Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

United Nations: U.S. State Department Profile


Established: By charter signed in San Francisco, California, on June 26, 1945, effective October 24, 1945.
Purposes: To maintain international peace and security; to achieve international cooperation in solving economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems and in promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; to be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in attaining these common ends.
Principal organs: Security Council, General Assembly, Economic and Social Council, International Court of Justice, Secretariat and Trusteeship Council.
Official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.
Members: 191

Principal Organs

Security Council

Membership: Five permanent members (China, France, Russia, U.K., U.S.), each with the right to veto, and 10 non-permanent members elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Five non-permanent members are elected from Africa and Asia combined; one from Eastern Europe; two from Latin America; and two from Western Europe and other areas. The 2002 non-permanent members are: Bulgaria, Cameroon, Colombia, Guinea, Ireland, Mauritius, Mexico, Norway, Singapore, and Syria.
President: Rotates monthly in English alphabetical order of members.

Under the UN Charter, the Security Council has "primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security," and all UN members "agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter." Other organs of the UN make recommendations to member governments. The Security Council, however, has the power to make decisions that member governments must carry out under the Charter. A representative of each Security Council member must always be present at UN headquarters so that the Council can meet at any time.

Decisions in the 15-member Security Council on all substantive matters-for example, a decision calling for direct measures related to the settlement of a dispute-require the affirmative votes of nine members, including the support of all five permanent members. A negative vote-a veto-by a permanent member prevents adoption of a proposal that has received the required number of affirmative votes. Abstention is not regarded as a veto.

A state that is a member of the UN, but not of the Security Council, may participate in Security Council discussions in which the Council agrees that the country's interests are particularly affected. In recent years, the Council has interpreted this loosely, enabling many countries to take part in its discussions. Non-members routinely are invited to take part when they are parties to disputes being considered by the Council.

Under Chapter Six of the Charter, "Pacific Settlement of Disputes," the Security Council "may investigate any dispute, or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute." The Council may "recommend appropriate procedures or methods of adjustment" if it determines that the situation might endanger international peace and security. These recommendations are not binding on UN members.

Under Chapter Seven, the Council has broader power to decide what measures are to be taken in situations involving "threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, or acts of aggression." In such situations, the Council is not limited to recommendations but may take action, including the use of armed force "to maintain or restore international peace and security." This was the basis for UN armed action in Korea in 1950 and the use of coalition forces in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991. Decisions taken under Chapter Seven, such as economic sanctions, are binding on UN members.

General Assembly

Membership: All UN members.
President: Elected at the beginning of each General Assembly session.
Main Committees: First (Political and Security); Second (Economic and Financial);Third (Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural);Fourth (Special Political and Decolonization); Fifth (Administrative and Budgetary);Sixth (Legal). Many other committees address specific issues, including peacekeeping, outer space, crime prevention, status of women, and UN Charter reform.

The General Assembly is made up of all 191 UN members. The Assembly meets in regular session once a year under a president elected from among the representatives. The regular session usually begins on the third Tuesday in September and ends in mid-December. Special sessions can be convened at the request of the Security Council, of a majority of UN members, or, if the majority concurs, of a single member. A special session was held in October 1995 at the head of government level to commemorate the UN's 50th anniversary.

Voting in the General Assembly on important questions-recommendations on peace and security; election of members to organs; admission, suspension, and expulsion of members; budgetary matters-is by a two-thirds majority of those present and voting. Other questions are decided by majority vote. Each member country has one vote. Apart from approval of budgetary matters, including adoption of a scale of assessment, Assembly resolutions are not binding on the members. The Assembly may make recommendations on any matters within the scope of the UN, except matters of peace and security under Security Council consideration.

As the only UN organ in which all members are represented, the Assembly serves as a forum for members to launch initiatives on international questions of peace, economic progress, and human rights. It can initiate studies; make recommendations; develop and codify international law; promote human rights; and further international economic, social, cultural, and educational programs.

