Overview of the United Nations - WiseMee

Overview of the United Nations

Everything You Need to Know About the United Nations in One Convenient Article

What is the United Nations? What are its parts? What does it do? The majority of Model United Nations committees simulate real United Nations committees dealing with important contemporary issues. The following article will give a short overview of the most important United Nations bodies and what they do.

The United Nations was founded in 1945 during the aftermath of WWII. The UN is an intergovernmental organization created for the purpose of having an international forum for all nations to come together diplomatically. The UN currently has 193 member countries and two observer countries and its headquarters located on international territory in New York City, New York. Structurally, there are five major parts to the organizational makeup of the United Nations. The five main branches are:

The UN General Assembly (UNGA)
The UN Security Council (UNSC)
The Secretariat
The Economic and Social Council
The International Court of Justice (ICJ)

The five major bodies of the UN are by no means the only operating bodies within the organization. This article will also review some of the more well-known bodies within the UN.

International Monetary Fund (IMF)
The World Bank
The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC)
World Health Organization (WHO)
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
UN Development Programme (UNDP)
UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF)

The article will also give a quick overview of the UN Budget and some of the challenges of the Contemporary UN.

The UN General Assembly

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) can be thought of as the people’s body. Every country has equal representation in the GA. Each nation, regardless of population, economic power, or military size, has one vote. In the UNGA, a vote from China or the US has the same weight as a vote from the Bahamas or Malawi. The UNGA is the main deliberative body within the UN, meeting in regular annual sessions. Issues voted on in the UNGA include the budget considerations, admission and expulsion of members, and placement of countries into different organizations within the UN. The only matters not under the UNGA purview are issues related to peace and security, which are taken up by the Security Council. When the assembly votes on issues brought before it, a two-thirds majority of countries present and voting must be attained for them to pass.

The UN Security Council

The UN Security Council (UNSC) is where most analysts agree the power lies within the UN. It is also the most controversial body within the UN. The Security Council is made up of fifteen member nations. Five of those are permanent and ten rotate on two-year terms and are based on global regional allocation. The five permanent members are considered the victors of WWII: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia.

Tasked with the most important business of the UN, the Security Council is charged with maintaining peace and security among member countries. The UNSC oversees changes to the UN Charter, controls decisions on international security issues such as peacekeeping and use of force, and controls the admission of new countries into the UN. The five permanent nations have the most power, as they are also given the power of a veto. It only takes one veto to strike down proposals contained within the Security Council duties.

Looking at the permanent members, it is easy to see why this may cause problems. These five countries are not all nations known to get along. There has been much debate over the last few decades of altering the makeup of the Security Council. Many argue that it is not representative of the current global power balance as we have seen the rise of developing nations such as India and Brazil. Also notably absent are economic giants such as Germany and Japan, left out due to their enemy status after the war. Scholars and analysts alike know that changes may be needed sixty years after the war.

The Secretariat

The Secretariat can be thought of as the executive branch of the UN and is led by the Secretary-General. The Secretary-General is elected by the General Assembly but can be blocked by a veto from the Security Council. This has typically led the Secretary-General to come from countries that would not be opposed by the five major SC powers. The SG serves a term of five years and typically runs unopposed for a second term, though there are no limits to how many terms a SG may serve. None has served more than two.

The Secretary-General, for all intents and purposes, is the Secretariat. He is the main diplomat in a body full of diplomats. His power comes from his credibility on the world stage. He, as there has not yet been a female SG, is the spokesperson for the UN and its global agenda. As a global figurehead, the SG has the difficult task of calling for peace and understanding in a global society that constantly tends to go the other direction.

The Economic and Social Council

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is charged with overseeing some of the most important agencies within the UN. It is comprised of fifty-four member countries elected in three year overlapping terms. Many of the agencies within its purview are well known, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Especially important lately due to international conflicts are the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

It is the job of the Economic and Social Council to organize and coordinate between fifteen specialized agencies and fifteen additional functional and regional commissions. If we consider the General Assembly and the Security Council the decision-making bodies, the ECOSOC can be considered the body that puts everything into action.

