United Nations

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Global Community
United Nations
The United Nations (UN) is an international organization founded in 1945. The nations that made up this organization have united to achieve international peace and sustainable development. Since its foundation, the number of member states has increased from 51 to 193, and all have maintained their memberships. The United Nations represents the decisions of its member states which have to follow the guidelines, duties, and goals expressed in the UN Charter approved in 1948.

Written by Yeniel Rios Vasconcelos


Definition and Mission

The United Nations is an international organization. It was founded on October 24th, 1945, when the UN Charter, its ruling and guiding document, came into force after being signed on June, 26th, 1945, in San Francisco. This document explains the rights and duties of all countries that belong to the organization. Originally, there were 51 member states, but, at the present time, 193 countries are member states. All member states are represented at the General Assembly which decides what country becomes a member state. The organization’s funding is provided by assessed and voluntary contributions of member states. The UN official languages are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish (United Nations Department of Public Information 2011).

The Secretary-General of the United Nations is the main leader of the organization and represents the interests of all people. The current Secretary-General is the Portuguese Mr. António Guterres. He is the 9th to occupy such an honorable position to advocate for the rights of millions around the world. The six main organs of the United Nations are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the International Court of Justice, the Economic and Social Council, Trusteeship Council, and the Secretariat (United Nations Department of Public Information 2008). One of the goals of the United Nations is to maintain international peace, security, and develop friendly relations among member states: the UN was created after the second World War to prevent conflicts, help the countries at war to make peace, and support peacebuilding and peacekeeping. The UN’s actions are directed to solve any economic, social, or cultural issues. One of the UN’s main organs, the Security Council, has the duty to maintain international security and peace (Fasulo 2003).

Another goal is to protect human rights, or the rights inherent to all human beings; for example, the right to education and health. The UN Charter mentions that it is a key objective of the UN to promote and protect such rights, and for that reason, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved in 1948. The provision and mobilization of humanitarian aid is a major objective of the UN. The organization relies on international aid to intervene after the occurrence of natural or man-made disasters to provide relief and assistance, especially in countries where the national governments cannot cover such efforts.

The UN also advocates for sustainable development and supports international law. The Security Council also plays an important role in the fight for respect of international law. This organ can impose sanctions, and even authorize the use of force in case of a threat to world peace (Howard 1989). The UN system, commonly known as the UN family, encompasses the main organs as well as programs (World Food Programme WFP), funds (United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF), organizations (World Health Organization WHO), and specialized agencies (International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA). Most of the programs and funds are financed by voluntary contributions (United Nations Department of Public Information 2008).


History of the United Nations

The current United Nations had its predecessor organization in the League of Nations, whose mandates and objectives were conceived under the Treaty of Versailles by the victorious countries of World War I in 1919 (Mazower 2009). This organization’s mission, as well as that of the UN, was “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security” (www.un.org). On January 10th, 1920, the international intergovernmental organization was officially founded with the enforcement of a peace treaty. The League of Nations’ main organs were the Assembly, the Council, and the Secretariat which was based in Geneva. It solved some territorial conflicts and battled human issues, for example, opium pandemics. The League of Nations was dismantled in 1946 after the creation of the United Nations in 1945 and because of its failure to prevent World War I (Habermann-Box 2014).

In the United Nations Declaration of 1942, signed by representatives of 26 countries, the U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt coined the term “United Nations”. In 1945, at the San Francisco Conference where the UN Charter was signed weeks after the president’s death, the members agreed to name the new organization United Nations to pay tribute to the late president whose efforts to achieve world peace during World War II were vital. The Charter contains 19 chapters that detail the objectives, principles, criteria for member states, functions, and powers of each organ of the organization (United Nations Department of Public Information 2011).

At the United Nations Conference on International Organization held in 1945, the UN flag was commissioned to a group of designers. It represents a world map centered on the North Pole surrounded by branches of an olive tree which symbolizes world peace. It is white in the center with a blue background. The UN headquarters is located in Manhattan, New York. The General Assembly considered other cities, such as Philadelphia, but with persusasion by John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s donation of $ 8.5 million dollars, the city of New York donated the property (United Nations Department of Public Information 2008). The organization expanded in the following years and at the present time counts 193 member states. It also played a major role during the Cold War period and later it has intervened in conflicts and carried out peacekeeping operations around the globe.



The UN has in its 72 years of existence contributed to international peacebuilding, peacekeeping, and conflict resolution. The UN system operates globally - thus assistance is granted where needed. The UN encouraged the decolonization process which resulted in the independence of over 80 countries, and its relief agencies provide shelter and support to millions of displaced refugees. Funds and specialized agencies, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), have provided goods, services, food, and vaccines that have benefitted over 100 million people in 80 countries (United Nations Department of Public Information 2011).

The UN has also assisted in the occurrence of man-made or natural disasters, as in the occurrance of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and the earthquake that struck the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, causing the death of over 200,000 Haitians. The peacekeepers from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) were deployed and worked for the recovery of the nation. Other examples include the aid to refugees of the Iraqi, Somalian, or Afghanistan wars (United Nations Department of Public Information 2011).

