Get to Know the UN

  • The United Nations has four purposes: to maintain international peace and security; to develop friendly relations among nations; to cooperate in solving international problems and in promoting respect for human rights; and to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations. Cooperating in this effort are more than 30 affiliated organizations, known together as the UN system.
  • The United Nations is not a world government, and it does not make laws. It does, however, provide the means to help resolve international conflicts and formulate policies on matters affecting all of us.
  • At the UN, all the Member States—large and small, rich and poor, with differing political views and social systems—have a voice and a vote in this process. The United Nations gives the opportunity for countries to balance global interdependence and national interests when addressing international problems.
  • The UN system works to promote respect for human rights, reduce poverty, fight disease and protect the environment. The United Nations leads international campaigns against drug trafficking and terrorism.
  • Throughout the world, the UN and its agencies help expand food production, assist refugees, lead the fight against AIDS and set up programmes to clear landmines, among others.

What is the United Nations?

The United Nations is a unique organization of independent countries that have come together to work for world peace and social progress. The Organization formally came into existence on 24 October 1945, with 51 countries considered founding Members. By the end of 2008, the membership of the UN had grown to 192 countries. Since its inception, no country has ever been expelled from membership. Indonesia temporarily quit the UN in 1965 over a dispute with neighboring Malaysia, but returned the following year.

So, the United Nations is like a world government?

Wrong. Governments represent countries and peoples. The United Nations represents neither a particular government nor any one nation. It represents all its Members and does only what the Member States decide that it should do.

Is there a set of rules or principles that guides the United Nations in its work?

Yes, the Charter of the United Nations. It is a set of guidelines that explains the rights and duties of each Member country, and what needs to be done to achieve the goals they have set for themselves. When a nation becomes a Member of the UN, it accepts the aims and rules of the Charter.

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How did the United Nations begin?

The idea of the United Nations was born during World War II (1939-1945). World leaders who had collaborated to end the war felt a strong need for a mechanism that would help bring peace and stop future wars. They realized that this was possible only if all nations worked together through a global organization. The United Nations was to be that Organization.

Where did the name “United Nations” come from?

The name “United Nations” was suggested by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was first officially used in 1942, when representatives of the 26 countries signed the Declaration by United Nations. As a tribute to President Roosevelt, who died a few weeks before the signing of the Charter, all those present at the San Francisco Conference agreed to adopt the name “United Nations”.

Was this the first time that such an organization had been created?

A similar organization, the League of Nations, was set up in 1919, following World War I. Its main objective was to keep world peace. However, not every country joined the League. The United States, for example, was never a member. Others that had joined later quit, and the League often failed to take action. Though it did not succeed, the League ignited a dream for a universal organization. The result was the United Nations.

The building that rose from a slaughterhouse

At its first meeting in London in1946, the General Assembly decided to locate the United Nations Headquarters in the United States. However, New York was not the first choice. Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco were also considered. What eventually persuaded the General Assembly to settle on the present site was a last-minute gift of $8.5 million from John D. Rockefeller Jr. Later New York City offered additional property as a gift.

The site chosen for UN Headquarters was a run-down area of slaughterhouses, a railroad garage building and other commercial buildings.

On 24 October 1949, Secretary-General Trygve Lie laid the cornerstone of the 39-storey building. On 21 August 1950, the Secretariat staff began moving into their new offices.

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Who pays for the work of the United Nations?

The 193 Members of the United Nations pay for everything that the Organization does. It has no other source of income.

How does a country become a Member of the United Nations?

Membership in the Organization, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, “is open to all peace-loving States that accept the obligations contained in the United Nations Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able to carry out these obligations”. States are admitted to membership in the United Nations by decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.

How is the United Nations structured?

The work of the United Nations is carried out almost all over the world  and is done by six main organs:

  1. General Assembly
  2. Security Council
  3. Economic and Social Council
  4. Trusteeship Council
  5. International Court of Justice
  6. Secretariat

All these organs are based at UN Headquarters in New York, except for the International Court of Justice, which is located at The Hague, Netherlands.

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The General Assembly

All members of the United Nations are represented in the General Assembly. Each nation, rich or poor, large or small, has one vote. Decisions on such issues as international peace and security, admitting new members and the UN budget are decided by a two-thirds majority. Other matters are decided by simple majority.

