PEACE in Action

Part I - The United Nations at 60

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Policies for International Peace
The United Nations at 60
Part I - Origins, Purpose and Structure

Its Origins

The first multi-government-sponsored international meeting to promote peace occurred in The Hague in The Netherlands in 1899. The only significant achievement was the establishment of an international court to be located in the Hague.

The next major effort was promoted by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I in 1918—it resulted in the establishment of the League of Nations which was headquartered in Switzerland. The United States Senate never approved U.S. membership in the League; it succumbed in the 1930s when it was unable to stop invasions by Germany in Europe and Italy in Ethiopia.

During World War II, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt began working with Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom and Joseph Stalin, leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to create a new international agency to preserve the peace. Their work culminated in an international meeting in San Francisco in April 1945 in which the 51 nations represented there approved on June 26 a Charter for a new international organization to be called the United Nations and a Statute of the International Court of Justice, headquartered in The Hague. The United Nations became operational October 24, 1945 when the requisite number of nations had obtained internal approval of the country's formal entry into the United Nations and its acceptance of the obligations of that membership.

Its Mission and How to Carry It Out

The purpose of the United Nations (UN), and how it was expected to carry out its mission, was set forth in the UN Charter, including its Preamble. The Statute of the International Court of Justice was also included in the Charter. This section includes the Preamble and the Purposes and Principles (Chapter I of the Charter).

The Preamble:

We the peoples of the United Nations

to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind; and

to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small; and

to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained; and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom

and for these ends

to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors; and

to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security; and

to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest; and

to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples

have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.

The Purposes are:

  1. To maintain international peace and security by:
    1. taking collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace;
    2. suppressing acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace; and
    3. bringing about by peaceful means adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of peace;
  2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples;
  3. To achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, language, or religion; and
  4. To be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these ends.
The Principles are:
  1. The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all of its Members;
  2. All Members shall fulfill the obligations of membership;
  3. All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means;
  4. All Members shall refrain from threatening or using force against any state;
  5. All Members shall give assistance to the UN in any action it takes and shall refrain from assisting any state against the UN when it is taking preventive or enforcement action;
  6. The Organization shall ensure that nonmember states act in accordance with these principles when necessary for the maintenance of international peace and security; and
  7. The UN may not intervene in the domestic affairs of any state, except under a Chapter VII act (Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression).


As set forth in Chapter II of the Charter, members are the original 51 nations, plus others recommended by the Security Council and approved by the General Assembly—now 192. Members may be suspended for opposing a UN prevention or enforcement action if such action is recommended by the Security Council and approved by the General Assembly. Persistent violations of Charter principles can lead to a country being expelled by the same process. Nonpayment of dues for two consecutive years can lead to a loss of voting rights.

The Principal Organs of the UN

Although allowance was made for the eventual establishment of additional subsidiary organs, the principal organs established by Chapter III of the Charter remain the same. They are discussed below.

The General Assembly—Chapter IV

All Member States are represented in the General Assembly. It can discuss any question/matter within the scope of the Charter, and it can make recommendations to Members of the Security Council—except for a matter being considered by The the Security Council at the time. It can consider reports from other organs of the UN. It considers and approves the budget. Each Member State shall have one vote. Decisions on such key issues as international peace and security, admitting new members, and approval of the UN budget are decided by a 2/3 vote; other matters are decided by simple majority. In recent years, a special effort has been made to reach decisions through Acts of consensus, rather than by taking a formal vote. The GA meets annually; special sessions may be convoked at the request of the Security Council or a majority of Members. The GA cannot force action by any State, but its recommendations are an important indication of world opinion and represent the moral authority of the community of nations.

During the main part of the 2004 session, the Assembly took up more than 150 topics, including UN reform, restoring respect for the rule of law, the needs of small island developing States, climate change and related humanitarian dangers, and participation by all States in the global trading system. It addressed the situation in many different countries and regions, including Iraq and the Darfur region of the Sudan. The 2005 session started with a summit meeting of more than 160 presidents, prime ministers and monarchs who discussed UN reform proposals, possible counter terrorism actions, measures to protect human rights, and the ways to reduce the spread of malaria—a preventable and treatable disease that kills more than one million children in Africa every year.

