What Is The Real United Nations?

The United Nations

The United Nations was established on October 24, 1945 with 51 member states (nations). Today, there are 190 member states. The primary purpose of the United Nations, as set out in its charter, is to maintain international peace and security; to develop friendly relations among nations, based on respect for the principals of equal rights and self-determination of peoples; to achieve international cooperation in solving economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems; to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; and to be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in attaining these common ends.  The UN has been called the “world’s town hall”.  In fact, it is an international diplomatic conference that is permanently in session.  It is not a world government, but more of a forum where nations meet to discuss international issues.  The United Nations can offer solutions to international problems, but cannot force its member nations to accept any of its decisions, nor can it enforce any of its claims.  This leads to a great deal of negotiation between nations to resolve disputes, concerns and issues.

The United Nations, while headquartered in New York, maintains a significant presence in Addis Ababa, Bangkok, Beirut, Geneva, Nairobi, Santiago and Vienna, and has offices all over the world.

Function and Structure of the United Nations

The United Nations is about the global efforts to solve the problems that challenge humanity.  The UN has six core “organs” and over 30 affiliated organizations that are known as the UN system.  The affiliated organizations may be directed and funded by the UN, like the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) or the United Nations Environment Program, or may be linked by special relationship agreements, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or International Telecommunication Union.  Some of these organizations are actually older than the U.N.

The United Nations six “organs” are part of the core system.  Each organ focuses on different aspects of international issues.  The organs include:

General Assembly – This is a forum where all 190 member states meet to discuss matters of global concern.  The General Assembly (GA) is divided up into several committees focusing on specific issues (for example, the Special Political Committee; the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee; Legal Committee, etc.)  Resolutions are drafted in these committees and then brought to the GA to be debated and voted on.  Each country has one vote. In recent years an effort has been made to reach decisions through consensus rather than by formal votes, although votes are still taken on most major issues.

Security Council – The Security Council (SC) is made up of 15 members (including what are called the “Big 5” - China, the Russian Federation, United Kingdom, United States and France) and has as its main function maintaining international peace. It deals with the crisis situations amongst countries. It has the ability to veto resolutions from the GA, and any one of the “Big 5” has the ability to veto any action of the Security Council.  Under the Charter, all member states are obligated to carry out the Security Council’s decisions.  The Security Council can take actions to enforce its decisions.  It can impose economic sanctions or order an arms embargo.  On rare occasions, the SC has authorized member states to use “all necessary means”, including collective military action, to see that its decisions are carried out.  The SC also makes recommendations to the GA on the appointment of a new Secretary General and on the admission of new members to the UN.

Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) – The ECOSOC is made up of 54 members (including the “Big 5”) and makes recommendations to the GA regarding economic and environmental issues and human rights issues. The GA votes on the ECOSOC resolutions. ECOSOC works closely with many of the affiliated organizations of the U.N.  ECOSOC also develops and submits the U.N. Budget to the GA.

International Court of Justice (ICJ) – Made up of 15 people who do not represent the countries they are from, but act as individuals.  Ten of the positions on the ICJ rotate among nations, while 5 are always held by the “Big 5”.  The ICJ presides over cases/hearings called “Memorials” that involve countries dealing with border disputes, fishing and mineral rights, and other issues dealing with international law.  They do not deal with war crimes.  The GA or Security Council will sometimes ask the ICJ for an advisory opinion. 

Secretariat – The Secretariat is the “Resource Center” for the U.N.  It carries out the bulk of the administrative work of the UN as directed by the SC, GA and other organs.  The Secretariat is headed by the Secretary General, who provides overall administrative guidance.  It provides knowledgeable experts for councils and committees, and is responsible for helping to select and prepare topics for each council and committee.

Trusteeship Council – Established to provide international supervision for the 11 trust territories administered by 7 member states (like Guam, Puerto Rico, etc.). Since all the trust territories have attained self-government or independence, its work is completed, and the Trusteeship Council only meets occasionally.

How is the U.N. Relevant to Our Daily Lives?