The General Assembly’s regular session begins each year in September and continues throughout the year. At the beginning of each regular session, the Assembly holds a general debate at which Heads of State or Government and others present views on a wide-ranging agenda of issues of concern to the international community, from war and terrorism to disease and poverty.

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The Security Council

While the General Assembly can discuss any world concern, the Security Council has primary responsibility for questions of peace and security,

The Security Council has 15 members. Five are permanent members: China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States. The other 10 non-permanent members are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms and are chosen on the basis of geographical representation.

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The Economic and Social Council

The Economic and Social Council is the forum to discuss economic problems such as trade, transport, economic development, and social issues. It also helps countries reach agreement on how to improve education and health conditions and to promote respect for and observance of universal human rights and freedoms of people everywhere. The Council has 54 members.

The Trusteeship Council

In 1945, when the United Nations was established, there were 11 territories (mostly in Africa and in the Pacific Ocean) that were placed under international supervision. The major goals of the Trusteeship System were to promote the advancement of the inhabitants of Trust Territories and their progressive development towards self-government or independence.

The Trusteeship Council is composed of the permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States).

The International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) was established in 1946 as the main UN organ for handing down legal judgments. Only countries, not individuals, can take cases before the Court. Once a country agrees to let the Court act on a  case, it must agree to comply with the Court’s decision.

The Court sits at the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands. It has 15 judges who are elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council. No two judges can come from the same country. Nine judges have to agree before a decision can be made. All the judgments passed by the Court are final and without appeal.

Some recent decisions by the International Court of Justice

  1. After the Court concluded public hearings in 2006, it decided to hear the case brought by Bosnia and Herzegovina alleging that Serbia and Montenegro had breached their obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
  2. In 2004, the Court unanimously reaffirmed that Israel’s construction of the wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory violates international law.

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The Secretariat

The Secretariat, headed by the Secretary-General, consists of an international staff working at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, and all over the world. It carries out the day-to-day work of the Organization. Its duties are as varied as the problems dealt with by the United Nations. These range from administering peacekeeping operations to mediating international disputes or surveying social and economic trends and problems. The Secretariat is responsible for servicing the organs of the United Nations and administering the programs and policies laid down by them.

The Secretary-General is the chief officer of the United Nations. He or she is assisted by a staff of international civil servants. Unlike diplomats, who represent a particular country, the civil servants work for all 193 Member countries and take their orders not from governments, but from the Secretary-General.

How is the UN Secretary-General appointed?

The Secretary-General is appointed for a period of five years by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council. There have been eight Secretaries-General since the UN was created. The appointment of the Secretary-General follows a regional rotation.

Here are the past Secretaries-General:

Trygve Lie (Norway) 1946-1952

Dag Hammarskjold (Sweden) 1953-1961

U thant (Myanmar) 1961-1971

Kurt Waldheim (Austria) 1972-1981

Javier Perez de Cuellar (Peru) 1982-1991

Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt) 1992-1996

Kofi Annan (Ghana) 1997-2006

Ban Ki-Moon (South Korea) 2007-

Some functions of the Secretary-General

The UN Charter describes the Secretary-General as the “chief administrative officer” of the Organization, who shall act in the capacity and perform “functions as entrusted” to him or her by the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Security Council and other United Nations organs. The Charter also empowers the Secretary-General to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter that threatens international peace and security.

The Secretary-General does not act without the support and approval of the United Nations Member States. Any course of action, whether it concerns sending peacekeeping troops to war-torn areas or helping a country rebuild after a war or a natural disaster, must be set by the Member States.

UN Family of Organizations

The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and 13 other independent organizations known as “specialized agencies” are linked to the UN through cooperative agreements. These agencies, among them the World Health Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization, are autonomous bodies created by intergovernmental agreement. They have wide-ranging international responsibilities in the economic, social, cultural, educational, health and related fields. Some of them, like the International Labour Organization and the Universal Postal Union, are older than the UN itself.

In addition, a number of UN offices, programmes and funds — such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) — work to improve the economic and social condition of people around the world. They report to the General Assembly or the Economic and Social Council.

All these organizations have their own governing bodies, budgets and secretariats. Together with the United Nations, they are known as the UN family, or the UN system. Together, they provide technical assistance and other forms of practical help in virtually all economic and social areas.

