O Level Revision : History - The United Nations

The  United  Nations  (UN)  is  an  international organisation. It was created after World War II following the collapse of the League of Nations. It was established on 24 October 1945. 24 October is celebrated as the UN Day. There were 51 original member states. The UN ensures world peace and security.

Formation of the  UN

  • After the Second World War, and the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations, there was need to maintain world peace.
  • Nations tried to maintain peace by using the balance of power among the states of Europe.
  • Weapons of mass destruction like atomic bombs were used in the Second World War.
  • This made the need for a more efficient way of ensuring world peace urgent.
  • The Atlantic Charter of 1941 became the first step towards the formation of the UN.
  • The term UN was coined by Roosevelt in 1942.
  • Twenty six nations signed the declaration of the UN in Washington but these nations were more concerned with winning the war against Nazism.
  • Fifty countries met in San Francisco in 1945 and came up with a final draft of the UN.
  • The UN Charter was ratified by China, France, the UK, the USA, and USSR.
  • The six official languages of the UN are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.
  • The UN headquarters are in New York City.
  • The land and buildings where the UN is based are international property.
  • The UN has its own flag, post office and postage stamps.

The  aims of the  UN

  • The UN Charter/constitution is the supreme law of the UN.
  • It sets out rights and obligations of the member states.
  • It established its organs and procedures.
  • The UN aims to:

-     maintain peace and security;

-     deal   with   aggression   in   conformity   with principles of international law and justice;

-     develop friendly relations on the principle of equal rights and self-determination;

-     achieve      international      cooperation      by encouraging respect for human rights and freedoms;

-     be the centre for harmonising the actions.

The  Principles of the  UN

  • All member states have sovereign equality.
  • All members must obey the Charter.
  • Countries  must  settle  their  differences  through peaceful means.
  • Countries  must  avoid  force  nor  threaten  to  use force.
  • The UN may not interfere in domestic affairs of any country.
  • Countries should try to assist the UN.

The  UN membership

  • At first it was confined to those states that had declared war on Germany but its membership is now open to all peace-loving nations.

The  structure of the  UN

  • The Charter established six major organs, namely:
  1. General Assembly.
  2. Security Council.
  3. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
  4. Trusteeship Council.
  5. International Court of Justice.
  6. Secretariat.

General  assembly

  • It is the main organ of the UN.
  • It is like a “world” parliament.
  • It was established during the League of Nations period.
  • The assembly is composed of all member states.
  • It is a debating chamber.
  • It is headed by a president.
  • The presidency rotates annually among the five groups of  states,  namely African  region, Asian region, Eastern Europe region, Western Europe region and Americas region.
  • This is meant to promote equitable geographical representation.
  • Each member state has one vote no matter how big or small, rich or poor.
  • Decisions are reached by a simple majority.
  • But decisions on important issues like peace and security, admission of new members and the budget require a two-thirds majority.
  • Decisions  of    the    General    Assembly    are recommendations and cannot be enforced but they carry weight because they represent the opinion of the world community.
  • It meets  once  a  year  from  September  to  mid- December. It can hold emergency or special sessions when there is urgent business to be done.
  • Each country is represented by a senior diplomat or a foreign minister or heads of state.
  • The General Assembly is there to:

-     Discuss any question relating to international peace and security.

-     Make     recommendations     for     peaceful settlement on any situation threatening friendly relations.

-     Receiving and considering reports from the Security Council and other UN organs.

-     Considering and approving the UN budget.

-     Electing   non-permanent   members   of   the Security Council, members of the Economic and Social Council and of the Trusteeship Council.

-     Electing  jointly  the  Security  Council,  the judges of the International Court of Justice and the Secretary-General.

  • The General Assembly has the power to take action if the Security Council fails.

The  Security Council

  • It was called the League Council but it is now called the Security Council.
  • It is the most powerful UN organ.
  • It is like a cabinet.
  • It is made up of five permanent members of the UN namely Britain, China, France, the USA and the Russian Republic.
  • These are added to the 10 temporary members who are chosen by the General Assembly for a term of two years.
  • Each council member has one vote.
  • The permanent members have the right of veto.
  • A  Security  Council  decision  is  binding  on  the General Assembly.
  • This means there is no majority rule in the UN but dictatorship by the minority.
  • The Council can be summoned at any time.
  • The function and powers of the Security Council are:

-     Maintaining peace and security.

-     Investigating any dispute which might lead to international conflict.

-     Stopping wars which have started.

-     Deploying  military  observers  as  a  peace- keeping force to areas of conflict.

-     Recommending methods or terms of settlement over disputes.

-     Taking military action against an aggressor.

