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The United Nations, or UN, is an international organization made up of states; most but not all countries are members. It was founded on October 24, 1945 in San Francisco, California, following the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in Washington, DC, but the first General Assembly, with 51 nations represented, was not held until January 10, 1946 (held in Central Hall Westminster, London). Before World War II, there existed a somewhat similar organization under the name of League of Nations, which can thus be considered the UN's precursor. UN membership is open to all "peace-loving states" that accept the obligations of the UN Charter and, in the judgment of the organization, are able and willing to fulfill these obligations. The General Assembly determines admission upon recommendation of the Security Council. As of September 2002 there were 191 members.

The idea for the United Nations was elaborated in declarations signed at the wartime Allied conferences in Moscow and Tehran in 1943. United States president Franklin Delano Roosevelt suggested the name "United Nations" and the first offical use of the term occurred on January 1, 1942 with the Declaration by the United Nations. During World War II, the Allies used the term "United Nations" to refer to their alliance. From August to October 1944, representatives of the U.S., United Kingdom, France, USSR, and China met to elaborate the plans at the Dumbarton Oaks Estate in Washington, D.C. Those and later talks produced proposals outlining the purposes of the organization, its membership and organs, as well as arrangements to maintain international peace and security and international economic and social cooperation. These proposals were discussed and debated by governments and private citizens worldwide.

On April 25, 1945, the United Nations Conference on International Organizations began in San Francisco. In addition to the Governments, a number of non-government organisations, including Lions Clubs International were invited to assist in the drafting of the charter. The 50 nations represented at the conference signed the Charter of the United Nations two months later on June 26. Poland, which was not represented at the conference, but for which a place among the original signatories had been reserved, added its name later, bringing the total of original signatories to 51. The UN came into existence on October 24, 1945, after the Charter had been ratified by the five permanent members of the Security Council - China, France, USSR, UK, and the United States - and by a majority of the other 46 signatories.

The U.S. Senate, by a vote of 89 to 2, gave its consent to the ratification of the UN Charter on July 28, 1945. In December 1945, the Senate and the House of Representatives, by unanimous votes, requested that the UN make its headquarters in the U.S. The offer was accepted and the UN headquarters building was constructed in New York City in 1949 and 1950 beside the East River on land purchased by an 8.5 million dollar donation from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. UN headquarters officially opened on January 9, 1951. The land is now considered international territory. Under special agreement with the U.S., certain diplomatic privileges and immunities have been granted, but generally the laws of New York City, New York State, and the U.S. apply.

In the 1960s new General Assembly and Secretariat buildings were built in New York, but there are major agencies located in Geneva, Switzerland and elsewhere.

Arms Control and Disarmament

The 1945 UN Charter envisaged a system of regulation that would ensure "the least diversion for armaments of the world's human and economic resources." The advent of nuclear weapons came only weeks after the signing of the Charter and provided immediate impetus to concepts of arms limitation and disarmament. In fact, the first resolution of the first meeting of the General Assembly (January 24, 1946) was entitled "The Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy" and called upon the commission to make specific proposals for "the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction."

The UN has established several forums to address multilateral disarmament issues. The principal ones are the First Committee of the UN General Assembly and the UN Disarmament Commission. Items on the agenda include consideration of the possible merits of a nuclear test ban, outer-space arms control, efforts to ban chemical weapons, nuclear and conventional disarmament, nuclear-weapon-free zones, reduction of military budgets, and measures to strengthen international security.

The Conference on Disarmament is the sole forum established by the international community for the negotiation of multilateral arms control and disarmament agreements. It has 66 members representing all areas of the world, including the five major nuclear-weapon states (China, France, the Russian Federation, the U.K., and the U.S.). While the conference is not formally a UN organization, it is linked to the UN through a personal representative of the Secretary-General; this representative serves as the secretary general of the conference. Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly often request the conference to consider specific disarmament matters. In turn, the conference annually reports on its activities to the General Assembly.

Human Rights

Related entry: United Nations Convention on the Abolition of Slavery''

The pursuit of human rights was one of the central reasons for creating the United Nations. World War II atrocities and genocide led to a ready consensus that the new organization must work to prevent any similar tragedies in the future. An early objective was creating a legal framework for considering and acting on complaints about human rights violations.

The UN Charter obliges all member nations to promote "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights" and to take "joint and separate action" to that end. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though not legally binding, was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all. The General Assembly regularly takes up human rights issues. The UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), under ECOSOC, is the primary UN body charged with promoting human rights, primarily through investigations and offers of technical assistance. As discussed, the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the official principally responsible for all UN human rights activities (see, under "The UN Family," the section on "Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights").

