What is the United Nations? Discovering its history, membership, and impact

Learn about the United Nations (UN), its origins, and its global peacekeeping efforts.

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The United Nations (UN) is an international organization that promotes peace, security, and cooperation among countries.

Since its genesis in 1945, the UN has played a vital role in shaping international affairs. A bold and ambitious endeavor emerging from the ashes of World War II and the failed League of Nations, it marked a collective commitment to rebuild the world’s foundation of unity.

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Read on to learn more about the UN’s influence on global relations and how it carries out its mission to promote peace throughout the globe.

When was the United Nations established?

In the aftermath of WWII, widespread anguish and destruction highlighted an urgent need for a better international framework to prevent conflicts. A similar intergovernmental organization, the League of Nations, had been established following WWI, but global depression and the rise of fascism ultimately undermined its peacekeeping efforts.

Leaders from the allied nations led efforts to create this more substantial international body. Founding allies included the United States (US), Soviet Union, United Kingdom (UK), and China.

The UN was formalized with the signing of the UN Charter. The Charter outlined the goals, rules, and structure of the UN and reflected its founders’ shared commitment to promoting peace, security, and cooperation among nations. It outlined a commitment to “work together, with other free peoples, both in war and in peace.”
Now celebrated annually as United Nations Day, The UN Charter officially came into force on October 24, 1945.

How many countries are in the United Nations?

Imagine a hall filled with voices from every corner of the globe, where every nation—big or small—has a seat at the table. Today, that image constitutes the modern realization of the UN. It boasts 193 member states, each committed to the principles in the UN Charter.

Nestled in the heart of New York City, the UN Headquarters serves as a cornerstone of international diplomacy. It is more than just a physical location—it is a symbol of international unity and collective action. Here, diverse entities converge, working together to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

Path to UN membership and democratic process

The journey to UN membership has two steps. Initially, a government seeking membership must garner a recommendation from the UN Security Council. The council is made up of 15 members. Five of these—China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US—are permanent members with veto power. The other 10 are non-permanent council members that are elected to two-year terms.

To advance to the next stage of membership, the candidate state must receive votes from at least nine of the 15 members. It must also receive yes votes from all five of the permanent council members. Council members consider various factors, such as a candidate’s commitment to UN principles, potential impact on regional stability, diplomatic relations, political stability, and economic/social contributions.

If a candidate successfully gains the UN Security Council’s recommendation, the case is then put forth to the General Assembly, where each of the 193 member states gets an equal vote. A candidate state must receive a two-thirds majority to be admitted into the UN.

This process underscores the UN’s commitment to ensuring that every nation, regardless of size or stature, has an equal opportunity to participate in the organization’s endeavors and contribute to shaping international affairs.

UN leadership and organizational structure

The UN operates through six main bodies: the General Assembly, UN Secretariat, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Trusteeship Council, and International Court of Justice.

The General Assembly is the main policymaking body, where all member states are represented. It convenes annually at the UN headquarters in New York City.

The Secretariat, led by the Secretary-General who serves five-year terms, consists of UN staff responsible for the organization’s daily operations.

The 15-member Security Council is tasked with maintaining international peace and security. It addresses threats and acts of aggression, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The five fixed members of the council, including the US, have the power to veto any decision and block it from passing.

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) functions as the primary platform for discussing international economic and social issues. It promotes cooperation and coordination among member states and specialized agencies. This often involves addressing a wide range of topics, including sustainable development, poverty eradication, and human rights.

The Trusteeship Council was originally created to oversee the administration of trust territories and ensure their transition to self-government or independence. Trust territories were territories put under the power of the UN Trustee Council following World War II. While its main functions have largely been fulfilled, it remains active in areas such as reviewing the UN’s trusteeship agreements and assisting with the decolonization process.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is a judicial body of the UN. Composed of 15 judges elected for nine-year terms by the General Assembly and the Security Council, the ICJ plays a crucial role in upholding international law and promoting peaceful conflict resolution.

What does the United Nations do?

The UN functions in a multifaceted capacity. It focuses on five primary domains or areas, each with distinct goals for global impact.

Maintaining international peace and security

Peacekeeping remains one of the UN’s most critical missions. The UN took its first big step toward this goal by creating the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in 1956 to help bring an end to the Suez Crisis.

Today’s peacekeeping operations encompass a multidimensional approach. They extend beyond mere maintenance of peace and security and often involve facilitating political processes, protecting civilians, aiding in disarmament and reintegration efforts, and supporting constitutional processes and elections.

UN peacekeepers have garnered recognition for their tireless endeavors to foster stability in conflict-affected regions worldwide, from Africa and Israel to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali. These dedicated individuals work tirelessly to safeguard peace, security, and human rights in the face of adversity.

Promotion of human rights

Today, the UN’s Human Rights Council plays a vital role in advocating for gender equality, protecting the rights of minorities, and ensuring that every individual is treated with respect and justice.
At the heart of this dedication is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in 1948. This groundbreaking document established universal standards for human dignity and laid the foundation for the UN’s enduring commitment to human rights.

Together with other watershed documents, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the UDHR forms the cornerstone of the international human rights framework.

Providing humanitarian aid

The global community relies on the UN to support humanitarian relief efforts in areas affected by natural and man-made disasters, where national authorities cannot provide sufficient aid.

Pivotal UN agencies—such as the UN Development Program (UNDP), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Program (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA)—play an important role in delivering relief assistance.

In conflict zones, like Gaza, the WFP plays a vital role in delivering essential food aid to vulnerable populations, ensuring that basic needs are met amidst the turmoil of conflict. The WFP’s recognition with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020 underscores its powerful contribution to supplying humanitarian aid and fostering peace in conflict-affected areas.
Supporting sustainable growth and climate action

Recognizing that sustainable development and climate action are linked, and that both are vital to the present and future well-being of humanity, the UN launched a sustainable development agenda in 2015.

The UN’s commitment to sustainable development is exemplified by its initiatives, such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The MDGs, introduced in 2000, made significant strides in tackling poverty, hunger, and undereducation. Building on this success, the SDGs—unveiled in 2015—encompass 17 ambitious targets aimed at ending poverty, promoting prosperity, and protecting the planet.

Upholding international law

Since the development of its Charter, upholding international law has been integral to the UN’s mission. International law distinguishes the legal obligations of states in their interactions with one another and their treatment of people inside state boundaries.

This legal framework addresses a broad spectrum of global concerns. These include human rights, disarmament, international crime, refugees, and environmental sustainability. It also maintains guidance for shared resources, like international waters, outer space, and global trade.

The UN fulfills its mandate in various ways, employing courts, tribunals, and multilateral treaties. The Security Council is instrumental in sanctioning peacekeeping missions and authorizing the use of force to preserve international peace and security as necessary.

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