-     Recommending    the    admission    of    new members.

-     Electing judges of the International Court of Justice.

-     Prosecuting   someone   guilty   of   violating international law.

-     Observing elections.

-     Recommending to the General Assembly the appointment of a Secretary General.

The  Secretariat of the  UN

  • It is headed by the Secretary-General.
  • The Secretary-General and the Secretariat staff are international civil servants.
  • They report to the UN only.
  • The Secretary-General serves for a period of five years but can be re-elected for another five years.
  • The functions of the Secretariat include:

-     Administering     peacekeeping     operations, programmes and policies.

-     Mediating in international disputes.

-     Organising international conferences.

-     Interpreting      speeches      and      translating documents into the UN’s official languages.

-     Preparing UN reports and publications.

-     Carrying  out  the  recommendations  of  the Security Council.

  • The Secretariat decides which country is to provide troops to a troubled spot.
  • It  organises  their  transport,  supplies,  equipment and appoints commanders.
  • UN Secretary- Generals include:

-     Mr Kofi Annan of Ghana (1997-2007).

-     Boutros Boutros- Ghali of Egypt (1992-1996).

-     Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru (1982-1991).

-     Kurt Waldheim of Austria (1972-1981).

-     U Thant of Burma or Myanmar (1961-1971).

-     Dag Hammarskfold of Sweden (1953-1961).

-     Trygue Lie of Norway (1946-1952).

-     Ban Ki Moon of South Korea (2008-).

Economic and  Social Council  (ECOSOC)

  • It is made up of fifty-four members who serve for a period of three years.
  • Voting is by simple majority.   Each member has one vote.
  • It  aims   to   get   international   cooperation   of educational, economic, financial, cultural, health, labour, agricultural as well as humanitarian work.
  • Its functions are:

-     Serving as a central forum for the discussion in international economic and social issues of global nature.

-     Initiating studies and reporting on economic, social, cultural and health matters.

-     Promoting respect and observance of human rights and basic freedoms.

-     Coordinating the activities of the specialised agencies and programmes.

  • The ECOSOC is helped by other bodies to do its work e.g.:
  • Population Commission
  • Commission on Human Rights
  • Committee on Non-Governmental Organisations
  • Committee on Negotiation with Inter-governmental Agencies

International Court of Justice

  • Was formed in 1946. It is commonly known as the World Court.
  • It is in the Hague in the Netherlands (Holland.)
  • It is open to all members.
  • It has fifteen judges who are elected by the General- Assembly.
  • Judges are chosen on the basis of merit and not nationality.
  • Care is taken to ensure that the chief legal systems of the world like English Law, Roman-Dutch Law and American Law are represented.
  • The Court’s function is to settle legal disputes and give legal advice.
  • Settling legal disputes between member states e.g.:

-     economic rights

-     mineral rights

-     fishing rights

-     ownership of uninhabited islands

-     land boundaries

  • Giving legal advice to the UN specialised agencies.

The  Trusteeship Council

  • It was established by the Charter in 1945.
  • It  has  five permanent  members  of  the  Security Council. The functions of the organ are:

-     Looking after the rights and interests of the territories which have not become independent.

-     Helpthetrustterritoriestobecomeindependent.

The  UN in action

  • The UN was involved in settling disputes in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe from the 1950s to the 1990s.
  • There were  inter-state  (between  states)  conflicts and intra-state conflicts (conflicts within states) in the 1990s.


  • In 1975 a civil war broke out between Government forces (MPLA) and UNITA, the opposition forces led by Jonas Savimbi.
  • The UN mediated between the warring parties.
  • It imposed arms and oil embargo on UNITA.
  • It established the following peace keeping missions:

-     1989 – a mission to monitor the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola.

-     1991 – a mission to monitor the ceasefire and observing the 1992 elections.

-     1995  mission  to  monitor  the  integration  of UNITA into government.

-     the UN observer mission, MONYA, to help restore peace.

  • However, a war broke out again in 1993.
  • Peace returned to Angola after the death of Savimbi in 2002.