The Assembly may take action on maintaining international peace if the Security Council is unable, usually due to disagreement among the permanent members, to exercise its primary responsibility. The "Uniting for Peace" resolutions, adopted in 1950, empower the Assembly to convene in emergency special session to recommend collective measures-including the use of armed force-in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression. Two-thirds of the members must approve any such recommendation. Emergency special sessions under this procedure have been held on nine occasions. The most recent, in 1982, considered the situation in the occupied Arab territories following Israel's unilateral extension of its laws, jurisdiction, and administration to the Golan Heights.

During the 1980s, the Assembly became a forum for the North-South dialogue-the discussion of issues between industrialized nations and developing countries. These issues came to the fore because of the phenomenal growth and changing makeup of the UN membership. In 1945, the UN had 51 members. It now has 191, of which more than two-thirds are developing countries. Because of their numbers, developing countries are often able to determine the agenda of the Assembly, the character of its debates, and the nature of its decisions. For many developing countries, the UN is the source of much of their diplomatic influence and the principal outlet for their foreign relations initiatives.

Economic and Social Council

Membership: 54; 18 elected each year by the General Assembly for three-year terms. The U.S. has always been a member.
President: Elected each year.

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) assists the General Assembly in promoting international economic and social cooperation and development. ECOSOC has 54 members, 18 of whom are elected each year by the General Assembly for a three-year term. The U.S. has been a member since the UN was founded. ECOSOC meets once a year. The president is elected for a one-year term. Voting is by simple majority.

Through much of its history, ECOSOC has served primarily as a discussion vehicle for economic and social issues. ECOSOC had little authority to force action and a number of member states were concerned that its utility was only marginal. However, beginning in 1992, the U.S. and other nations began an effort to make ECOSOC more relevant by strengthening its policy responsibilities in economic, social, and related fields, particularly in furthering development objectives.

The resulting reform made ECOSOC the oversight and policy-setting body for UN operational development activities and established smaller executive boards for the UN Development Program (UNDP), UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) that would provide those agencies with operating guidance and promote more effective management. The reform also gave ECOSOC a strong hand in ensuring that UN agencies coordinated their work on issues of common interest, such as narcotics control, human rights, the alleviation of poverty, and the prevention of HIV/AIDS.

One positive impact of this reform was the manner in which the UN development system began to respond more coherently and efficiently to humanitarian crises around the world. Secretary-General Annan's recent reform initiatives have attached considerable importance to further strengthening coordination among relief agencies.

Another example was the ECOSOC decision in 1994 to authorize the creation of a new joint and cosponsored UN program on HIV/AIDS. This program will bring together the existing AIDS-related resources and expertise of the World Health Organization, UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA, UNESCO, and the World Bank into one consolidated global program, eliminating duplication of effort and enhancing the ability of member states to cope with the AIDS pandemic. It began operating in January 1996.

International Court of Justice

Membership: 15, elected for nine-year terms by the General Assembly and the Security Council from nominees of national groups under provisions of the International Court of Justice Statute. A U.S. citizen has always been a member of the Court.

The International Court of Justice is the principal judicial organ of the UN. Established in 1945, its main functions are to decide cases submitted to it by states and to give advisory opinions on legal questions submitted to it by the General Assembly or Security Council, or by such specialized agencies as may be authorized to do so by the General Assembly in accordance with the UN Charter.

The seat of the Court is in The Hague, Netherlands. It is composed of 15 judges elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council from a list of persons nominated by the national groups in the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Judges serve for nine years and may be re-elected. No two may be nationals of the same country. One-third of the Court is elected every three years. Questions before the Court are decided by a majority of judges present.

Only states may be parties in cases before the International Court of Justice. This does not preclude private interests from being the subject of proceedings if one state brings the case against another. While jurisdiction of the Court is based on the consent of the parties, any judgments reached are binding. The Security Council can be called upon by a party to determine measures to be taken to enforce a judgment if the other party fails to perform its obligations. The U.S. accepted the Court's compulsory jurisdiction in 1946 but withdrew its acceptance following the Court's decision in a 1986 case involving activities in Nicaragua. Examples of cases include:

  • A complaint by the U.S. in 1980 that Iran was detaining American diplomats in Tehran in violation of international law;
  • A dispute between Tunisia and Libya over the delimitation of the continental shelf between them;
  • A dispute over the course of the maritime boundary dividing the U.S. and Canada in the Gulf of Maine area.


