United Nations (UN): Definition, Purpose, Structure, and Members

What Is the United Nations (UN)?

The United Nations, commonly referred to as the U.N., is an international nonprofit organization formed in 1945 to increase political and economic cooperation among its member countries. 

Key Takeaways

  • The United Nations is an international governing body formed in 1945 to increase political and economic cooperation among its member countries.
  • The U.N. grew out of the League of Nations following World War II; now, nearly every country in the world is a member.
  • It has five principal component parts, including the U.N. Economic and Social Council, which coordinates the work of 15 specialized agencies.

Purpose of the United Nations

The United Nations was formed in 1945 in the wake of World War II as a way to reduce international tensions, promote human rights, and decrease the possibility of other large-scale conflicts. It is a successor to the League of Nations, a body devoted to international cooperation that was formed in 1920 after World War I but found itself unable to prevent the outbreak of war in Europe and Asia in the 1930s. The U.S. never joined the League of Nations.

Today, almost every country in the world is represented in the U.N., including the United States (U.N. headquarters is located in New York City). A few states lack U.N. membership, though some of these exercise de facto sovereignty. In some cases, this is because most of the international community does not recognize them as independent (e.g., Tibet, Somaliland, Abkhazia). In other cases, it is because one or more powerful member states have blocked their admittance (e.g., Taiwan, Kosovo).

There are five permanent U.N. members: the U.S., Russia, France, the U.K., and China. When a new state applies to join the U.N., it only takes one permanent member to veto the application.

Structure of the UN

The U.N. is made up of five principal bodies: the U.N. General Assembly, the U.N. Secretariat, the International Court of Justice, the U.N. Security Council, and the U.N. Economic and Social Council. A sixth, the U.N. Trusteeship Council, has been inactive since 1994.

UN General Assembly 

This is the U.N.'s main deliberative body, in which all members have equal representation. It is headquartered in New York City, and its responsibilities include setting the U.N.'s budget, appointing rotating members to the Security Council, and passing non-binding resolutions that express the opinions of the international community.

UN Secretariat 

The U.N. Secretariat is the executive wing of the U.N., charged with implementing policies set by its deliberative bodies. Its head, the Secretary-General, is the U.N.'s top official. The Secretariat, which is based in New York City, includes the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which dispatches U.N. soldiers—known as "blue helmets"—on missions authorized by the Security Council.

International Court of Justice 

The International Court of Justice is based in The Hague and has two main functions: to settle disputes submitted by member states according to international law and to issue advisory opinions on legal questions submitted by U.N. agencies. There are 15 judges, and the court's official languages are French and English. Appeals are not allowed, making the judgments final.

UN Security Council 

The U.N. Security Council is charged with maintaining international security. It authorizes peacekeeping missions, accepts new U.N. members, and approves changes to the U.N. charter. The Security Council's structure allows a few powerful member states to dominate the U.N.: Russia, the U.K., France, China, and the U.S. hold permanent seats on the council and enjoy veto power. The Security Council's other 10 seats rotate on a staggered two-year schedule; as of 2021, they are occupied by Estonia, India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Niger, Norway, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia, and Vietnam.

UN Economic and Social Council 

The U.N. Economic and Social Council coordinates the activities of the U.N.'s 15 specialized agencies. These include the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which leads efforts to improve food security; the International Labour Organization (ILO), which promotes workers' interests; and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), two of the Bretton Woods institutions, which were founded to shore up international financial stability.

Which Countries Are Not Members of the United Nations?

There are 193 members of the U.N., all of them sovereign nations. A special category allows so-called observer states to participate in General Assembly meetings, but they cannot vote. The two observer states are the Holy See and Palestine. The Holy See, with the pope at its head, was granted the status of a permanent observer in 1964. Palestine officially applied to join the U.N. in 2011, but the U.N. Security Council has not voted on the application. In 2012, the State of Palestine was officially recognized as a non-member state. Certain other states, including Kosovo and the Republic of China, or Taiwan, are not members because they're not recognized by all members of the U.N.

Who Founded the United Nations?

In April 1945, as World War II was coming to a close, representatives of 50 war-weary countries gathered in San Francisco, Calif., for the United Nations Conference on International Organization. For two months, the group worked on drafting and then signing the U.N. Charter, creating the United Nations, an international organization that all hoped would help prevent another world war. The charter was ratified by China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the U.S., and other nations, and the U.N. got off the ground officially on Oct. 24, 1945.

Who Is the Secretary-General of the UN?

The ninth secretary-general of the U.N., António Guterres, took office on Jan. 1, 2017. The Portugal native was recently sworn in to a second five-year term, which begins in January 2022.

What Are the Agencies Inside the United Nations?

The U.N. has a number of specialized agencies that are actually autonomous organizations working inside the United Nations. Some pre-date World War I, while others were associated with the League of Nations or arose when the U.N. was created or even later. Some of the best known of these agencies, which are headquartered all over the world, include the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which fights hunger; the World Health Organization (WHO), which is the authority on international health at the U.N.; the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which helps foster economic growth; the International Labor Organization (ILO), which sets international labor standards; the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which helps protect important cultural and historic sites across the globe; and the World Bank, which aims to reduce poverty and raise living standards around the world.

Article Sources
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