The U.S. considers the United Nations to be a first line of defense of the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also a means by which those principles can be applied more broadly around the world. A case in point is support by the United Nations for countries in transition to democracy. Technical assistance in providing free and fair elections, improving judicial structures, drafting constitutions, training human rights officials, and transforming armed movements into political parties have contributed significantly to democratization worldwide.

The United Nations is also a forum in which to support the right of women to participate fully in the political, economic, and social life of their countries.  

Democracy in the UN

Now, there is a claim for UN reform to obtain more democracy. I.e. Inocencia Arias, Spanish ambassador in UN, indicates that UN has democracy deficit, like the veto in the UN Security Council. Examples are the attack of Kosovo outside the auspices of the Security Council because of the suspicion of a possible Russian veto, the U.S. veto to re-election of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, etc. Another deficit is the lack of representation for citizens of democratic countries via direct election of the members of the UN General Assembly, which otherwise occurs in the European Parliament and the national parliaments. 

International Conferences

The member countries of the UN and its specialized agencies - the "stakeholders" of the system - give guidance and make decisions on substantive and administrative issues in regular meetings held throughout each year. Governing bodies made up of member states include not only the General Assembly, ECOSOC, and the Security Council, but also counterpart bodies dealing with the governance of all other UN system agencies. For example, the World Health Assembly and the Executive Board oversee the work of WHO. Each year, the U.S. Department of State accredits U.S. delegations to more than 600 meetings of governing bodies.

When an issue is considered particularly important, the General Assembly may convene an international conference to focus global attention and build a consensus for consolidated action. High-level U.S. delegations use these opportunities to promote U.S. policy viewpoints and develop international agreements on future activities. Recent examples include:

bulletThe UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992, led to the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to advance the conclusions reached in Agenda 21, the final text of agreements negotiated by governments at UNCED;
bulletThe World Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, Egypt, in September 1994, approved a program of action to address the critical challenges and interrelationships between population and sustainable development over the next 20 years;
bulletThe World Summit on Trade Efficiency, held in October 1994 in Columbus, Ohio, cosponsored by UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the city of Columbus, and private-sector business, focused on the use of modern information technology to expand international trade;
bulletThe World Summit for Social Development, held in March 1995 in Copenhagen, Denmark, underscored national responsibility for sustainable development and secured high-level commitment to plans that invest in basic education, health care, and economic opportunity for all, including women and girls;
bulletThe Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in September 1995, sought to accelerate implementation of the historic agreements reached at the Third World Conference on Women held in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1985; and
bulletThe Second UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), convened in June 1996 in Istanbul, Turkey, considered the challenges of human settlement development and management in the 21st century.


The UN system is financed in two ways: assessed and voluntary contributions from member states. The regular two-year budgets of the UN and its specialized agencies are funded by assessments. In the case of the UN, the General Assembly approves the regular budget and determines the assessment for each member. This is broadly based on the relative capacity of each country to pay, as measured by national income statistics, along with other factors.

The Assembly has established the principle that the UN should not be overly dependent on any one member to finance its operations. Thus, there is a 'ceiling' rate, setting the maximum amount any member is assessed for the regular budget. In December 2000, the Assembly agreed to revise the scale of assessments to make them better reflect current global circumstances.

As part of that agreement, the regular budget ceiling was reduced from 25 to 22 percent; this is the rate at which the U.S. is assessed. The U.S. is the only member that pays this rate; all other members' assessment rates are lower. Under the scale of assessments adopted in 2000, other major contributors to the regular UN budget for 2001 are Japan (19.63%), Germany (9.82%), France (6.50%), the U.K. (5.57%), Italy (5.09%), Canada (2.57%) and Spain (2.53%).

Special UN programs not included in the regular budget (such as UNICEF, UNDP, UNHCR, and WFP) are financed by voluntary contributions from member governments. In 2001, it is estimated that such contributions from the US will total approximately $1.5 billion. Much of this is in the form of agricultural commodities donated for afflicted populations, but the majority is financial contributions.

U.S. Arrears

For many years the United Nations has had problems with members refusing to pay the assessment levied upon them under the United Nations charter. Many states have at times refused to pay their dues for various reasons, but the most significant refusal in recent times has been that of the United States. The US pays more dues than any other member nation, as well as hosting the UN building in New York. This puts the United States in a very unique position. For a number of years the United States Congress has refused to authorise payment of the United States' significant UN dues, in order to try to extract reforms from the organization and a reduction in the US assessment.