Chief Administrative Officer: Secretary-General of the United Nations, appointed to a five-year term by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council.
Secretary-General: Kofi Annan (first term began January 1, 1997; reappointed to second term, beginning January 1, 2002).
Staff: The UN Secretariat at the end of 2001 had a staff of 15,287, including 1,852 Americans. (There was an additional 7,664 staff in peacekeeping operations, including 724 Americans.) UN subsidiary bodies, specialized agencies, and the IAEA employ an additional 38,418 people, including 1,914 Americans.

The Secretariat is headed by the Secretary-General, assisted by a staff of international civil servants worldwide. It provides studies, information, and facilities needed by UN bodies for their meetings. It also carries out tasks as directed by the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, and other UN bodies. The Charter provides that the staff be chosen by application of the "highest standards of efficiency, competence, and integrity," with due regard for the importance of recruiting on a wide geographical basis.

The Charter provides that the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any authority other than the UN. Each UN member is enjoined to respect the international character of the Secretariat and not seek to influence its staff. The Secretary-General alone is responsible for staff selection.

The Secretary-General's duties include helping resolve international disputes, administering peacekeeping operations, organizing international conferences, gathering information on the implementation of Security Council decisions, and consulting with member governments regarding various initiatives. Key Secretariat offices in this area include the Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter that, in his or her opinion, may threaten international peace and security.

Trusteeship Council

In setting up an International Trusteeship System, the UN Charter established the Trusteeship Council and assigned it the task of supervising the administration of Trust Territories placed under the System. Major goals were to promote the advancement of the inhabitants of Trust Territories and their progressive development towards self-government or independence. Those numerous territories--most of them former mandates of the League of Nations or territories taken from enemy states at the end of World War II--have all now attained self-government or independence, either as separate nations or by joining neighboring independent countries. The Trusteeship Council suspended operation on 1 November 1994, with the independence of Palau, the last remaining United Nations trust territory, on 1 October 1994.

The UN Family

In addition to the principal UN organs, the UN family includes nearly 30 major programs or agencies. Some were in existence before the UN was created and are related to it by agreement. Others were established by the General Assembly. Each provides expertise in a specific area. Those agencies include:

UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). Headquartered in New York City, UNICEF provides long-term humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries. A voluntarily funded agency, UNICEF relies on contributions from governments and private donors. Its programs emphasize developing community-level services to promote the health and well being of children. UNICEF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.

UN Development Program (UNDP). Headquartered in New York City, UNDP and is the largest multilateral source of grant technical assistance in the world. Voluntarily funded, it provides expert advice, training, and limited equipment to developing countries, with increasing emphasis on assistance to the poorest countries.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, the IAEA seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy and to inhibit its use for military purposes. The IAEA's programs encourage the development of the peaceful application of nuclear technology, provide international safeguards against its misuse, and facilitate the application of safety measures in its use. IAEA expanded its nuclear safety efforts in response to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

World Food Program (WFP). Headquartered in Rome, Italy, the WFP distributes food commodities to support development projects, to long-term refugees and displaced persons, and as emergency food assistance in situations of natural and man-made disasters. Development projects now constitute less than 20% of WFP programs, as emergency and protracted refugee situations result in increasing demands for WFP programs and resources. WFP operates exclusively on contributions of commodities and cash donated by governments.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Headquartered in Rome, Italy, FAO programs seek to raise levels of nutrition and standards of living; to improve the production, processing, marketing, and distribution of food and agricultural products; to promote rural development; and, by these means, to eliminate hunger. FAO's efforts to eliminate the Mediterranean fruit fly from the Caribbean Basin benefit the U.S. citrus industry. Likewise, U.S. cattle raisers have a direct stake in FAO efforts to eliminate a tick found in the Caribbean that carries a threatening cattle disease.

