The United Nations (UN; French: Organisation des Nations unies, ONU) is world’s largest, foremost, and most prominent international organization. The stated aims of the United Nations include promoting and facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, political freedoms, democracy, and the achievement of lasting world peace. The UN was founded in 1945 after World War II to replace the League of Nations, to stop wars between countries, and to provide a platform for dialogue. It contains multiple subsidiary organizations to carry out its missions.
Since 2011, the UN has 193 member states. From its offices around the world, the UN and its specialized agencies decide on substantive and administrative issues in regular meetings held throughout the year. The organization has six principal organs: the General Assembly (the main deliberative assembly); the Security Council (for deciding certain resolutions for peace and security); the Economic and Social Council (for assisting in promoting international economic and social cooperation and development); the Secretariat (for providing studies, information, and facilities needed by the UN); the International Court of Justice (the primary judicial organ); and the United Nations Trusteeship Council (which is currently inactive). Other prominent UN System agencies include the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The UN’s most prominent position is that of the office of Secretary-General which has been held by Ban Ki-moon of South Korea since 2007.
The United Nations Headquarters resides in international territory in New York City, with further main offices at Geneva, Nairobi, and Vienna. The organization is financed from assessed and voluntary contributions from its member states, and has six official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.
The League of Nations failed to prevent World War II (1939–1945). Because of the widespread recognition that humankind could not afford a third world war, the United Nations was established to replace the flawed League of Nations in 1945 in order to maintain international peace and promote cooperation in solving international economic, social, and humanitarian problems. The earliest concrete plan for a new world organization was begun under the aegis of the U.S. State Department in 1939. Franklin D. Roosevelt first coined the term ‘United Nations’ as a term to describe the Allied countries. The term was first officially used on 1 January 1942, when 26 governments signed the Atlantic Charter, pledging to continue the war effort. On 25 April 1945, the UN Conference on International Organization began in San Francisco, attended by 50 governments and a number of non-governmental organizations involved in drafting the United Nations Charter. The UN officially came into existence on 24 October 1945 upon ratification of the Charter by the five then-permanent members of the Security Council—France, the Republic of China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States—and by a majority of the other 46 signatories. The first meetings of the General Assembly, with 51 nations represented, and the Security Council, took place in Methodist Central Hall Westminster in London beginning 6 January 1946.
Since its creation, there has been controversy and criticism of the United Nations. In the United States, an early opponent of the UN was the John Birch Society, which began a “get US out of the UN” campaign in 1959, charging that the UN’s aim was to establish a “One World Government”. After the Second World War, the French Committee of National Liberation was late to be recognized by the US as the government of France, and so the country was initially excluded from the conferences that aimed at creating the new organization. Charles de Gaulle criticized the UN, famously calling it a machin (“contraption”), and was not convinced that a global security alliance would help maintain world peace, preferring direct defence treaties between countries.
Legal basis of establishment
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 … Accordingly, the Court has come to the conclusion that the Organization is an international person. That is not the same thing as saying that it is a State, which it certainly is not, or that its legal personality and rights and duties are the same as those of a State … What it does mean is that it 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.
Human rights and humanitarian assistance
The pursuit of human rights was a central reason for creating the UN. World War II atrocities and genocide led to a ready consensus that the new organization must work to prevent any similar tragedies in the future. An early objective was creating a legal framework for considering and acting on complaints about human rights violations. The UN Charter obliges all member nations to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights” and to take “joint and separate action” to that end. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though not legally binding, was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all. The Assembly regularly takes up human rights issues.
The UN and its agencies are central in upholding and implementing the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A case in point is support by the UN for countries in transition to democracy. Technical assistance in providing free and fair elections, improving judicial structures, drafting constitutions, training human rights officials, and transforming armed movements into political parties have contributed significantly to democratization worldwide. The UN has helped run elections in countries with little or no democratic history, including Afghanistan and East Timor. The UN is also a forum to support the right of women to participate fully in the political, economic, and social life of their countries. The UN contributes to raising consciousness of the concept of human rights through its covenants and its attention to specific abuses through its General Assembly, Security Council resolutions, or International Court of Justice rulings.
The purpose of the United Nations Human Rights Council, established in 2006, is to address human rights violations. The Council is the successor to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which was often criticized for the high-profile positions it gave to member states that did not guarantee the human rights of their own citizens. The council has 47 members distributed by region, which each serve three-year terms, and may not serve three consecutive terms. A candidate to the body must be approved by a majority of the General Assembly. In addition, the council has strict rules for membership, including a universal human rights review. While some members with questionable human rights records have been elected, it is fewer than before with the increased focus on each member state’s human rights record.
The rights of some 370 million indigenous peoples around the world are also a focus for the UN, with a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples being approved by the General Assembly in 2007. The declaration outlines the individual and collective rights to culture, language, education, identity, employment and health, thereby addressing post-colonial issues that had confronted indigenous peoples for centuries. The declaration aims to maintain, strengthen and encourage the growth of indigenous institutions, cultures and traditions. It also prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their active participation in matters that concern their past, present and future. The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is the UN’s central coordinating body for matters relating to the concerns and rights of the world’s indigenous peoples. The forum is an advisory body within the framework of the United Nations System that reports to the UN’s Economic and Social Council.
In conjunction with other organizations such as the Red Cross, the UN provides food, drinking water, shelter and other humanitarian services to populaces suffering from famine, displaced by war, or afflicted by other disasters. Major humanitarian branches of the UN are the World Food Programme (which helps feed more than 100 million people a year in 80 countries), the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees with projects in over 116 countries, as well as peacekeeping projects in over 24 countries.
In 2011, the United Nations passed its first resolution recognizing LGBT rights, and followed up with a report documenting violations of the rights of LGBT people around the world, including hate crime, criminalization of homosexuality, and discrimination. In July 2012, the South African and Brazilian ambassadors requested further discussion regarding discrimination against LGBT people. The joint statement said that sexual orientation and gender identity is a human rights issue.
The organization was based at the Sperry Gyroscope Corporation’s facility in Lake Success, New York, from 1946–1952, before moving to the United Nations Headquarters building in Manhattan upon its completion.