New York: United Nations Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The United Nations is a voluntary organization of nations that have joined forces to work for world peace. The chief architect for its headquarters was Wallace K. Harrison. The Secretariat Building, General Assembly Building, and Conference Building were completed in August, 1950, and the Dag Hammarskjöld Library was added in 1961.

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After World War II, the biggest war in history, there was a widespread desire to create an organization of like-minded nations to seek peaceful solutions to the world’s conflicts and thereby avoid a repetition of global war. A precedent had been set in 1919 after World War I with the establishment of the League of Nations. During the Versailles Peace Conference President Woodrow Wilson of the United States put forward the deep-rooted American political conviction of self-determination for all peoples.

Early Expressions of the Principle of Self-Determination

The idea of self-determination went back to the Monroe Doctrine (promulgated by President James Monroe in 1823) and has remained a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. However, the idea of self-determination ran contrary to the views of the European allies who in 1919 were not prepared to relinquish their empires and who forced a punitive peace treaty on the defeated Germany. The League of Nations was not given sufficient autonomy or resources and did not survive the aggressions of World War II. Nevertheless, the idea of a supranational organization had been born.

The political landscape after World War II was very different from the atmosphere at Versailles in 1919. Political self-determination for former colonies and non-self-governing people was an accepted concept, and the need for a neutral forum for peaceful arbitration was readily recognized. Many nations also were more prepared to commit significant resources to the United Nations than they had been to the League, and the strong desire for peace encouraged the participating nations to vest considerable political power in the United Nations.

The World in 1945

The former Allies who together had won World War II, however, soon found that fundamental differences in ideology were dividing the world once more. For forty years after the United Nations was called into existence its efforts at peaceful mediation and at the promotion of self-determination were frustrated by the allegiances of the Cold War. The world continued to witness terrible hardship and violent conflicts, which the United Nations seemed helpless in avoiding. While its political mediating power was frequently frustrated, the United Nations made great progress in alleviating human suffering through the work of its educational and health agencies. The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and others have to many become household terms since World War II. This continuing work of the United Nations at improving conditions around the world has secured its existence and has earned it global respect. Furthermore, since 1989 and the end of the Cold War, the world has looked to the United Nations with new hopes for its effectiveness in keeping peace and serving as a mediator in the still-changing global political landscape. In the early 1990’s, the United Nations accepted twenty-six new members.

Official Birth of the United Nations

The United Nations was officially born on October 24, 1945, when the United Nations Charter was signed by the last of the delegates who had unanimously adopted the charter at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco on June 26, 1945. Germany’s unconditional surrender had come just a month before on May 7-8 and the Japanese were yet to surrender on August 14, after two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 8 and 9. The charter begins:

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 and 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 . . .

The twofold approach to keeping global peace is clear in this opening statement: Peace will be promoted through the mediation and arbitration powers of the United Nations and the recognition of United Nations peacekeeping forces. Yet long-term measures to ensure world peace include the advancement of education, health, and respect for personal dignity.

This charter was drafted by the representatives of the fifty countries who attended the San Francisco conference from April 25 until June 26, 1945. The unanimous adoption of the charter was the culmination of a process that began at the height of World War II. In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom held a secret meeting on a battleship in the Atlantic Ocean. The result of their discussions on resolving world disputes without resorting to war was called the Atlantic Charter when it was made public in August of that year. Representatives from twenty-six countries met in Washington, D.C., in January, 1942, to accept the Atlantic Charter and to sign the United Nations Declaration. This declaration announced an intention to win the war and then to establish ways to ensure lasting peace through a United Nations organization.

The Moscow Declaration, signed by China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States in Moscow in October, 1943, reiterated this intention. With the addition of France, these nations were to play the most decisive part in the Constitution of the United Nations. In 1944 a conference was held at an estate called Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., to discuss definite plans for the structure of the United Nations. Finally, in February, 1945, President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin met in Yalta in the Soviet Union. There they determined the voting system to be used in the United Nations Security Council and set the date for the San Francisco conference later that year.

Organization of the United Nations

The United Nations that was thereby called into existence consisted of six parts: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the International Court of Justice, the Trusteeship Council, the Economic and Social Council, and the Secretariat. The General Assembly is the central organ of the United Nations, in which each member has one vote and to which each member can bring a dispute or a matter for discussion. The General Assembly has a president elected annually by the member nations and meets regularly once a year for three months, starting in September. The General Assembly receives reports from other United Nations organs and can discuss any issue brought to its attention either by a member or by the Secretary-General, whom it appoints. On these issues, it can make recommendations but does not have legal power to enforce them. The weight of the General Assembly’s recommendations depends on their concurrence with the views and public opinion of almost every country in the world.

