United Nations

Organization and Principles

The Charter of the United Nations comprises a preamble and 19 chapters divided into 111 articles. The charter sets forth the purposes of the UN as: the maintenance of international peace and security; the development of friendly relations among states; and the achievement of cooperation in solving international economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems. It expresses a strong hope for the equality of all people and the expansion of basic freedoms.

The principal organs of the UN, as specified in the charter, are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council (see trusteeship, territorial), the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat. Other bodies that function as specialized agencies of the UN but are not specifically provided for in the charter are the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the associated International Finance Corporation and International Development Association, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Labor Organization, the International Maritime Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations Children's Fund, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the Universal Postal Union, the World Health Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, and the World Meteorological Organization. Temporary agencies have included the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the International Refugee Organization (whose responsibilities were later assumed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which is still in existence.

The official languages of the UN are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. The working languages of the General Assembly are English, French, and Spanish (in the Security Council only English and French are working languages).

The Secretariat and the Secretary-General

All UN administrative functions are handled by the Secretariat, with the secretary-general at its head. The charter does not prescribe a term for the secretary-general, but a five-year term has become standard. Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general, was succeeded by Dag Hammarskjöld (1953–61), who served until his death. U Thant, acting secretary-general, was elected secretary-general (1962), was reelected in 1966, and served through 1971. Succeeding secretaries-general were: Kurt Waldheim (1972–81); Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (1982–91), Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992–96), Kofi Annan (1997–2006), and Ban Ki-Moon (2007–). (See also the table entitled United Nations Secretaries-General.) The secretary-general transcends a merely administrative role by his authority to bring situations to the attention of various UN organs, by his position as an impartial party in effecting conciliation, and especially by his power to "perform such … functions as are entrusted to him" by other UN organs. Also strengthening the office of secretary-general is the large Secretariat staff, which is recruited on a wide geographic basis and is required to work exclusively in the interests of the organization.

The General Assembly

The only UN body provided by the charter in which all member states are represented is the General Assembly. The General Assembly was designed to be a deliberative body dealing chiefly with general questions of a political, social, or economic character. It meets in a regular annual session beginning the third Tuesday in September; special sessions are sometimes held. It has seven main committees set up to deal with specific matters designated as (1) political and security, (2) economic and financial, (3) social, humanitarian, and cultural, (4) trusteeship, (5) administrative and budgetary, (6) legal, and (7) special political. It also has procedural, standing, and many ad hoc committees. The assembly passes on the budget and sets the assessments of the member countries. It may conduct studies and make recommendations but may not advise on matters under Security Council consideration, unless by Security Council request. In the assembly, decisions on routine matters are taken by a simple majority of members voting; a two-thirds majority is required for matters of importance, such as the admission of new members, the revision of the charter, and budgetary and trusteeship questions.

The Security Council

The Security Council was constructed as an organ with primary responsibility for preserving peace. Unlike the General Assembly, it was given power to enforce measures and was organized as a compact executive organ. Also unlike the assembly, the Security Council in theory functions continuously at the seat of the UN.

The council has 15 members. Five—China (until 1971 the Republic of China [Taiwan]; since then the People's Republic of China), France, Great Britain, the United States, and Russia (until 1991 the USSR)—are permanent. The 10 (originally six) nonpermanent members are elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly; equitable geographic distribution is required. Customarily there are five nonpermanent members from African and Asian states, one from Eastern Europe, two from Latin America, and two from Western Europe and elsewhere. In the council the presidency is occupied for one-month terms in the alphabetical order of the members' names in English.

In 1997 a UN commission proposed changes to the council, including adding five new permanent members without veto powers, adding four additional nonpermanent members, and placing restrictions on the use of the veto. The proposed changes were regarded by many nations as a groundwork for negotiations on the eventual restructuring of the council. Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, and South Africa have sought permanent seats on the council, and in July, 2005, the first four nations submitted a General Assembly resolution calling for the expansion of the council (but not for veto-power for new permanent members). The African Union, however, has called for new permanent members to have the veto and for Africa to receive two permanent seats. There has been no significant progress on the issue, but in Sept., 2008, the General Assembly unanimously called for intergovernmental negotiations on the enlargement of the council, which began in Feb., 2009.

There are two systems of voting in the Security Council. On procedural matters the affirmative vote of any nine members is necessary, but on substantive matters the nine affirmative votes required must include those of the five permanent members. This requirement of Big Five unanimity embodies the so-called veto. In practice the council has, on most substantive matters, not treated an abstention by a permanent member as a veto. In two situations, however, those of recommending applicants for UN membership and of approving proposed amendments to the charter, the actual concurrence of all permanent members has been required. The veto has prevented much substantive action by the UN, but it embodies the reality that resolution of major crises requires agreement of the major powers.

Under the charter the council may take measures on any danger to world peace. It may act upon complaint of a member or of a nonmember, on notification by the secretary-general or by the General Assembly, or of its own volition. In general the council considers matters of two sorts. The first is "disputes" (or situations that may give rise to them) that might endanger peace. Here the council is limited to making recommendations to the parties after it has exhausted other methods of reaching a solution. In the case of more serious matters, such as "threats to the peace,""breaches of the peace," and "acts of aggression," the council may take enforcement measures. These may range from full or partial rupture of economic or diplomatic relations to military operations of any scope deemed necessary. By the terms of the charter, the UN was forbidden to intervene in matters "which are essentially … domestic," but this limitation was not intended to hinder Security Council measures to prevent threats to peace. The charter was intentionally ambiguous regarding domestic issues that could also be construed as threats to peace and left a potential opening for intervention in domestic issues that threaten to have dangerous international repercussions.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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