World Health Organization (WHO). Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, WHO acts as a coordinating authority on international public health. After years of fighting smallpox, WHO declared in 1979 that the disease had been eradicated. It is nearing success in developing vaccines against malaria and schistosomiasis and aims to eradicate polio within the next few years.

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, UNHCR protects and supports refugees at the request of a government or the UN and assists in their return or resettlement. UNHCR was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954 and 1982.

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. At the urging of the U.S. and other nations, the General Assembly established the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1993. The High Commissioner's mandate includes promotion and protection of human rights worldwide through direct contact with individual governments and the provision of technical assistance where appropriate. Holding the rank of Under Secretary General, the High Commissioner coordinates human rights activities throughout the UN system and supervises the UN Center for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland.

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Headquartered in Montreal, Canada, ICAO develops the principles and techniques of international air navigation and fosters the planning and development of international air transport to ensure safe and orderly growth. The ICAO Council adopts standards and recommended practices concerning air navigation, prevention of unlawful interference, and facilitation of border-crossing procedures for international civil aviation. Standards developed by ICAO directly affect U.S. commercial air travel and benefit U.S. industries, which supply the greatest share of aircraft and equipment worldwide.

International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, ITU promotes the improvement of telecommunication services worldwide. As the largest producer and supplier of telecommunications equipment, the U.S. benefits from the technical assistance extended to developing countries from agencies such as the ITU.

International Maritime Organization (IMO). Headquartered in London, U.K., IMO promotes cooperation among governments and the shipping industry to improve maritime safety and to prevent marine pollution. Recent U.S. initiatives at IMO have included amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea Convention, which upgraded fire protection standards on passenger ships, and amendments to the Convention on the Prevention of Maritime Pollution, which required double hulls on all tankers. U.S. maritime interests benefit directly from IMO work on standardization, safety, and ocean anti-pollution programs.

World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, WMO provides weather information to a wide range of Americans, including farmers, mariners, aviators, and travelers. Its work has significant economic and social impact on the U.S.

International Labor Organization (ILO). Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, ILO seeks to strengthen worker rights, improve working and living conditions, create employment, and provide information and training opportunities. ILO programs include the occupational safety and health hazard alert system and the labor standards and human rights programs.

UN Environment Program (UNEP). Headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, UNEP coordinates UN environmental activities, assisting developing countries in implementing environmentally sound policies. UNEP has developed guidelines and treaties on issues such as the international transport of potentially harmful chemicals, transboundary air pollution, and contamination of international waterways.

History of the UN

The idea for the United Nations was elaborated in declarations signed at the wartime Allied conferences in Moscow and Tehran in 1943. President Franklin Roosevelt suggested the name "United Nations." From August to October 1944, representatives of the U.S. U.K., France, U.S.S.R., and China met to elaborate the plans at the Dumbarton Oaks Estate in Washington, D.C. Those and later talks produced proposals outlining the purposes of the organization, its membership and organs, as well as arrangements to maintain international peace and security and international economic and social cooperation. These proposals were discussed and debated by governments and private citizens worldwide.

On April 25, 1945, the United Nations Conference on International Organizations began in San Francisco. The 50 nations represented at the conference signed the Charter of the United Nations two months later on June 26. Poland, which was not represented at the conference, but for which a place among the original signatories had been reserved, added its name later, bringing the total of original signatories to 51. The UN came into existence on October 24, 1945, after the Charter had been ratified by the five permanent members of the Security Council-China, France, U.S.S.R., U.K., and U.S.-and by a majority of the other 46 signatories.

The U.S. Senate, by a vote of 89 to 2, gave its consent to the ratification of the UN Charter on July 28, 1945. In December 1945, the Senate and the House of Representatives, by unanimous votes, requested that the UN make its headquarters in the U.S. The offer was accepted and the UN headquarters building was constructed in New York City in 1949 and 1950 beside the East River on donated land, which is considered international territory. Under special agreement with the U.S., certain diplomatic privileges and immunities have been granted, but generally the laws of New York City, New York State, and the U.S. apply.

UN membership is open to all "peace-loving states" that accept the obligations of the UN Charter and, in the judgment of the organization, are able and willing to fulfill these obligations. The General Assembly determines admission upon recommendation of the Security Council.

