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Background and structure of the United Nations

  • The United Nations (UN) was set up after the Second World War, in the hope of preventing future wars from occurring. Nearly every nation in the world is a member, making a total of 191 countries

  • On 26th June 1945 the original 51 countries of the UN signed a charter which agreed :

    • To maintain international peace and security

    • To develop friendly relations among nations

    • To cooperate in solving international problems and in promoting respect for human rights

    • To be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations.

  • The General Assembly of the UN is similar to a world parliament. Any decisions it makes are voted for by member countries, which each have one vote. Important decisions must win by a two-thirds majority, before they can become a 'Resolution'

  • The Security Council votes on ways to prevent countries from going to war. There are 15 member countries of the Security Council

  • Five of these are permanent members, who can stop any decision if they do not agree with it. These countries are: the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and the People's Republic of China

  • The head of the UN is called the Secretary-General. Kofi Annan has held this position since 1997

  • The UN is also responsible for international justice. There is an international court at the Hague in the Netherlands, where people are tried if they have committed international crimes such as genocide

  • The headquarters of the UN is in New York but it is officially on neutral ground which belongs to every nation of the UN. It also has offices in Geneva in Switzerland and in Vienna in Austria

  • Funding for the UN comes from its member countries, of which the largest is the United States. Not all countries pay their contribution and the United States currently owes the UN more than $1.3 billion

Some of its activities

  • The UN controls a peacekeeping army, which is made up of troops from member countries. A peacekeeping force may be sent to areas of the world where there has been a war to try to prevent a country from slipping back into conflict

  • This happened in the 1990s during the War in the Balkans and in East Timor until it became independent in 2001. You may recognise peacekeeping forces from their distinctive blue hats

  • The UN also oversees a number of groups which provide practical help on issues of human rights, such as helping newly formed countries start democratic elections, and also on issues such as women's rights

  • During times of disaster, such as the tsunami in south-east Asia in 2004, the UN provides food, shelter and medicine to those most badly affected. They also provide help to the poorest people of the world in areas where food and water are always scarce

  • You may have heard about celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Robbie Williams being UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors. UNICEF is a children's charity which is part of the UN, and its ambassadors try to raise awareness of children's issues across the world

Young people and the UN

  • Young people play an important part at the UN, and there are youth delegates who attend the United Nations General Assembly at its headquarters in New York

  • The United Nations Programme on youth campaigns on issues affecting young people such as education, employment and relations between the young and old

  • Another way of understanding how the UN works is to get involved in a Model United Nations. This is a meeting of young people who take on the role of a politician from a given country and then act out a pretend political situation

  • Each person must research the customs, culture and current situations of their appointed country in order to best represent it in the Model UN

  • You can set up your own Model United Nations in your school or local club, or you could join a larger group which already runs a similar exercise

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