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United Nations September 4, 2003

September 4, 2003

Official Name:
United Nations

Editor's note: The information for this article was reprinted from the 2002 and 2003 UN Fact Sheet s available through the Bureau of International Organization Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.




Established: By charter signed in San Francisco, California, on June 26, 1945, effective October 24, 1945.

Purposes: To maintain international peace and security; to achieve international cooperation in solving economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems and in promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; to be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in attaining these common ends.

Principal organs: Security Council, General Assembly, Economic and Social Council, International Court of Justice, Secretariat and Trusteeship Council.

Official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

Members: 191


In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, flanked by the leaders of 26 Allied countries, first coined the term "United Nations" to describe the continued fight against the Axis Powers. Following World War II, the allies adopted the term to define a worldwide body of nations. On June 26, 1945, fifty nations signed the United Nations Charter in San Francisco, California. The United States Senate ratified the UN Charter on July 28, 1945. The United Nations came into effect on October 24, 1945. October 24 is now celebrated around the globe as UN Day.

The United Nations' aims are set out in the preamble to the UN Charter: to maintain international peace and security; to develop friendly relations among nations; to achieve international cooperation in solving economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems and in promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; and to be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in attaining these common ends.

The principal organs of the United Nations include the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat. (The Trusteeship Council, an original principal organ, suspended operations in 1994 when it fulfilled its function by overseeing the independence of the UN's last remaining trust territory.)

In addition to its principal organs, the United Nations system is made up of a complex mix of commissions and funds created by the General Assembly, such as UNICEF (UN Children's Fund) and the World Food Program; specialized agencies, such as the World Health Organization and the International Monetary Fund; and other UN entities, such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the peacekeeping missions established by the Security Council.

The headquarters of the United Nations is located in New York City. The General Assembly building and the Secretariat, architectural icons, were built in 1949 and 1950 on land donated by the Rockefeller family. The property is now considered international territory. Under special agreement with the United States, certain diplomatic privileges and immunities have been granted, but generally the laws of New York City, New York State, and the United States apply.

The regular biennial budget of the UN in 2002-03 was $2.891 billion. For the calendar year 2002, the United States will pay $279 million in assessments to the UN regular budget. In addition, the United States will pay $254 million in assessed contributions to UN specialized agencies for 2002. The United States also paid $749 million in assessments to the peacekeeping budget and $53 million for the support of the war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Moreover, each year the United States pays a significant amount in voluntary contributions to the UN and UN-affiliated organizations and activities (largely for humanitarian and development programs). In sum, U.S. contributions (both cash and in kind) to the UN system in 2002 were well over $3 billion.

The United States and other major UN contributors continue to press for budgetary and administrative reform to make the UN as efficient as possible. The United States Government recently legislated the "Helms-Biden" provision, which authorized the payment of U.S. arrears to the UN and other international organizations upon certification of the Secretary of State that a number of reform goals had been achieved in the UN and major specialized agencies. Between 1999 and 2002, the UN met all required certifications. As a result, the United States cleared over $900 million in arrears to the UN and other organizations. The Secretary-General submitted a further round of reform initiatives in late 2002, and the United States is advocating and closely monitoring their implementation.

The United Nations currently has 191 member states. The official languages of the United Nations are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. More information about the UN is available on its website at


Security Council – New York

The Security Council has five permanent members (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, U.S. – informally known as the P-5), each with the right to veto, and 10 nonpermanent members elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Five non-permanent members are elected from Africa and Asia combined; one from Eastern Europe; two from Latin America; and two from Western Europe and other areas. The 2003 non-permanent members are: Bulgaria, Cameroon, Mexico, Guinea, Spain, Angola, Chile, Germany, Pakistan, and Syria. The president (or chair) of the Council rotates monthly in English alphabetical order of the members.

Under the UN Charter, the Security Council has "primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security," and all UN members "agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter." Other organs of the UN make recommendations to member governments. The Security Council, however, has the power under the Charter to make decisions that member states must carry out. Unlike other representative bodies, the Security Council is always in session. A representative of each Council member must always be available so that the Council can meet at any time.

Decisions in the 15-member Security Council on all substantive matters require the affirmative votes of nine members, including the support of all five permanent members. A negative vote by a permanent member (also known as a veto) prevents adoption of a proposal that has received the required number of affirmative votes. Abstention is not regarded as a veto.

Under Chapter VI of the Charter, "Pacific Settlement of Disputes," the Security Council "may investigate any dispute, or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute." The Council may "recommend appropriate procedures or methods of adjustment" if it determines that the situation might endanger international peace and security. These recommendations are not binding on UN members.