The United States and the United Nations after much dispute, negotiated an agreement whereby the United States would pay a large part of the money it owes, and in exchange the United Nations would reduce the assessment rate ceiling from 25% to 22%.

The reduction in the assessment rate ceiling was among the reforms contained in the 1999 Helms-Biden legislation, which links payment of $926 million in U.S. arrears to the UN and other international organizations to a series of reform benchmarks.

U.S. arrears to the UN currently total over $1.3 billion. Of this, $612 million is payable under Helms-Biden. The remaining $700 million result from various legislative and policy withholdings; there are no current plans to pay these amounts.

Under Helms-Biden, the U.S. paid $100 million in arrears to the UN in December 1999; release of the next $582 million awaits a legislative revision to Helms-Biden, necessary because the benchmark requiring a 25 percent peacekeeping assessment rate ceiling was not quite achieved. The U.S. also seek elimination of the legislated 25 percent cap on U.S. peacekeeping payments in effect since 1995, which continues to generate additional UN arrears. Of the final $244 million under Helms-Biden, $30 million is payable to the UN and $214 million to other international organizations.

UN peace operations are funded by assessments, using a formula derived from the regular scale, but including a surcharge for the five permanent members of the Security Council (who must approve all peacekeeping operations); this surcharge serves to offset discounted peacekeeping assessment rates for less developed countries. In December 2000, the UN revised the assessment rate scale for the regular budget and for peacekeeping. The peacekeeping scale is designed to be revised every six months and is projected to be near 27% in 2003. The U.S. Administration intends to pay peacekeeping assessments at these lower rates and has sought legislation from the U.S. Congress to allow payment at these rates and to make payments towards arrears.

Total UN peacekeeping expenses peaked between 1994 and 1995; at the end of 1995 the total cost was just over $3.5 billion. Total UN peacekeeping costs for 2000, including operations funded from the UN regular budget as well as the peacekeeping budget, were on the order of $2.2 billion.

United Nations System

Main article: United Nations System

The United Nations System has six principal organs:

bulletUN General Assembly
bulletUN Security Council
bulletUN Economic and Social Council
bulletUN Trusteeship Council
bulletUN Secretariat
bulletInternational Court of Justice

For more information on the organizational structure see the main article.

See also

bulletUnited Nations Member States
bulletPreamble to Charter of the United Nations
bulletUnited Nations System
bulletInternational community

External links

bulletUnited Nations - Official site
bulletUnited Nations Charter - Charter text



General Assembly
      Committee on Information web site

Economic and Social Council
     Regional Commissions
     - Economic Commission for Africa (ECA)
     - Economic Commission for Europe (ECE)
     - Economic Commission for Latin America
       and the Caribbean (ECLAC)
     - Economic and Social Commission for Asia
       and the Pacific (ESCAP)
     - Economic and Social Commission for
       Western Asia (ESCWA)

International Court of Justice

Organization Chart of the
United Nations System

Security Council
     Counter-terrorism Committee

Trusteeship Council





The Security Council has primary responsibility, under the Charter, for the maintenance of international peace and security. It is so organized as to be able to function continuously, and a representative of each of its members must be present at all times at United Nations Headquarters. On 31 January 1992, the first ever Summit Meeting of the Council was convened at Headquarters, attended by Heads of State and Government of 13 of its 15 members and by the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the remaining two. The Council may meet elsewhere than at Headquarters; in 1972, it held a session in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the following year in Panama City, Panama.

When a complaint concerning a threat to peace is brought before it, the Council's first action is usually to recommend to the parties to try to reach agreement by peaceful means. In some cases, the Council itself undertakes investigation and mediation. It may appoint special representatives or request the Secretary-General to do so or to use his good offices. It may set forth principles for a peaceful settlement.

When a dispute leads to fighting, the Council's first concern is to bring it to an end as soon as possible. On many occasions, the Council has issued cease-fire directives which have been instrumental in preventing wider hostilities. It also sends United Nations peace-keeping forces to help reduce tensions in troubled areas, keep opposing forces apart and create conditions of calm in which peaceful settlements may be sought. The Council may decide on enforcement measures, economic sanctions (such as trade embargoes) or collective military action.

A Member State against which preventive or enforcement action has been taken by the Security Council may be suspended from the exercise of the rights and privileges of membership by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council. A Member State which has persistently violated the principles of the Charter may be expelled from the United Nations by the Assembly on the Council's recommendation.