Preamble to Charter of the United Nations

We the Peoples of the United Nations Determined

To Save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and

To Reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women of nations large and small, and

To Establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and

To promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

And for these ends

To Practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and

To Unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and

To Ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and

To Employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,

Have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.

Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.

Key Areas of Responsibility

Maintaining the Peace

The UN's role in international collective security is defined by the UN Charter, which gives the Security Council the power to:

  • Investigate any situation threatening international peace;
  • Recommend procedures for peaceful resolution of a dispute;
  • Call upon other member nations to completely or partially interrupt economic relations as well as sea, air, postal, and radio communications, or to sever diplomatic relations; and
  • Enforce its decisions militarily, if necessary.

The United Nations has helped prevent many outbreaks of international violence from growing into wider conflicts. It has opened the way to negotiated settlements through its service as a center of debate and negotiation, as well as through UN-sponsored fact-finding missions, mediators, and truce observers. UN peacekeeping forces, comprised of troops and equipment supplied by member nations, have usually been able to limit or prevent conflict. Some conflicts, however, have proven to be beyond the capacity of the UN to influence. Key to the success of UN peacekeeping efforts is the willingness of the parties to a conflict to come to terms peacefully through a viable political process.

UN peacekeeping initiatives have ranged from small, diplomatic or political delegations to large mobilizations, the most extensive of which was the 500,000-strong 1950-53 defense of South Korea against an attack by North Korea. In the first few years following the end of the Cold War the number of peacekeeping operations increased dramatically. The proliferation of operations reflected the view that, in the post-Cold War era, the UN could play an important role in defusing regional conflicts. Some of the peacekeeping operations of the early 1990s also saw an expansion of the traditional peacekeeping mandate to include such responsibilities as supervising elections, monitoring human rights, training police, and overseeing civil administration.

Facing increasing demands on peacekeeping resources, the UN and member nations had to make difficult choices. In 1994 the U. S. Government responded to the challenges posed by the growing number and complexity of UN peacekeeping operations by implementing a policy framework suited to the new environment. The new policy involved six major areas of reform:

  • Improving how the U.S. decides which peace operations to support and whether U.S. troops should take part;
  • Reducing both U.S. and overall costs for UN peace operations;
  • Reaffirming long-standing U.S. policy on command and control of American military forces in UN operations;
  • Reforming UN management of those operations;
  • Improving the manner by which the U.S. funds and manages peace operations; and
  • Improving the standard of consultations between the U.S. executive branch and Congress on peace operations.

From 1995 to mid-1999 there was a sharp decline in the number of UN peacekeepers in the field, from a high of around 70,000 to 12,000. The assumption by NATO of major peacekeeping responsibilities in the former Yugoslavia (and the resultant termination of UNPROFOR's mandate) accounted for much of the decrease. Other factors included the closeout of UN operations in Mozambique in January 1995, Somalia in March 1995, El Salvador in April 1995, and Rwanda in March 1996. With the U.S. and the UN taking a much harder look at proposed peacekeeping operations, the only major new UN mission set up in this period outside the former Yugoslavia was the UNAVEM III operation in Angola. 

Beginning in June 1999, new missions in Kosovo and East Timor and expanded missions in Sierra Leone and the Congo dramatically increased both the costs and personnel levels of UN peacekeeping operations. They also added a new level of complexity to peacekeeping efforts, with a greater emphasis on civilian administration in East Timor and Kosovo. From July 1999 to June 2001, overall UN peacekeeping personnel levels increased by 31,000, with even more personnel authorized but not deployed. 

As of July 31, 2002, there were 691 U.S. personnel (659 civilian police, and 32 military observers) in worldwide UN peace operations, accounting for 1.5% of total UN peacekeepers. As Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States never gives up command authority over U.S. troops. When large numbers of U.S. troops are involved and when the risk of combat is high, operational control of U.S. forces will remain in American hands, or in the hands of a trusted military ally such as a NATO member. But the President must retain the flexibility, which has served the U.S. well throughout its history, to allow temporary foreign operational control of U.S. troops when it serves U.S. interests, just as it has often served U.S. interests to have foreign forces under U.S. operational control.