·      The U.N. has had a number of impacts on our lives.  Some of these include:

  • The flow of mail between countries is made possible by agreements supervised by the Universal Postal Union, an agency of the U.N.
  • The World Health Organization led the effort to eradicate smallpox.
  • The International Civil Aviation Agency has set safety standards for international airlines.
  • UNAIDS, a joint program of six UN Agencies, provides health officials in all nations with the latest information and techniques for preventing and treating AIDS.
  • The UN negotiated the treaty banning the production of gases that destroy the ozone layer.
  • American farmers use reports from the World Weather Watch (part of the UN World Meteorological Organization) to determine when and where to plant their crops.
  • Copyright and intellectual property rights of business are protected in other countries by the World Intellectual Property Organization. 
  • US Scientists and educators engage in international exchanges and research projects under the sponsorship of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Organs and Committees

Security Council


The organ, which has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, is the Security Council. The Council is composed of five permanent members‑‑ China, France, The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, the United States, and 10 non‑permanent members, elected by the General Assembly for two year terms and not eligible for immediate re‑election. The number of non­permanent members was increased from six to ten by an amendment of the Charter, which came into force in 1965.

Functions and Powers

While other organs of the United Nations may make recommendations to governments, the Council alone has the power to make decisions, which all member States are obligated under the Charter to accept and carry out.

The Council may investigate any dispute or situation, which might lead to international friction and may recommend methods of adjusting such disputes or the terms of settlement. Disputes and situations likely to endanger international peace and security may be brought to the attention of the Council by any Member State, by a Non‑Member State which accepts in advance the obligations of pacific settlement contained in the Charter, by the General Assembly, or by the Secretary‑General.

The Council may determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression. It may make recommendations or decide to take enforcement measures to maintain or restore international peace and security. Enforcement actions may include a call on Members to apply economic sanctions and other measures short of the use of armed force. Should it consider such measures inadequate, the Council may take military action against an aggressor. Under the Charter, all Members undertake to make available to the Council on its call, in accordance with special agreements to be negotiated on the Council's initiative, the armed forces, assistance and facilities necessary for maintaining international peace and security. The Council is also responsible for formulating plans to regulate armaments. In addition, the Security Council exercises the Trusteeship functions of the United Nations in areas designated as strategic. The Security Council makes annual and special reports to the General Assembly.

The Security Council and the General Assembly, voting independently, elect the judges of the International Court of Justice. On the Security Council's recommendation, the General Assembly appoints the Secretary-general.

Voting & Procedure

Each member of the Council has one vote. Decisions on matters of procedure are taken by an affirmative vote of at least nine of the 15 Members. Decisions on substantive matters also require nine votes, including the concurring votes of all five permanent Members. This is the rule of "great power unanimity," often referred to as the "veto." All five permanent Members have exercised the right of veto at one time or another. If a permanent member does not support a decision but has no desire to block it through a veto, it may abstain; an abstention is not regarded as a veto.

A state which is a member of the United Nations, but not of the Security Council, may participate, without vote, in its discussions when the Council considers that the country's interests are specially affected. Both Members of the United Nations and Nonmembers, if they are parties to a dispute being considered by the Council, are invited to take part, without vote, in the discussions. However, the Council lays down the conditions for participation by a Nonmember state.

The presidency of the Council is held monthly in turn by members in English alphabetical order. The Council decides its own rules of procedure and may establish subsidiary organs.

There are two standing committees; the Committee of Experts, which studies and advises the Council on rules of procedure and other technical matters, and the Committee on Admission of New Members; each is composed of representatives of all Council Members. Over the years, the Council has also established many ad hoc bodies.

The Military Staff committee, composed of the Chiefs of Staff of the five permanent members of their representatives, was established under the Charter to advise and assist the Security Council on such questions as the Council's military requirements for the maintenance of peace, the strategic direction of armed forces placed at its disposal, the regulation of armaments and possible disarmament.

Uniting for Peace

The General Assembly in November 1950 adopted a three-part resolution entitled "United for Peace." Under that resolution, if the Security Council, because of the lack of unanimity of its permanent Members, failed to exercise its primary responsibility in the maintenance of peace, in a case where there appeared to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression, the Assembly would consider the matter immediately with a view to making recommendations to Members of collective measures, including the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain international peace and security. If not in session, the Assembly would meet in emergency special session within 24 hours of a request for such a session by seven members of the Security Council (now amended to nine) or by a majority of General Assembly members.

