The Structure of the UN

The United Nations (UN) was founded in the wake of one of the greatest wars in human history. As the rest of the world busied itself with the resolution of the Second World War, several hundred delegates representing 50 nations met in April of 1945 to confront an even more auspicious challenge: the establishment of a new and lasting global peace. At that meeting, despite considerable obstacles, the UN Charter was authored. Since then, the world has, of course, continued to see conflicts large and small. The UN turned out not to be the mechanism for global peace for which many had hoped; instead, the organization’s true success has been in its contributions to a global political culture that demands respect between nations, discourages conflict, and advocates for the peaceful resolution of the conflicts that it cannot prevent. Among the philosophical underpinnings of the UN system are beliefs that all nations are sovereign and equal, that members are to fulfill in good faith the obligations that they have assumed under the UN Charter, that international disputes are to be resolved by peaceful means, and that the organization is not to intervene in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state. As the organization has grown in size, the size of its membership has nearly quadrupled since the time of its founding—these principles of respect and amity between nations have become increasingly ingrained in nations’ foreign policies.

More broadly, the purposes of the organization, as found in Article I of the UN Charter, are:

  1. To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;
  2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;
  3. To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and
  4. To be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.

The UN is headquartered in New York and is composed of six organs: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Secretariat, the International Court of Justice, and the Trusteeship Council.

At the center of the UN system is the 193-member General Assembly (GA), comprised of seven main committees and various subsidiary and related bodies. The GA serves primarily as a forum for discussing general issues such as international peace and security and international collaboration in economic, social, cultural, educational, and health fields. The GA is also able to establish committees and other bodies to study and report on specific issues. Although the decisions of the GA have no binding legal force upon member-states, they do carry the weight of the moral authority of the world community.

International disputes of pressing concern may be referred to the Security Council (SC), which is charged with maintaining international peace and security in accordance with the principles and purposes of the UN. The SC is composed of five permanent members and ten non-permanent members elected for two-year terms. The SC is capable of directing the use of economic sanctions and military force.

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is composed of 54 member states and consists of a large number of commissions, agencies, and other bodies. It serves as the central forum for the discussion of international economic and social issues. Charged with promoting respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, ECOSOC can conduct studies, make policy recommendations, call international conferences, consult with non-governmental organizations, and prepare draft conventions for submission to the GA.

The Secretariat is responsible for a myriad of administrative and clerical duties such as managing the logistics of peacekeeping operations and making surveys. The Secretariat is led by a Secretary-General, who is assisted by a staff of international civil servants. The Secretariat is the basis of the BUIMUN staff structure.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) considers disputes of a purely legal nature. The Court is made up of fifteen members and usually hears cases concerning the interpretation of treaties and the UN Charter. In the past, the Court has made such important decisions as declaring in 2007 that, in response to the situation in Serbia, states can be held responsible for genocide.

The Trusteeship Council was responsible for overseeing the administration of territories that were not yet self-governing before suspending its action in 1994. The Council is no longer active within the UN, and it not usually simulated at BUIMUN.