United Nations | Overview
The United Nations (UN) is an intergovernmental organisation—by far the most powerful, well-funded, and influential—founded in 1945. The UN provides a forum for its member-states to deliberate, discuss, and resolve pressing issues in a non-violent way.
Founded in the aftermath of the devastating Second World War, the UN has proved resilient so far, completing 75 years in 2020. The League of Nations, in comparison, lasted only 26 years—a third of the UN’s lifespan.
In these seven and a half decades, the world has witnessed unprecedented peace, avoiding conflict on a large scale. While localised conflicts have occurred with regularity, they were prevented from escalating and absorbing other countries into the violence.
Some credit for this can certainly be attributed to the UN In this article, we will look at the functioning of the U.N., its history, and the international organisations it has spawned.
The United Nations (UN) is an international organisation that was founded in 1945, initially comprising only 51 member-states. Today, it consists of 193 members, making it the largest intergovernmental organisation in the world, and has granted observer status to two states: the Holy See and the State of Palestine.[i]
The United Nations is primarily a deliberative body, but it also retains the power to bind its member states into any particular action. Per the United Nations Charter, it can take action on issues as varied as peace and security, human rights, climate change, terrorism, governance, and food production among several others.[ii]
Under the umbrella of the United Nations also exist numerous other institutions with specific, specialised tasks known as “specialised agencies.”[iii] These agencies are mostly autonomous and independent and work with each other through the machinery of one of the principal organs of the UN—the Economic and Social Council.
Notably, India was one of the founding members of the United Nations.
As Europe plunged into conflict yet again in 1939 with Germany’s invasion of Poland, the inefficacy of the League of Nations – the organisation then responsible for maintaining peace and order was laid bare.
As the European military powers waged war against each other, in blatant violation of the League of Nation’s primary purpose, the need for another, more effective organisation grew. Thus began the efforts to create an organisation that would eventually become the United Nations.
The UN can trace its roots to the Declaration of St James’s Palace in 1941. The declaration—signed by the United Kingdom (UK), Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and nine European governments-in-exile in London—envisioned a post-war future of peace, cooperation, and economic and social security.
The Atlantic Charter soon followed. Signed by the U.K. and the United States, this charter affirmed common national principles that they based their hopes on “for a better future of the world.
As World War II picked up steam—now with the U.S. involved too—twenty-six countries signed the Declaration by United Nations in 1942 to commit to a maximum war effort against the Rome–Berlin–Tokyo Axis. This declaration bound the signatories to the principles affirmed in the Atlantic Charter.
In 1943, the Moscow and Teheran Conferences took place. In these conferences, the Allied Powers—the U.S., the U.K., and the Soviet Union—pledged joint action after the War and committed to a world free from want or fear. More importantly, the Moscow conference explicitly recognised the need for an alternate international organisation to take over from the League of Nations.
The Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta conferences, in 1944 and 1945 respectively, went even further in that regard: the Dumbarton Oaks conference laid down some of the principles of the world organisation, but not concretely, and the Yalta conference resolved the issue of voting in the Security Council.
Three years after the 1942 Declaration, as the San Francisco Conference was about to take place, it was the signatories to the declaration who were invited to take part. The San Francisco Conference, of course, famously culminated in the signing of the Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice in 1945.[iv]
The United Nations has spawned numerous international agencies. These include specialised financial, cultural, labour, health, intellectual property, etc.
Financial Agencies—World Bank and IMF
The most famous financial UN specialised agencies are the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—both headquartered in Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
The World Bank focusses on “poverty reduction and the improvement of living standards worldwide by providing low-interest loans, interest-free credit, and grants to developing countries for education, health, infrastructure, and communications, among other things.”
The World Bank Group includes five separate agencies: the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Finance Corporation, the International Development Association, the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, and the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes.
The latter two are not “specialised agencies” as per Articles 56 and 63 of the Charter but are nonetheless considered part of the World Bank Group.[v]
The current president of the World Bank Group is David Malpass and its MD and CFO is Anshula Kant.
The IMF provides financial assistance to debt-ridden countries, usually in the form of loans. This assistance is meant to ease the balance of payment crises and prevent countries from going bankrupt.[vi]
The current chair and M.D. of the IMF is Kristalina Georgieva.
World Health Organisation
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is another specialised agency within the UN framework. The WHO focusses on issues concerning world health and shot to global prominence with the Covid–19 pandemic.[vii]
The WHO is in charge of declaring a global pandemic and overseeing international coordination in that regard. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the director-general has been holding regular press conferences and updating the general public regarding the disease and the vaccine.
The current director-general of WHO is Dr Tedros Adhanom.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation—popularly known as UNESCO—is another specialised UN agency which promotes world peace through coöperation in education, the sciences, and culture.[viii]
Numerous other organisations exist—albeit smaller in size—carrying out UN-designated tasks. Some of these are the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (popularly abbreviated as UNICEF), the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Meteorological Organisation, the World Food Programme, et cetera.
- The United Nations is headquartered in New York City in the US on international territory. It has other main offices in Geneva, Nairobi (which serves as their headquarters in Africa), The Hague, and Vienna.
- The UN is currently led by its Secretary-General António Guterres, a Portuguese politician and diplomat who once served as Portugal’s prime minister.
- The UN was established a little more than 75 years ago on 24 October 1945.
- The UN has six officially recognised languages: English, Mandarin, Russian, French, Arabic, and Spanish.
- The United Nations has five primary organs: the United Nations General Assembly, the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice, and the UN Secretariat.
- The latest full member to join the United Nations is South Sudan—created after the Sudanese Civil War—which joined the UN in 2011.
The United Nations’ advocacy for world peace and security certainly carries a heft that no other organisation can parallel. While it does not command a standing army of its own, its record in bringing potentially warring countries to the negotiating table is commendable and certainly bests that of its predecessor—the League of Nations.
However, the UN continues to be beset with certain issues, including allegations of inefficacy when it comes to the actions of the P5—the five permanent members of the Security Council.
Nonetheless, the UN remains the world’s best hope for maintaining stability. Reforming it would be more worthwhile than abandoning the project entirely.
[v] Id., at note iii.