Under Chapter VII, the Council has broader power to decide what measures are to be taken in situations involving "threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, or acts of aggression." In such situations, the Council is not limited to recommendations but may take action, including the use of armed force "to maintain or restore international peace and security." Decisions taken under Chapter VII, both with regard to military action and to economic sanctions, are binding on all UN member states.

Starting with the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in 1948, the Security Council has dispatched peacekeeping missions to the world's conflicts. These missions have helped prevent or limit many outbreaks of international violence from growing into wider conflicts.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, adopted Resolution 1373, which obliges all member states to take action against international terrorism. The resolution also established the Counter Terrorism Committee within the Council to monitor progress in the war against terrorism and implementation of the resolution.

General Assembly – New York

All UN member states are members of the General Assembly. The Assembly has six main committees: Political and Security; Economic and Financial; Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural; Special Political and Decolonization; Administrative and Budgetary; and Legal. Other committees address UN procedures and membership and specific issues, including peacekeeping, outer space, and UN Charter reform.

The General Assembly meets in regular session once a year under a president elected from among the representatives. The regular session usually begins in mid-September and ends in mid-December. Special sessions can be convened at the request of the Security Council, a majority of UN members, or, if the majority concurs, a single member. A special session was held in October 1995 at the head of government level to commemorate the UN's 50th anniversary.

Voting in the General Assembly on important questions is by a two-thirds majority of those present and voting. Such questions include recommendations on peace and security; election of members to organs; admission, suspension, and expulsion of members; and budgetary matters. Other questions are decided by majority vote. Each member state has one vote. Apart from approval of budgetary matters, including adoption of a scale of assessment, General Assembly resolutions are not binding on the members. The Assembly may make recommendations on any matters with in the scope of the UN, except on matters of peace and security under Security Council consideration. Since the late 1980s, virtually all budgetary decisions at the UN have been taken by consensus.

As the only UN organ in which all members are represented, the Assembly serves as a forum for members to launch initiatives on international questions of peace, economic progress, and human rights. It can initiate studies; make recommendations; develop and codify international law; promote human rights; and advance international economic, social, cultural, and educational programs.

The Assembly may take action on maintaining international peace if the Security Council is unable to exercise its primary responsibility, usually due to disagreement among the permanent members. The "Uniting for Peace" resolutions, adopted in 1950, empower the Assembly to convene in emergency special sessions to recommend collective measures—including the use of armed force—in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression. Two-thirds of the members must approve any such recommendation. Emergency special sessions under this procedure have been held on ten occasions, most recently in 1997.

Developing countries constitute a majority among the UN's 191 members. Because of their numbers, developing countries are often able to determine the agenda of the Assembly, the character of its debates, and the nature of its decisions. For many developing countries, the UN General Assembly is the source of much of their diplomatic influence and the principal forum for their foreign relations initiatives.

When an issue is considered particularly important, the General Assembly may convene an international conference to focus global attention and build a consensus for consolidated action. High-level U.S. delegations use these opportunities to promote U.S. policy viewpoints and develop international agreements on future activities. Recent examples include:

Under the auspices of ECOSOC, the United States participated in the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002.

The UN Conference on Financing for Development, Monterrey, Mexico, March 2002, broke new ground in development discussions with the United States calling for a "new compact for development" defined by greater accountability for rich and poor nations alike.

The General Assembly has also been active in the fight against terrorism. On September 12, 2001, it adopted a resolution condemning the terrorist attacks against the United States. In its 56th and 57th Sessions, the General Assembly also passed resolutions calling on all states to prevent terrorism and to strengthen international cooperation in fighting terrorism.

Economic and Social Council – New York

The General Assembly elects the 54 members of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Eighteen are elected each year for three-year terms. The U.S. has always been a member.

Under the UN Charter, ECOSOC is responsible for identifying solutions to international economic, social, and health problems, as well as facilitating international cultural and education cooperation and encouraging respect for human rights. ECOSOC meets for one annual four-week session and for shorter adhoc, procedural, or special meetings. Voting is by simple majority.

ECOSOC coordinates the work of fourteen specialized UN agencies, ten functional commissions, and five regional commissions. Through much of its history, ECOSOC had served primarily as a discussion vehicle. ECOSOC had little authority to force action, which a number of member states felt marginalized the agency's utility. However, beginning in 1992, the U.S. and other nations began an effort to make ECOSOC more relevant by strengthening its policy responsibilities in economic, social, and related fields, particularly in the area of development.

