For centuries people around the world dreamed of an organization that could settle differences between nations peacefully, without armies declaring war. In modern times, as the world became more interconnected, that goal started to seem more believable.
In the 20th century, two attempts were made to establish such an organization. The first was the League of Nations, set up at the end of World War I in 1919. It was not a success and failed to stop several wars from breaking out, including World War II. At the end of that conflict, the world’s great powers decided to try again, and learn from past mistakes. The result was the United Nations (UN for short), which is still very much part of the world today.
WHAT IS THE UN?
The UN is an international organization that aims to promote peace and understanding between nations. It tries to fight poverty and disease around the world and encourages respect for human rights. The UN sends peacekeeping forces to trouble spots around the world and provides food, clothes and other emergency supplies for people affected by natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods.
It also runs various other agencies with particular aims. For example, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) aims to help children around the world, particularly those in poor countries and those who suffer as a result of natural disasters or wars. UNICEF has worked to wipe out diseases that particularly affect children, such as whooping cough; provided food supplies when disasters strike; built schools and trained teachers and nurses.
HOW WAS THE UN SET UP?
The UN was set up at the end of World War II by the countries that won the war. Its principles were worked out by the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. Detailed plans were then drawn up at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, held in the US capital Washington, D.C. in 1944. The UN Charter was drawn up at another conference in San Francisco in April 1945. The Charter document sets out the principles on which the UN is based. The UN was officially born on October 24, 1945.
WHO BELONGS TO THE UN?
The UN Charter says that any peace-loving nation can apply to join. If a new nation is to qualify, two-thirds of existing members have to approve its membership. When the UN was first set up in 1945 it had 51 members. Now it links 192 countries, large and small, from all parts of the world.
HOW DOES THE UN WORK?
The UN has five main branches: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice and the Secretariat. All member nations have a vote in the General Assembly, which meets regularly and can pass resolutions, but does not have powers to see that they are carried out.
The Security Council is the most important body for making major policy decisions, including questions of war and peace. It has 15 members. Five of these—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China—have permanent seats. The other 10 seats are held for two years at a time by countries appointed by the General Assembly. Five new members are elected every year, replacing five who stand down.
Nine of the 15 council members have to agree to any proposed course of action before it is carried out. Any of the five permanent members can veto (turn down) a proposal.
The Economic and Social Council oversees the work of various specialist UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
The International Court of Justice is a law court based in The Hague, capital of the Netherlands. It settles disputes between member nations and makes judgments on issues that stretch across national frontiers.
The Secretariat’s job is to oversee the day-to-day running of the UN and to check that its policies are carried out. It is headed by the UN Secretary-General, currently Ban Ki-moon from South Korea.
IS THE UN A SUCCESS?
Throughout the UN’s history, there have been disagreements between leading members, which have made it difficult for the organization to succeed in its main task of stopping wars. Yet it has continued to do valuable work in many different fields. It has already lasted more than twice as long as the League of Nations and is still the only place where almost all the world’s nations, including the smallest, can come together to discuss and take joint action on important issues.