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|The United Nations is an international organization founded in 1945 after the Second World War by 51 countries committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights. Due to its unique international character, and the powers vested in its founding Charter, the Organization can take action on a wide range of issues, and provide a forum for its 192 Member States to express their views, through the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council and other bodies and committees.
The work of the United Nations reaches every corner of the globe. Although best known for peacekeeping, peacebuilding, conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance, there are many other ways the United Nations and its System (specialized agencies, funds and programmes) affect our lives and make the world a better place. The Organization works on a broad range of fundamental issues, from sustainable development, environment and refugees protection, disaster relief, counter terrorism, disarmament and non-proliferation, to promoting democracy, human rights, gender equality and the advancement of women, governance, economic and social development and international health, clearing landmines, expanding food production, and more, in order to achieve its goals and coordinate efforts for a safer world for this and future generations.
|Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the Global Compact Leaders Summit at the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG), in Switzerland. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
The United Nations: Organization
|In 1945, representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization to draw up the United Nations Charter. The United Nations officially came into existence on 24 October 1945, when the Charter had been ratified by China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and a majority of other signatories. United Nations Day is celebrated on 24 October each year.
The Charter is the constituting instrument of the Organization, setting out the rights and obligations of member states, and establishing the United Nations organs and proprocedures.
The purposes of the United Nations, as set forth in the Charter, are to maintain international peace and security; to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples; to cooperate in solving international economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems and in promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; and to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in attaining these ends.
The Charter established six principal organs of the United Nations, are the: General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Trusteeship Council, International Court of Justice and Secretariat. The United Nations family, however, is much larger, encompassing 15 agencies and several programmes and bodies.
The budget approved for the biennium 2006-2007 is $3.8 billion - representing nominal growth in real terms from the 2004-2005 biennium. The budget covers the costs of United Nations programmes in areas such as political affairs, international justice and law, international cooperation for development, public information, human rights and humanitarian affairs. The main source of funds for the budget is the contributions of member states.
The fundamental criterion on which the scale of assessments is based is the capacity of countries to pay. This is determined by considering their relative shares of total gross national product, adjusted to take into account a number of factors, including their per capita incomes. In addition to the regular budget, member states are assessed for the costs of the international tribunals and, in accordance with a modified version of the basic scale, for the costs of peacekeeping operations.
The United Nations family
The United Nations family of organizations (the “United Nations system”) consists of the United Nations Secretariat, the United Nations funds and programmes (such as UNICEF and UNDP), the specialized agencies (such as UNESCO and WHO) and related organizations. The funds and programmes are subsidiary bodies of the General Assembly. The specialized agencies are linked to the United Nations through special agreements and report to the Economic and Social Council and/or the General Assembly. The related organizations — including IAEA and the World Trade Organization — address specialized areas and have their own legislative bodies and budgets. Together, the organizations of the UN system address all areas of economic and social endeavour.
International Peace and Security
|One of the primary purposes of the United Nations is the maintenance of international peace and security. Since its creation, the UN has often been called upon to prevent disputes from escalating into war, to persuade opposing parties to use the conference table rather than force of arms, or to help restore peace when armed conflict does break out. Over the decades, the UN has helped to end numerous conflicts, often through actions of the Security Council — the primary organ for dealing with issues of international peace and security.
The Security Council, the General Assembly and the Secretary-General all play major, complementary roles in fostering peace and security. United Nations activities cover the principal areas of conflict prevention, peacemaking, peacekeeping, enforcement and peacebuilding.
During the 1990s, the end of the cold war led to an entirely new global security environment, one marked by a focus on internal rather than inter-state wars.
The UN has therefore reshaped and enhanced the traditional range of instruments at its command, strengthening its peacekeeping capacity to meet new challenges, increasingly involving regional organizations, and enhancing its post-conflict peacebuilding capability.
