United Nations (UN) – Structure, Agencies and Functioning

This article is mainly sourced from wikipedia, and un.org.

United Nations is an intergovernmental organisation tasked to promote international cooperation and to create and maintain international order. It is headquartered in New York, USA. It was set up after World War II, as a replacement for the ineffective League of Nations that was established after World War I to prevent another such conflict.

The UN is the largest, most familiar, most internationally represented and most powerful intergovernmental organisation in the world. It has 193 members, the latest among them being South Sudan which joined UN in 2011. Apart from the members, there are two non-member observer states in the UN General Assembly: the State of Palestine, and the Holy See.

The structure of UN comprises of five principal organs, 15 specialised agencies, and some other organisations that coordinate through UN machinery.

Five Principal organs of the United Nations:

  • General Assembly – Deliberative assembly of all UN member states
    • May resolve non-compulsory recommendations to states or suggestions to the Security Council.
    • Admission of any state to membership in the UN will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.
    • Adopts the budget and determines the assessment for each member.
    • Each country has one vote.
    • Decisions on important issues require two-third majority, other matters require simple majority.
    • Presided over by the President of the UN General Assembly.
  • Security Council – for international security issues
    • responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security
    • May adopt compulsory resolutions. While other organs of the UN can only make “recommendations” to member states, the Security Council has the power to make binding decisions that member states have agreed to carry out under the terms of Charter V article 25.
    • Membership (15): five permanent members with veto power + ten elected members.
    • A council resolution must have 9 ‘YES’ votes out of 15 and no ‘NO’ votes from any of the five permanent members. The word ‘veto’ is nowhere mentioned in formal UN rules. Abstaining from vote is neither ‘YES’ vote nor ‘NO’ vote.
  • Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) – for global economic and social affairs
    • coordinates cooperation between the UN’s numerous specialised agencies
  • Secretariat – Administrative organ of the UN
    • chairperson – UN Secretary General is the UN’s chief administrative officer and its foremost representative.
    • The Secretary-General is appointed by the General Assembly, after being recommended by the Security Council.
  • International Court of Justice (ICJ) – Universal Court for international law
    • issues legal opinions and decides disputes between states that recognise its jurisdiction.
  • Trusteeship Council, the sixth organ, suspended operations in 1994 after independence of last remaining UN trusteeship territory. The trust territories included former mandates of the League of Nations (colonies which were to be governed by the allied powers) and territories taken from nations defeated at the end of WW2. These territories were to be administered in the best of interests of their inhabitants and of international peace and security.

On the basis of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, UN and its agencies are immune from the laws of the countries where they operate and their premises are subject to extra-territoriality.

Specialised agencies and organisations: Each primary organ of the United Nations can establish various specialised agencies to fulfil its duties. The specialised agencies are autonomous organisations, and unlike UN programmes and funds they are not required to report to UNGA and have separate budget. Specialised agencies work with the UN and with each other through the coordinating machinery of the Economic and Social Council.

The 15 specialised agencies of the United Nations are:

  • Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)
    • for agricultural development and food security.
    • Headquartered at Rome, Italy.
  • International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)
    • charged with coordinating  and regulating international air travel.
    • Headquarters: Montreal, Canada.
    • Established by – The Convention on International Civil Aviation, also known as the Chicago Convention
    • Chicago Convention says: Every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over airspace above its territory.
  • International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)
    • to eradicate poverty and hunger in rural areas of developing countries.
    • Headquarters: Rome, Italy.
    • publishes – Rural Development Report
  • International Labour Organisation (ILO)
    • promotes international labour standards, social protection and work opportunities for all.
    • Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland.
    • Publishes- World Employment and Social Outlook report, World Social Protection Report.
  • International Maritime Organisation (IMO)
    • responsible for regulating shipping
    • Headquarters: London, UK.
  • International Monetary Fund (IMF)
    • to foster global monetary cooperation
    • Headquarters: Washington, D.C., United States
  • International Telecommunications Union (ITU)
    • worldwide technical standards in communication
    • Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland.
    • publishes – Global Cybersecurity Index
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)
    • promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific and cultural reforms in order to increase universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights
    • Headquarters: Paris, France.
    • initiatives: Biosphere reserves, man and biosphere programme, World Heritage Sites.
  • United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO)
    • promotion of industrial development in developing countries
    • Headquarters: Vienna, Austria
  • World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO)
    • promotes responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism
    • Headquarters: Madrid, Spain.
  • Universal Postal Union
    • coordinates postal policies among member nations
    • Headquarters: Bern, Switzerland.
  • World Bank Group
    • funds global development
    • Headquarters: Washington, D.C., United States
  • World Health Organisation (WHO)
    • international public health issues and disease eradication
    • Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland
    • Publications: Global Burden of Disease Report, World Health Report, International Classification of Diseases
  • World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO)
    • to encourage creative activity and to promote the protection of intellectual property
    • Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland
    • Co-publishes – Global Innovation Index 
  • World Meteorological Organisation (WMO)
    • Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland
    • IPCC = WMO + UNEP