Decisions of the Security Council

Resolutions of the Security Council: The resolution has been the major vehicle of Security Council action. There are two distinct types of resolutions: 1) consensus resolutions and 2) resolutions adopted by vote. The consensus resolution is a creation of the post-1966 Council. The consensus form is ideal for the council for several reasons. It places the emphasis on an image of unanimity when, in some cases, the members would feel obliged to vote against or abstain on a resolution that was formally voted on.

The resolution adopted by vote is the more traditional approach. Resolutions are adopted by vote when, in spite of consultations, the Council members have failed to reach a consensus; any member may object to an attempt to adopt a resolution by consensus, and thereby force such a vote.

Presidential Statements of Consensus: Often the Council finds that its consensus does not fit conveniently into a resolution form. In this case the Council will resort to a Presidential Statement of consensus. The President may, if he perceives a consensus and sees no resolution, wish to consult with Members concerning the substance of a formal statement. The President then reads that statement in a formal session, and the statement is made an official decision of the Council.

Communications of the President of the Consensus of the Body: This is the subtlest of forms available to the Council. This form is like the Presidential Statement of Consensus except that it is less public. This technique is used when the Council wishes to minimize damaging debate.

To learn more about resolutions see Writing Resolutions in the supplemental section of this manual.

International Court of Justice


In 1920, the League of Nations approved the Statute of the Permanent World Court. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union became parties to the statute, but the court did play a role in world affairs throughout its fife (1920 ‑ 1940). In 1945, the Permanent Court was reconstructed as the International Court of Justice by a statute annexed to the United Nations Charter. Thus, all United Nations members are parties to the statute.


Fifteen justices sit on the court. Ten positions are rotated, while five are always held by "The Big Five" (China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and United States). When disputes involve parties not already represented on the Court, an "ad hoc" justice may be appointed by the unrepresented country to act as a full, voting member for that case.

Technically, the justices are to act as neutral arbitrators in all matters presented to them. All but the President, however, do represent a flag and thus, are concerned with serving their nation's best interests. In preparing for the conference, familiarize yourself with your country's stance on a wide range of international issues. Members of the Court are expected to strike a balance between serving their country and serving the international community. The more you know, the better a justice you will be.

Functions and Powers

The basic function of the International Court is to decide, in accordance with international law, such disputes as are submitted to it. Its jurisdiction comprises all cases on a truly international level that parties submit to it and all matters specifically provided for in the Charter of the United Nations. In resolving issues, the court is not limited to the suggestions made by the submitting parties. They can render any decision that they deem the best solution to the problem. The Court's power in enforcing its decisions is, however, limited. The strongest move the Court can make is recommending that the Security Council or the General Assembly take action against a nation.

Submitting Cases

To present a case to the ICJ, a party must prepare a memorial. The Memorials must contain (1) the submitting party's (applicant's) name and signature, (2) the responding party's name(s), (3) Claims of Fact, (4) Assertions of Law and (5) Prayers for Relief. All Memorials must be typed. An example is included in the Supplemental Information section of this manual.

CLAIMS OF FACT - This is a brief outline of issues and facts relevant to the case. The facts detail the events leading up to the dispute. Historical, legal and political research will aid the finding and stating of relevant facts. The facts must be truthful but may be stated in a manner favorable to the applicant.

ASSERTIONS OF LAW - These are the pertinent principles and laws in question. Examples of valid sources of law are international treaties, international conventions, customary law, previous ICJ decisions, United Nations resolutions and the works of noted international law writers and jurists.

PRAYERS FOR RELIEF - This is the section where the submitting party asks the court to act in its favor and states its recommended action. Applicants generally request that the Court direct the Respondent to correct the wrong, recommend sanctions against the Respondent or declare what rights and duties exist between the disputing parties. Respondents generally request dismissal or seek counter relief against Applicants.

Presentation of Cases

Each party has a designated amount of time to present its case. Judges may ask questions of the presenters at any time throughout the presentation. The basic format for presentation is 10 minutes for Applicant presentation, 10 minutes for Respondent presentation and 5 minutes for rebuttals per side. The format can be altered by the current Model Court.


Judges deliberate for as long as they deem necessary. No justices may leave during presentations of deliberations if they plan to vote on the case at hand. They may, however, participate in deliberations even if they have forfeited their vote.

Decisions of the Court

Voting is done in closed chambers by roll call. Official opinions must then be written for the majority opinion and for each dissenting opinion. The President will make the assignments. All opinions will be collected and announced in the General Assembly.

