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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 12 peacekeeping operations (~87,000 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 UN 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 who, through this unique organisation, can express their views on a wide range of issues through the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council and other bodies and committees. UN decisions, norms and operations make a difference for millions of people throughout the world.

The UN has 4 main purposes:

  • To keep peace throughout the world;
  • To develop friendly relations among nations;
  • To help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease and illiteracy, and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms;
  • To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations to achieve these goals.

2. Thematic issues

2.1. Peace and Security

The United Nations was created in 1945, following the devastation of the Second World War, with one central mission: the maintenance of international peace and security. The UN accomplishes this by working to prevent conflict, helping parties in conflict make peace, deploying peacekeepers, and creating the conditions to allow peace to hold and flourish. These activities often overlap and should reinforce one another to be effective.

Under the UN Charter, the Security Council has the 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 asset freezes, travel bans or arms embargoes).

In conflict and post-conflict areas around the world the UN has established field operations, known as UN Peacekeeping Operations (PKO’s) or blue-helmet missions. Since 1948, more than 70 peacekeeping missions have been deployed, of which there are 12 currently in place in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali or Lebanon. The missions carry out different activities, depending on the 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 to serve in these peacekeeping operations.

Peacekeeping operations are the most well-known and visible missions of the United Nations, and they play a key role in the peaceful resolution of conflicts across the world. They work on the basis of three principles: consent of the parties, impartiality, and non-use of force except in self-defence and defence of the mandate.

Since the first peacekeeping operations in 1948, their mandates have been refined and more closely adapted to the increasingly complex crises that the UN has faced, such as civil wars, jihadist terrorism, and violence by armed groups. They have gradually become multi-dimensional operations: a PKO is not only composed of military personnel (the famous blue helmets), but also police personnel and civilians, who make it possible to offer a comprehensive response to all types of challenges in an area.

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 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 conflict and supports peace efforts in countries emerging from conflict. Through its Country-Specific Configurations, the PBC is particularly active in Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Central African Republic. 

2.2. Development

In September 2000, building upon a decade of major United Nations conferences and summits, world leaders came together at the UN 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 was 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, that seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals and complete what these did not achieve. After three years of planning, at the 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 universal human rights and to achieve the empowerment of women and girls. They are integrated and indivisible and aim to 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 are actively involved in this process. The importance of partnership was underlined in the adoption of the SDGs, as all stakeholders, public and private, are to play a role in the implementation of the 169 targets.

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 to the promotion of human rights. Since then, many comprehensive agreements on political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights have been reached. 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 international human rights treaties. There are ten human rights treaty bodies that monitor the 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 the Human Rights Council which was created in 2006 and replaced the former UN Commission on Human Rights. This intergovernmental body based 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. Furthermore, the Human Rights Council works with Special Procedures, which is the collective name given to the different mandates of Independent Experts, Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups that monitor, advise and report on thematic issues or human rights situations in specific countries.

The UN 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 the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) works towards achieving.

2.4. Humanitarian action 

One of the aims of the United Nations, as stated in its Charter, is "to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character”. The UN first did this in the aftermath of the Second World War on the devastated continent of Europe, which it helped to rebuild. The Organization is now relied upon by the international community to coordinate humanitarian relief following emergencies due to natural and man-made disasters, often in areas beyond the relief capacity of national authorities alone.

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: the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme and the UN 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 UN’s 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, Rwanda, Yugoslavia 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, 124 countries have ratified the Rome Statute and are State Parties to the Rome Statute and 30 cases have been brought before the Court. 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 (such as the one in Libya and in Darfur).