Programmes and Funds, and other organisations of the United Nations:

  • UNDG (United Nations Development Group)
    • UNDG is a consortium of many UN agencies, created to improve the effectiveness of UN development activities at the country level.
  • UNDP – United Nations Development Programme 
    • UN’s global development network
    • provides support to developing and least developed countries to help people build a better life.
    • Millenium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals are a genesis of this programme.
    • Publications
      • Human Development Report. Human Development Index (HDI) was developed by the UNDP. It is a composite index of life expectancy, education and per capita income.
  • UNSDSN – United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network
    • headquartered in Bali, Indonesia. It works for sustainable development solutions.
    • Publishes: World Happiness Report
  • UNCDF – United Nations Capital Development Fund
    • UN’s capital investment agency for the world’s 48 least developed countries
  • UNCTAD – United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
    • organ of UNGA dealing with trade, investment, and development issues
    • World Investment Report – measures global trends in FDI
  • UNICEF – United Nations Children’s Fund
    • provides humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries
    • Publishes – ‘The state of the world’s children’ Report
  • WFP – World Food Programme
    • addressing hunger and promoting food security
    • provides food aid in response to famine, natural disasters, and armed conflict
  • UNEP – United Nations Environment Programme
    • Publishes: Emissions Gap Report
  • UNIFEM – United Nations Development Fund for Women
    • women’s human rights, political participation and economic security
  • UNHCR – United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
    • to protect and support refugees, asylum seekers and stateless people
    • assists in voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country
  • UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC)
    • headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.
    • It works under UN General Assembly. It consists of 47 members elected for three-year terms.
    • It publishes Universal Periodic Review that ranks nations on the status of human rights.
  • UNFPA – United Nations Population Fund
    • promotes safe pregnancy and childbirth
  • UN-HABITAT – United Nations Human Settlements Programme
    • promotes sustainable urban development
  • UN WOMEN – United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

UN Conventions:

  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  • UNCCD – United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
    • to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought
  • UNFCCC – United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
    • international environmental treaty adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992
  • UNCLOS – United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

Objectives of United Nations and how it pursues them:

  • Peacekeeping and security
    • Since the UN does not maintain its own military, peacekeeping forces are voluntarily provided by member states. Decisions about peacekeeping missions are taken by the Security Council.
    • Disarmament and Arms limitation treaties aim to keep world safe.
    • Read more about ‘How UN keeps the world safe ?’.
  • Human Rights
    • Universal Declaration of Human Rights
      • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
      • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
    • In practice, the UN is unable to take significant action against human rights abuses without a Security Council resolution, though it does substantial work in investigating and reporting abuses.
    • UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review rank nations on status of human rights.
  • Economic development and humanitarian assistance
    • UNDP and its development goals, FAO promotes agricultural development and food security, UNICEF provided aid for children
    • The World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are independent specialised agencies and observers within the UN framework – provide loans for international development
    • WHO focuses on international health issues and disease eradication
    • World Food Programme (WFP) provides food aid in response to famine, natural disasters, and armed conflict.
    • UNHCR protects refugees.


  • UN is financed from assessed and voluntary contributions from member states.
  • General Assembly approves the regular budget and determines the assessment for each member.
  • Top contributors:
    • US – 22% – ceiling.
    • Japan – 9.7%
    • China
    • Germany
    • France
    • United Kingdom
    • Brazil
    • Italy

Evaluations and criticisms:

  • Since the UN’s founding there have been many calls for reform of the UN but little consensus on how to do so. Some want the UN to play a greater or more effective role in world affairs, while others want its role reduced to humanitarian work.
  • Southern nations tend to favour a more empowered UN with a stronger general Assembly, allowing them greater voice in the world.
  • Critics have also accuses UN of bureaucratic inefficiency, waste, and corruption
  • Accomplishments of the United Nations in the last 60 years are impressive in their own terms. Progress in human development during the 20th century have been dramatic and the UN and its agencies have certainly helped the world become a more hospitable and livable place for millions.

Also See – UN Reforms

More related information:

Uniting for Peace Resolution – UN General Assembly resolution 377:
It states that in any cases where the Security Council, because of a lack of unanimity amongst its five permanent members, fails to act as required to maintain international peace and security, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately and may issue recommendations it deems necessary in order to restore international peace and security. However, the implementation still remains with UNSC. The resolution was an attempt at bypassing UNSC veto.

Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review is done by UN General Assembly every four years to review working, priorities and funding of UN programmes and specialised agencies.

UNDG (United Nations Development Group) is a consortium of many UN agencies, created by the Secretary General of the UN in 1997 to improve the effectiveness of UN development activities at the country level.

Group of 77 at the UN is a loose coalition of developing nations, designed to promote its members’ collective economic interests and create an enhanced joint negotiating capacity in the UN. The name is a misnomer, because the group actually has 133 members.

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