The Security Council was designed to have means of enforcing its resolutions. Its mandate is purely to discuss and decide upon matters of world peace. All United Nations members have agreed to accept its decisions and to enforce them. Not only does the Security Council wield more executive power than the General Assembly, it is much smaller, consisting of only fifteen members. Five of these are permanent members, and each permanent member holds the power of veto in Security Council decisions. The five permanent members are China, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation (formerly the Soviet Union). The remaining ten members are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. To pass a Security Council resolution nine members must agree, including all five permanent members. The Security Council can be called together at any time and at short notice. Any country, even if it is not a member of the United Nations, can bring a matter to the attention of the Security Council. The Security Council makes decisions on whether to send United Nations peacekeeping forces to an area of conflict. These peacekeeping forces were first employed in 1948 to monitor the relations of the newly founded Israel with its Arab neighbors. In 1988 the United Nations peacekeeping forces were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

The International Court of Justice is a law court in which to settle disputes between countries. No individual can bring a case before this court. The court’s authority rests on the fact that once a country agrees to let the court act on a case, it is bound to honor the court’s decision. The court, consisting of fifteen judges elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council, with no two from the same country, sits in permanent session in The Hague, in the Netherlands. All judgments depend on the approval of at least nine judges.

The Trusteeship Council was established to supervise the advancement of trust territories–territories in which people could not choose their governments. Now most of the old empires’ colonies have been granted independence, and there is only one of the original eleven trust territories left for the Trusteeship Council, which consists of the five permanent members of the Security Council, to oversee.

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) encompasses some of the best-known United Nations agencies and commissions. Uniting all these agencies and commissions is a concern for problems of economic development and social issues such as human rights and health. The fifty-four members of ECOSOC are elected by the General Assembly for three-year terms. They meet annually and make decisions by majority vote.

U.N. Commissions

Some of ECOSOC’s commissions handle specific issues, such as the Commission on Human Rights. Others are concerned with a specific area, such as Africa, Europe, Asia, or Latin America. Then there are sixteen specialized agencies, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), WHO, the World Bank and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, is also an ECOSOC agency. There also are fourteen United Nations programs working closely with ECOSOC, of which UNICEF is the most famous. It works to improve child welfare around the world, through better health and education as well as through improved living conditions and safer environments.

Finally, there is the Secretariat, which together with the United Nations Secretary General, forms the staff of the United Nations, carrying out the work of all the United Nations organs. Approximately twenty-nine thousand people work for the United Nations Secretariat, only seven thousand of whom are based in New York. The rest are spread throughout branch offices and the United Nations missions all over the world. The United Nations works with six official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. This means that a delegate speaking any of these during a General Assembly or other meeting will have his comments translated by the simultaneous interpreters. The two working languages are English and French, meaning that all documents are written in these two languages.

The Secretary-General is the chief officer of the United Nations. The Security Council recommends a candidate to the General Assembly, which then appoints the Secretary-General for a period of five years. This person is responsible for the smooth operation of the United Nations and is also given the same political power as a member of the General Assembly. The Secretary-General can propose matters for discussion to the Security Council and often is called upon to act as mediator in international disputes before they are brought to the official attention of the Security Council.

There have been several Secretaries-General since the inauguration of the United Nations: Trygve Lie, from Norway (1946-1952); Dag Hammarskjöld, from Sweden (1953-1961); U Thant, from Myanmar (1961-1971); Kurt Waldheim, from Austria (1972-1981); Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, from Peru (1982-1991); Boutros Boutros-Ghali, from Egypt (1992-1996); and Kofi Annan, from Ghana (1997-    ). Hammarskjöld died in 1961 in an unexplained plane crash in northern Rhodesia while on a United Nations mission in Africa.

The United Nations Begins Its Work

The General Assembly held its first-ever meeting in London in 1946 and there decided that the United Nations should have its headquarters in the United States. In 1946, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated eight million dollars with which to buy a portion of the land along the East River in Manhattan. The rest of the land was given by the city of New York, making up a site totaling eighteen acres. Despite its location in New York, the United Nations Headquarters stands on international territory, governed by the United Nation’s own laws, policed by its own security officers, flying its own blue-and-white flag, and issuing its own postage stamps. The New York headquarters consists of several separate buildings, and in recent years further adjacent office space has been taken in addition to the original buildings.

