The United Nations is primarily a peacekeeping organization. But it has other important jobs, too. It helps nations deal with economic and social problems. It promotes respect for human rights. It works to advance justice and international law. And it helps victims of wars, famines, and other disasters.

The United Nations Charter lists basic principles that the organization and member states agree to respect. Some of these are designed to limit the power of the organization. One of these is the principle of sovereign equality. This means that each member nation is equal. Another is the principle of nonintervention. This means that the United Nations will intervene only in international problems, not in the domestic problems of a country. Other principles emphasize the use of peaceful means for settling disputes. They require that nations avoid threatening other nations with force or actually using force. Member nations are also asked to support the United Nations in peacekeeping operations. And they are asked to do nothing to interfere with the activities of the organization. The United Nations also tries to prevent nonmembers from doing anything to disturb the peace.


Principal Organs

The organization operates through its six major organs. They are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat. Each is represented by a delegation of not more than five representatives.

The General Assembly

The General Assembly is composed of all the member nations. Its members meet annually at UN Headquarters in New York City. The General Assembly can discuss and make recommendations on any matter within the scope of the charter. It has been called the "town meeting of the world." Its specific duties include the election of the members of the Economic and Social Council, the board of the UN Industrial Development Organization, and some members of the Trusteeship Council. With the Security Council, it elects the judges of the International Court of Justice. The General Assembly appoints the UN secretary-general on recommendation of the Security Council. It adopts rules governing the administration of the Secretariat. It also approves the United Nations budget. And it decides how much money each member nation should pay to run the organization. Decisions in the General Assembly may be made by a simple majority vote or, on important questions, by a two-thirds vote. Smaller nations have a great deal of influence in the General Assembly because each country casts one vote.

The Security Council

The UN Charter established a Security Council made up of the five nations that in 1945 were considered the most powerful in the world. The council's primary function was to maintain international peace and security. The five permanent member nations are the United States, the Russian Federation (in place of the former Soviet Union), the United Kingdom, France, and China. The UN Charter requires that the permanent members agree on all decisions made by the council, except for questions of procedure. If even one permanent member vetoes (rejects) a council decision, that decision is defeated.

The Security Council also has ten nonpermanent members. They serve 2-year terms. Each year the General Assembly elects five new nations. These nations are chosen from all over the world. This helps ensure fair representation of all regions. The Security Council is considered always in session. Each council nation must have a permanent representative at headquarters in New York, so the council can meet on short notice.

The Economic and Social Council

The Economic and Social Council works under the general guidance and control of the General Assembly. It is composed of 54 member nations that serve 3-year terms. (Eighteen are elected per year). There are no permanent members. But it has been customary for the nations of major economic importance, such as the United States and the Russian Federation, to be re-elected. The council deals with major economic and social concerns. These include economic development, land reform, and control of narcotics. The council also coordinates the policies and activities of the United Nations and the various specialized agencies.

The Trusteeship Council

The Trusteeship Council was established to help the General Assembly supervise the administration of territories placed under trusteeship. These territories were primarily former colonies of European nations. All the territories originally placed under United Nations trusteeship are now independent. The council is composed of the five permanent members of the Security Council. It meets as circumstances demand.

The International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. It is composed of 15 judges. They are elected to 9-year terms by the General Assembly and the Security Council. The judges are chosen based on their qualifications rather than their nationalities. However, no nation may have more than one judge on the court at any given time. The International Court meets at The Hague in the Netherlands.

The court has two major jobs. It settles disputes submitted by nations for final decision. And it gives advice to other UN organs and agencies. Its advisory opinions do not have to be accepted. But they carry great weight. In disputes submitted to the court, however, its judgments are supposed to be followed by all the parties.

The Secretariat

The secretary-general heads up the Secretariat, the administrative organ of the UN The secretary-general may bring any matter to the Security Council that seems likely to endanger international peace. The General Assembly and the Security Council, as well as the other two councils, may give the secretary-general special duties to perform.

The secretary-general appoints the staff of the Secretariat under rules approved by the General Assembly. The staff must be international. That is, each one of the many member nations must be represented. However, member governments are not allowed to influence the staff. In general the UN Charter emphasizes that the Secretariat of the United Nations should be an international civil service. It should serve the interests of the organization and only those interests.

Leland Goodrich
Author, The United Nations

Copyright © 2002 Grolier Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.


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