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The UN at a glance


1. Introduction 

  • Founded in 1945 (San Francisco)
  • 193 Member States
  • Constituting instrument: UN Charter
  • Secretary-General since 2017: H.E. António Guterres
  • Areas of work: peace and security, development, human rights, humanitarian assistance, disarmament and international law
  • Six Main Organs: General Assembly, Security Council, Trusteeship Council, Economic and Social Council, International Court of Justice and Secretariat.
  • More than 30 Funds, Programmes, Specialised Agencies and Related Organisations 6 official languages: English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish
  • Headquarters: New York, with main offices in Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi.
  • Currently 14 peacekeeping operations (~100,000 personnel)  

The United Nations Organisation was founded in 1945 in San Francisco in the aftermath of WWII, as the successor organisation to the League of Nations. The initial objective of the organisation was to prevent wars between countries and create a more secure world, based on stable international relations. Representatives of 51 countries, including the Kingdom of Belgium, signed the United Nations Charter, thereby confirming their commitment to maintain international peace and security and promote human rights, better living standards and social progress. The first official Secretary General was the Norwegian Trygve Lie and the first president of the General Assembly was the Belgian politician Paul-Henri Spaak. Today the UN counts 193 Member States. UN decisions, norms and operations make a difference for millions of people throughout the world. The examples below illustrate the breadth of UN’s work.

The United Nations…

  • Provides food and assistance to 80 million people in 80 countries
  • Supplies vaccines to 45 per cent of the world’s children, helps save 3 million lives a year
  • Assists and protects over 67.7 million people fleeing war, famine or persecution
  • Works with 195 nations to keep the global temperature rise well below 2°C/3.6°F
  • Keeps peace with 104,000 peacekeepers in 14 operations around the world
  • Tackles the global water crisis affecting over 2 billion people worldwide
  • Protects and promotes human rights globally and through 80 treaties/declarations
  • Coordinates USD 24.7 billion appeal for the humanitarian needs of 145 million people
  • Uses diplomacy to prevent conflict: assists some 50 countries a year with their elections
  • Supports maternal health, helping over 1 million women a month overcome pregnancy risks

2. Thematic issues

2.1. Peace and Security

The principle of Member States working together to promote the maintenance of international peace and security is enshrined in the UN Charter. The prevention, containment and management of conflicts is a core activity of the UN.

Under the UN Charter, the Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Conflict prevention can take the form of political, diplomatic, humanitarian or institutional activities. The UN has often succeeded in neutralising tensions by agreeing on peaceful settlements. The Security Council, through Sanctions Committees, can also decide to exercise pressure on a State, an entity or an individual which threatens international peace and security by taking enforcement measures (such as assets freeze, travel ban or arms embargoes).

In conflict and post-conflict areas around the world the UN has established field operations, known as UN Peacekeeping Operations or blue-helmet missions. Since 1948, more than 70 peacekeeping missions have been deployed, of which there are 14 currently in place in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali or Lebanon. The missions carry out different activities, depending on their mandates that have been issued by the UN Security Council, always carefully designed to respond to the needs of the country or region in conflict. UN Member States contribute financial resources and police and military personnel which serve in these peacekeeping operations. The UN also focuses its attention on preventing conflict and on strengthening the transition from peacekeeping to peacebuilding, in order to support the countries that emerge from conflict by elaborating strategies of post-conflict recovery.  Such activities might include the guidance of an electoral process, capacity-building or rule of law assistance. The UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), an intergovernmental advisory body, focuses on the prevention of recurrence of conflict and supports peace efforts in countries emerging from conflict. Through its Country-Specific Configurations, the PBC is particularly active in Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic and Liberia. 

2.2. Development

In September 2000, building upon a decade of major United Nations conferences and summits, world leaders came together at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to adopt the United Nations Millennium Declaration, committing their nations to a global partnership to reduce extreme poverty and setting out a series of 8 quantified targets with a deadline of 2015 - that have become known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These targets provided an important framework for development. Yet for all the significant achievements which have been made on some of the MDG targets worldwide such as income poverty, access to improved sources of water, primary school enrolment, the fight against HIV/AIDS and child mortality, progress has been uneven, leaving significant gaps across regions and countries.