Arms Control and Disarmament

The 1945 UN Charter envisaged a system of regulation that would ensure "the least diversion for armaments of the world's human and economic resources." The advent of nuclear weapons came only weeks after the signing of the Charter and provided immediate impetus to concepts of arms limitation and disarmament. In fact, the first resolution of the first meeting of the General Assembly (January 24, 1946) was entitled "The Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy" and called upon the commission to make specific proposals for "the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction."

The UN has established several forums to address multilateral disarmament issues. The principal ones are the First Committee of the UN General Assembly and the UN Disarmament Commission. Items on the agenda include consideration of the possible merits of a nuclear test ban, outer-space arms control, efforts to ban chemical weapons, nuclear and conventional disarmament, nuclear-weapon-free zones, reduction of military budgets, and measures to strengthen international security.

The Conference on Disarmament is the sole forum established by the international community for the negotiation of multilateral arms control and disarmament agreements. It has 66 members representing all areas of the world, including the five major nuclear-weapon states (China, France, the Russian Federation, the U.K., and the U.S.). While the conference is not formally a UN organization, it is linked to the UN through a personal representative of the Secretary-General; this representative serves as the secretary general of the conference. Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly often request the conference to consider specific disarmament matters. In turn, the conference annually reports on its activities to the General Assembly.

Human Rights

The pursuit of human rights was one of the central reasons for creating the United Nations. World War II atrocities and genocide led to a ready consensus that the new organization must work to prevent any similar tragedies in the future. An early objective was creating a legal framework for considering and acting on complaints about human rights violations.

The UN Charter obliges all member nations to promote "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights" and to take "joint and separate action" to that end. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though not legally binding, was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all. The General Assembly regularly takes up human rights issues. The UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), under ECOSOC, is the primary UN body charged with promoting human rights, primarily through investigations and offers of technical assistance. As discussed, the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the official principally responsible for all UN human rights activities (see, under "The UN Family," the section on "Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights").

The U.S. considers the United Nations to be a first line of defense of the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also a means by which those principles can be applied more broadly around the world. A case in point is support by the United Nations for countries in transition to democracy. Technical assistance in providing free and fair elections, improving judicial structures, drafting constitutions, training human rights officials, and transforming armed movements into political parties have contributed significantly to democratization worldwide. The United Nations is also a forum in which to support the right of women to participate fully in the political, economic, and social life of their countries.

International Conferences

The member countries of the UN and its specialized agencies--the "shareholders" of the system--give guidance and make decisions on substantive and administrative issues in regular meetings held throughout each year. Governing bodies made up of member states include not only the General Assembly, ECOSOC, and the Security Council, but also counterpart bodies dealing with the governance of all other UN system agencies. For example, the World Health Assembly and the Executive Board oversee the work of WHO. Each year, the U.S. Department of State accredits U.S. delegations to more than 600 meetings of governing bodies.

When an issue is considered particularly important, the General Assembly may convene an international conference to focus global attention and build a consensus for consolidated action. High-level U.S. delegations use these opportunities to promote U.S. policy viewpoints and develop international agreements on future activities. Recent examples include:

  • The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 1992, led to the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to advance the conclusions reached in Agenda 21, the final text of agreements negotiated by governments at UNCED;
  • The World Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, Egypt, September 1994, approved a program of action to address the critical challenges and interrelationships between population and sustainable development over the next 20 years;
  • The World Summit on Trade Efficiency, Columbus, Ohio, October 1994, cosponsored by UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the city of Columbus, and private-sector business, focused on the use of modern information technology to expand international trade;
  • The World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen, Denmark, March 1995, underscored national responsibility for sustainable development and secured high-level commitment to plans that invest in basic education, health care, and economic opportunity for all, including women and girls;
  • The Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, China, September 1995, sought to accelerate implementation of the historic agreements reached at the Third World Conference, Nairobi, Kenya, 1985;
  • The Second UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), Istanbul, Turkey, June 1996, considered the challenges of human settlement development and management in the 21st century; and
  • The UN Conference on Financing for Development, Monterrey, Mexico, March 2002, broke new ground in development discussions with the U.S. calling for a "new compact for development" defined by greater accountability for rich and poor nations alike.

