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What is the United Nations? - Definition, History, Members & Purpose

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  • 0:00 Definition and Purpose…
  • 1:37 History of the United Nations
  • 3:13 Members of the UN
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrea Stephenson

Andrea has a Juris Doctor and has spoken at legal conferences on government transparency.

This lesson will discuss the United Nations. You will learn not only about what the United Nations is, but also about its history, members, and purpose.

Definition and Purpose of the United Nations

Imagine how the world might look if no opportunities were available for countries to discuss international matters. Would there be cooperation among countries? Would there be consensus on international matters? Would any international problems be resolved?

Countries generally enter into treaties in order to resolve matters between each other. However, on more complex worldwide matters, such as world peace and promoting social justice for humanity, a forum is needed to foster discussion and decision. The United Nations is one such organization.

The United Nations (UN) is an international organization created in 1945, shortly after the end of WWII. The UN was formed by 51 countries in order to encourage resolution of international conflicts without war and to form policies on international issues. Like most organizations, the UN was formed in order to meet certain goals and purposes. Article I of the Charter of United Nations specifies the purposes of the UN. The Charter of United Nations (UN Charter) is the UN's governing document, much like the Constitution of the United States of America.

The UN Charter sets out four main purposes:

  1. Maintaining worldwide peace and security
  2. Developing relations among nations
  3. Fostering cooperation between nations in order to solve economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian international problems
  4. Providing a forum for bringing countries together to meet the UN's purposes and goals

History of the United Nations

The predecessor entity to the UN was the League of Nations. The League of Nations was established during WWI in 1919, by the Treaty of Versailles (one of the peace treaties adopted at the end of WWI). The League of Nations' goal was to encourage cooperation between countries and keep international peace and security. Unfortunately, the League of Nations failed to prevent WWII and, therefore, was seen as a failure.

The phrase 'United Nations' was first used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1942 Declaration by United Nations to describe the group of countries signing such declaration. The Declaration by United Nations was a pledge by twenty-six nations to fight together as the Allied Powers against the Axis Powers during WWII. The Axis Powers was a coalition of countries in WWII headed by Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Two months after WWII ended, the representatives of the Allied Powers and twenty-four other countries met in San Francisco for the United Nations Conference on International Organization. The conference's sole purpose was to draft the UN Charter. On June 26, 1945, the United Nations Charter was signed by 51 countries, including Poland, which did not attend the conference but signed later. Shortly after the UN formation, other countries began joining. After the ratification of the UN Charter, the remaining members of the League of Nations met and unanimously voted to transfer all of its assets to the United Nations and formally dissolve the League of Nations.

Members of the UN

Originally, there were 51 members of the UN. Today, however, there are 193 member countries, which includes most of the countries around the world. Membership in the UN is generally open to any country that is peace-loving and agrees to be bound by the principles in the UN Charter. In order to gain membership, a country must apply. Any application for membership goes to the Security Council for review and vote. The Security Council is the main UN committee responsible for maintaining peace and security.

It contains five permanent members:

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