Autonomous organizations linked to the UN through special agreements include:

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN)

Works to improve agricultural productivity and food security, and to better the living standards of rural populations.

IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency)

An autonomous intergovernmental organization under the aegis of the UN, it works for the safe and peaceful uses of atomic energy.

ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization)

Sets international standards for the safety, security and efficiency of air transport, and serves as the coordinator for international cooperation in all areas of civil aviation.

IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development)

Mobilizes financial resources to raise food production and nutrition levels among the poor in developing countries.

ILO (International Labour Organization)

Formulates policies and programmes to improve working condition and employment opportunities, and sets labour standards used by countries around the world.

IMF (International Monetary Fund)

Facilitates international monetary cooperation and financial stability and provides a permanent forum for consultation, advice and assistance on financial issues.

IMO (International Maritime Organization)

Works to improve international shipping procedures, raise standards in marine safety and reduce marine pollution by ships.

ITU (International Telecommunication Union)

Fosters international cooperation to improve telecommunications of all kinds, coordinates usage of radio and TV frequencies, promotes safety measures and conducts research.

UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)Promotes education for all, cultural development, protection of the world’s natural and cultural heritage, international cooperation in science, press freedom and communication.

UNIDO (UN Industrial Development Organization)

Promotes the industrial advancement of developing countries through technical assistance, advisory services and training.

UPU (Universal Postal Union)

Establishes international regulations for postal services, provides technical assistance and promotes cooperation in postal matters.

WHO (World Health Organization)

Coordinates programmes aimed at solving health problems and the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health. It works in such areas as immunization, health education and the provision of essential drugs.

WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization)

Promotes international protection of intellectual property and fosters cooperation on copyrights, trademarks, industrial designs and patents.

WMO (World Meteorological Organization)

Promotes scientific research on the Earth’s atmosphere and on climate change, and facilitates the global exchange of meteorological data.

World Bank Group

Provides loans and technical assistance to developing countries to reduce poverty and advance sustainable economic growth.

WTO (World Tourism Organization)

Serves as a global forum for tourism policy issues and a practical source of tourism know-how.


The United Nations serves as a global forum where countries can raise and discuss the most difficult issues, including problems of war and peace. When government leaders talk to each other face-to-face, a dialogue is established. This can result in agreement on how to peacefully settle disputes. When many countries speak with one voice—or by consensus—it creates a global pressure on all.

Who commands the peacekeeping operations?

Peacekeeping operations are established by the Security Council and directed by the Secretary-General, often through a special representative. When a threat to peace is brought before the Council, it usually first asks the parties to reach agreement by peaceful means. If fighting breaks out or persists, the Council tries to secure a ceasefire. It may then send peacekeeping missions to troubled areas to restore peace or call for economic sanctions and embargoes.

Has the UN stopped any war?

The UN has helped prevent many conflicts from flaring up into full-scale wars. It has also negotiated the peaceful settlement of conflicts. On many occasions, the UN has provided a mechanism to help defuse hostilities, for example, the Berlin crisis (1948-1949), the Cuban missile crisis (1962) and the 1973 Middle East crisis. In each of these cases, UN intervention helped prevent war between the super-powers. The UN has also played a major role in ending wars in the Congo (1964), between Iran and Iraq (1988), and in El Salvador (1992) and Guatemala (1996). The UN led the way to a peace that has brought sustained economic growth in Mozambique (1994); independence to Timor-Leste (2002) and in December 2005, the Organization successfully completed its peacekeeping mandate in Sierra Leone.

What happens when a country ignores the decisions of the Security Council?

When decisions of the Security Council are not complied with, the Council may take several actions to ensure their implementation. Should a country threaten or breach the peace or commit an act of aggression, it may impose economic and trade sanctions, or other specific measures such as arms and travel ban and diplomatic restrictions. It can also authorize the use of force in certain instances. But these measures are usually a last resort, to be used only if peaceful means of settling a dispute have been exhausted.

Does the UN have an army?

No, the United Nations has no standing international police or military force. Troops who serve in the UN peacekeeping operations are voluntarily contributed by the Member States. Civilians, often drawn from the UN itself, also play a key role in forming such operations.

