The United Nation System : history, organization, functionning


The United Nations (UN) was established in 1945 in San Francisco by the initiatives of the Second World War winners– namely Great-Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union – after Dumbarton-Oaks conference of 1944.

The organization aimed to correct the mistakes of its predecessor – the League of Nations – and had a membership of 51 states in 1945. The main purpose of the UN was to maintain international peace and security between states, in the sense of preventing them from attacking each other and organizing countermeasures if this happened. However, the Charter – the founding document of the UN – also referred to the needs of peoples such as fundamental human rights. Another object for the UN was to function as a forum for addressing different issues and hearing different opinions. However, because the member states were holding on to their sovereignty, the UN’s authority and ability to act were only to be as strong as the states wanted them to be.



The UN system is a group of international institutions, which include the central system, the Specialized Agencies – such as World Health Organization – and the so called Funds and Programmes – such as UN Development Program (see organigramme in the end). Today the UN has virtually universal membership of 191 states and it addresses practically all the important questions for the human kind.



1. Key Institutions of the Central System


Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC consists 15[1] members of which five – the USA, the Great-Britain, France, Russia and China – are permanent members. Other members change every two years. The decisions of the UNSC are taken by the majority of nine out of 15, but the five permanent members have veto for the decisions meaning one permanent member alone being able to prevent the decision taking place. Despite the strong opposition of a number of smaller states, the right for veto was a result of the superpower politics the Second World War. The UNSC has the main responsibility for maintaining international peace and security and its decisions are binding for the member states. In a case of threat to peace and security the UNSC can hence be called for immediately[2] to decide about countermeasures such as negotiations or economic sanctions. The countermesures may also include use of force via peacekeeping troops or authorisation of the member states to use all means necessary – as collective military actions in the case of the first Gulf War – to make sure that the UNSC decisions are followed.


General Assembly (GA). All the member states are represented in the GA with one country, one vote -principle. The decisions in important issues – such as international security – require the majority of two thirds, but most of the GA resolutions are taken by the simple majority. The aim and tendency has been to reach resolutions unanimously after the pre-examination of the issues in the six committees. However, the GA resolutions are only recommendations, not legally binding to the states. Yet, they have political and moral value to be able to serve as “social sanctions” (Castañeda 1969: 11-12) reflecting the global opinion. The GA’s Uniting for Peace resolution in the context of Korean War of 1950 introduced the procedure by which an item could be transferred from the UNSC to the GA, if the UNSC had been unable to act. The agenda of the GA can hence include all the questions – from disarmament to development and environmental protection – belonging to the competence of the UN.


Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The ECOSOC is composed by 54 members who are appointed for three years at the time and are responsible to the GA. It is a forum where important economic and social questions are discussed and recommendations take place. The task of the ECOSOC is to coordinate and oversee the work of the Specialized Agencies and the Funds and Programmes of the UN system, even though the Specialized Agencies are not subject to direct UN control. Instead they are constitutionally, financially and politically self-contained. On the other hand, the Funds and Programmes are closer to the central system, because their management arrangements are subject to direct GA supervision and they are largely funded on voluntary basis.  The ECOSOC also keeps contacts with civil society: NGOs have a possibility to gain consultative status in this UN body. Yet, despite its various tasks, ECOSOC’s position with non binding decisions in the UN system is fairly weak.


2. The UN in the Context of International Politics


Cold War Period. From 1948 onwards the UN became one of the most important arenas of the Cold War and its importance as a guarantee of the international peace and security started to break. The frequently used veto by the Soviet Union paralyzed the functioning of the UNSC during the period dominated by the USA. Yet, in the beginning of the 1960s new members from the decolonized Third World increasingly joined the UN and the Group 77 was established. The North-South divide with emphasis on social issues arose alongside the East-West divide. As a result, after 1974 the ideological gap between the USA and developing countries taking over the GA widened and the USA started to drift away from the organization no longer serving its political purposes. Hence during the 1980s, the UN declined to be a “resolution factory” (website of Finnish UN Association) whose declarations in economic and social questions were not well followed.


Post-Cold War UN. The end of the Cold War rivalry fortified the role of the UN in the beginning of 1990s. The economic and social issues have been reemphasized for example through many international conferences and redistribution from rich countries to poor ones has become a major function of the organization. As a result of the better cooperation between the permanent members after the Cold War, the UNSC has finally been able to function fully and the traditional peace keeping actions have been accompanied by use of force as well: Peace was successfully maintained for example in Namibia, but on the other hand peace enforcing events – such as the ones in Somalia and Bosnia – showed that the UN was not made for war making. Yet, collective legitimization provided by the UN can be extremely valuable  for the member states in shaping the global and domestic opinion regarding for example the current situation in Iraq or social aspects of development. In the name of international community, the UN has been able to qualify what sort of political behaviour is just, approved, disapproved of forbidden. It has become incomparable in providing information of the state of the world as well.