The resulting reform made ECOSOC the oversight and policy-setting body for UN operational development activities and established smaller executive boards for the UN Development Program (UNDP), UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). The creation of an oversight body and smaller executive boards provides those agencies with operating guidance and promotes more effective management. The reform also gave ECOSOC a strong hand in ensuring that UN agencies coordinated their work on issues of common interest, such as narcotics control, human rights, the alleviation of poverty, and the prevention of HIV/AIDS.

One positive impact of this reform was the manner in which the UN development system began to respond more coherently and efficiently to humanitarian crises around the world. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's recent reform initiatives have attached considerable importance to further strengthening coordination among relief agencies.

Another positive reform outcome was the ECOSOC decision in 1994 to authorize the creation of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). This Program acts as the main advocate for worldwide action against HIV/AIDS and has brought together into one consolidated global program the AIDS-related resources and expertise of UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA, UNESCO, the UN International Drug Control Program, the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, and the World Bank. UNAIDS has been instrumental in the expanded global response to HIV/AIDS, eliminating duplication among agencies and enhancing the ability of member states to respond effectively to the AIDS pandemic. UNAIDS began operating in January 1996.

International Court of Justice - The Hague, Netherlands

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principal judicial organ of the UN. Established in 1946, its main functions are to decide cases submitted to it by states and to give advisory opinions on legal questions submitted to it by the General Assembly or Security Council, or by such specialized agencies authorized to do so by the General Assembly in accordance with the UN Charter.

The Court is composed of 15 judges elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council from a list of persons nominated by the national groups in the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Judges serve for nine years and may be re-elected. No two may be nationals of the same country. One-third of the Court is elected every three years. A U.S. citizen has always been a member of the Court. Questions before the Court are decided by a majority of judges present.

Only states may be parties in cases before the International Court of Justice. This requirement does not preclude private interests from being the subject of proceedings if one state brings a case against another. Jurisdiction of the Court is based on the consent of each UN member state to comply with an ICJ decision in a case to which it is a party. Any judgments reached are binding. If a party fails to perform its obligations under an ICJ decision, the other party may seek recourse in the Security Council.

State parties to the Court's statute may declare their recognition of the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court for a wide range of international disputes. The U.S. accepted the Court's compulsory jurisdiction in 1946, but withdrew its acceptance following the Court's decision in a 1986 case involving activities in Nicaragua. Examples of cases include:

  • A complaint by the U.S. in 1980 that Iran was detaining American diplomats in Tehran in violation of international law;
  • A complaint filed by Iran in 1992 alleging that the United States violated a treaty obligation by attacking three Iranian oil platforms. The U.S. filed a counter-claim with respect to Iranian attacks on U.S. shipping interests in the Persian Gulf;
  • A dispute over the course of the maritime boundary dividing the U.S. and Canada in the Gulf of Maine area, filed in 1981, judgment in 1984;
  • A complaint filed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC) in 1999 against Rwanda alleging violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed on DROC territory.

Secretariat – New York

The Secretariat is composed of international civil servants who carry out the daily tasks of the United Nations. It provides studies, information, and facilities needed by UN bodies for their meetings. It also carries out tasks as directed by the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, and other UN bodies. The Charter provides that the staff be chosen by application of the "highest standards of efficiency, competence, and integrity," with due regard for the importance of recruiting on a wide geographical basis.

The Charter provides that the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any authority other than the UN. Each UN member is obligated to respect the international character of the Secretariat and not seek to influence its staff.

The staff of the UN Secretariat at the end of 2002 numbered 15,308, including 1,853 Americans. There was an additional staff of 7,173 in peacekeeping operations, including 663 Americans. UN subsidiary bodies, specialized agencies, and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) employ an additional 39,383 people, including 1,953 Americans.

Under the UN Charter, the chief administrative officer of the UN and the head of the Secretariat is the Secretary-General of the United Nations, appointed to a five-year term by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council. Kofi Annan, the first Secretary-General from sub-Saharan Africa, began his first term on January 1, 1997. He was reappointed to a second term beginning January 1, 2002.

The Secretary-General's duties include helping resolve international disputes, administering peacekeeping operations, organizing international conferences, gathering information on the implementation of Security Council decisions, and consulting with member governments regarding various initiatives. The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter that, in his or her opinion, may threaten international peace and security. In 1997, the General Assembly established a position of Deputy Secretary-General. Since 1998, Louise Frechette of Canada has held this position. Other senior UN officials, such as the Under-Secretaries-General for Political Affairs and Peacekeeping, also advise the Secretary-General. The Secretary-General also appoints Special Representatives and Envoys to mediate conflict in the world's trouble spots.

