A History of the United Nations

Rising from the ashes of a broken, war-torn world, the United Nations represented a reach towards a new direction in international politics: the preservation of peace, security and human rights.

New Year’s Day in 1942 was not your typical start to a new year. 26 States, amongst them, the USA, Britain, China and the USSR, pledged their commitment to fight the Axis powers (i.e Germany, Italy and Japan). They did so by signing the Declaration by United Nations. The first clause of the Declaration states that it enshrines the principles and purposes set out in the Atlantic Charter (1941), which was a joint declaration made between the USA and Great Britain “of certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they based their hopes for a better future for the world.”

On 24 October 1945, 51 States met in San Francisco and ratified the United Nations Charter, and the United Nations officially came into existence. The United Nations Charter expands on the principles and purposes of the Atlantic Charter. In 1945, the world was in disarray following the end of the Second World War. Indeed, in the preamble of the Charter, it explicitly notes the need tosave succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”. The basis of preserving peace and security was similar to its forerunner, the League of Nations which was founded in 1919, following the end of the First World War. The League of Nations dissolved as it failed to prevent the Second World War. In contrast, the UN has had significantly greater success and longevity.

The UN recognised early on that to achieve security and peace it was necessary to respect people’s rights. As such, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by UN General Assembly. Those who drafted the Declaration were not the “typical” lawyers and politicians that one often associates with drafting legal instruments. Rather, it included the First Lady of the United States of America (from 1933 – 1945), Eleanor Roosevelt, who also served as the first Chairperson of the UN Human Rights Commission, and Peng-chun Chang, a Chinese playwright, philosopher, diplomat and educator played a vital role in explaining the Chinese perspective to the other delegates. He successfully pushed to have references to God and nature removed from the instrument, in the name of universalism. Charles Habib Malik is another important character in the drafting process. A philosopher and academic, “he played a critical role in explaining and refining some of its basic conceptual issues”. Such diversity of thought and perspectives undoubtedly helped ensure that the UDHR bridges difficult gaps between states with divergent political systems and ideologies, helping to unite them in a common goal in protecting human rights. This is not to say that signatory states have, at all material times, complied with the obligations set out in the UDHR. Indeed, the UDHR is not legally binding. However, at the very least, it enshrines these obligations which in turn, enables the international community to call out any human rights violations. What is more, the UDHR has served as inspiration for a number of domestic legal frameworks, as well as international human rights treaties, such as he International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The UN has made clear that the powers vested in the United Nations Charter has enabled the organisation to “take action on the issues confronting humanity in the 21st century”.


This includes “climate change, sustainable development, human rights, disarmament, terrorism, humanitarian and health emergencies, gender equality, governance, food production, and more.” That “much more” includes issues concerning internally displaced people, refugees, asylum seekers, and eliminating sexual exploitation and violence against women and girls, amongst other things.

United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva

In terms of the UN’s structure, the main organs are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice, and the UN Secretariat. Their functions vary, for example, the International Court is the judicial organ of the UN, aimed at resolving “legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies.” In contrast, the General Assembly is the only organ with representation from every Member State, and makes decisions on a wide range of matters, from peace and security to budgetary matters. The Economic and Social Council, as the name suggests, is the principal body dealing with social and economic matters. Therefore, the protection of rights is situated amongst a number of other important issues.

In addition to the main organs, within the UN, there are many programmes, funds, and specialized agencies.  The programmes and funds are financed through voluntary rather than assessed contributions. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is classed as a UN fund and programme, whilst the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is defined as another “entity or body” of the UN. The Specialized Agencies are independent international organizations funded by both voluntary and assessed contributions. One such example is the Food and Agriculture Organization, which works internationally to fight hunger. These funds, programmes and specialized agencies cover the wide spectrum of the UN’s international responsibilities. It is through the creation of such agencies, funds and programmes, with their specific mandates, that the UN can achieve its all of its aims, both human rights related, and otherwise.

The UN’s membership is currently 193 states strong. Its work is recognised globally and no doubt, will continue to have a significant impact. Over the next month, NMM will be exploring the work of the UN in more detail, specifically in relation to migrants and forcibly displaced communities. We will see that there are areas where the UN achieves, as well as falls short in securing and maintaining peace, security and human rights.

To stay informed, sign up to our website. All you have to do is click on the “log in” button that is found on the top right-hand corner of our website and follow the instructions. Once you have signed up, you will have the option to subscribe to our blog and receive updates. You will also be able to easily sign up to our webinars, including our upcoming one: The United Nations of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Conversations with UNHCR Personnel in which we’ll speak with Roland Schilling (Representative of UNHCR's Regional Representation for Central Europe) and Andreas Wissner (UNHCR’s Representative to the European Institutions in Strasbourg) about their past and present experiences at UNHCR, as well as their views on the future.