United Nations: UPSC Notes

The United Nations (UN) is a global organisation tasked with maintaining international peace and security while fostering friendly relations among nations. It is the largest, most recognized and most powerful intergovernmental organisation in the world. The United Nations Organisation is an important topic in the IAS exam.

One may also read:

Headquarters of International Organisations Significant International Institutions/Organisations Infographic
Reports of International Organisations International Environmental Conventions and Protocols

United Nations Organisation – UPSC Notes:- Download PDF Here

Table of Contents:

Functions of the United Nations (UN)
United Nations – Principal Organs
United Nations Specialized Agencies
United Nations – Important Agencies & Programmes
United Nations Conventions
India and the UN
Challenges Faced by UN

United Nations

The UN was formed following the devastating World War II, with the aim of preventing future global-scale conflicts. It was a successor to the ineffective League of Nations. The representatives of 50 governments met in San Francisco on 25 April 1945, to draft what would become the UN Charter. The Charter was adopted on 25 June 1945 and came into effect on 24 October 1945.

For more on UN evolution, check This Day in History dated October 24.

United Nations Functions

In accordance with the Charter, the organization’s objectives include maintaining international peace and security, protecting human rights, delivering humanitarian aid, promoting sustainable development, and upholding international law. At its founding, the UN had 51 member states; this number grew to 193 in 2011, representing the vast majority of the world’s sovereign states.

United Nations Structure

The UN is structured around five principal organs:

  1. General Assembly
  2. United Nations Security Council (UNSC)
  3. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
  4. International Court of Justice
  5. UN Secretariat.

A sixth principal organ, the Trusteeship Council, suspended operations on 1 November 1994, upon the independence of Palau, the last remaining UN trustee territory.

A brief table about their primary function is given below:

Principal Organs of the United Nations

Name of the Organ Primary Function

Primary Tasks of the Organ

UN General Assembly Deliberative assembly of all the UN member states
  • May resolve non-compulsory recommendations to states or suggestions to the Security Council (UNSC);
  • Decides on the admission of new members, following a proposal by the UNSC;
  • Adopts the budget;
  • Elects the non-permanent members of the UNSC; all members of ECOSOC; the UN Secretary-General (following his/her proposal by the UNSC); and the fifteen judges of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Each country has one vote.
UN Secretariat Administrative organ of the UN
  • Supports the other UN bodies administratively (for example, in the organization of conferences, the writing of reports and studies the preparation of the budget);
  • Its chairperson – the UN Secretary-General – is elected by the General Assembly for a five-year mandate and is the UN’s foremost representative.
International Court of Justice Universal court of international law
  • Decides disputes between states that recognize its jurisdiction;
  • Issues legal opinions;
  • Renders judgment by relative majority. Its fifteen judges are elected by the UN General Assembly for nine-year terms.
UN Security Council Arbitrates international security issues
  • Responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security;
  • May adopt compulsory resolutions;
  • Has fifteen members: five permanent members with veto power and ten elected non-permanent members (term –  two years)
UN Economic and Social Council For global economic and social affairs
  • Responsible for cooperation between states concerning economic and social matters;
  • Coordinates cooperation between the numerous specialized agencies of UN;
  • Has 54 members, elected by the General Assembly to serve staggered three-year mandates.
UN Trusteeship Council For administering trust territory (now disbanded)
  • Was originally designed to manage former colonial possessions.
  • Has been inactive since 1994, when Palau, the last trust territory, attained independence.

To know more about the UN and its principal organs, visit the linked article.

What are the Specialized Agencies of the UN?

The UN Charter stipulates that each primary organ of the United Nations can establish various specialized agencies to fulfil its duties. There are 17 specialized agencies of the UN. They are mentioned in the table below:

United Nations Specialized Agencies

Agency Acronym Headquarters Founding Year
Food and Agriculture Organization FAO Rome, Italy 1945
International Telecommunication Union ITU Geneva, Switzerland 1865 (Joined UN in 1947)
International Fund for Agricultural Development IFAD Rome, Italy 1977
International Labour Organization ILO Geneva, Switzerland 1946
International Maritime Organization IMO London, United Kingdom 1948
International Monetary Fund IMF Washington, United States 1945
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization UNESCO Paris, France 1946
World Health Organization WHO Geneva, Switzerland 1948
United Nations Industrial Development Organization UNIDO Vienna, Austria 1966
International Civil Aviation Organization ICAO Montreal, Canada 1944
World Intellectual Property Organisation WIPO Geneva, Switzerland 1967
International Fund for Agricultural Development IFAD Rome, Italy 1977
Universal Postal Union UPU Bern, Switzerland 1874
International Telecommunication Union ITU Geneva, Switzerland 1865
United Nations World Tourism Organization UNWTO Madrid, Spain 1974
World Meteorological Organisation WMO Geneva, Switzerland 1950
World Bank Group WBG Washington, D.C, USA 1944

UN Agencies and Organisations

There are several agencies, bodies, institutes and organisations that work under the UN system. Some of them predate the UN’s establishment and were incorporated into the UN later on, while others were founded afterwards. They perform important functions across domains, regions and sectors. The table below mentions a few significant such organisations.