At the Rio+20 Summit Conference in 2012, Member States agreed to launch a process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals, which seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals and complete what these did not achieve. After three years of planning, ahead of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Summit of September 2015, the 193 Member States of the United Nations reached consensus on a new agenda for development which contains 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. The approved outcome document was entitled “Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. The Sustainable Development Goals aim to eradicate hunger and extreme poverty, reduce inequality within and between states, achieve gender equality, improve water management and energy, and take urgent action to combat climate change. They also seek to support human rights of all and to achieve the empowerment of women and girls. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental.

It is important to stress that not only governments but also stakeholders from civil society and the private sector have been actively involved in this process. The importance of partnership was also underlined in the adoption of the SDGs: all stakeholders, public and private, are to play a role in the implementation of the 169 targets. The UN Secretariat, the fund and programmes and agencies of the UN System such as UNDP and UNEP also play a large role in implementing and advancing the sustainable development goals.

2.3. Human rights

The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 marked the beginning of a strong commitment of the UN in the promotion of human rights. Since then, many comprehensive agreements on political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights have been reached, both in general and specific areas. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) seeks to offer expertise and support to the different human rights mechanisms in the UN System, such as the treaty bodies which are made up of independent experts mandated to monitor the implementation by States Parties of the core international human rights treaties. There are 10 human rights treaty bodies that monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties:

  1. Human Rights Committee (CCPR)
  2. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)
  3. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
  4. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
  5. Committee against Torture (CAT)
  6. Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT)
  7. Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
  8. Committee on Migrant Workers ((CMW)
  9. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
  10. Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED)

OHCHR also provides substantive support to Human Rights Council which was created in 2006 and replaced the former UN Commission on Human Rights. This intergovernmental body based at the UN Office in Geneva and composed of 47 elected UN Members States, is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing human rights violations. The Council adopted its own procedures and mechanisms, among them the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) which serves to assess the human rights situations in all UN Member States. It also works with UN Special Procedures which are made up of Special Rapporteurs and independent experts that monitor, advise and report on thematic issues or human rights situations in specific countries.

The UN also works towards improving women’s lives. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly approved the creation of UN Women by merging several relevant UN entities. UN Women seeks to strengthen institutional arrangements for gender equality and women’s empowerment. The rights of children are another example of a UN human rights objective, which is largely advocated by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

2.4. Humanitarian action

Since its inception, the UN has provided humanitarian aid to the victims of conflicts, including refugees. The Organisation also offers emergency relief in response to natural disasters when the national capacity is insufficient. Through its operational agencies, the UN humanitarian action is carried out based on a long-term assistance strategy, including food, shelter, medical supplies and logistical support. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has the mandate to strengthen the coordination among several relevant UN bodies (in particular: UN Development Programme, UN Refugee Agency, UN Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), in order to operate more efficiently in the field. 

2.5. International justice

To date more than 175 bilateral disputes – such as territorial issues or issues of non-interference with the internal affairs of a State – have been referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is one of the six main bodies of the UN. In addition, the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) for the former Yugoslavia and the ICT for Rwanda were set up in order to prosecute serious crimes committed during these two major international crises. This determination to fight against impunity was also reasserted by the establishment of several Ad Hoc Tribunals – for Kosovo, Bosnia Herzegovina, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and Lebanon. In 1998, 120 States adopted the Rome Statute, the  legal basis for establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is the first permanent, international criminal court established to end impunity. To date, 123 countries have ratified the Rome Statute and are State Parties to the Rome Statute and 26 cases in 11 situations have been brought before the Court. Moreover, the Office of the Prosecutor is conducting preliminary examinations on 9 situations. Pursuant to the Rome Statute, the Prosecutor can initiate an investigation on the basis of a referral from any State Party or from the UN Security Council. While the ICC is an independent judicial institution and not part of the UN system, the Security Council has referred cases to the ICC. The situation in Darfur and the one in Libya are the two cases that have been referred so far by the Security Council.