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As of 2003, The United Nations (UN) is an organization of 191 states that strives to attain international peace and security, promotes fundamental Human Rights and equal rights for men and women, and encourages social progress. The successor to the League of Nations, the United Nations stems from the 1941 Inter-Allied Declaration signed by representatives of 14 countries (not including the United States) and the Atlantic Charter signed by President franklin d. roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom. In 1942, 26 countries met in Washington, D.C., and signed the Declaration by United Nations in a cooperative effort to triumph over German dictator Adolf Hitler during World War II. In addition, wartime conferences in Moscow, Tehran, Yalta, and Washington, D.C. (at the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Georgetown), laid the foundation of the future organization. On June 25, 1945, delegates from 50 nations met in San Francisco and unanimously adopted the Charter of the United Nations. By October 24, 1945, China, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and a majority of the charter's other signatories had ratified it, and the United Nations was officially established. Shortly thereafter the U.S. Congress unanimously invited the United Nations to set up headquarters in the United States, and the organization chose New York City as its permanent home.
The United Nations is open to all "peaceloving" states, a requirement construed liberally over the years. The United Nations consists of six major organs: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Secretariat, the International Court of Justice (World Court), and the Trusteeship Council. The Trusteeship Council, which was established to encourage governments to prepare trust territories for self-government or independence, has largely completed its original task of supervising 11 non-self-governing territories. In 1994 the Security Council terminated the Trusteeship Agreement of Belau, a trust territory in the western Pacific that had been administered by the United States. As all other trust territories had previously obtained independence or self-government, the Trustee-ship Council amended its rules and as of 2003 meets only as situations requiring action arise.
The main deliberative body of the United Nations, the General Assembly, somewhat resembles a parliament; each nation has one vote. The General Assembly has no power to compel any action by a member state, however. It only has the right to discuss and make recommendations on matters within the scope of the UN Charter. Headed by a president elected at each session, the assembly ordinarily meets from mid-September to mid-December; other sessions are held as necessary. Ordinary matters require only a majority vote, but important matters, such as recommendations on peace and security, election of members to the Security Council or the Economic and Social Council, or admission of member states, require a two-thirds majority. The assembly also approves the UN budget (including peacekeeping operations), sets policies, determines programs for the UN Secretariat, and, in conjunction with the Security Council's recommendation, appoints the UN secretary-general, the chief administrative officer of the United Nations.
The Security Council has the primary responsibility for maintaining peace and security. Five permanent members—the United States, China, France, the Russian Federation (replacing the Soviet Union), and the United Kingdom—join ten other members elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. A representative of each member of the Security Council must always be present at UN headquarters so that the council can convene any time peace is threatened. Unlike the other UN organs, member states are obligated under the charter to carry out economic and diplomatic decisions by the council. All decisions require nine votes, but on all questions except procedural matters, the permanent members must vote unanimously or abstain. This Veto power has been exercised many times and can seriously undermine the Security Council's ability to take bold steps in tenuous situations.
The Security Council usually seeks peaceful means such as mediation or settlement when international peace is threatened. Peacekeepers may be sent to prevent the outbreak of a conflict, or the council may issue a cease-fire directive once fighting has begun. The Security Council may impose economic sanctions and order collective military action.
The United Nations was involved in 56 peacekeeping operations between 1948 and 2003; military personnel are drawn from member states; more than 750,000 persons have served. Almost 1,800 peacekeepers have lost their lives. In 2003, 14 UN operations deployed approximately 37,000 personnel, including troops, civilian police, and military observers, from 89 countries.
The reality of UN peacekeeping efforts often falls short of the organization's ideals. For example, in the early 1990s UN troops attempted to restore order and provide humanitarian relief during the civil war in Somalia. Warring Somali factions greatly impeded the troops' efforts, however, and in 1995 the UN forces withdrew without succeeding in their mission. In addition, UN members sometimes pledge support for a mission but fail to deliver tangible evidence of that support. In 1994 the secretary-general determined that 35,000 troops would be needed to deter attacks on so-called safe areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Member states authorized fewer than 8,000 troops and took a year to provide them. Nevertheless, the United Nations has had some successes: its operations in Kashmir, Cyprus, Lebanon, Suez, Cambodia, and Mozambique have been highly praised. The UN established six new missions in 1998–2000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia-Eritrea to deal with conflicts and crisis. The United Nations also monitored or observed elections in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, and South Africa.
The Economic and Social Council, which has 54 members, coordinates the economic and social work of the United Nations and its specialized agencies and institutions. Among other tasks, the council recommends and directs activities to promote economic growth in developing countries, promotes the observance of human rights, and attempts to foster cooperation in creating housing, controlling population growth, and preventing crime.
Fourteen specialized agencies are separate, autonomous organizations connected to the United Nations by specific agreements, mainly through the Economic and Social Council. Specialized agencies include the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund (originally the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund), is a semi-autonomous organization reporting to the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. UNICEF has programs in 144 countries that address children's needs, including immunization, nutrition, primary health care, and education. A joint UNICEF-WHO program claims to have immunized 80 percent of the world's children against polio, tetanus, measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, and tuberculosis.
The United Nations also provides humanitarian aid for countries stricken by war, natural disaster, or famine through UNICEF, the World Food Programme, and other UN programs. In addition, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, part of the Secretariat, helps assist and protect many millions displaced by strife.
With a staff numbering in the thousands, the Secretariat carries out the United Nations dayto-day functions in New York and throughout the world. Headed by the secretary-general, the Secretariat's staff represents nearly every member country. The Security Council recommends a candidate for secretary-general to the General Assembly, which appoints the secretary-general for a five-year term. In addition to administrative duties, the secretary-general plays an active role in worldwide peacemaking through diplomacy, by employing mediators, or by sending representatives to negotiate settlements or otherwise assist in resolving conflicts.
The International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, is the judicial branch of the United Nations and meets in The Hague, Netherlands. The General Assembly and the Security Council elect its 15 judges for nine-year terms. Jurisdiction applies only to countries, not individuals. Unless required by a treaty, a country is not obligated to submit to the court's jurisdiction. However, a country agreeing to have a matter determined by the World Court is obligated to comply with the court's decision.
Competing needs, shifting alliances, problems of managing a huge worldwide bureaucracy, and the inevitable politics of the organization make it difficult for the United Nations to attain the goals set forth in its charter. Financial difficulties present further challenges. The United Nations is funded by dues from member states and is prohibited from borrowing from financial institutions. By the late 1990s the United States was responsible for a substantial part of the debt by failing to pay its dues. However, after the september 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President george w. bush moved quickly to pay off the debt. By December 2001 the UN had received $1.67 billion from the United States, which amounted to payment of two-thirds of the debt. These payments, coupled with the payment of almost $5 billion of annual dues by members placed the UN in better financial shape that it had been in many years. It established a $150 million reserve fund for peacekeeping missions because of its improved financial condition.
Daws, Sam, and Paul Taylor with Sara Lodge, eds. 2000. The United Nations. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate/Dartmouth.
Holtje, James. 1995. Divided It Stands: Can the United Nations Work? Atlanta: Turner Publishing.
Ross, Stewart. 2004. United Nations. Chicago: Raintree.
United Nations. Available online at <www.un.org> (accessed August 16, 2003).
Ziring, Lawrence, Robert E. Riggs, and Jack C. Plano. 2000. The United Nations: International Organization and World Politics. Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt College Publishers.