Important Agencies & Programs under the UN System

Agency Acronym HQ Founding Year
United Nations Environment Programme UNEP Nairobi, Kenya 1972
United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF New York, USA 1946
United Nations Population Fund UNFPA New York, USA 1967
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees UNHCR Geneva, Switzerland 1950
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime UNODC Vienna, Austria 1997
United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute UNICRI Turin, Italy 1968
United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction UNDRR Geneva, Switzerland 1999
United Nations Development Programme UNDP New York, USA 1965
United Nations University UNU Tokyo, Japan 1972
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development UNCTAD Geneva, Switzerland 1964
International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA Vienna, Austria 1957
United Nations Human Settlement Programme UN-Habitat Nairobi, Kenya 1978
Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS UNAIDS Geneva, Switzerland 1994
World Food Programme WFP Rome, Italy 1961
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights OHCHR Geneva, Switzerland 1993

UN Conventions

The United Nations sets up international conventions, which may be legally binding on parties, on various issues and domains. Some of the important conventions, protocols, etc. are mentioned in the table below. You can read more about the conventions by clicking on their names.

UNCRPD Minamata Convention
Montreal Protocol Kigali Amendment
UNCCD Kyoto Protocol
GEF Rio Summit (UNCED)

India and the UN

India was among the founding members of the United Nations. Even before achieving independence, India had signed the Declaration by the United Nations at Washington, D.C. in 1944, and also participated in the United Nations Conference on International Organization at San Francisco from 25 April to 26 June 1945. As one of the original members of the United Nations, India enthusiastically supports the purposes and principles of the UN and has made significant contributions in implementing the goals of the organisation. The UN field networks in India are the largest anywhere in the world through the many offices, programmes and funds currently at work in the country.

Today, there are 26 UN agencies in India. Some of the milestones that the UN has made in India through its agencies are elaborated upon below:

  1. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO):
    1. When FAO began its India operations in 1948, its priority was to transform India’s food and farm sectors through technical inputs and support for policy development.
    2. Over the years, FAO has made major inroads in resolving issues such as access to food, nutrition, livelihoods, rural development and sustainable agriculture. With the Sustainable Development Goals in full swing, the FAO’s primary focus will be on improving India’s sustainable agricultural practices.
  2. International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD):
    1. IFAD and the Government of India have achieved significant results in investing in the commercialization of smallholding-agriculture and building small farmers’ capacity to increase incomes from market opportunities.
    2. IFAD-supported projects have also provided women with access to financial services, such as by linking women’s self-help groups with commercial banks.
  3. UNAIDS:
    1. India has worked with the UN on the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). The main aim of the programme is to help prevent new HIV infections, care for people living with HIV and mitigate the impact of the epidemic.
    2. Between 2001 and 2012 the total number of cases of the disease in India fell down by 50%, one of the highest in the world at that time. So far, India has managed to continue the trend.
  4. Asian and Pacific Centre for Transfer of Technology (APCTT):
    1. This is a UNESCAP regional institute established in 1977. It works in the fields of technology transfer, information and innovation management.
  5. International Monetary Fund: India has been working closely with the IMF. For more on this, please check the linked article on IMF in the table above.
  6. UNESCO: 
    1. India has been closely associated with the UNESCO. India has been continuously re-elected to the Executive Board of UNESCO since 1946.
    2. A UNESCO Category I Institute dedicated to education for peace and sustainable development was established in 2012 and is called the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP). It is located in New Delhi.
    3. There are also several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India. For more on this, click the linked article.
  7. World Health Organisation (WHO): WHO has been working closely with the Indian government to improve health outcomes. It has played a stellar part in eradicating several diseases such as cholera, controlling others like malaria, TB, etc. For more on WHO and India, you can check the WHO linked article from the table above.

Similarly, other organisations have also played a great role in India and helped in its progress towards development, health and economic improvement. For details of each organisation’s role in India, you can go through the respective articles from the table above.

India’s Contribution towards the UN

India has been an active member of the UN since its inception. In 1946, India became the first country to raise the issues of racism and apartheid in South Africa in the UN forum.