Trusteeship Council

The UN Charter established the Trusteeship Council and assigned it the task of supervising the administration of Trust Territories placed under the System. All the territories attained self-government or independence by October 1994 and, therefore, the Trusteeship Council suspended operation on 1 November 1994.


In addition to the principal UN organs, the UN family includes over 60 programs or specialized agencies, often headquartered in one of the UN offices around the world. Some agencies existed prior to UN creation and are related to it by agreement. Others were established by the General Assembly. Each provides expertise in a specific area. Some of those programs and agencies (with the location of their headquarters) are described below. A diagram of the entire UN system can be found at

Funds And Programs

UN Children's Fund (UNICEF): New York City. UNICEF provides long-term humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries. UNICEF relies on contributions from governments and private donors. Its programs emphasize developing community-level services to promote the health and well being of children. UNICEF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.

UN Development Program (UNDP) : New York City. UNDP is the largest multilateral source of grant technical assistance in the world. Voluntarily funded, it provides expert advice, training, and limited equipment to developing countries, with increasing emphasis on assistance to the poorest countries. It focuses on six areas of assistance: democratic governance, poverty reduction, crisis prevention and recovery, energy and the environment, information technology, and HIV/AIDS.

UN Environment Program (UNEP): Nairobi, Kenya. UNEP coordinates UN environmental activities, assisting developing countries in implementing environmentally sound policies. UNEP has developed guidelines and treaties on issues such as the international transport of potentially harmful chemicals, transboundary air pollution, and contamination of international waterways.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): Geneva, Switzerland. UNHCR protects and supports refugees at the request of a government or the UN and assists in their return or resettlement. UNHCR was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954 and 1982.

World Food Program (WFP): Rome, Italy. The WFP distributes food commodities to long-term refugees and displaced persons, and provides emergency food assistance during natural and man-made disasters. In 2001, the WFP fed 77 million people in 82 countries, including most of the world's refugees and internally displaced people.

Specialized Agencies

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): Rome, Italy. FAO programs seek to raise levels of nutrition and standards of living; to improve agricultural productivity, to promote rural development; and, by these means, to provide access of all people at all times to the food they need for an active and healthy life.

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO): Montreal, Canada. ICAO develops the principles and techniques of international air navigation and fosters the planning and development of international air transport to ensure safe and orderly growth. The ICAO Council adopts standards and makes recommendations concerning air navigation, prevention of unlawful interference, and facilitation of border-crossing procedures for international civil aviation.

International Labor Organization (ILO): Geneva, Switzerland. ILO seeks to strengthen worker rights, improve working and living conditions, create employment, and provide information and training opportunities. ILO programs include the occupational safety and health hazard alert system and the labor standards and human rights programs.

International Maritime Organization (IMO) : London, England. IMO's main objective is to facilitate cooperation among governments on technical matters affecting international shipping to achieve the highest possible degree of maritime safety and navigational efficiency. It also attempts to improve the marine environment through the prevention of pollution caused by ships and other craft and deals with legal matters connected with international shipping.

International Monetary Fund (IMF): Washington, DC. Among the purposes of the IMF are to promote international monetary cooperation through consultation and collaboration, to promote exchange stability and orderly exchange arrangements, and to assist in the establishment of a multilateral system of payments and the elimination of foreign exchange restrictions.

International Telecommunication Union (ITU): Geneva, Switzerland. ITU brings together governments to coordinate the establishment and operation of global communication networks and services, including telegraph, telephone, radio communications, Internet, and the information society. It fosters cooperation and partnership among its members and offers technical assistance in this area.

UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): Paris, France. UNESCO's purpose is to contribute to peace and security by promoting cooperation among nations through education, science, culture, and communication to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms without distinction of race, sex, language, or religion.

Universal Postal Union (UPU): Bern, Switzerland. UPU attempts to secure the organization and improvement of the postal services, to promote international collaboration and provide technical assistance in this area. The member countries constitute a single postal territory.

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO): Geneva, Switzerland. The purpose of WIPO is to promote international cooperation in the field of intellectual property rights. It works in the areas of both industrial and literary-artistic property.

World Meteorological Organization (WMO): Geneva, Switzerland. WMO coordinates global scientific activity to allow increasingly prompt and accurate weather prediction and other services for public, private, and commercial use.