  • There were ethnic wars between the Hutu and Tutsi since 1963.
  • President Habiyarimana (a Hutu) and six ministers were killed in a coup in 1993.
  • A civil  war  followed  and  about  150  000  were people killed in three years.
  • An agreement between the warring parties led to peace and a new government.
  • A Tutsi-led military coup deposed the President and new government in 1996.
  • The Security Council condemned the coups and called for peace.
  • Fighting     continued     resulting     in     internal displacement of people.
  • In 1996 Julius Nyerere began mediation efforts.
  • Nelson Mandela continued with mediation after Nyerere’s death.
  • Then the Peace and Reconciliation Agreement was signed in Arusha in Tanzania in August 2000.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

  • In 1996 Zairean Tutsi led by Laurent Kabila clashed with the pro-Hutu army of President Mobutu Sese Seko.
  • Kabila’s Alliance of  Democratic  Forces  for  the Liberation of Congo (ADFL), helped by Rwanda and Uganda, took Kinshasa in 1997
  • 450 000 people became refugees and many others were displaced internally.
  • In 1998 a rebellion against Kabila started in Kivu Province.
  • Kabila  was  helped  by  Angola,  Namibia  and Zimbabwe.
  • The UN deployed 90 UN military officers.
  • In 1999 the UN Security Council established the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC).

UN specialised agencies

  • Specialised agencies are part of the UN system.
  • They    are    separate    and    autonomous    inter- governmental organisations.
  • Each agent has a specific work to do.
  • They  depend  on  funds  contributed  by  member states to achieve their goals.
  • Examples of  specialised  agencies  are:  United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF); International Labour Organisation (ILO); Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO); UNESCO; World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Monetary Fud (IMF).

United  Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF)

UNICEF is mandated by the United Nations General

Assembly to:

  • Advocate for the protection of children’s rights, to help meet their basic needs and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential.
  • Establish children’s  rights  as  enduring  ethical principles and international standards of behaviour towards children.
  • Mobilise political will and material resources to help countries, particularly developing countries, ensure a ‘first call for children’ and to build their capacity to form appropriate policies and deliver services for children and their families.
  • Ensurespecialprotectionforthemostdisadvantaged children – victims of war, disasters, extreme poverty, all forms of violence and exploitation and those with disabilities.
  • Respond in  emergencies  to  protect  the  rights of children. In everything it does, the most disadvantaged children and the countries in greatest need have priority.
  • Promote the equal rights of women and girls and to support their full participation in the political, social, and   economic   development   of   their communities.

International Labour  Organisation (ILO)

  • It was established in 1919 by the League of Nations.
  • It seeks to promote social justice as well as human and labour rights
  • To  improve  working  and  living  conditions  of workers and to create international labour standards.
  • It also engages in training, education and research.
  • It is involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS and child labour.

Food and  Agricultural Organisation (FAO)

  • It was founded on 16 October 1945.
  • 16 October is observed yearly as World Food Day.
  • It is responsible for rural development.
  • It aims to alleviate poverty and hunger by promoting agricultural development.
  • It works to improve nutrition and food security.
  • Food security refers to the access of all people at all times to the food they need for an active and healthy life.
  • FAO helps member states in seed production, soil protection, conservation,  animal  disease  control and land reform.
  • United  Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)
  • Created in 1946.
  • It aims to build lasting peace and to promote a culture of peace.
  • It  works   in   the   area   of   education,   natural sciences, social and human sciences, culture and communication.

World Health Organisation (WHO)

  • It aims to improve health and quality of life for all.
  • Its work involves disease control and to eradicate diseases, e.g. cholera, malaria and tuberculosis.
  • It also strives to reduce death rates and create a healthy environment.

International  Monetary Fund  (IMF)

  • Established at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944.
  • It provides temporary funds to member states that have balance of payment problems and debts.
  • IMF funds are given conditionally.

The  strengths and  weaknesses of the UN


  • The  UN  has  managed  to  maintain  peace  and stability in the world.
  • Has managed to raise several peace-keeping forces.
  • Its successes are based on the fact that it carries the weight of the world opinion.
  • It also uses various methods to maintain peace, e.g. mediation, economic sanctions, arms and trade embargoes and military action.
  • The UN’s impartiality allows it to deal with any crisis.


  • Duplication: Many of its specialised agencies deal with HIV/AIDS, disease control, sanitation, etc. This is a waste of resources.
  • The UN needs to coordinate the work of its agencies in order to avoid duplication.
  • Standing army: It does not have its own standing army.  It depends on military personnel and equipment contributions from member states during emergencies.
  • This  arrangement  delays  the  UN’s  response  to emergencies.
  • It makes the UN face difficulties to deal with a war between super powers.
  • Veto power: The idea of veto power and permanent members makes it undemocratic and contradicts UN CharterArticle 2 which says, “The Organisation is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all members”.
  • Therefore, there is need to reform the UN so that all members, big or small, rich or poor, are equal.
  • The present arrangements make the UN vulnerable to the dictates of the superpowers.
  • It allows rich members to manipulate the UN or ignore it altogether like what the USA and UK did in Iraq in 2003; and also what NATO did in Yugoslavia which led to the division in the Security Council.
  • It depends on voluntary contributions to its budget.

This makes the UN fail to raise adequate funds for its operations.