The Security Council—Chapter V

The original membership of the Security Council (SC) was 11 members, but it was increased to 15 in 1965 based on a Charter amendment approved by the GA in 1963; a further enlargement has been proposed and is under consideration. There are five permanent members, which have the power of veto, except on matters of procedure: Republic of China, France, Russia (formerly USSR), the United Kingdom, and the United States; others are elected by the GA for two-year terms. The SC has the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. Specific powers granted are laid down in the Charter: Chapters VI (Pacific Settlement of Disputes), VII (Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Aggression), VIII (Regional Arrangements), and XII (International Trusteeship System). The SC is also charged with submitting plans for the establishment of a system for the regulation of armaments. The SC is prepared to function continuously. Specific actions taken will be discussed below in The UN at 60—Part II.

The Economic and Social Council

Chapter IX of the Charter sets forth the international economic and social cooperation responsibilities of the UN and indicates that the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) shall have direct responsibility under the supervision of the GA. It also provides for the specialized international agencies to be brought into relationship with the UN, and for the UN to make recommendations for the coordination of the policies and activities of the specialized agencies.
Chapter X sets forth the composition of ECOSOC—initially 18 members elected by the GA, increased to 27 in 1965 and to 54 in 1973. This Chapter also sets forth functions and powers of ECOSOC, voting rules (majority vote, one vote per member), and procedures.

ECOSOC may make or initiate studies and reports with regard to international economic, social, cultural, educational, health, and related matters; it may also make recommendations related thereto to the GA, UN Members and specialized agencies. It may also make recommendations to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It may draft conventions for submission to the GA, call international conferences, enter into agreements with the specialized agencies and coordinate their activities. It may also request reports from specialized agencies and Member states regarding the implementation of conventions and treaties. Some specifics are included in The UN at 60—Part III.

The Trusteeship Council

Chapter XI provides a Declaration regarding Non-Self-Generating Territories, of which there were 11 at the end of WW II that were placed under the supervision of 7 Member States that were charged to ensure that adequate steps were taken to prepare the Territories for selfgovernment and independence in accordance with the provisions of Chapter XII of the Charter. The Trusteeship Council (the five permanent members of the Security Council) monitored the implementation of the Trusteeship System. By 1994, all Trust Territories had attained self government or independence. The Trusteeship Council amended its rules of procedure to provide for meetings only when needed.

The International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principal judicial organ of the UN. It functions in accordance with its special Statute—Chapter XIV of the UN Charter. The Court already existed in The Hague in The Netherlands, and it remains there. The Court is comprised of 16 Judges elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council, voting independently. Care is taken to ensure that the principal legal systems of the world are represented in the Court. The Judges serve for a 9-year term and may be re-elected.

Each member of the UN undertakes to comply with the decision of the ICJ in any case to which it is a party. If it fails to do so, the other party may refer the case to the Security Council for recommendations/actions. The GA and the SC may request the ICJ to give an advisory opinion on any legal question—as may other UN organs and specialized agencies with approval of the GA.

The Secretariat

According to Chapter XV of the Charter, the Secretariat comprises a Secretary-General (Sec-Gen) and other staff required by the Organization, a number of whom serve in overseas offices. The Sec-Gen is the chief administrative officer of the UN. He shall make an annual report to the GA on the work of the UN. He may bring to the attention of the SC any matter which he feels may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security. The Sec-Gen and his/her staff are not to take orders from any Member state, and the Members pledge not to seek to influence the staff in the discharge of their responsibilities. The staff is appointed by the Sec-Gen under regulations established by the GA. The paramount consideration in hiring staff is securing the highest standards of efficiency, competence, and integrity. Due regard shall be paid to recruiting staff on a wide geographical basis.

While headquartered in New York City, the UN maintains a significant presence in: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Bangkok, Thailand; Geneva, Switzerland; Nairobi, Kenya; Santiago, Chile; and Vienna, Austria; it has offices all over the world.

