Recently, I visited the United Nations in New York. I went on a very informative tour of the facilities and learned a lot about what the United Nations does and what is within their remit.

In my quest to understand what I perceived to be the failure of the United Nations to carry out their purpose, I had overlooked and taken for granted a lot of the important work that the UN does.  In a future post I hope to explain what the UN does but in this post I shall concentrate on the structure of the UN.

As an absolute beginner in this realm, I’m drawing heavily from these sources: The Charter of the United Nations, Wikipedia, The UN website and the notes I took during my tour.  I can’t promise that this post will be of any more value than visiting those sources or taking the tour but I do hope to simplify the workings of the UN to enable me to move on to my main question: Is the UN relevant?

The United Nations

The United Nations is an international organisation that was formed at the end of World War II to replace the League of Nations. The League of Nations had formed at the end of the World War I and their primary purpose was to prevent future wars. They did not, however, have their own armed force and they depended on their members to enforce resolutions and uphold economic sanctions. The League of Nations proved spectacularly incapable of preventing Axis aggression and as first Germany and then other totalitarian states withdrew from the League of Nations, World War II began.

Today, the United Nations has 192 member states and its main headquarters are in New York City. The United Nations buildings are international territory. The United Nations has five main administrative bodies:

  • The General Assembly
  • The Security Council
  • The Economic and Social Council
  • The Secretariat
  • The International Court of Justice (situated in the Hague)

The General Assembly

This is the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) hall. It was amazing to stand there and reflect on the powers that come together in this room from time to time. Each of the member states has one seat in the General Assembly and one vote.  All members states are considered equal here and this is the only organ of the UN where all member nations have equal representation.

The UNGA meets from September to December each year.  During the first two weeks, each member state has a chance to address the assembly.

The UNGA is the main deliberative assembly of the UN. "Deliberative assembly" basically means that all the members have an equal vote and they meet to decide on the courses of action to be taken by the entire group.  The UNGA may discuss anything relating to the present Charter or relating to the organs of the United Nations but they may not discuss anything that is currently under discussion in the United Nations Security Council.  The UNGA discusses the $2.4billion budget for the UN; decides on which member states should be admitted, suspended or expelled from the UN; appoints non-permanent members to the Security Council and makes recommendations in the form of General Assembly Resolutions.

The public used to be able to sit in on the UNGA but this was stopped after the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre.

The Security Council

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is charged with the maintenance of international peace and security. The UNSC has five permanent members: United States of America, United Kingdom, China, France and Russia. Ten other non-permanent members are elected to serve two-year terms.

Under chapter 6 of the Charter, the UNSC has the power to investigate disputes and advise parties to reach peaceful solutions to their disputes.  The recommendations made under this provision are not binding on UN members. 

Chapter 7 of the Charter moves beyond disputes to acts of aggression or threats and breaches of peace.  Here, the UNSC may make recommendations and take certain actions. Actions will not at first involve armed force and include calling upon members to interrupt economic relations, cease communications or sever diplomatic relations.

If such action is proved to be inadequate, the UNSC has the power to take such [armed] action as may be necessary to restore international peace and security.  Decisions taken under chapter 7 are binding on UN members and all members have to provide armed forces, facilities, right of passage and assistance to such actions if called upon to do so.

The UNSC can also refer matters to the International Criminal Court, where the ICC would not otherwise have jurisdiction and it recommends the role of the Secretary-General to the General Assembly.

I think this is measuring up to be quite a mammoth post so I will stop here and continue on the weekend with The Economic and Social Council and The Secretariat.  I will probably dedicate an entire post to the International Court of Justice as it is perhaps most relevant to this blog.

The Charter of the United Nations
The UN website

About Mandy Southgate

Mandy Southgate is an accountant living and working in London. She is passionate about world events such as genocide and apartheid and has a desire to understand how these events continue to occur in the modern world. With a focus on the 20th and 21st centuries, A Passion to Understand reflects her continuing research and reading on these topics.
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  1. Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comments there about my photography. And your camera is one that I used and my wife still uses. You can do a lot with it. But there is a difference between it and my Canon Digital Rebel cameras and lenses.

    I hope you can get one -- maybe for your birthday or for Christmas.

  2. Interesting and informative post..Thanks for sharing...Unseen Rajasthan

  3. Well done in pulling together this informative blog on humanity disaster that I learn a lot today to be thankful! You're in my blogroll and I'm looking forward to learn from your blog. Cheers! Ben

  4. Hi Emm!
    I just came across your blog, and I'm really interested in what you have written. I'm studying international relations and I also have a really strong interest in the UN! I think you did a great job and I will keep reading!

    I also subscribed to your other blog, since I'm about to move to London! Cheers! Jen

  5. @ Abraham: Hi! It is amazing what you can do with that little camera, isn't it? I will only get a new one once I have mastered this one!

    @ Unseen Rajasthan: Thanks for visiting!

    @ Ben: Thank you for visiting! I am glad that you found the blog to be informative.

    @ Jen K: Wow, thanks. Coming from an academic like yourself, that is quite a compliment. Perhaps one fine winter morning we can meet up for a cup of tea and some serious conversation!


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