How the UN is Organised

The Security Council: This is charged with the maintenance of international peace and security, and so is responsible for the UN’s role as negotiator, observer, peacekeeper and, ultimately, peace enforcer. The Council has the power to pass legally-binding resolutions, to suspend or expel members, to impose economic sanctions and to take military action to maintain or restore peace and security. The Security Council has 15 members. The Big Five (or P-5) – the USA, Russia, China, the UK and France – are permanent ‘veto powers’, meaning that they can block decisions made by other members of the Council. The other 10 members are non-permanent members elected for two years by the General Assembly, in line with an established, if imperfect, regional balance.

The General Assembly: This is the main representative body of the UN. The Assembly consists of all members of the UN, each of which has a single vote. The Assembly can debate and pass resolutions on any matter covered by the Charter, and has a specific responsibility to examine and approve the UN’s budget, determine the members’ contributions, and elect, in conjunction with the Security Council, the UN Secretary-General and the judges of the International Court of Justice. While it can pass resolutions by a two thirds majority, these decisions are recommendations rather than enforceable international law. The Assembly neither has a legislative role nor does it oversee or scrutinize, in any meaningful sense, the Security Council or the Secretariat. It is essentially a 'talking shop'.

Economic and Social Council: This consists of 54 members elected by the General Assembly. Its chief role is to coordinate the economic and social work of the UN and the UN family of organizations. This involves overseeing the activities of a large number of programmes, funds and specialized agencies. These include the so-called ‘three sisters’ – the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO – and also bodies such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). These institutions have increased in number in response to new economic and social problems.

The Secretariat: This services the other principal organs of the UN and administers the programmes and policies laid down by them. Although its main activities are located in the UN’s headquarters in New York, it has offices all over the world and a total staff of about 40,000. At its head is the Secretary-General, who functions as the public face of the UN as well as its chief administrative officer. Appointed by the Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council for a five-year, renewable term, the Secretary-General deals with a multifaceted bureaucracy staffed by civil servants from myriad states and cultures, and tries to maintain the UN’s independence. Secretaries-General have some capacity to influence the status and policy direction of the organization.

History of the United Nations

  • 1944 Dumbarton Oaks conference (the USA, the Soviet Union, the UK and China) sets down the general aims and structure of the future UN. 1945 UN Charter approved in San Francisco by 50 states (Poland was not represented but signed the Charter later to become one of UN’s 51 original members).

  • 1946 Trygve Lie (Norway) appointed SecretaryGeneral.

  • 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted.

  • 1950 Security Council approves military action in Korea.

  • 1950 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) established.

  • 1953 Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden) appointed Secretary-General.

  • 1956 First UN peacekeeping force sent to the Suez Canal.

  • 1960 UN operation in the Congo established to oversee the transition from Belgian rule to independence.

  • 1961 U Thant (Burma) appointed SecretaryGeneral.

  • 1964 UN peacekeepers sent to Cyprus.

  • 1965 UN Development Programme (UNDP) founded.

  • 1968 General Assembly approves the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

  • 1971 People’s Republic of China replaces the Republic of China (Taiwan) at the UN Security Council.

  • 1972 First UN environment conference is held in Stockholm, leading to the establishment of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

  • 1972 First UN conference on women in Mexico City, inaugurates International Women’s Year.

  • 1972 Kurt Waldheim (Austria) appointed Secretary-General.

  • 1982 Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (Peru) appointed Secretary-General

  • 1990 UNICEF convenes the World Summit for Children.

  • 1992 Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt) appointed Secretary-General

  • 1992 The ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio approves a comprehensive plan to promote sustainable development.

  • #1992 Security Council issues ‘An Agenda for Peace’, highlighting new approaches to peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

  • 1997 Kofi Annan (Ghana) appointed Secretary General

  • 2000 General Assembly adopts the Millennium Development Goals.

  • 2002 International Criminal Court (ICC) established.

  • 2005 UN Peacekeeping Commission is established.

  • 2007 Ban Ki-moon (South Korea) appointed Secretary-General

  • 2017António Guterres Appointed Secretary General.