Economic and Social Council

The Charter established the Economic and Social Council as the principal organ to coordinate the economic, social, and related work of the United Nations and the specialized agencies and institutions - known as the United Nations family of organizations.

Function and Powers:            

  • To serve as the central forum for the discussion of international economic and social issues of a global or inter-disciplinary nature and the formulation of policy recommendations on those issues addressed to Member States and to the United Nations system;
  • To make or initiate studies and reports and make recommendations on international economic, social, cultural, educational, health and related matters;
  • To promote respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms;
  • To call international conferences and prepare draft conventions for submission to the General Assembly on matters falling within its competence;
  • To negotiate agreements with the specialized agencies defining their relationship with the United Nations;
  • To coordinate the activities of the specialized agencies by means of consultations with and recommendations to them and by means of recommendations to the General Assembly and the Members of the United Nations;
  • To perform services, approved by the Assembly, for Members of the United Nations and, on request, for the specialized agencies;
  • To consult with non-governmental organizations concerned with matters with which the Council deals.


The Economic and Social Council has 54 members, elected for three-year terms by the General Assembly.  Voting in the Council is by simple majority; each member has one vote.


The Council generally holds several short sessions throughout the year to deal with the organization of its work, as well as one four-week substantive session in July, alternating between New York and Geneva. The session includes a high-level segment, attended by Ministers and other high officials, to discuss major economic, social and humanitarian issues. The year-round work of the Council is carried out in its subsidiary and related bodies.

Subsidiary and Related Bodies

The Council's subsidiary machinery includes:

Nine functional commissions, which are deliberative bodies whose role is to consider and make recommendations on issues in their areas of responsibility and expertise: Statistical Commission, Commission on Population and Development, Commission for Social Development, Commission on Human Rights, Commission on the Status of Women, Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, Commission on Science and Technology for Development and Commission on Sustainable Development;

Five Regional Commissions: Economic Commission for Africa (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Bangkok, Thailand), Economic Commission for Europe (Geneva, Switzerland), Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Santiago, Chile) and Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (Beirut, Lebanon).

Five standing committees and expert bodies: Committee for Program and Coordination, Commission on Human Settlements, Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, Committee on Negotiations with Intergovernmental Agencies and Committee on Energy and Natural Resources;

A number of expert bodies on subjects such as development planning, natural resources, and economic, social and cultural rights.

The Council also cooperates with and to a certain extent coordinates the work of United Nations programs (such as UNDP, UNEP, UNICEF and UNFPA) and the specialized agencies (such as FAO, WHO, ILO and UNESCO), all of which report to the Council and make recommendations for its substantive sessions.

Relations with Non-Governmental Organizations

Under the Charter, the Economic and Social Council consults with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with matters within its competence. Over 1,600 NGOs have consultative status with the Council. The Council recognizes that these organizations should have the opportunity to express their views, and that they possess special experience or technical knowledge of value to its work.

NGOs with consultative status may send observers to meetings of the Council and its subsidiary bodies and may submit written statements relevant to its work. They may also consult with the United Nations Secretariat on matters of mutual concern. Over the years, the relationship between the United Nations and affiliated NGOs has developed significantly. Increasingly, NGOs are seen as partners who are consulted on policy and program matters and seen as valuable links to civil society. NGOs around the world, in increasing numbers, are working daily with the United Nations community to help achieve the objectives of the Charter.

General Assembly

Background Information

The General Assembly is the main deliberative organ of the United Nations. It is composed of representatives of all Member States, each of which has one vote. Decisions on important questions, such as those on peace and security, admission of new Members and budgetary matters, require a two-thirds majority. Decisions on other questions are reached by a simple majority. These decisions may be adopted without a vote, or with a vote, which may be recorded, non-recorded or by roll call. 

While the decisions of the Assembly have no legally binding force for Governments, they carry the weight of world opinion on major international issues, as well as the moral authority of the world community. 

The work of the United Nations year-round derives largely from the decisions of the General Assembly-- that is to say, the will of the majority of the Members as expressed in resolutions adopted by the Assembly. That work is carried out by committees and other bodies established by the Assembly to study and report on specific issues, such as disarmament, outer space, peace-keeping, decolonization and human rights; in international conferences called for by the Assembly; and by the Secretariat of the United Nations-- the Secretary General and his staff of international civil servants.