In addition, the UN Department of Public Information (DPI) in New York has established United Nations Information Centres (UNICs) in Washington, DC and in 43 other countries. These UNICs offer people a place to go for information about the UN and its activities, help in navigating websites and databases of the UN and its affiliated agencies, and staff who can serve as resources. For example,

  • children in remote villages of Myanmar (formerly Burma) learned about the UN after UNIC-Rangoon distributed UN educational kits for use in community schools;
  • Journalists from Mexico City and the Caribbean added their voices to calls to do more to fight drug trafficking after UNICMexico City linked them by teleconference to a conference in Vienna (the site of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention);
  • UNIC-Washington brought together more than 200 people for its International Women's Day commemoration, an annual event that aims to forge connections between people in the developing world and policymakers in Washington on the range of issues that confront women and girls.

UNIC-Washington is located at 1775 K Street, NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20006. Inquiries can also be addressed to: [] or called in to (202) 331-8670.

Kofi Annan, the current Secretary-General will complete his second 5-year term in December 2006. His predecessors have been:

  • Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt—January 1992 to December 1996
  • Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru—January 1982 to December 1991
  • Kurt Waldheim of Austria—January 1972 to December 1981
  • U Thant of Burma (now Myanmar)—November 1961 to December 1971
  • Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden—April 1953 to his death by plane crash September 1961
  • Trygve Lie of Norway—February 1946 to his resignation November 1952

The Beginnings and How to Change the Charter

Chapter XVI—Miscellaneous Provisions relates to the registration with the UN of prior international agreements, the superiority of Members' obligations to the UN vs. obligations under other agreements, and the provision of privileges and immunities to the UN staff by Member countries as is needed for the staff to carry out its duties.

Chapter XVII—Transitional Security Arrangements set forth temporary arrangements until the UN was operational.

Chapter XVIII—Amendments sets forth the procedure for amending the Charter, including the possibility of holding a special conference for reviewing the Charter. Amendments require a two-thirds vote in the GA, followed by ratification of two-thirds of the Members, including all the permanent members of the Security Council—which explains why the veto privilege of the Permanent Five in the Security Council is unlikely ever to be changed.

Chapter XIX—Ratification and Signature established the procedure for ratification of the UN Charter. For the UN to become operational required ratification of the Charter by a majority of those who signed the San Francisco agreement plus China, France, USSR, UK, and the US. Five official languages were established: Chinese, French, Russian, English, and Spanish

Organizations of the UN System Dealing with Economic and Social Issues

Specialized Agencies

  • Food and Agriculture Organization (1945)
  • International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) (1944)
  • International Civil Aviation Organization (1947)
  • International Labour Organization (1919)
  • International Maritime Organization (1959)
  • International Monetary Fund (1945)
  • International Telecommunication Union (1865)
  • United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) (1978)
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (1946)
  • United Nations Environment Programme (1972 United Nations Industrial Development Organization (1967)
  • Universal Postal Union (1878)
  • World Health Organization (1948)
  • World Intellectual Property Organization (1970)
  • World Meteorological Organization (1950)

Other Organizations

  • International Atomic Energy Agency (1957)
  • International Fund for Agricultural Development (1977)
  • International Trade Centre UNCTAD/GATT (1964)
  • Intellectual Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (1976)
  • Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (1996)
  • Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (1997) (includes UN Drug Control Program established 1990)
  • Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (1993)
  • United Nations Childrens Fund (1946)
  • United Nations Development Fund for Women (1976)
  • United Nations Development Programme (1965)
  • UN Economic Commission for Africa (1958)
  • UN Economic Commission for Europe (1947)
  • UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (1948)
  • UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (1947)
  • UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (1973)
  • United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (1964)
  • United Nations Fund for International Partnerships (1998)
  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (1951)
  • United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service (1975)
  • United Nations Office for Project Services (1995)
  • United Nations Population Fund (1969 United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (1949)
  • United Nations Volunteers (1970)
  • World Food Programme (1963)
[Date in parenthesis is the year the organization was established.]

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