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Overview of the United Nations

The United Nations officially came into being on October 24, 1945. By that date a majority of the 50 countries that had signed the UN Charter in San Francisco on June 26, 1945, had ratified it in their national parliaments. The UN replaced the League of Nations, which had been created by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Canada, a participant at the San Francisco Conference (April 25 to June 26, 1945), is one of the founding members of the United Nations.

The actions of the UN are guided by its Charter, which defines the United Nations' purposes as follows:

  • to maintain international peace and security;
  • to develop friendly relations among nations; and
  • to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights.

The actions of the United Nations are based on certain principles:

  • all of its members are equal;
  • all members must fulfil their Charter obligations;
  • international disputes are to be settled by peaceful means;
  • members may not use force or the threat of force against other members;
  • members must help the United Nations in any action it might take in accordance with the Charter;
  • the United Nations may not interfere in the domestic affairs of any state.

Currently, there are 193 member states. For a complete list of member states, along with the year each was admitted to the UN, please visit the United Nations Member States page.

Although UN Member States do not legislate in the manner of a national parliament, through their actions and their votes, they help set international policy.

The United Nations has six main bodies established by the Charter: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat.

All act in concert with dozens of related specialized agencies, funds and programmes in order to develop increasingly co-ordinated but diversified actions in the spheres of peace and security, humanitarian assistance, human rights, and economic and social development.

The United Nations System of Organizations is made up of the United Nations Secretariat, the United Nations Programmes and Funds - such as the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) - and the Specialized Agencies - such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The Programmes, Funds and Agencies have their own governing bodies and budgets, and set their own standards and guidelines. Together, they provide technical assistance and other forms of practical help in virtually all areas of economic and social endeavour.

Click here to find more information on Research and Training InstitutesOther UN Entities and Related Organizations.

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Date Modified:
2012-08-07