Functions and Powers

Under the Charter, the functions and powers of the General Assembly include:

  • To consider and make recommendations on cooperation in the maintenance of international peace and security, including disarmament and arms regulation;
  • To discuss any question relating to international peace and security and, except where a dispute or situation is being discussed by the Security Council, to make recommendations on it;
  • To discuss and, with the same exception, make recommendations on any question within the scope of the Charter or affecting the powers and functions of any organ of the United Nations;
  • To initiate studies and make recommendations to promote international political cooperation, the development and codification of international law; the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, and international collaboration in economic, social, cultural, educational and health fields;
  • To make recommendations for the peaceful settlement of any situation, regardless of origin, which might impair friendly relations among nations;
  • To receive and consider reports from the Security Council and other United Nations organs;
  • To consider and approve the United Nations budget and to apportion the contributions among Members;
  • To elect the non-permanent members of the Security Council, the members of the Economic and Social Council and those members of the Trusteeship Council that are elected;
  • To elect jointly with the Security Council the Judges of the International Court of Justice; and, on the recommendation of the Security Council, to appoint the Secretary-General.

Under the "Uniting for Peace" resolution adopted by the General Assembly in November 1950, the Assembly may take action if the Security Council, because of a lack of unanimity of its permanent members, fails to act in a case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression. The Assembly is empowered to consider the matter immediately with a view to making recommendations to Members for collective measures, including, in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression, the use of armed force when necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.   

General Assembly Sessions 

The General Assembly's regular session begins each year on the third Tuesday in September and continues usually until the third week of December. In recent years, the Assembly has been in session throughout the year. At the start of each regular session, the Assembly elects a new President, 21 Vice-Presidents and the Chairmen of the Assembly's six Main Committees. The Assembly also holds a general debate, in which Member States express their views on a wide range of matters of international concern. To ensure equitable geographical representation, the presidency of the Assembly rotates each year among five groups of States: African, Asian, Eastern European, Latin American and Caribbean, and Western European and other States. 

In addition to its regular sessions, the Assembly may meet in special sessions at the request of the Security Council, of a majority of Members of the United Nations or of one Member if the majority of Members concurs. Emergency special sessions may be called within 24 hours of a request by the Security Council on the vote of any nine members of the Council, or by a majority of the United Nations Members, or by one Member if the majority of Members concurs. 

Main Committees 

Because of the great number of questions that the Assembly is called upon to consider (166 separate agenda items at the 51st (1996/1997) session of the Assembly, for example), the Assembly allocates most questions to its six Main Committees: 

  • First Committee--Disarmament and International Security Committee
  • Second Committee--Economic and Financial Committee
  • Third Committee--Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee
  • Fourth Committee--Special Political and Decolonization Committee
  • Fifth Committee--Administrative and Budgetary Committee
  • Sixth Committee--Legal Committee

There is also a General Committee, composed of the President and 21 Vice-Presidents of the Assembly and the chairmen of the six Main Committees and a Credentials Committee. The Credentials Committee consists of nine members appointed by the Assembly on the proposal of the President at each session who reports to the Assembly on the credentials of representatives. Some questions are considered directly in plenary meetings, rather than in one of the Main Committees. All questions are voted on in plenary meetings, usually towards the end of the regular session, after the committees have completed their consideration of them and submitted draft resolutions to the plenary Assembly. 

The Secretariat

The Secretariat -- an international staff working in duty stations around the world -- carries out the diverse day-to-day work of the Organization. It services the other principal organs of the United Nations and administers the programs and policies laid down by them. At its head is the Secretary General, who is appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council for a five-year, renewable term.

The duties carried out by the Secretariat are as varied as the problems dealt with by the United Nations. These range from administering peacekeeping operations to mediating international disputes, from surveying economic and social trends and problems to preparing studies on human rights and sustainable development. Secretariat staff also inform the world's communications media about the work of the United Nations; organize international conferences on issues of worldwide concern; and interpret speeches and translate documents into the Organization's official languages.

The Secretariat has a staff of about 8,900 under the regular budget drawn from some 170 countries. As international civil servants, staff members and the Secretary General answer to the United Nations alone for their activities, and take an oath not to seek or receive instructions from any Government or outside authority. Under the Charter, each Member State undertakes to respect the exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary General and the staff and to refrain from seeking to influence them improperly in the discharge of their duties.

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