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United Nations: Overview


Towards the end of the Second World War the victorious allies decided to set up a world organization to replace the failed League of Nations. The United Nations was founded in 1945. From 1952, the UN had a permanent headquarters in New York.


Power in the UN

The Secretary General

The person in charge of the day-to-day running of the United Nations is called the Secretary General.


The General Assembly

All member states send representatives to a General Assembly. This is a place for the discussion of world problems. By 1995 there were 185 members of the General Assembly. It has no real power. It can make recommendations but they are not binding on members. Before 1960 the USA had great influence over the General Assembly. This changed as more and more former colonies became independent. The newly independent countries were often critical of US policy.


The Security Council

Power in the UN lies in the hands of a small committee of member states called the Security Council. This originally had representatives from eleven countries; the number was increased to fifteen in 1965. Five powerful countries had permanent membership: the USA, the USSR (Russia since 1992), China, Britain and France.


Each permanent member of the Security Council has a veto over any decisions. The veto rule can stop the Security Council from being effective. In the days of the Cold War the Americans and the Soviets rarely agreed on major issues. The USSR repeatedly used its power of veto. Other countries took turns at having membership of the Security Council.


The UN in action

The UN has been effective on some occasions when the use of force had the full backing of the USA. The Korean War (1950-3 ) and the Gulf War (1990-91 ) were both fought by the USA in the name of the UN. If two sides in a conflict were ready to talk, the UN was able to mediate and bring them together. In this way the UN helped to bring about cease-fires at the end of wars such as the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88 ).


Like the League of Nations before it, the United Nation has no armed forces of its own. The UN had great difficulty in peace-keeping during the civil wars that started in 1991 in the former Yugoslavia.


While the UN has only had limited success in peace-keeping, it has done much good in many other areas of life. There are a large number of UN agencies that aim to help different groups of people across the world. The World Health Organization runs projects in many poor countries in order to improve people's health.


The Food and Agriculture Organization encourages farmers in poorer countries to develop farming methods. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees provides basic help to people who have had to flee their homeland.


The work and success of the UN

The UN was set up in 1945 by the winners of the Second World War. The main features of the organization were:


a large General Assembly with little power:


a powerful Security Council with five permanent and ten (originally six) temporary members.


Purpose and Problems

The aims of the United Nations were stated in the United Nations Charter of June 1945:


to encourage peace and avoid war;


to develop international co-operation;


to encourage economic and social progress;


to promote respect for human rights.


The UN has not been very successful in peace-keeping. The Security Council has been stopped from taking firm action because of the right of veto held by permanent members and the Cold War conflict between the USA and the USSR.


UN Agencies

In addition to peacekeeping, the UN has run a number of organizations to ensure economic and social progress and deal with a whole range of global problems. This aspect of the work of the UN has been more successful than its peacekeeping activities. Organizations include:


UNESCO-the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization;


UNICEF- the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund;


ILO -the International Labor Organization;


WHO-the World Health Organization;


UNHCR-the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.


The changing face of the United Nations

In the late 1940s and 1950s the General Assembly was dominated by the United States. This began to change in the late 1950s as more African and Asian colonies became independent and joined the UN. In 1945 there were 51 members, by 1965 there were 118. Some of the new states were sympathetic to the USSR, many others were 'non-aligned'.


It became much more difficult for the USA to dominate the General Assembly. The influence of the non-aligned countries increased in 1971 when communist China joined the United Nations. Non-aligned countries played an increasing role in the agencies of the UN. In the 1980s the US government claimed that these agencies were anti-American.


The UN in Korea and the Congo

A UN army, led by the USA, fought the Korean War, 1950-53, against communist North Korea and communist China. UN support for the war was only possible because the USSR was boycotting the Security Council in 1950. The UN forces drove the communists out of South Korea but were unable to conquer North Korea.


The African state of the Congo (modern Zaire) was a Belgian colony. After independence in 1960 it was torn apart by civil war. A UN force was sent to bring peace to the Congo. The leader of the breakaway province of Katanga, Tshombe, defied the UN. The UN was criticized by the USSR for not doing enough. In 1961 the UN took a tougher line with Katanga and finally reunited the Congo 1963.