The International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is often referred to as the World Court and finds its home at the Hague, Netherlands. All member countries of the UN are automatically parties in the court’s jurisdiction, though non-member countries may also become parties if they wish. This is the judicial body of the UN and serves to settle legal disputes submitted to it by member countries. The UN Charter states that all member countries are to comply with the decisions of the court and any country in non-compliance is subject to action from the UN Security Council.

Cases brought to the court vary widely in their scope, ranging from sovereignty and border disputes to treaty violations. The IJC is not to be confused with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which handles major international criminal cases such as war crimes violations. The ICC is a separate body, but the IJC can refer cases to the ICC. There are fifteen judges on the court, appointed by the General Assembly and the Security Council. They serve a term of nine years.

Additional Important United Nations Agencies

International Monetary Fund (IMF) – The IMF has been in existence since 1944, before the actual creation of the UN. It is responsible for international economic stability by handling international interest rates and structuring of loans between member states. To prevent an international economic crisis, they can provide short term capital to assist financially unstable states.

The World Bank – The World Bank provides loans to developing states to assist in improving the global economy. The World Bank realizes that the economic improvement of the entire global economy means ensuring developing states have the resources they need to participate in the global marketplace.

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) – The UNHRC is responsible for protecting global human rights. The importance of such a body was recognized early in the UN process after witnessing the atrocity of the Holocaust. Its importance has only increased as globalization has opened issues such as treatment of women, LGBT concerns, and treatment of civilians during the civil war have come to the forefront.

World Health Organization (WHO) – The World Health Organization is important in coordinating global health concerns, especially in relation to the dynamics between more developed countries and less developed countries. As transportation has allowed easier and faster transportation for humans, it has also greatly increased the ability of diseases to spread quickly. The agency also handles issues such as sexual and reproductive health, proper nutrition, and food sourcing for places that lack necessary supplies.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – The High Commissioner for Refugees, commonly known as the UN Refugee Agency, has come back to the forefront recently. Refugees typically leave their home nations because of forced migration due to war, famine, or unemployment. At the request of the home states or the UN, the agency will assist in repatriation, assist them in settling where they are currently located, or help in relocating them in a third state.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – The Food and Agriculture Organization’s aim is to defeat world hunger. To accomplish this, they work with both less developed states as well as developed states to provide a forum for all parties to come together and discuss solutions. The FAO does not simply assist in reallocating food resources from the rich to the poor. They also work diligently in improving all states’ agricultural and food practices by employing best practice methods across all fields.

UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – UNESCO’s goal is to increase international cooperation through education and the sciences while also promoting cultural diversity. UNESCO is the agency that recommends and protects the World Heritage Sites, places deemed culturally, scientifically, or educationally important to our history.

UN Development Programme (UNDP) – The UN Development Programme is tasked with improvement of less developed nations and is principally responsible for the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs). The UNDP is hugely important within the US, with administrator ranking third within UN structure.

UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – UNICEF is one of the more well known UN agencies and is tasked with assisting children and mothers in developing states. The agency receives its funding from governments, private organizations, and individuals.

From time to time, the UN General Assembly will see fit to establish what is called ad hoc committees in order to study an issue more closely. These committees form when pressing issues come up. Previous committees have taken up the issues of cloning, the International Criminal Court, and issues of jurisdiction. Currently, the most important ad hoc committee focuses on global terrorism.

United Nations Budget

The Secretary-General of the United Nations has proposed a 2018/2019 biennium budget of $5.4 billion, which is a 1.7 percent decrease from the 2016/2017 budget. Broken down annually, this means that the UN spends just $2.7 billion a year. To put this into context, this puts the UN annual budget on par with the budgets of many West African nations. Uganda, Nepal, and Yemen all spend more than double annually than the UN. It should be noted that while there is a line for peacekeeping in the regular UN budget, much of the annual peacekeeping expenditures are accounted for separately from the regular budget.