Specialized agencies and programs allocate millions of dollars to missions related to the eradication of diseases, famine, and the provision of clean water most predominantly in developing countries. The UN has also focused on the protection of children, especially those in conflict areas, and has developed norms for their safeguard. For instance, the Geneva Convention of 1949 declared that “children shall be protected… and they shall be provided with the help and care they required”. For that reason, the United Nations system, and with all its agencies, funds, and programs, as well as two Secretary-Generals have received the Nobel Peace Prize eleven times (United Nations Department of Public Information 2011).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The United Nations has a close relationship to the work and mission of philanthropic organizations, NGOs, and nonprofits, such as the International Red Cross, CARE, and OXFAM, in the occurrence of natural or man-made catastrophes. This organization is funded either through assessed or voluntary contributions or donations from private individuals, institutions, organizations, corporations, and/or governments. Donations can be addressed to the main organization or to the specialized agencies or funds that dedicate their work to those specific areas of interest of donors (www.un.org/en).

The official United Nations website and the UN system with its specialized agencies offer the opportunity to make contributions to either agency, fund, or organization for the worldwide programs in which the organization has an active role. The United States alone gives $8 billion each year to the United Nations, followed by Japan and China. This amount comprises membership payments and voluntary contributions as well.


Key Related Ideas

  • General Assembly: The main organ of the United Nations represents, deliberates, and makes recommendations and policies with the representation of all member states. For that reason, it is the only universally represented United Nations organ. Annually in September, The UN members gather at the General Assembly Hall at the UN headquarters where the General Assembly session takes place. Each year, a new president of the General Assembly is selected (United Nations). The decisions on whether a nation can obtain membership or not, and other major issues are decided (United Nations Department of Public Information 2011).
  • International Court of Justice: It is the main judicial body of the United Nations established in 1946. This organ’s headquarters is based at the Peace Palace in The Hague, the Netherlands. It works according to the international laws to achieve and solve legal matters and disputes and provides consultancy and advice on legal issues. Individuals are not allowed to present cases before the court, only states. It is composed of fifteen judges, all elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council from different countries that have been approved (United Nations Department of Public Information 2011).
  • Security Council: Its mission and main responsibility is to watch over and maintain international peace and security. It investigates and determines the occurrence of any act that may threat, initiate a conflict, or disturb international peace. Its five permanent members are China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and there are 10 other non-permanent members elected by geographical regions by the General Assembly that serve for a period of two years. The Security Council chamber, where the organ sits, was a gift from Norway, and its mural was designed by Norwegian artist Arnstein Arneberg. The Security Council’s presidency changes monthly (United Nations Department of Public Information 2011).
  • Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): These goals are a UN initiative approved in 2015 to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were established in 2000 to address the most pressing needs of humankind. Their official name is "Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development", and they are comprised of 17 "Global Goals" which have 169 targets among them to address several sustainability and development issues. These include the previously stated goals, since in many countries these have not been fulfilled, and others that have an environmental and economic impact on the worldwide population. For example, the provision of affordable and clean energy, the access to decent employment and economic growth, the reduction of inequalities, and the protection of the environment and climate action are among the goals (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals).


Important People Related to the Topic

  • António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres (April 30,1949 - present): On January 1st, 2017, he took office as ninth Secretary-General of the UN. The current Secretary-General was Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995-2002. Later, from 2005 to 2015, he acted as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (United Nations Secretary-General).
  • Ban Ki-Moon (June 13, 1944 - present): The eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations General Assembly from the Republic of Korea was a strong advocate of world peace, especially in the Korean peninsula. (United Nations Department of Public Information 2008).
  • Kofi Annan (April 8, 1938 - present): The seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations General Assembly when the UN received the Nobel Peace Prize “for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world” in 2001 (www.un.org/en/).
  • Robert Edward "Ted" Turner III (1938 - Present):  The CNN founder and media magnate donated $1 billion to the United Nations in 1997 to the establishment and endowment of the United Nations Foundation, which he claims was an "investment in the future of humanity". After the creation of the foundation, he was appointed Chairman of the Foundation’s Board of Directors (www.unfoundation.org/).


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • A Better World Fund: This 501(c)(3) charity was founded in 1987 and its operational costs are primarily funded by board members’ contributions. The mission of the organization is to build and implement partnerships between public and private entities to address pressing issues in the world, and support the UN work through advocacy and involvement with the general public. They seek to draw together efforts and foster collaboration among civil society organizations, NGOs, individuals, and corporations to benefit the UN’s efforts. (www.abetterworldfund.org).
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): This was founded on November 16th, 1945 with a mission being the protection and preservation of important worldwide historical sites, and the “promotion of international cooperation in education, science, culture.” It also works for the proper training of teachers to improve the quality of education. Each year, UNESCO adds to its World Heritage Sites list of new natural and man-made treasures in order to be preserved and protected for current and future generations. Its governing bodies are the General Conference which meets every two years to set the next two years’ agenda and budget, and the Executive Board. It has 195 member states and eight associate members. (https://en.unesco.org).
  • United Nations Foundation:  In 1998, The United Nations Foundation was founded after receiving a generous gift from media entrepreneur Ted Turner. This foundation is an accredited 501 (c)(3) public charity whose mission is to support UN efforts and work closely with the UN system of agencies and organizations. Organizations or individuals outside the UN system may not apply for grants. Its main funders are corporations, governments, NGOs, and individuals (www.unfoundation.org).
  • United Nations Fund for International Partnerships: In 1998, The Secretary-General Kofi Annan created the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships (UNFIP) for the coordination and monitoring of donations and contributions from the UN Foundation. It bridges the work of the UN Foundations and the UN system agencies, and acts as an operational arm for the Secretary-General. In addition to that, it creates partnerships in developing countries among civil society organizations and corporations (unngls.org).


Reflection Question - What is the mission or main goals of the United Nations? How important is their mission in our current global society?



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This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.