History and Principles of the United Nations

History, Organization, and Functions of the United Nations

UN General Assembly hall
Patrick Gruban/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

The United Nations is an international organization designed to make the enforcement of international law, security, and human rights; economic development; and social progress easier for countries around the world. The United Nations includes 193 member countries and two permanent observer entities that cannot vote. Its main headquarters is in New York City.

History and Principles of the United Nations

Prior to the United Nations (UN), the League of Nations was the international organization responsible for ensuring peace and cooperation between world nations. It was founded in 1919 "to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security." At its height, the League of Nations had 58 members and was considered successful. In the 1930s, its success waned as the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) gained influence, eventually leading to the start of World War II in 1939.

The term "United Nations" was then coined in 1942 by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Declaration by United Nations. This declaration was made to officially state the cooperation of the Allies (Great Britain, the United States, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) and other nations during World War II.

The UN as it is known today, however, was not officially founded until 1945 when the Charter of the United Nations was drafted at the UN Conference on International Organization in San Francisco, California. Representatives of 50 nations and several non-governmental organizations attended the conference, all of which signed the charter. The UN officially came into existence on October 24, 1945, after its charter's ratification.

The principles of the UN are to save future generations from war, reaffirm human rights, and establish equal rights for all persons. In addition, it also aims to promote justice, freedom, and social progress for the peoples of all of its member states.

Organization of the UN Today

To handle the complex task of getting its member states to cooperate most efficiently, the UN today is divided into five branches. The first is the UN General Assembly. This is the main decision-making and representative assembly and is responsible for upholding the principles of the UN through its policies and recommendations. It is composed of all member states, is headed by a president elected from the member states, and meets from September to December each year.

The UN Security Council is another branch and is the most powerful. It can authorize the deployment of UN member states' militaries, can mandate a cease-fire during conflicts and can enforce penalties on countries if they do not comply with given mandates. It is composed of five permanent members and 10 rotating members.

The next branch of the UN is the International Court of Justice, located in The Hague, Netherlands. Next, the Economic and Social Council assists the General Assembly in promoting economic and social development as well as the cooperation of member states. Finally, the Secretariat is the branch headed by the Secretary-General. Its main responsibility is providing studies, information, and other data when needed by other UN branches for their meetings.


Today, almost every fully recognized independent state is a member of the UN. To become a member of the UN, a state must accept both peace and all obligations outlined in charter and be willing to carry out any action to satisfy those obligations. The final decision on admission to the UN is carried out by the General Assembly after recommendation by the Security Council.

Functions of the United Nations Today

As it was in the past, the main function of the UN today is to maintain peace and security for all of its member states. Though the UN does not maintain its own military, it does have peacekeeping forces that are supplied by its member states. On approval of the UN Security Council, these peacekeepers are, for example, sent to regions where armed conflict has recently ended to discourage combatants from resuming fighting. In 1988, the peacekeeping force won a Nobel Peace Prize for its actions.

In addition to maintaining peace, the UN aims to protect human rights and provide humanitarian assistance when needed. In 1948, the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a standard for its human rights operations. The UN currently provides technical assistance in elections, helps to improve judicial structures and draft constitutions trains human rights officials, and provides food, drinking water, shelter, and other humanitarian services to peoples displaced by famine, war, and natural disaster.

Finally, the UN plays an integral part in social and economic development through its UN Development Program. This is the largest source of technical grant assistance in the world. In addition, the World Health Organization; UNAIDS; The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; the UN Population Fund; and the World Bank Group, to name a few, play an essential role in this aspect of the UN. The parent organization also annually publishes the Human Development Index to rank countries in terms of poverty, literacy, education, and life expectancy.

Millennium Development Goals

At the turn of the century, the UN established what it called its Millennium Development Goals. Most of its member states and various international organizations agreed to target goals relating to reducing poverty and child mortality, fighting diseases and epidemics, and developing a global partnership in terms of international development, by 2015.

A report issued as the deadline neared noted the progress that had been made, lauding efforts in developing nations, and noted shortfalls as well that need continued focus: people still living in poverty without access to services, gender inequality, the wealth gap, and climate change's effects on the poorest people.

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Briney, Amanda. "History and Principles of the United Nations." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/the-united-nations-p2-1435441. Briney, Amanda. (2023, April 5). History and Principles of the United Nations. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-united-nations-p2-1435441 Briney, Amanda. "History and Principles of the United Nations." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-united-nations-p2-1435441 (accessed June 1, 2023).