To deal with civil conflicts, the Security Council has authorized complex and innovative peacekeeping operations. Since its establishment, the UN has played a major role in ending conflict and fostering reconciliation, including successful missions in El Salvador and Guatemala, in Cambodia and Mozambique, in Sierra Leone and Liberia and Tajikistan, to name but a few.
Other conflicts, however - such as in Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s - often characterized by ethnic violence and the lack of any internal power structure to deal with security issues, brought new challenges to United Nations peace-making and peacekeeping. Confronted with the problems encountered in these conflicts, the Security Council did not establish any new operation from 1995 to 1997.
But soon the essential role of the UN was dramatically reaffirmed.
Continuing crises in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, East Timor, Kosovo and Sierra Leone led the Council to establish five new missions as the decade drew to a close.
The experience of recent years has also led the United Nations to focus as never before on peacebuilding - efforts to reduce a country's risk of lapsing or relapsing into conflict by strengthening national capacities for conflict management, and to lay the foundations for sustainable peace and development. Experience has shown that the creation of lasting peace can only be achieved by pulling together all resources to help countries foster economic development, social justice, respect for human rights and good governance.
Economic and Social Development
|Although most people associate the United Nations with the issues of peace and security, the vast majority of the Organization's resources are in fact devoted to advancing the Charter's pledge to "promote higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development". United Nations development efforts have profoundly affected the lives and well-being of millions of people throughout the world. Guiding the United Nations endeavours is the conviction that lasting international peace and security are possible only if the economic and social well-being of people everywhere is assured.
Many of the economic and social transformations that have taken place globally since 1945 have been significantly affected in their direction and shape by the work of the United Nations. As the global centre for consensus-building, the UN has set priorities and goals for international cooperation to assist countries in their development efforts and to foster a supportive global economic environment.
International debate on economic and social issues has increasingly reflected the commonality of interests between rich and poor countries in solving the many problems that transcend national boundaries. Issues such as refugee populations, organized crime, drug trafficking and AIDS are seen as global problems requiring coordinated action. The impact of persistent poverty and unemployment in one region can be quickly felt in others, not least through migration, social disruption and conflict. Similarly, in the age of a global economy, financial instability in one country is immediately felt in the markets of others.
Coordinating development activities
The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is the principal body coordinating the economic and social work of the United Nations and its operational arms. It is serviced by the Department for Economic and Social Affairs. The entire family of United Nations organizations works for economic, social and sustainable development.
|Virtually every United Nations body and specialized agency is involved to some degree in the protection of human rights.
One of the great achievements of the United Nations is the creation of a comprehensive body of human rights law — a universal and internationally protected code to which all nations can subscribe and to which all people can aspire.
Not only has the United Nations painstakingly defined a broad range of internationally accepted rights; it has also established mechanisms with which to promote and protect these rights and to assist governments in carrying out their responsibilities.
Human rights law
The foundations of this body of law are the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1945 and 1948, respectively. Since then, the United Nations has gradually expanded human rights law to encompass specific standards for women, children, persons with disabilities, minorities, migrant workers and other vulnerable groups, who now possess rights that protect them from discriminatory practices that had long been common in many societies. Rights have been extended through ground-breaking General Assembly decisions that have gradually established their universality, indivisibility and interrelatedness with development and democracy.
Human rights action
Education campaigns have informed the world’s public of their inalienable rights, while numerous national judicial and penal systems have been enhanced through UN training programmes and technical advice. The United Nations machinery to monitor compliance with human rights treaties has acquired a remarkable cohesiveness and weight among member states.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights works to strengthen and coordinate United Nations efforts for the protection and promotion of all human rights of all persons around the world. The Secretary-General has made human rights the central theme that unifies the Organization’s work in the key areas of peace and security, development, humanitarian assistance, and economic and social affairs.
|Since it first coordinated humanitarian relief operations in Europe following the devastation and massive displacement of people in the Second World War, the United Nations has been relied on by the international community to respond to natural and man-made disasters that are beyond the capacity of national authorities alone. Today, the UN is a major provider of emergency relief and longer-term assistance, a catalyst for action by governments and relief agencies, and an advocate on behalf of people struck by emergencies.
