The Security Council
The most powerful part of the United Nations is the Security Council, with responsibility for maintaining peace and international security. The Council can meet at any time, whenever peace is threatened.
There are 15 Council members. Five of these – the UK, China, France, Russia and the United States - are permanent members. The other 10 are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Decisions made by the Council require nine yes votes out of 15. A decision cannot pass if there is a no vote or a veto from one of the five permanent members - such as the UK.
When the Council considers a threat to international peace, it first explores ways to settle the dispute peacefully. It may suggest a settlement, or try to mediate between the countries involved. In the event of fighting, the Council will try to secure a ceasefire. It may also send a peacekeeping mission to help maintain a truce and to keep opposing forces apart.
The UN can also take action to enforce its decisions. It can impose economic sanctions or order a ban on arms sales to specific countries. On rare occasions, the Council has authorised Member States to use “all necessary means,” including military action, to see that decisions are carried out.
The General Assembly
All countries in the UN are represented in the General Assembly – a “parliament of nations” which meets to consider the world’s most pressing problems. Each member state has one vote. The type of issues that may be discussed include globalisation, AIDS, conflict in Africa and how to help new democracies. Decisions on key areas such as peace and security, admitting new members and the UN budget are decided by a two-thirds majority, while other matters only need a simple majority.
When decisions are made by the General Assembly or the Security Council, the Secretariat is responsible for providing the support work necessary to carry out the decisions. At its head is the Secretary-General, who provides overall administrative guidance.
The Secretariat consists of departments and offices with a total of 14,000 staff (7,000 working temporarily on special projects), drawn from over 170 countries. The UN headquarters are in New York, with other offices in Geneva, Vienna, Nairobi and other locations.
The present Secretary-General is Kofi Annan from Ghana. Mr. Annan took up the post in January 1997 and will complete his second term in office at the end of 2006.