  • India played an important part in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Read more about the contribution of Hansa Mehta in this regard.
  • The first woman president of the UNGA was an Indian, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, in 1953.
  • India’s contribution to the UNSC can be read at the UNSC article from the first table on this page.
  • India has contributed immensely to UN Peacekeeping Missions in various parts of the world.
    • India has sent her peacekeeping troops to Korea, Egypt, Congo, Haiti, Angola, Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda, Lebanon, South Sudan, etc.
    • India has been regularly one of the largest contributor of troops to the missions.
  • Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence resonate deeply with the UN’s principles. In 2007, the UN declared Gandhi’s birth anniversary of October 2 as the ‘International Day of Non-violence’.
  • In 2014, the UNGA declared that 21st June would be observed as International Yoga Day. Read more on this in the linked article.

United Nations Organisation – UPSC Notes:- Download PDF Here

UN Reforms/What are the challenges faced by the UN?

The UN has had its fair share of challenges in the years of its existence. Now there is no one single factor to those challenges but rather multi-faceted factors that make the UN’s task of fostering world peace a difficult one. Some of the challenges to the UN’s efforts for global peace are as follows:

  • Geopolitical aggression and intransigence: Conflicts are becoming commonplace and gradually being magnified by rival global powers as they lend support to proxy groups to wage war overseas. The UNSC, being dominated by a few nations, is unable to take a neutral stand on issues, thus endangering world peace and security. Apart from issuing declarations, the UN has been unable to stop certain conflicts from taking place.
  • Legacies of military intervention and regime change: Framed as interventions to counter terror, save civilians or remove rogue regimes, in case after case, military intervention and regime change have failed to bring lasting stability or to defeat fundamentalist groups. This has brought an atmosphere of distrust regarding any intervention done by the UN.
  • Panic over forced displacement: As desperate people flee war zones, the impact of forced displacement is hitting neighbouring countries hardest and they are trying to manage as best as they can. Meanwhile, Western governments are making hasty deals to support border and security forces in transit countries to close their borders and shut the problem out. But such short-term measures will only further antagonize the nations who are overburdened by the inflow of refugees.
  • Struggling humanitarianism: Undoubtedly humanitarians have a tough job. The UN and others are making enormous efforts, with inadequate resources, to assist the victims of conflict. But they are not yet good enough at defending humanitarian values, working for prevention during a crisis or empowering those affected by humanitarian crises to take the initiative.
  • Western interventions in countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. have not brought about lasting peace or stability to those regions. The UN has largely been like a mute spectator to the horrible events (humanitarian crises, woes of migrants who flee these zones) that unfolded in these conflict-ridden zones of the world. Although, it must be acknowledged that many humanitarian efforts such as by the WHO, UNICEF, WFP, etc. have helped these zones immensely at least in their respective domains. However, political resolutions to conflicts are more tricky and the UN does face enormous challenges in this regard.
  • UNSC Reforms: There have been great demands for reforms within the Security Council. The G4 Nations comprising India, Germany, Brazil and Japan are championing each other’s bid for permanent seats in the Security Council. You can read more on the United Nations Security Council Reforms in the linked article. Not only in the UNSC, world leaders are also demanding a change in the manner in which the UN system functions, calling for more localisation, lesser bureaucracy and more decision-making powers to those nations where most of the UN’s humanitarian work is concentrated, like the African countries.

Like all challenges, there are solutions to face them as well. Here are a few solutions on how the UN works for conflict resolution and peaceful change in an era of mistrust and division.

  • In an era where a consensus, political or otherwise, is hard to arrive at, it will be crucial to use the vision and the mandate of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This consensus was developed through a uniquely consultative process.
  • ‘Sustaining peace’ should also be a moment to reclaim the policy space. A panic regarding policy is setting in – framing conflicts as ‘terror’ threats and as a ‘migration’ crisis is only enlarging the problem. Prevention and peacemaking tools are the answer to these problems.
  •  The UN must not settle for an inert and technocratic approach focused only on building the capacity of state institutions, no matter how strong or weak the political pressure. At the heart of the SDGs is a drive for transformative change with more peaceful, just and inclusive societies helping to shape stronger and more inclusive institutions. If sustaining peace merely means reinforcing the very institutions that are at the heart of the problem – such as blood-thirsty military regimes or corrupt bureaucracies – then, such an endeavour is an exercise in futility.
  • Remaining true to an agenda that will transform people’s lives requires supporting those who work for peaceful change – in and out of government, including women and youth. This requires a willingness to step out of national capitals, to talk to a wider range of people, to build up an understanding of conflicts rooted in people’s priorities, and to work in solidarity with people to help them.
  • These reforms are of utmost importance as the world faces newer challenges in the form of climate change, environmental degradation, population growth, refugee and stateless peoples, etc.

For more UPSC and UN-related articles, candidates can refer to the links given below:

Related Links:

UPSC Question papers Indian Polity Notes for UPSC UPSC Mains General Studies-II Strategy, Syllabus & Structure
International Relations Previous Years’ Questions for UPSC Current Affairs Topic-Wise Previous Years’ GS 2 Questions


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