Documents to download

The Purposes and Principles of the United Nations

The United Nations (UN) was founded after the Second World War, although discussions between states on establishing an international organisation of this kind were underway well before the end of the War.

Article 1 of the UN Charter lists the purposes of the United Nations, which include:

  • The maintenance of international peace and security.
  • The settlement of international disputes, or threats to international peace.
  • Strengthening universal peace based on friendly relations between states and respect for equal rights and self-determination.
  • International cooperation in economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian issues.
  • Encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
  • To be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations for these purposes.

The Purposes of the UN must also be read in conjunction with the Principles of the UN in Article 2, which includes principles such as the prohibition of force, or the requirement to settle disputes peacefully.

Organs and Powers of the United Nations

The UN has six main organs that were established under the UN Charter:

  • The General Assembly
    • The General Assembly is the main forum within the UN where all 193 Member States are represented. The Assembly has the function of being the main forum for States to discuss, deliberate, and construct policies on any of the issues that fall within the UN Charter.
  • The Security Council
    • The Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and is tasked with responding to threats to peace, breaches of the peace, or acts of aggression. It also has responsibility to help solve international disputes that could endanger international peace.
  • The Economic and Social Council
    • The Economic and Social Council coordinates and reviews international policy on economic, social and environmental issues. It is responsible for overseeing the implementation of international development goals.
  • The Trusteeship Council
    • The Trusteeship Council originally oversaw the transition to self-governance and independence of 11 Trust Territories. By 1994, all 11 Territories gained self-governing or independent status, and so the Trusteeship Council was suspended in November 1994.
  • The International Court of Justice
    • The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the judicial organ of the United Nations, which hears disputes (contentious cases) between states, or interprets issues of international law and the UN Charter in Advisory Opinions.
  • The Secretariat
    • The Secretariat is like the UN’s civil service, overseeing the day-to-day running of the UN, led by the UN Secretary-General.

This briefing will primarily cover the General Assembly and the Security Council, with some insights into the UN Human Rights Framework.

The Security Council

The UN Security Council is a primary organ within the UN that has 15 Member States represented on it at any time. The Council has five permanent members (often referred to as the P5), reflecting the “great powers” of the world following World War II:

  • China
  • France
  • Russia
  • The UK
  • The US

Each P5 member has the ability to veto non-procedural decisions of the Council.

Article 24(1) of the UN Charter places the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security onto the UN Security Council, and Member States accept that the Council acts on their behalf in exercising this responsibility.

To enable the Council to uphold this responsibility, the UN Charter allows it to take a wide range of measures, from the use of investigations, to the authorisation of military force within (or against) a state where there is a threat or breach of international peace and security. Any “decision” of the Security Council is binding on UN Member States, and Members must carry out such decisions (Article 25, UN Charter).

The General Assembly

On the other hand, the UN General Assembly is the organ where all UN Member States meet to discuss and vote upon issues within the competence of the Assembly.

The Assembly’s work is wide and varied. According to Article 10 of the Charter, the Assembly has the general ability to:

  • … discuss any questions or any matters within the scope of the present Charter or relating to the powers and functions of any organs provided for in the present Charter, and, except as provided in Article 12, may make recommendations to the Members of the United Nations or to the Security Council or to both on any such questions or matters.

Article 12 restricts the ability of the Assembly to make recommendations on a dispute or situation while the Security Council is exercising its functions, unless the Council requests it to do so. Over the years, this has been interpreted to allow the General Assembly to make recommendations where the Security Council is considering an issue (e.g. it may be on the Council’s agenda), but is not “exercising its functions” at that moment. If any “action” is necessary, the General Assembly should refer that situation to the Security Council (Article 11(2)).

It is clear that the General Assembly also has a residual responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. This particular area of the Assembly’s powers is subject to much debate, particularly regarding whether or not the General Assembly can recommend coercive or forcible action similar to that of the Security Council.

The UK’s Role at the UN

The UK has an influential role at the UN because of its permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Within the Council, the UK currently holds significant influence in also being a penholder for several high-profile international crises, meaning that the UK leads the drafting and Council activities for these conflicts and situations.

While some have questioned whether it is still legitimate that the UK holds a permanent seat, and a power of veto, on the Security Council, there is no legal threat to the UK’s position on this body – given that any change to Security Council membership would also be subject to the UK’s veto and therefore the UK’s consent.

Within the General Assembly, some analysts do raise the issue of the UK’s influence there. Recent votes at the Assembly against the UK’s position on the Chagos Archipelago, and the loss of the UK’s judge on the International Court of Justice for the first time since the Court was created, may indicate an emerging pattern of voting within the Assembly that may not favour the UK. But most commentators do recognise the strength and skill of UK diplomats at the UN.

Documents to download

Related posts