What is a peacekeeping operation?

Peacekeeping has traditionally been defined as the use of multinational forces, under UN command, to help control and resolve conflicts between countries. Peacekeeping operations fulfill the role of a neutral third party to help create and maintain a ceasefire and form a buffer zone between warring parties. They also provide electoral assistance and help in clearing deadly landmines.

As peacekeepers maintain peace on the ground, mediators from the United Nations meet with leaders from the disputing parties or countries and try to reach a peaceful solution.

There are two types of peacekeeping operations: observer missions and peacekeeping forces. Observers are not armed. Soldiers of UN peacekeeping forces carry light weapons, which they may use only in self-defence. The UN peacekeepers are easily identifiable by the UN insignia and the blue beret they wear on duty. The blue helmet, which has become the symbol of UN peacekeepers, is carried during all operations and is worn when there is danger. Peacekeepers wear their own national uniforms.

What else does the UN do for peace?

The UN’s work for peace does not end with the successful conclusion of a peacekeeping mission. In the aftermath of a conflict, the UN helps displaced persons and refugees to return to their homes. It clears mines, repairs roads and bridges and provides economic and technical help to rebuild the economy. It also monitors elections and closely follows how a country respects the human rights of its citizens.

What is the UN doing to combat terrorism?

The United Nations has long been active in the fight against international terrorism. Reflecting the determination of the international community to eliminate this threat, the Organization and its agencies have developed a wide range of international legal instruments that enable the international community to take action to suppress terrorism and bring those responsible to justice. Thirteen global conventions have been negotiated through the UN dating back to 1963, including treaties against hostage-taking, airplane hijacking, terrorist bombings and terrorism financing.

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What are the Millennium Development Goals?

At the Millennium Summit in 2000, the Member States of the United Nations agreed on eight goals, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that call for national action, and international cooperation, to provide access to food, education, healthcare and economic opportunities for children, women and men everywhere.

United Nations Member States have vowed to work together to reduce poverty and eliminate hunger in developing countries, and to achieve the targets set out in the MDGs by 2015.

[Infographic of MDGs]


What is meant by human rights?

Human rights are those rights which are essential for us to live as human beings. Without human rights, we cannot fully develop and use our human qualities, our intelligence, our talent and our spirituality.

The United Nations set a common standard on human rights for all nations when, in 1948, it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By this Declaration, Governments accepted the obligation to ensure that all human beings, rich and poor, strong and weak, male and female, of all races and religions, are treated equally.

The UN has also adopted many international human rights treaties, legally binding nations to guarantee their citizens’ social, economic and political rights. The most important of these treaties are two International Covenants—one on economic, social and cultural rights and the other on civil and political rights. These treaties, together with Optional Protocols, are known as the International Bill of Rights.

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Which UN body has responsibility for human rights?

The Human Rights Council was established in June 2006 to replace the Human Rights Commission which operated from 1946 to 2006. Unlike the Commission, the new Council is a subsidiary body of the General Assembly. This makes it directly accountable to the full membership of the United Nations. The Council is the main United Nations forum for dialogue and cooperation on human rights. It is administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Do children enjoy human rights?

Children enjoy the same rights as adults. However, because they are minors, they need special protection. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, sets forth the individual rights that any person under 18 years of age requires to develop his or her full potential, free from hunger and want, neglect and abuse.

What other human rights laws and agreements have been negotiated by the UN?

The United Nations has helped negotiate over 80 human rights treaties and declarations, dealing with the rights of women, disabled persons, minorities, indigenous people and other vulnerable groups.

Some human rights conventions:

  1. The Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide (1948) defines genocide as the committing of certain acts with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group;
  2. The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984) holds States responsible for preventing torture and makes it legally punishable;
  3. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1996) defines racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life,” and obliges States to eliminate racial discrimination;
  4. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) is often described as an international bill of rights for women. It defines discrimination against women as an any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex and encourages governments to take measures to stop discrimination;
  5. The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) defines the rights of refugees, especially their right not to be forcibly returned to countries where they are at risk, and makes provisions for various aspects of their everyday lives, including their right to work, education, public assistance and social security, as well as their right to travel documents.

Can individuals complain about violations of their rights?