A State which is a Member of the United Nations but not of the Security Council may participate, without a vote, in its discussions when the Council considers that that country's interests are affected. Both Members of the United Nations and non-members, if they are parties to a dispute being considered by the Council, are invited to take part, without a vote, in the Council's discussions; the Council sets the conditions for participation by a non-member State.

The Presidency of the Council rotates monthly, according to the English alphabetical listing of its member States.


Functions and Powers

Under the Charter, the functions and powers of the Security Council are:
bulletto maintain international peace and security in accordance with the principles and purposes of the United Nations;
bulletto investigate any dispute or situation which mightlead to international friction;
bulletto recommend methods of adjusting such disputes or the terms of settlement;
bulletto formulate plans for the establishment of a system to regulate armaments;
bulletto determine the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression and to recommend what action should be taken;
bulletto call on Members to apply economic sanctions and other measures not involving the use of force to prevent or stop aggression;
bulletto take military action against an aggressor;
bulletto recommend the admission of new Members;
bulletto exercise the trusteeship functions of the United Nations in "strategic areas";
bulletto recommend to the GeneralAssembly the appointment of the Secretary-General and, together with the Assembly, to elect the Judges of the International Court of Justice.


Each Council member has one vote. Decisions on procedural matters are made by an affirmative vote of at least nine of the 15 members. Decisions on substantive matters require nine votes, including the concurring votes of all five permanent members. This is the rule of "great Power unanimity", often referred to as the "veto" power.

Under the Charter, all Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council. While other organs of the United Nations make recommendations to Governments, the Council alone has the power to take decisions which Member States are obligated under the Charter to carry out.


The Council has 15 members-- five permanent members and 10 elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms:


Membership and Presidency of  the Security Council in 2003



Membership Term Ends



Permanent Member



31 December 2004



31 December 2003



31 December 2003



31 December 2004


Russian Federation

Permanent Member



31 December 2004


Syrian Arab Republic

31 December 2003


United Kingdom

Permanent Member


United States

Permanent Member



31 December 2004



31 December 2003



31 December 2003



Permanent Member



31 December 2004

The following countries began their two-year membership term on 1 January 2003:

Angola Chile Germany Pakistan Spain

Peace-keeping Operations

Between June 1948 and August 2000, there have been 53 United Nations peace-keeping operations.

Of The Practice Of The Security Council


The Repertoire of the Practice of the Security Council is published by the Secretary-General at the request of the General Assembly (Cf.:  General Assembly Resolution 686 (VII) of 5 December 1952  “Ways and means for making the evidence of customary international law readily available”, paragraph 1 (b) ).

The Repertoire is the only analytical record of the practice of the Security Council, as reflected in its decisions, positive and negative, and related statements.  It presents all the data relevant to the interpretation and application by the Security Council of the provisions of the UN Charter and the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.  However, the Repertoire is not a work of codification or interpretation (Cf.: Report of the Secretary-General A/2170 of 18 September 1952, V)

United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld Library

United Nations Documentation : Research Guide - United Nations Dag Hammarskjold Library

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Security Council Actions in other years

Meetings conducted / Actions taken
by the Security Council in 2003

(in reverse chronological order)

NOTE: The Adobe Acrobat Reader, which can be downloaded for free from the Adobe website (http://www.adobe.com), is required for viewing of the full-text documents.
Date Press
Topic Security Council
S/PV.4692 27 Jan. SC/7644 Iraq-Kuwait no action
S/PV.4691 24 Jan. SC/7642 Democratic Republic of the Congo S/RES/1457 (2003)
S/PV.4690 (closed) 22 Jan. None issued Meeting with countries contributing troops to the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara Communique
S/PV.4689 (closed) 21 Jan. None issued Meeting with countries contributing troops to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon Communique
S/PV.4688 20 Jan. SC/7638 High-level meeting: combating terrorism S/RES/1456 (2003)
S/PV.4687 (closed) 17 Jan. None issued Meeting with countries contributing troops to the UN Observer Mission in Georgia Communique
S/PV.4686 17 Jan. SC/7636 Peace and security--terrorist acts S/RES/1455 (2003)
S/PV.4685 16 Jan. SC/7635 Middle East situation, including the Palestinian question no action
S/PV.4684 (Resumption 1) 14 Jan. SC/7631 Children and armed conflict no action
S/PV.4684 14 Jan. SC/7631 Children and armed conflict no action

[Contents] [Document Symbols] [Basic Research Tools] [Indexes]
[General Assembly] [Security Council] [ECOSOC] [Press Releases] [Special Topics]