Some main achievements of the UN since 1945


Approximately 170 regional conflicts – such as the Iran-Iraq war and the civil war in El Salvador – have found peaceful resolution

The International Atomic Energy Agency prevents nuclear proliferation by inspecting nuclear reactors

Leading an international effort to clear land mines from former battlefields for example in Angola, Cambodia, El Salvador and Somalia

More than 30 million victims of conflicts have received humanitarian aid from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees since 1951


Over 80 former colonies got their independence

Free and fair elections at least in 45 states such as in Namibia, Eritrea, South Africa, Kosovo and East Timor


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the GA in 1948

The Human Rights Commission has focused world attention on cases of torture, disappearance, and arbitrary detention

Ending apartheid in South Africa, which the GA called "a crime against humanity"

Over 80 political, economic, social, cultural and human rights agreements have been carried out


The UNDP is the largest multilateral source of granting development assistance

Safe drinking water has been made available for 1.3 billion people in rural areas during the last decade

Child mortality rates in the developing countries have been halved since 1960

Birth rates in developing countries dropped from six births per woman in the 1960s to 3.5 in 2002

Literacy rate of women in developing countries improved from 36 per cent to 72 per cent in 2000

Smallpox was eradicated from the planet and polio from the Western hemisphere


The "Earth Summit" of Rio de Janeiro in 1992 set "Agenda 21" to promote sustainable development

Montreal Protocol increased the global effort to protect the ozone layer





3. Need for Reform


During its existence, the structure of the UN system has remained formally the same, despite the reform proposals and even actual reforms going on since 1950s. The main reforms have not been very successful, partly because of the re and strengthening the organization in general resistance from the bureaucrats, partly because the member states have not found the political will to push the reform onwards.


Funding. For over a decade the UN has faced deepening financial crises forcing it to cut the funding of important programs in all areas. This is a result of the UN budget relying on the member states, many of whom – notably the USA with more than 20 % of the UN budget – have failed to pay to the organization their full dues. There have hence been demands to reform the funding of the UN for example via global taxes proposed by former Secretary-General Ghali. Large private funds have been directed to certain UN programs, but the member states responsible for the highest financial contributions have been reluctant to reform the funding system with the fear of loosing their political leverage.


Organization structure. Originally designed to be highly decentralized with constitutionally distinct institutions, the UN system has become constantly concerned with problems of co-ordination, overlapping tasks and inefficiency. Political disagreement among UN’s very diverse membership may shape all reform efforts keeping the organization contradictory and divided institution, even though for long time it has been agreed that a reform is needed. In 1997, the current Secretary-General Kofi Annan took steps to carry forward the reforms instituted by his predecessors in order to consolidate the UN’s organizational structure, reduce overlapping functions and improve coordination and accountability of the system for example via regrouping the Funds and Programs. The second reform of Annan in 2002 continued the themes of the earlier reforms. Yet, critics claim that these reforms have made the UN more conservative and less democratic despite that the modern management increased to some extent. The main policy debate has hence taken place between keynesianism and neoliberalism.


Security Council. The contemporary UNSC still reflects the global power structure of 1945 in favour of industrialized North, notably because of the right for veto. This right makes the UNSC undemocratic and often ineffective giving five permanent member’s opportunity to pursue their national interests. Hence, a reform of the UNSC to reflect better the political and economic realities of the contemporary world has been on the agenda of the GA since the 1993. Yet, despite suggestions to expand the permanent membership of the UNSC, the questions about the new member’s right for veto as well as the questions about their number and their selection have remained unsolved. The permanent members of the UNSC have strongly opposed the reduction of their power in the UN via abolishing the permanent membership as well. Yet, as a result of demands for more transparency, the UNSC has renewed some of its practices on its own initiative for example regarding the openness of its sessions and consultation of the other countries outside the UNSC.


Strengthening multilateralism. New means to further engage civil society – notably via closer working relationship with the NGOs – and the private sector – via the “Global Compact”– in development and world affairs were established by the reform of 1997. In 2000, the member states also reaffirmed to devote to the objects and the principals of the UN Charter – such as peace and security and human rights – as well as enforcing the UN via the Millennium Declaration. The reform of 2002 was aimed to ensure that all different UN activities would be aligned with the millennium goals, even though many poor member states have not seen development been enough emphasized by recent reforms. However, in order to increase the UN’s ability to deal effectively with future threats – such as poverty, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction – a high level panel was appointed in 2003. Another high level panel was also established to further strengthen the relationship between the UN and civil society. The recommendations of these panels have been reviewed by the GA during the fall 2004.




Castañeda Jorge (1969): Legal Effects of United Nations Resolutions, New York: Columbia UniversityPress.

Smouts Marie-Claude, Battistella Dario & Vennesson Pascal (2003): Dictionnaire des relations internationals, Paris: Dalloz

Taylor Paul (1997): “The United Nations and International Organization” in Baylis John & Smith Steve: The Globalization of World Politics. An Introduction to International Relations, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The United Nations Information Center for the Nordic Countries (2003): Tämä on YK,


Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Finnish UN Association

Global Policy Forum

The United Nations

The UN Mission of Finland


[1] Before the reform of 1965 the UNSC had only 11 members.

[2] The Secretary-General has power to bring wide  range situations threatening international peace and security to the attention of the UNSC under the article 99 of the Charter. This has expanded the diplomatic role of the Secretary-General.

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