Once the site, then a run-down area of light industry and slaughterhouses, had been decided upon, the U.S. architect Wallace K. Harrison was appointed to lead a ten-member board of internationally renowned architects and design consultants who had all been nominated by their governments. The members of the board were N. D. Bassov (Soviet Union), Gaston Brunfaut (Belgium), Ernest Cormier (Canada), Charles E. Le Corbusier (France), Liang Ssu-cheng (China), Sven Markelius (Sweden), Oscar Niemeyer (Brazil), Howard Robertson (United Kingdom), G. A. Soilleux (Australia), and Julio Villamajo (Uruguay). Together they decided that the administrative offices of the United Nations would have to be housed in a tall building due to the restricted space on the site.

The Site of the U.N. Building

The firm bedrock of the Manhattan schist, on which most of the city’s skyscrapers are built, runs through part of the site, making the erection of the thirty-nine-story Secretariat Building possible. Elsewhere on the site, between 46th and 47th Streets, the bedrock dips sixty feet below sea level, and formed Turtle Bay in the nineteenth century. Today this area is filled in and lies beneath the large lawn in front of the General Assembly building. The Secretariat was built on the southern portion of the site in order to provide easy access to 42d Street, one of Manhattan’s main arteries for public transportation. It was positioned on a north/south axis to prevent it from casting a long shadow over the rest of the site.

The designers decided that the tall aluminum, Vermont marble, and green-tinted glass facade of the 550-foot-high Secretariat Building and the sloping structure of the General Assembly Building, with its concave walls and shallow dome, should rise out of a landscaped, park-like, plateau. The site stretches from United Nations Plaza on First Avenue right up to the river’s edge, where the landscaping and the Conference Building are cantilevered over Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive along the East River. The first plans were deemed by Secretary-General Lie to be too lavish and expensive and were accordingly scaled down. Mainly this meant reducing the height of the Secretariat Building to its present thirty-nine stories–from the proposed forty-five–and omitting plans for a library. The amended sixty-five million dollar plan–down from eighty-five million dollars–was approved by the General Assembly in November, 1947.

Construction Begins

In January, 1949, four large New York construction firms began work; they completed the headquarters in August, 1950. In 1961, there was a major addition to the headquarters with the completion of the Dag Hammarskjöld Library as a result of a donation from the Ford Foundation. Additions since then have included a staff cafeteria and a document processing plant, as well as expanded office space for UNICEF and other United Nations agencies.

When the United Nations Headquarters was inaugurated, many gifts arrived from the governments of the member nations. Some countries contributed materials used in the construction of the buildings and others provided furnishings. Many countries sent works of art, which are displayed throughout the buildings and can be viewed by visitors to the United Nations. Among the many gifts to the United Nations headquarters there are two rugs, woven by the indigenous people of the Andes and given by Ecuador; a tapestry, Le Ciel by Matisse, given by France; black pebbles from Rhodes in the fountain pool in the Secretariat plaza given by Greece; a replica of an original stele (dated 1750 b.c.e.) listing the laws of Hammurabi, the oldest written legal codes, given by Iraq; a four-ounce moon rock and a United Nations flag carried on Apollo 11 during its moon landing in 1969 given by the United States; and the Foucault pendulum, given by the Netherlands, which provides a visual proof of the earth’s rotation. Individuals have bequeathed gifts also: Both Salvador Dalí and Marc Chagall have donated pieces of their own work to the United Nations headquarters.

These gifts, ranging from the practical–furnishings provided by Austria, Germany, Norway, and Sweden–to the symbolic, such as the bronze Japanese peace bell cast from coins from more than sixty nations, are a measure of the inspiration the United Nations has provided in the nearly fifty years of its existence, as well as of the hopes and aspirations that are placed in it. Together, the gifts make up a cornucopia of artistic achievement and present a fitting testimony to the diversity of the earth’s five billion people represented at the United Nations. Now, as in 1945, the United Nations believes that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” and that “the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom from fear and want” is “the highest aspiration of the common people” (extracted from the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly on October 10, 1948).

For Further Information
  • Altschiller, Donald, ed. The United Nations’ Role in World Affairs. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1993. For more detailed information and analysis, as well as for current interpretations, see this excellent collection of articles and essays.
  • Coyle, David Cushman. The United Nations and How It Works. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. A good historic overview of the structure of the United Nations, the functions and activities of its agencies and special programs, and its achievements.
  • Macqueen, Norrie. The United Nations Since 1945: Peacekeeping and the Cold War. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999. A history of the United Nations and its role in the Cold War.
  • Moore, John Allphin, Jr., and Jerry Pubantz. To Create a New World? American Presidents and the United Nations. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. Examines the relationship between U.S. presidents and foreign policy decisions and the United Nations.
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