History

Born from the ashes of the League of Nations, the United Nations has since served as the world’s primary forum for international collaboration between countries. Beginning in 1944, a group of Allied Nations – lead by the US, Britain, the USSR, and China – met in Washington to discuss a blueprint for ensuring lasting peace.

The work done in 1944 formed the basis for the UN Charter, which was drafted by 50 countries and a number of NGOs during the UN Conference on International Organization in the spring of 1945. Later that year, on October 24th, the UN Charter was ratified.

Since then, the UN has grown to 193 member states, 15 specialized agencies, roughly 29 programmes, dozens of active negotiations, and over 60,000 employees.

Structure

The United Nations is made up of five principle organs: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Secretariat, and the International Court of Justice.

General Assembly

The General Assembly is the UN’s primary deliberative organ. It is the only UN body which includes representatives of all member countries, each of which has one vote. The General Assembly has a number of important functions, including:

  • To discuss and recommend action on any question within the UN Charter
  • To commission studies that promote the general welfare
  • To recommend peaceful settlement of any international situation
  • To consider reports from all United Nations organs and agencies
  • To consider and approve the United Nations budget
  • To elect non-permanent members of the Security Council
  • To elect members of the Economic and Social Council
  • To elect, with the Security Council, Judges of the International Court
  • To appoint the Secretary-General, as recommended by the Security Council

The work of the United Nations stems largely from the decisions taken by the General Assembly. This work is carried out by committees, international conferences, and the UN Secretariat.

Decisions taken by the Assembly have no legally binding force over governments, but they do represent the will of the world community and provide a strong moral framework for action.

Security Council

The Security Council has final authority on issues related to international peace and security, as outlined in the UN Charter. It consists of 15 members, 5 of which are permanent – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The remaining members are elected for 2-year terms by the General assembly.

Each member on the Security Council has one vote, but veto power is reserved for the 5 permanent members. A decision taken by the Council requires at least 9 affirmative votes to pass.

The Security Council is one of the few institutions within the UN to wield ‘hard-power’. Under article 25 of the Charter, all members of the United Nations are bound to accept and implement any decisions made by the Security Council. It most commonly uses sanctions as an instrument to enforce decisions. The Security Council is also responsible for recommending the admission of new members to the United Nations.

Economic and Social Council

The Economic and Social Council is the primary body responsible for coordinating all the economic, social and related work of the of the United Nations. The council has 54 members, each serving for 3-year terms. Voting is by simple majority.

The day-to-day activities of ECOSOC are carried out by eight functional commissions, five regional commissions, three standing committies, a number of expert bodies, and a number of forums. ECOSOC also coordinates its activities with the UN programmes and specialized agencies, each of which report to the council.

The Economic and Social Council is unique in that the UN Charter allows the Council to consult with non-governmental organizations regarding “matters within its competence.” As a result, ECOSOC has a very active civil society, with roughly 3,000 NGOs granted consultative status.

Secretariat

The United Nations Secretariat is comprised roughly 16,000 core international staff working in duty stations around the world. These civil servants carry out the day-to-day work of the UN system, administering a wide variety of programmes and policies.

The work undertaken by the Secretariat ranges from the administration of peacekeeping operations, to producing studies on social and economic trends, to helping NGO’s book meeting space at international negotiations. As international civil servants staff members report only to the UN as a whole and take an oath not to seek or receive instructions from any government.

The Secretariat is lead by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and is headquartered in New York City.

International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice is located in the Netherlands at The Hague. It is the principal judicial organ of the UN. It is largely a responsive agency, settling legal disputes between states and offering advisory openings to the UN and its agencies upon request.

The Court consists of 15 judges elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council. They serve for nine year terms and can be re-elected. Care is taken to ensure all the principal legal systems of the world are represented. No two judges may be from the same country.

Though similar in name and location, the International Criminal Court is a separate entity within the UN and is focused on prosecuting cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Trusteeship Council

Established by the UN Charter in 1945, the Trusteeship Council is the only primary organ of the UN no longer operating. Its purpose was to supervise and assist in the administration of “Trust Territories.” These consisted of former mandates of the League of Nations and territories taken from defeated nations following WWII.

The Trusteeship Council technically still exists, but suspended activity in 1994 following the last of the Trust Territories gaining independence. It currently consists of the five permanent members of the Security Council and meets on an as-needed basis.

There has been some speculation of future mandates for the Trusteeship Council, including assisting in the governance and administration of the global commons. More recently it has been suggested the Council simply be eliminated, though this could be problematic since it would require reopening the UN Charter for revision. As such, it will likely remain a dormant organ of the UN.