The largest expenditures for the biennium budget come from what the UN calls political affairs. Under this heading falls all diplomatic relations, a portion of the peacekeeping activities, and disarmament. The UN plans to spend approximately $1.4 billion of its budget on political affairs. Approximately $760 million will be spent on policymaking, direction, and coordination. A little under $100 million will be allocated to the International Court of Justice. Almost $500 million will be spent on international cooperation for development. This includes economic and social affairs, trade and development, and assistance towards small islands and landlocked nations. Also included are environmental spending and human settlements.

Nearly $600 million will be spent on regional cooperation and development, with the majority of the allocations going towards African and Latin American development. Nearly $400 million will be spent on human rights and humanitarian affairs, to include refugee assistance.

Over a billion dollars will be spent on common support services and staffing salaries. This includes the operating expenses of all the major offices, including the office of the Secretary-General and the Under-Secretaries.

As previously stated, the UN peacekeeping budget is separate from its biennium budget. This is for practical reasons, as peacekeeping missions cannot be fixed expenditures. There is no way to predict when a new peacekeeping force will be needed or when a peacekeeping mission may end. At any time, an ongoing mission may face new challenges that cannot be properly predicted by a fixed budget and will require a more immediate response from the Security Council.

The UN has engaged in 71 peacekeeping missions since 1948 and is currently involved in 16. Nearly 96,000 uniformed personnel and 15,000 civilian personnel are involved. For the fiscal year beginning in July 2016 and ending in June 2017, it is estimated that $7.87 billion was spent on all peacekeeping operations. This is well above the total two-year budget of the UN as a whole. To put these numbers into context, the UN peacekeeping budget is less that one half of one percent of the total global military expenditures.

Contemporary UN

The relevance and legitimacy of the United Nations have always been called into question. Many see the organization as an attempt at world governance. The idea of giving up sovereignty does not sit well with many global political parties. A major criticism is that some countries, mainly the US, provide the bulk of the funding for the UN while receiving little, if any, benefits.

As the world community has globalized over the last two decades, the mission and focus of the UN have had to change. No longer does the international system operate solely on the movements of countries. More and more, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, and individuals play a global role. The spread and accessibility of the internet and social media has enhanced group and individual ability to communicate and coordinate global efforts.

Many of the smaller states within the UN have always criticized the balance of power within the organization. The Security Council retains major power, specifically the five nations with veto power. There have been many calls for a restructuring of the Security Council. It is argued that the five nations with veto power represent the global balance of power from 1945, not today. Considering the economic and social changes that have taken place in over a half century since, the calls for change are not entirely without merit. Any change would likely address the veto power, regional balance within the security council, as well as increasing permanent membership on the council. Japan, Germany, Brazil, and India are all major economic powers on the global stage and have been mentioned as possible permanent members. Any change would have to pass with the approval of the five veto power nations.

Regardless of the controversies, the United Nations will continue to play a considerable role in the global community. It is the only global forum where all countries have a voice. The security, economic, and environmental challenges the world faces are too great for anyone country to handle. The UN will be a partner for major global issues moving forward.

A more in-depth overview of each of these agencies can be found on each of these organizations respective websites. Also, the list of organizations above is by no means complete. There are many more that provide valuable functions, as do important treaties, summits and targets, such as the Sustainable Development Goals. For a complete list, you can visit the official website of the United Nations at www.un.org.


Understanding the mandate and the role of each organ will help you improve your effectiveness as a Model UN delegate. As a chair or educator, explaining to the delegates how the United Nations works will make a difference in what they research, how they prepare their case and how they delegate in real-time. Furthermore, understanding the relationship between the UN bodies will make a resolution much stronger, and more impressive, when the resolution outsources certain types of tasks to other relevant bodies.