World Health Organization (WHO): Geneva, Switzerland. WHO acts as a coordinating authority on pressing global public health issues. WHO's objective, as set out in its Constitution, is the attainment of all peoples of the highest possible level of health.

Other Related Bodies

The World Bank: Washington, DC. The World Bank is one of the world's main sources of development assistance. It focuses on the poorest people in the poorest countries. In 2002, the World Bank provided $19.5 billion to developing countries and worked in over 100 developing economies.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): Vienna, Austria. The role of IAEA is to promote the contribution of atomic energy for peace, health, and prosperity throughout the world and to enhance the safety and security of radioactive materials and nuclear facilities worldwide. It has the responsibility of creating and implementing the safeguard provisions of various nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear free zone treaties.


The U.S. Permanent Mission to the UN in New York is headed by the U.S. Representative to the UN, with the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. Ambassador John Negroponte has served in that position since September 2001. The mission acts as the channel of communication for the U.S. Government with the UN organs, agencies, and commissions at the UN headquarters and with the other permanent missions accredited to the UN and the non-member observer missions. The U.S. mission has a professional staff made up largely of career Foreign Service officers, including specialists in political, economic, social, financial, legal, and military issues.

The United States also maintains missions to international organizations in Geneva, Rome, Vienna, Nairobi, Montreal, and Paris. These missions report to the Department of State and receive guidance on questions of policy from the President, through the Secretary of State. The Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs coordinates relations with the UN and its family of agencies.

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations is located at 799 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017 (tel. 212-415-4000). More information about the U.S. Mission to the UN is available on the mission's website at

U.S. Representatives to the United Nations

Edward R. Stettinius, Jr.—March 1946-June 1946

Herschel V. Johnson (acting)—June 1946-January 1947

Warren R. Austin—January 1947-January 1953

Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.—January 1953-September 1960

James J. Wadsworth—September 1960-Jan. 1961

Adlai E. Stevenson—Jan. 1961-July 1965

Arthur J. Goldberg—July 1965-June 1968

George W. Ball—June 1968-Sept. 1968

James Russell Wiggins—Oct. 1968-Jan. 1969

Charles W. Yost—Jan. 1969-Feb. 1971

George Bush—Feb. 1971-Jan. 1973

John P. Scali—Feb. 1973-June 1975

Daniel P. Moynihan—June 1975-Feb. 1976

William W. Scranton—March 1976-Jan. 1977

Andrew Young—Jan. 1977-April 1979

Donald McHenry—April 1979-Jan. 1981

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick—Feb. 1981-April 1985

Vernon Walters—May 1985-Jan. 1989

Thomas R. Pickering—March 1989-May 1992

Edward J. Perkins—May 1992-Jan. 1993

Madeleine K. Albright—Feb. 1993-Jan. 1997

Bill Richardson—Feb. 1997-Sept 1998

A. Peter Burleigh (acting)—Sept 1998-Aug 1999

Richard Holbrooke—Aug 1999-present.

James B. Cunningham (acting)—February 2001-September 2001

John Negroponte—September 2001-present.


The United States, like all other nations, participates in multilateral organizations to advance its national security and foreign policy interests and to promote its values. The Untied States is determined to meet the major challenges of this century while helping people around the world realize the abundant potential that freedom and democracy offer. As President Bush has said, "This is America's agenda in the world—from the defeat of terror, to the alleviation of disease and hunger, to the spread of human liberty. We welcome, and we need, the help, advice, and wisdom of friends and allies."

Multilateral diplomacy is a very important tool in this effort. The United Nations and other venues like the Organization of American States or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum offer opportunities to promote international peace and security while advancing political and economic freedoms. They also enable the United States to leverage our political, financial, and military resources to better deal with international threats or crises as they arise.

The United States, in addition to seeking effective Security Council action when it is needed, supports the work of many UN specialized and technical agencies. Examples include establishing international postal standards and maritime safety requirements, and creating systems that enable early warning of natural disasters.


The idea for the United Nations was elaborated in declarations signed at the wartime Allied conferences in Moscow and Tehran in 1943. President Franklin Roosevelt suggested the name "United Nations." From August to October 1944, representatives of the U.S. U.K., France, U.S.S.R., and China met to elaborate the plans at the Dumbarton Oaks Estate in Washington, D.C. Those and later talks produced proposals outlining the purposes of the organization, its membership and organs, as well as arrangements to maintain international peace and security and international economic and social cooperation. These proposals were discussed and debated by governments and private citizens worldwide.