U.S. Participation in the UN

The U.S., as the world's leading political, economic, and military power, has an especially strong interest in cooperating with the multilateral system. The U.S. can pursue many of its interests more effectively and with less risk through the UN than it can by acting alone. Examples include: containing the spread of weapons of mass destruction; enforcing sanctions on pariah states such as Iraq; protecting the environment; and combating international crime, drug trafficking, and terrorism.

Engagement in the UN pays significant dividends to Americans in the form of a safer, more prosperous world. The UN offers a unique forum for advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the U.S. plays a leading role in the UN's efforts to maintain international peace, promote democracy, and defend human rights. UN peacekeeping gives the U.S. a way to protect American interests in circumstances where either acting alone or doing nothing is unacceptable. UN mediation and preventive diplomacy efforts can provide an internationally acceptable setting in which nations can move away from rigid negotiating positions and begin to seek solutions to their problems.

The multilateral system also provides a powerful platform for advancing U.S. values and ideals in such areas as human rights, free trade, labor standards, and public health. UN programs also try to meet humanitarian needs for those disadvantaged by circumstances beyond their control. Private charitable agencies rely on the multiple capacities of the UN system to develop the infrastructure and political climate required for the success of such programs. UN activities such as UNICEF, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the World Food Program have made a remarkable impact on the lives of those most at risk around the globe: children, women, and refugees.

UN programs serve U.S. objectives by promoting free-market reform in the developing world. Those countries purchase more than one-third of the goods and services exported by our nation. Supporting economic development gives the U.S. more prosperous trading partners that are better able to import U.S. goods and less likely to "export" their own people to U.S. shores. To reduce global poverty, the UN attempts to help developing nations meet basic human needs (clean water, food, shelter, and health care) and other development goals.

In today's interdependent world, there is a clear need for multilateral bodies to set regulatory standards and arbitrate differences among countries in areas such as food product safety, air safety, telecommunications, and copyrights. For example, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization have set food product safety and quality standards worldwide through a jointly sponsored trade standardization program called "Codex Alimentarius." There are many direct benefits to our participation in the multilateral system. For example, a large part of U.S. financial contributions to the UN is returned to U.S. companies through sales of equipment, supplies, and consulting services.

The U.S. cannot rely solely on bilateral relations to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives but must take advantage of our participation in the UN in order to influence other governments' opinions and policies. Moreover, every dollar that we contribute to UN activities is matched by $3 to $10 given by others. This advances our interests while spreading the cost among other nations. It is important that the UN operate efficiently and effectively. The U.S. seeks a UN that both gets back to basics and is ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century. U.S. efforts include:

  • Program Oversight--Following up on creation of the Office of Internal Oversight Services at UN headquarters, the U.S. is working to expand the inspector general concept to the UN's major specialized agencies;
  • Reducing Bureaucracies--Important progress has been made in streamlining the UN personnel system and holding the line on budgets;
  • Improving Management--The U.S. applauds the initiatives of Secretary General Annan in consolidating programs and implementing a more transparent and consultative approach to management;
  • Security Council Reform--The U.S. supports permanent seats on the Security Council for Japan and Germany and a modest further enlargement of the Council to include permanent seats for developing nations from Asia, Africa, and Latin America;
  • Improving Responsiveness--The U.S. seeks a UN able to respond to humanitarian crises more rapidly and effectively;
  • Scale of Assessments--The U.S. has worked for a revision of the scale of assessments to make it better reflect current global circumstances.

The U.S. has welcomed the further initiative undertaken by Secretary-General Annan in July 1997 in putting forward specific reform proposals for member state consideration. These proposals closely parallel recommendations that the U.S. has made, and the U.S. is working for the adoption of most of them as early as possible.


U.S. Funding for UN System (CY2001, actual): $3.5 billion.

Components: Assessments for UN regular budget and UN specialized agencies: $612 million; Assessments for UN peacekeeping: $716 million; Voluntary contributions to UN-affiliated organizations and activities (largely humanitarian programs): $2.2 billion.

