The United Nations (U.N.) is a global diplomatic and political organization dedicated to international peace and stability. The U.N. was officially established in 1945 following the horrific events of World War II when international leaders proposed creating a new global organization to maintain peace and avoid the abuses of war.
The U.N. initially had just 51 member states; today, the organization, which is headquartered in New York City, has 193 members. Major U.N. initiatives include preventing conflict by exploring options to ensure peace, providing food and medical assistance in emergencies, and offering humanitarian support to millions of people around the world. While the United Nations is sometimes criticized for its policies, bureaucracy and spending, the organization has accomplished hundreds of successful peacekeeping missions.
After World War I, an international group developed the League of Nations to solve disputes between countries. When World War II started, the initiative failed but highlighted the need for a new, reformed organization that could promote global peace.
In August 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill held a secret meeting where they discussed the possibility of starting an international peace effort. They came up with a declaration called the Atlantic Charter, which outlined ideal goals of war and paved the way for the development of the U.N.
The United States joined the war in December 1941, and the title “United Nations” was first adopted to identify the countries that allied against Germany, Italy and Japan.
Representatives from 26 Allied nations met in Washington, D.C. on January 1, 1942 to sign the Declaration of the United Nations, which essentially described the war objectives of the Allied powers. The United States, United Kingdom and Soviet Union led the charge.
Over the next few years, several meetings took place to draft a post-war charter that would decisively describe the roles of the U.N.
The main principles and structure of the United Nations Charter were determined by leaders at the United Nations Conference on International Organization (UNCIO) in San Francisco on April 25, 1945.
After the war ended, the official United Nations Charter was ratified by 51 members on October 24, 1945.
United Nation’s Four Main Goals
The organization’s purpose and principles are outlined in the U.N. Charter. According to the document, the United Nations’ four main purposes are to:
- Maintain international peace and security;
- Develop friendly relations among nations;
- Achieve international cooperation in solving international problems; and
- Be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.
The U.N. is divided into different bodies, including the following:
General Assembly: The General Assembly is the main policymaking body of the U.N. that votes on decisions the organization makes. All 193 members are represented in this branch.
Security Council: This 15-member council oversees measures that ensure the maintenance of international peace and security. The Security Council determines if a threat exists and encourages the parties involved to settle it peacefully.
Economic and Social Council: The Economic and Social Council makes policies and recommendations regarding economic, social and environmental issues. It consists of 54 members who are elected by the General Assembly for three-year terms.
Trusteeship Council: The Trusteeship Council was originally created to supervise the 11 Trust Territories that were placed under the management of seven member states. By 1994, all the territories had gained self-government or independence, and the body was suspended. But that same year, the Council decided to continue meeting occasionally, instead of annually.
International Court of Justice: This branch is responsible for settling legal disputes submitted by the states and answering questions in accordance with international law.
Secretariat: The Secretariat is made up of the Secretary-General and thousands of U.N. staffers. Its members carry out the daily duties of the U.N. and work on international peacekeeping missions.
What started as a group of 51 states has grown increasingly over the years. War, independence movements and decolonization have all helped boost membership in the U.N.
Currently, there are 193 members, representing countries from all over the world.
New members must be recommended by the United Nations’ Security Council and accepted by a two-thirds vote from the General Assembly.
The U.N. states that membership in the organization is “open to all peace-loving States that accept the obligations contained in the United Nations Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able to carry out these obligations.”
Since its inception, the United Nations has performed numerous humanitarian, environmental and peace-keeping undertakings, including:
- Providing food to 90 million people in over 75 countries
- Assisting more than 34 million refugees
- Authorizing 71 international peacekeeping missions
- Working with 140 nations to minimize climate change
- Assisting about 50 countries per year with their elections
- Providing vaccinations for 58 percent of children in the world
- Helping about 30 million women a year with maternal health efforts
- Protecting human rights with 80 treaties and declarations
United Nations Criticisms
Over the years, the role of the U.N. has expanded from an organization that focused on peace and security to one that includes a wide range of global concerns. Today, the U.N. provides solutions for problems related to healthcare, the environment, criminal justice, refugee dilemmas and more.
Though many support including these extended responsibilities, others believe the organization may be overstepping its boundaries.
The U.N. has also faced criticism for promoting globalization, not being effective enough, backing provocative policies, providing controversial health options, being too bureaucratic, giving certain countries more power than others and spending too much money.
Some of the more well-known U.N. efforts that ended in failure or a publicized scandal include:
The 1994 Rwanda Mission: During this undertaking, the U.N. tried to stop the Rwandan genocide, but the Hutus slaughtered nearly a million members of the Tutsi minority.
Cholera in Haiti: After the 2010 earthquake, U.N.-led Nepali aid workers were blamed for spreading cholera throughout Haiti. More than 10,000 people died from the outbreak.
Oil for Food Program: This initiative was designed to allow Iraq to sell oil through the U.N. in exchange for food and medicine. But, accusations surfaced that much of the money was funneled to the Iraqi government and to U.N. officials.
Sexual abuse allegations: In early 2005, U.N. peacekeepers were accused of rape or paying for sex in the Republic of Congo. Similar allegations of sexual misconduct were also reported in Cambodia, Haiti and other countries.
Crisis in South Sudan: A U.N. peacekeeping mission, which was established in 2011, was unsuccessful at protecting civilians from death, torture or rape in South Sudan.
While every organization has its flaws and shortcomings, the majority of international leaders and experts agree that the U.N. continues to play a critical role in securing peace, stability and prosperity throughout the world.
This feature is from History.com.