On April 25, 1945, the United Nations Conference on International Organizations began in San Francisco. The 50 nations represented at the conference signed the Charter of the United Nations two months later on June 26. Poland, which was not represented at the conference, but for which a place among the original signatories had been reserved, added its name later, bringing the total of original signatories to 51. The UN came into existence on October 24, 1945, after the Charter had been ratified by the five permanent members of the Security Council-China, France, U.S.S.R., U.K., and U.S.-and by a majority of the other 46 signatories.

The U.S. Senate, by a vote of 89 to 2, gave its consent to the ratification of the UN Charter on July 28, 1945. In December 1945, the Senate and the House of Representatives, by unanimous votes, requested that the UN make its headquarters in the U.S. The offer was accepted and the UN headquarters building was constructed in New York City in 1949 and 1950 beside the East River on donated land, which is considered international territory. Under special agreement with the U.S., certain diplomatic privileges and immunities have been granted, but generally the laws of New York City, New York State, and the U.S. apply.

UN membership is open to all "peace-loving states" that accept the obligations of the UN Charter and, in the judgment of the organization, are able and willing to fulfill these obligations. The General Assembly determines admission upon recommendation of the Security Council.

Preamble to Charter of the United Nations

We the Peoples of the United Nations Determined

  • To Save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • To Reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women of nations large and small, and
  • To Establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • To promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

And for these ends

  • To Practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and
  • To Unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
  • To Ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
  • To Employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,

Have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.

Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.


Maintaining the Peace

The UN's role in international collective security is defined by the UN Charter, which gives the Security Council the power to:

  • Investigate any situation threatening international peace;
  • Recommend procedures for peaceful resolution of a dispute;
  • Call upon other member nations to completely or partially interrupt economic relations as well as sea, air, postal, and radio communications, or to sever diplomatic relations; and
  • Enforce its decisions militarily, if necessary.

The United Nations has helped prevent many outbreaks of international violence from growing into wider conflicts. It has opened the way to negotiated settlements through its service as a center of debate and negotiation, as well as through UN-sponsored fact-finding missions, mediators, and truce observers. UN peacekeeping forces, comprised of troops and equipment supplied by member nations, have usually been able to limit or prevent conflict. Some conflicts, however, have proven to be beyond the capacity of the UN to influence. Key to the success of UN peacekeeping efforts is the willingness of the parties to a conflict to come to terms peacefully through a viable political process.

UN peacekeeping initiatives have ranged from small, diplomatic or political delegations to large mobilizations, the most extensive of which was the 500,000-strong 1950-53 defense of South Korea against an attack by North Korea. In the first few years following the end of the Cold War the number of peacekeeping operations increased dramatically. The proliferation of operations reflected the view that, in the post-Cold War era, the UN could play an important role in defusing regional conflicts. Some of the peacekeeping operations of the early 1990s also saw an expansion of the traditional peacekeeping mandate to include such responsibilities as supervising elections, monitoring human rights, training police, and overseeing civil administration.