Yes. Optional protocols to some UN treaties allow individuals to lodge complaints if the Government in question has ratified the protocols. Under a confidential communications procedure, allegations of gross and systematic violations of human rights can also be submitted to the UN if domestic remedies have been exhausted.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples

On 13 December 2007, the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Indigenous Peoples. It is a triumph for justice and human dignity following more than two decades of negotiations between Governments and Indigenous people’s’ representatives.

The Declaration establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, well-being and rights of the world’s Indigenous peoples. It addresses both individual and collective rights; cultural rights and identity; rights to education, health, employment, language; and others. It outlaws discrimination against Indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them. The Declaration also ensures their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own priorities in economic, social and cultural development. It explicitly encourages harmonious and cooperative relations between States and Indigenous peoples.


How can individuals support the UN? Can they join the Organization as members?

No, only independent countries with international recognition can become members of the UN. However, individuals can support the work of the United Nations through international and local non-government organizations. Some of them collaborate with the UN Department of Public Information and provide the UN with valuable links to people around the world.

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There are United Nations Associations (UNA-USA and WFUNA) in more than 100 countries, often with many local chapters. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has national committees in many countries, spreading awareness about UNICEF’s programmes and raising funds to help make them a reality. Some 3,600 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) clubs, centres and associations (associated with UNESCO) in over 90 countries undertake activities in the areas of education, science, culture and communication. Major contact points are the UN information centres and services all over the world.

If you have a skill in such fields as agriculture, medicine, education, information technology, vocational training, the promotion of human rights, industry and population—as well as the necessary flexibility and commitment—the UN Volunteers (UNV) programme may place you, for a one-to-two-year period, with an appropriate UN development project in a developing country.

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I want to continue my studies at a foreign university. Can the UN provide me with financial assistance?

The United Nations does not provide financial assistance to students. You can find some information about scholarships offered by higher education institutions and international organizations in a guide published by UNESCO, entitled “Study Abroad.” To purchase a copy of the Study Abroad catalogue, please write to: UNESCO Publishing, Promotion and Sales Division, 1 rue Miollis, 75732 Paris Cedex 15 (France) or order online at:

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Does the UN accept student interns?

The United Nations offers an unpaid internship programme for graduate students only at its News York Headquarters. It consists of three two-month periods throughout the year. For more information go to:

Where can I get information about a UN Member country’s position on various current issues?

You can obtain such information from the Permanent Mission to the United Nations of the country concerned. The list of websites for the Member States can be found at:

What is United Nations Day?

It is the birthday of the United Nations. It falls on 24 October, the day that the Organization came into being in 1945 after a majority of its original Members formally accepted their membership by agreeing to the Charter of the United Nations. Thus, 24 October is celebrated all over the world as United Nations Day.

Is information about the UN available through the Internet?

The UN has its own home page at:

Is there anything on the UN website designed especially for young people?

The United Nations CyberSchoolBus has been set up to provide materials about the Organization for children and teachers.

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Does the UN have an anthem?

The UN does not have an official anthem or hymn. The General Assembly recognized the need for an official song and reserved the right to select and adopt one. So far, no decision has been taken.

Where can I write for more information about the United Nations?

You can write to:

Visitors Services, Department of Public Information, GA-57, United Nations, New York, NY 10017, USA.


Phone: (212) 963-4475

Fax: (212) 963-0071

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What are some of the special days celebrated by the United Nations?

27 January – International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust

8 March – International Women’s Day

21 March – International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

25 March – International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

7 April – World Health Day

3 May – World Press Freedom Day

15 May – International Day of Families

21 May – World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development

29 May – International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers

31 May – World No-Tobacco Day

20 June – World Refugee Day

26 June – International Day against Drug Abuse

11 July – World Population Day

9 August – International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

12 August – International Youth Day

8 September – International Literacy Day

21 September – International Day of Peace

1 October – International Day of Older Persons

2 October – International Day of Non-Violence

17 October – International Day for the Eradication of Poverty

24 October – United Nations Day

16 November – International Day for Tolerance

20 November – Universal Children’s Day

25 November – International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

29 November – International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People

1 December – World AIDS Day

3 December – International Day of Disabled Persons

9 December – International Anti-Corruption Day

10 December – Human Rights Day

18 December – International Migrant’s Day