Conflicts and natural disasters continue to drive civilians from their homes. By the end of 2006, some 12.8 million people were displaced within their own countries and another 9.9 million people had become refugees by fleeing across international borders. Natural disasters, mostly weather-related, affect more than 200 million people every year. UNDP reports that 94 per cent of natural disasters are caused by cyclones, floods, earthquakes and drought, with heat waves and forest fires also taking a toll in human suffering.
Confronted with conflict and the escalating human and financial costs of natural disasters, the United Nations engages on two fronts. On one hand, it brings immediate relief to the victims, primarily through its operational agencies; on the other hand, it seeks more effective strategies to prevent emergencies from arising in the first place.
When disaster strikes, the UN and its agencies rush to deliver humanitarian assistance. For example, in 2006, the World Food Programme (WFP) fed nearly 88 million people in 78 countries, including most of the world's refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided international protection and assistance to millions of refugees and IDPs. To fund emergency operations, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) launched inter-agency appeals that raised $3 billion for humanitarian aid. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been providing education, health, relief and social services to Palestine refugees since 1950.
Through such means as the humanitarian early warning system (HEWS) and the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), the UN works to prevent such occurrences and mitigate their effects. In addition, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) monitors impending famines, as well as other food and agricultural concerns, while the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) carries out tropical cyclone forecasting and drought monitoring. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) assists disaster-prone countries in developing contingency planning and other preparedness measures.
|Among the United Nations most pervasive achievements has been the development of international law - conventions, treaties and standards - that play a central role in promoting economic and social development, as well as international peace and security. Many of the treaties brought about by the United Nations form the basis of the law that governs relations among nations. While the United Nations work in this area does not always receive attention, it has a daily impact on the lives of people everywhere.
Over the years, the United Nations has sponsored over 500 multilateral agreements, which address a broad range of common concerns among states and are legally binding for the countries that ratify them.
In many areas, the United Nations legal work has been pioneering, addressing problems as they take on an international dimension. It has been in the forefront of efforts to provide a legal framework in such areas as protecting the environment, regulating migrant labour, curbing drug trafficking and combating terrorism.
This work continues today, as international law assumes a more central role across a wider spectrum of issues, including human rights law and international humanitarian law. The primary United Nations organ for the settlement of disputes is the International Court of Justice. Popularly known as the World Court, it was founded in 1946.
|Nearly 100 nations whose peoples were formerly under colonial rule or a trusteeship arrangement have joined the United Nations as sovereign independent states since the world Organization was founded in 1945. Additionally, many other Territories have achieved self-determination through political association or integration with an independent state. The United Nations has played a crucial role in that historic change by encouraging the aspirations of dependent peoples and by setting goals and standards to accelerate their attainment of independence. United Nations missions have supervised elections leading to independence - in Togoland (1956 and 1968), Western Samoa (1961), Namibia (1989) and, most recently, in Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor).
Self-determination and independence
The decolonization efforts of the United Nations derive from the Charter principle of “equal rights and self-determination of peoples”, as well as from three specific chapters in the Charter devoted to the interests of dependent peoples. Since 1960, the United Nations has also been guided by the General Assembly’s Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, by which Member States proclaimed the necessity of bringing colonialism to a speedy end. The Organization has also been guided by General Assembly resolution 1541 (XV) of 1960, which defined the three options offering full self-government for Non-Self-Governing Territories.
Despite the great progress made against colonialism, more than 1 million people still live under colonial rule, and the United Nations continues its efforts to help achieve self-determination in the remaining Non-Self-Governing Territories. At the end of the International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism (1991-2000), the General Assembly declared the Second International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism (2001-2010), calling on member states to redouble their effort to achieve complete decolonization.