191 Members of the United Nations 1

Afghanistan (1946); Albania (1955); Algeria (1962); Andorra (1993); Angola (1976); Antigua and Barbuda (1981); Argentina; Armenia (1992); Australia; Austria (1955); Azerbaijan (1992); Bahamas, The (1973); Bahrain (1971); Bangladesh (1974); Barbados (1966); Belarus (formerly Byelorussian SSR); Belgium; Belize (1981); Benin (1960); Bhutan (1971); Bolivia; Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992); Botswana (1966); Brazil; Brunei (1984); Bulgaria (1955); Burkina Faso (1960); Burma (1948); Burundi (1962); Cambodia (1955); Cameroon (1960); Canada; Cape Verde (1975); Central African Republic (1960); Chad (1960); Chile; China2; Colombia; Comoros (1975); Congo, Democratic Republic of the (1960); Congo, Republic of the (1960); Costa Rica; Cote d'Ivoire (1960); Croatia (1992); Cuba; Cyprus (1960); Czech Republic (1993); Denmark; Djibouti (1977); Dominica (1978); Dominican Republic; East Timor (2002); Ecuador; Egypt; El Salvador; Equatorial Guinea (1968); Eritrea (1993); Estonia (1991); Ethiopia; Fiji (1970); Finland (1955); France; Gabon (1960); Gambia, The (1965); Georgia (1992); Germany (1973); Ghana (1957); Greece; Grenada (1974); Guatemala; Guinea (1958); Guinea-Bissau (1974); Guyana (1966); Haiti; Honduras; Hungary (1955); Iceland (1946); India; Indonesia (1950); Iran; Iraq; Ireland (1955); Israel (1949); Italy (1955); Jamaica (1962); Japan (1956); Jordan (1955); Kazakhstan (1992); Kenya (1963); Korea, North (1991); Korea, South (1991); Kuwait (1963); Kyrgyzstan (1992); Laos (1955); Latvia (1991); Lebanon; Lesotho (1966); Liberia; Libya (1955); Liechtenstein (1990); Lithuania (1991); Luxembourg; Macedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of (1993); Madagascar (1960); Malawi (1964); Malaysia (1957); Maldives (1965); Mali (1960); Malta (1964); Marshall Islands (1991); Mauritania (1961); Mauritius (1968); Mexico; Micronesia, Federated States of (1991); Moldova (1992); Monaco (1993); Mongolia (1961); Morocco (1956); Mozambique (1975); Namibia (1990); Nauru (1999); Nepal (1955); Netherlands; New Zealand; Nicaragua; Niger (1960); Nigeria (1960); Norway; Oman (1971); Pakistan (1947); Palau (1994); Panama; Papua New Guinea (1975); Paraguay; Peru; Philippines; Poland; Portugal (1955); Qatar (1971); Romania (1955); Russia3; Rwanda (1962); Saint Kitts and Nevis (1983); Saint Lucia (1979); Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (1980); Samoa (1976); San Marino (1992); Sao Tome and Principe (1975); Saudi Arabia; Senegal (1960); Seychelles (1976); Sierra Leone (1961); Singapore (1965); Slovakia (1993); Slovenia (1992); Solomon Islands (1978); Somalia (1960); South Africa; Spain (1955); Sri Lanka (1955); Sudan (1956); Suriname (1975); Swaziland (1968); Sweden (1946); Switzerland (2002); Syria; Tajikistan (1992); Tanzania (1961); Thailand (1946); Togo (1960); Trinidad and Tobago (1962); Tonga (1999); Tunisia (1956); Turkey; Turkmeni-stan (1992); Tuvalu (2000); Uganda (1962); Ukraine (formerly Ukrainian SSR); United Arab Emirates (1971); United Kingdom; United States; Uruguay; Uzbekistan (1992); Vanuatu (1981); Vene-zuela; Vietnam (1977); Yemen (1947); Yugoslavia; Zambia (1964); Zimbabwe (1980)

1Year in parentheses indicates date of admission; countries with no date were original members in 1945.

2By Resolution 2758 (XXVI) of Oct. 25, 1971, the General Assembly decided "to restore all its rights to the People's Republic of China and to recognize the representative of its Government as the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations."

3In December 1991, Russia assumed the permanent Security Council seat previously held by the U.S.S.R.

From 1995 to mid-1999 there was a sharp decline in the number of UN peacekeepers in the field, from a high of around 70,000 to 12,000. The assumption by NATO of major peacekeeping responsibilities in the former Yugoslavia (and the resultant termination of UNPROFOR's mandate) accounted for much of the decrease. Other factors included the closeout of UN operations in Mozambique in January 1995, Somalia in March 1995, El Salvador in April 1995, and Rwanda in March 1996. With the U.S. and the UN taking a much harder look at proposed peacekeeping operations, the only major new UN mission set up in this period outside the former Yugoslavia was the UNAVEM III operation in Angola.

Beginning in June 1999, new missions in Kosovo and East Timor and expanded missions in Sierra Leone and the Congo dramatically increased both the costs and personnel levels of UN peacekeeping operations. They also added a new level of complexity to peacekeeping efforts, with a greater emphasis on civilian administration in East Timor and Kosovo. From July 1999 to June 2001, overall UN peacekeeping personnel levels increased by 31,000, with even more personnel authorized but not deployed.

As of July 31, 2002, there were 691 U.S. personnel (659 civilian police, and 32 military observers) in worldwide UN peace operations, accounting for 1.5% of total UN peacekeepers. As Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States never gives up command authority over U.S. troops. When large numbers of U.S. troops are involved and when the risk of combat is high, operational control of U.S. forces will remain in American hands, or in the hands of a trusted military ally such as a NATO member. But the President must retain the flexibility, which has served the U.S. well throughout its history, to allow temporary foreign operational control of U.S. troops when it serves U.S. interests, just as it has often served U.S. interests to have foreign forces under U.S. operational control.

Arms Control and Disarmament

The 1945 UN Charter envisaged a system of regulation that would ensure "the least diversion for armaments of the world's human and economic resources." The advent of nuclear weapons came only weeks after the signing of the Charter and provided immediate impetus to concepts of arms limitation and disarmament. In fact, the first resolution of the first meeting of the General Assembly (January 24, 1946) was entitled "The Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy" and called upon the commission to make specific proposals for "the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction."

