-running of these missions is in Jerusalem, where UN peacekeepers have been since 1948 to keep the peace in the region and enforce ceasefires.


The United Nations is kind of like a neighborhood association on a global scale…

Many neighborhoods have associations that are designed for residents to gather, share concerns about local happenings, advocate for community initiatives, and even vote on certain matters – all typically in the interest of making the community a better and more pleasant place to live. The United Nations (UN) is similar to this neighborhood group, except instead of including families that live in the area, it consists of leaders from nations all over the world.

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What is the United Nations?

The United Nations (UN) is an international organization made up of 193 nations around the world. It was formed in 1945 when countries came together in the wake of World War II (WWII) to find a way to prevent conflict and human rights violations in the future.

The UN has five primary missions. First, the organization works to maintain peace and security around the world. It does this by trying to prevent conflict in the first place and jumping in to address current conflicts and find a resolution, when necessary. The UN initiates peacekeeping missions globally when standard mediation isn’t sufficient.

Next, the UN seeks to protect human rights. In 1948, the organization adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which acknowledges past human rights violations and vows to combat them in the future. The UN addresses human rights violations through both legal actions and peacekeeping missions.

Third, the UN delivers humanitarian aid around the world. The organization began this effort after WWII when so much of Europe desperately needed aid. Today the organization still delivers aid by providing services to refugees, protection to children, food to the hungry, and healthcare to the sick.

Another mission of the UN is to promote sustainability around the globe, which includes economic opportunity and prosperity, environmental protection, and social wellbeing.

Finally, the UN upholds international law. First, the organization accomplishes this through sanctions, peacekeeping missions, and multilateral treaties to address conflict and human rights violations. The UN also has courts and tribunals in place to resolve conflicts between nations and impose consequences on those who violate international law.

Each of the UN member countries must contribute to the organization’s funding to help it carry out these missions. The amount that each nation must contribute depends on its population and gross national income, among other factors. The United States provides the largest share — In 2018, the US contributed about $10B, just shy of one-fifth of the total budget. Member nations also provide other resources, such as military personnel to carry out peacekeeping missions.

What is the structure of the United Nations?

When the founding members drafted the United Nations (UN) Charter in 1945, they included a structure for how the organization would operate in that document. Per the charter, the UN has six main organs (aka components). Five of these are located in New York City, where the UN is headquartered. The sixth – the International Court of Justice – is located in The Hague, a city in the Netherlands.

UN General Assembly

The UN General Assembly is the main deliberative, policymaking, and representative body of the UN. It consists of all 193 member states in the organization – The General Assembly is the only organ that all UN members belong to. It meets once a year for its annual session, though it can congregate for special sessions, as necessary, in the interim.

At the annual session, the General Assembly debates important issues facing the organization and world. The members also approve budgetary matters, admit new members into the organization, and vote to elect a new General Assembly president each year. Each member nation gets one vote – A vote of a two-thirds majority is required to approve any matters.

UN Security Council

The UN Security Council is responsible for maintaining peace and security around the globe. The council identifies ongoing conflicts that require the attention of the UN. It also initiates peacekeeping efforts, sanctions, or uses of force when necessary.

The UN Security Council has 15 members at any given time. Five — the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom — are permanent members. The other ten members of the Council are non-permanent and rotate every two years. The General Assembly votes on which ten members will serve on these non-permanent seats. Each sitting member holds the Security Council Presidency for a term of one month – They take turns holding the position based on alphabetical order.

UN Economic and Social Council

The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is responsible for studying and reporting on economic, social, environmental, health, and cultural issues around the world. The Council can make recommendations and draft conventions for the General Assembly to adopt.

Unlike the Security Council, the ECOSOC doesn’t have the power to initiate actions on its own. Instead, it is a body meant to research and study – It brings its recommendations before the full UN General Assembly for a vote. The ECOSOC has 54 members that the General Assembly elects for three-year terms.

Trusteeship Council

The Trusteeship Council was originally created to assist nations that were trustees of other UN member countries with setting up their own governments and achieving independence. By 1994, each of the 11 nations that had been trustees met their goal of independence. As a result, the Trusteeship Council was no longer necessary and it has been inactive ever since.

International Court of Justice

One of the primary roles of the UN is to maintain peace between member nations and help resolve any conflict as quickly as possible. One way the UN does this is through the International Court of Justice. The Court serves as the judicial body of the UN. If there are any legal disputes between member nations, the Court is responsible for helping to settle them. The Court is also responsible for upholding international law. Non-member countries can become a party to a legal dispute within the Court – However, the UN Charter only requires that member nations comply with the Court’s decisions.

UN Secretariat

The UN Secretariat is the body that carries out the day-to-day operations of the UN. Tens of thousands of staff globally work for the Secretariat, carrying out the directions of the General Assembly and other Councils. The Secretary-General heads the Secretariat, essentially acting as the chief executive officer (CEO) of the organization by leading the international staff. The staff includes both those working in offices around the world and those undertaking the peacekeeping missions initiated by the UN Security Council. The Secretariat has dozens of different offices and departments, most of which are housed at the UN headquarters in New York.

What is the history of the United Nations?

The history of the United Nations (UN) precedes the organization’s inception by several years. After World War I, countries around the world saw a need for a central body whose role would be to maintain global peace. President Woodrow Wilson of the US helped spearhead the creation of the League of Nations, though the United States never actually joined this organization.

When World War II broke out several decades later, world leaders felt that, though the League of Nations had failed, an international peacekeeping organization was still necessary.

The UN first came to fruition in January 1942 when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt coined the term to describe the 26 nations (the Allied nations) that came together to pledge resources to defeat Germany, Italy, and Japan (the Axis powers) in the war.

After the Allied nations won the war in 1945, 50 countries from around the world came together in San Francisco to hold the United Nations Conference on International Organization. At that conference, the countries signed the UN Charter to officially form the UN.

Though 50 countries joined the UN and signed the charter at that first conference, it was the United States, United Kingdom, China, and the Soviet Union that spearheaded the effort – They had gathered the previous year to agree on the proposals for the Charter. Since its founding, many other countries have joined the organization, bringing the total to 193 as of 2020.

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