The UN system is financed in two ways: assessed and voluntary contributions from member states. The regular two-year budgets of the UN and its specialized agencies are funded by assessments. In the case of the UN, the General Assembly approves the regular budget and determines the assessment for each member. This is broadly based on the relative capacity of each country to pay, as measured by national income statistics, along with other factors.

The General Assembly has established the principle that the UN should not be overly dependent on any one member to finance its operations. Thus, there is a "ceiling" rate, setting the maximum amount any member is assessed for the regular budget. In December 2000, the Assembly agreed to revise the scale of assessments to make them better reflect current global circumstances.

As part of that agreement, the regular budget ceiling was reduced from 25 to 22 percent; this is the rate at which the U.S. is assessed. The U.S. is the only member that pays this rate; all other members’ assessment rates are lower. Under the scale of assessments adopted in 2000, other major contributors to the regular UN budget for 2001 are Japan (19.6%), Germany (9.8%), France (6.5%), the U.K. (5.6%), Italy (5.1%), Canada (2.6%) and Spain (2.5%).

Special UN programs not included in the regular budget--such as UNICEF, UNDP, UNHCR, and WFP--are financed by voluntary contributions from member governments. In 2002, it is estimated that such contributions from the USG will total approximately $1.6 billion. Much of this is in the form of agricultural commodities donated for afflicted populations, but the majority is financial contributions. 

U.S. Arrears

The reduction in the assessment rate ceiling was among the reforms contained in 1999’s Helms-Biden legislation, which links payment of $926 million in U.S. arrears to the UN and other international organizations to a series of reform benchmarks. At the end of 2001, U.S. arrears to the UN amounted to $871 million. Of this, $171 million is payable under Helms-Biden and other appropriated funds. The remaining $700 million result from various legislative and policy withholdings; there are no current plans to pay these amounts.

Under Helms-Biden, the U.S. paid $100 million in arrears to the UN in December 1999 and $582 million in 2001. Of the final $244 million under Helms-Biden, $30 million is payable to the UN and $214 million to other international organizations. We also seek elimination of the legislated 25 percent cap on U.S. peacekeeping payments in effect since 1995, which continues to generate additional UN arrears.

UN peace operations are funded by assessments, using a formula derived from the regular scale, but including a surcharge for the five permanent members of the Security Council (who must approve all peacekeeping operations); this surcharge serves to offset discounted peacekeeping assessment rates for less developed countries. In December 2000, the UN revised the assessment rate scale for the regular budget and for peacekeeping. The peacekeeping scale is designed to be revised every six months and is projected to be near 27 percent in 2003. The U.S. Administration intends to pay peacekeeping assessments at these lower rates and has sought legislation from the U.S. Congress to allow payment at these rates and to make payments towards arrears.

Total UN peacekeeping expenses peaked between 1994 and 1995; at the end of 1995 the total cost was just over $3.5 billion. Total UN peacekeeping costs for 2000, including operations funded from the UN regular budget as well as the peacekeeping budget, were on the order of $2.2 billion. For 2001, peacekeeping costs are expected to total about 3.5 billion, the increase largely attributed to expanded missions in Sierra Leone and the Congo and newer missions in Kosovo and East Timor.

U.S. Representation

The U.S. Permanent Mission to the UN in New York is headed by the U.S. Representative to the UN, with the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. The mission serves as the channel of communication for the U.S. Government with the UN organs, agencies, and commissions at the UN headquarters and with the other permanent missions accredited to the UN and the non-member observer missions. The U.S. mission has a professional staff made up largely of career Foreign Service officers, including specialists in political, economic, social, financial, legal, and military issues.

The U.S. also maintains missions to international organizations in Geneva, Rome, Vienna, Nairobi, Montreal, London, and Paris. These missions report to the Department of State and receive guidance on questions of policy from the President, through the Secretary of State. Relations with the UN and its family of agencies are coordinated by the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs.

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations is located at 799 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017 (tel. 212-415-4000).

Sources: U.S. State Department