The UN has established several forums to address multilateral disarmament issues. The principal ones are the First Committee of the UN General Assembly and the UN Disarmament Commission. Items on the agenda include consideration of the possible merits of a nuclear test ban, outer-space arms control, efforts to ban chemical weapons, nuclear and conventional disarmament, nuclearweapon-free zones, reduction of military budgets, and measures to strengthen international security.

The Conference on Disarmament is the sole forum established by the international community for the negotiation of multilateral arms control and disarmament agreements. It has 66 members representing all areas of the world, including the five major nuclear-weapon states (China, France, the Russian Federation, the U.K., and the U.S.). While the conference is not formally a UN organization, it is linked to the UN through a personal representative of the Secretary-General; this representative serves as the secretary general of the conference. Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly often request the conference to consider specific disarmament matters. In turn, the conference annually reports on its activities to the General Assembly.

Human Rights

The pursuit of human rights was one of the central reasons for creating the United Nations. World War II atrocities and genocide led to a ready consensus that the new organization must work to prevent any similar tragedies in the future. An early objective was creating a legal framework for considering and acting on complaints about human rights violations.

The UN Charter obliges all member nations to promote "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights" and to take "joint and separate action" to that end. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though not legally binding, was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all. The General Assembly regularly takes up human rights issues. The UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), under ECOSOC, is the primary UN body charged with promoting human rights, primarily through investigations and offers of technical assistance. As discussed, the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the official principally responsible for all UN human rights activities (see, under "The UN Family," the section on "Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights").

The U.S. considers the United Nations to be a first line of defense of the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also a means by which those principles can be applied more broadly around the world. A case in point is support by the United Nations for countries in transition to democracy. Technical assistance in providing free and fair elections, improving judicial structures, drafting constitutions, training human rights officials, and transforming armed movements into political parties have contributed significantly to democratization worldwide. The United Nations is also a forum in which to support the right of women to participate fully in the political, economic, and social life of their countries.

International Conferences

The member countries of the UN and its specialized agencies--the "shareholders" of the system--give guidance and make decisions on substantive and administrative issues in regular meetings held throughout each year. Governing bodies made up of member states include not only the General Assembly, ECOSOC, and the Security Council, but also counterpart bodies dealing with the governance of all other UN system agencies. For example, the World Health Assembly and the Executive Board oversee the work of WHO. Each year, the U.S. Department of State accredits U.S. delegations to more than 600 meetings of governing bodies.

When an issue is considered particularly important, the General Assembly may convene an international conference to focus global attention and build a consensus for consolidated action. High-level U.S. delegations use these opportunities to promote U.S. policy viewpoints and develop international agreements on future activities. Recent examples include:

  • The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 1992, led to the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to advance the conclusions reached in Agenda 21, the final text of agreements negotiated by governments at UNCED;
  • The World Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, Egypt, September 1994, approved a program of action to address the critical challenges and interrelationships between population and sustainable development over the next 20 years;
  • The World Summit on Trade Efficiency, Columbus, Ohio, October 1994, cosponsored by UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the city of Columbus, and private-sector business, focused on the use of modern information technology to expand international trade;
  • The World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen, Denmark, March 1995, underscored national responsibility for sustainable development and secured high-level commitment to plans that invest in basic education, health care, and economic opportunity for all, including women and girls;
  • The Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, China, September 1995, sought to accelerate implementation of the historic agreements reached at the Third World Conference, Nairobi, Kenya, 1985;
  • The Second UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), Istanbul, Turkey, June 1996, considered the challenges of human settlement development and management in the 21st century; and
  • The UN Conference on Financing for Development, Monterrey, Mexico, March 2002, broke new ground in development discussions with the U.S. calling for a "new compact for development" defined by greater accountability for rich and poor nations alike.


Trygve Lie (Norway)—Feb. 1, 1946-April 10, 1953

Dag Hammarskjold (Sweden)—April 10, 1953-Sept. 8, 1961

U Thant (Burma)—Nov. 3, 1961-Dec. 31, 1971 (initially appointed acting Secretary General; formally appointed Nov. 30, 1962)

Kurt Waldheim (Austria)—Jan. 1, 1972-Dec. 31, 1981

Javier Perez de Cuellar (Peru)—Jan. 1, 1982-Dec. 31, 1991

Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt)—Jan. 1, 1992-Dec. 31, 1996

Kofi Annan (Ghana)—Jan. 1, 1997-present

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