The concept and history of the United Nations

The United Nations is considered to be the only international organization with universal membership, which means that all internationally recognized states and individual observers, such as the Vatican, Palestine, participate in its work. UN Member States cooperate in the fields of international law, global security, economic and sustainable development and social equity. The UN was established on October 24, 1945 at the founding conference held in San Francisco. 51 countries participated at the conference. It is worth pointing out that among them was Yugoslavia, bearing in mind that the status of the founding member has a prestigious meaning.

There are now 193 UN Member States. From its headquarters in New York, UN Member States and its specialized agencies manage and decide on administrative issues at regular meetings held each year. In addition to its headquarters in New York, the UN has three main offices – in Geneva, Nairobi and Vienna. The United Nations Office in Geneva is the European United Nations Headquarters. It is located in the building of the Palace of Nations, built for the needs of the League of Nations between 1929 and 1938 in Geneva, Switzerland.

The United Nations is divided into administrative bodies, such as the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the Secretariat and the International Court of Justice, as well as bodies managing other UN agencies, such as UNESCO, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, UNDP, UNODC, World Trade Organization, etc. For example, the World Health Assembly and the Executive Board oversee the work of the World Health Organization. The Secretary-General acts as the de factospokesperson and leader of the UN. The current Secretary-General is António Guterres, who replaced Ban Ki-moonin 2017.

In order to better understand the coordination mechanisms, that is, the decision-making process in the UN system, we need to look back at the reasons for the emergence of this global international organization. The United Nations was founded as the successor to the League of Nations, which emerged as a response to the First World War, but it failed in achieving its primary goal of preserving peace. As stated in the United Nations Charter itself, the United Nations is founded with the aim to save future generations from the horrors of war, to preserve peace and security, to restore faith to basic human rights and equality, and to work on social progress. The greatest advantage of the United Nations over the League of Nations is the ability to maintain and deliver the armed forces of its members as peacekeepers in different regions where there are armed conflicts in order to implement the conditions of peace negotiations and to prevent further continuation of the combat. These forces are provided by the member states of the United Nations. All United Nations peace missions must first be approved by the Security Council.

How are decisions made in the United Nations?

The Annual General Meeting of the General Assembly opens every year on the third Tuesday in September and lasts for one year. The work of the General Assembly consists of a round of debate, negotiation and lobbying, decision making, decision implementation and reporting. Simulations of the work of the UN bodies at Model UN conferences only focus on the first three phases of this cycle. There are three general components in the decision-making process that are crucial and each participant needs to understand them. Those are debating, negotiating and undertaking actions. Therefore, we need to provide a clear overview of these three components and highlight their most important aspects.

Setting the agenda of the General Assembly

At the beginning of each new session of the General Assembly, the plenary assembly and the six main committees consider the allocated agenda items. Items on the agenda represent the priority issues that are being raised before the United Nations. The main goal of each session of the General Assembly is to undertake measures for each item of the agenda that has been put to its consideration. Taking into account each individual item on the agenda, the General Assembly first discusses the item and then adopts one or more resolutions on that point.

According to the Article 10 of the UN Charter which defines the functions and powers of the General Assembly: “The General Assembly may discuss any issues in general or on any issues within the scope of this Charter or relating to the powers and functions of any body provided for by the Charter and … may make recommendations to members of the United Nations or to the Security Council or both and others in relation to such matters”. In other words, the resolutions adopted by the General Assembly in the agenda items are considered recommendations and are not legally binding on the member states. The only resolutions that have a potential legal obligation are those adopted by the Security Council.

Why is consensus important?

Member States consider it extremely important to adopt a resolution that has the widest possible consensus among its members. Why? Before taking action on the draft resolution, Member States spend hours talking about each word in the resolution in hope of reaching agreement on the text. When a consensus is reached on the text, all Member States agree to adopt a draft resolution without a vote. Making a draft without a vote is the most basic definition of what the consensus is. If 192 Member States agree with the text, but there is only one Member State that requires voting, there is no consensus.

If the Secretary-General’s resolution is not legally binding, the best way to encourage all member states to adopt the recommendations expressed in the resolution is that they all agree on the same text. When a resolution is adopted by a simple majority, it will be less likely that those who have not voted for a resolution on a particular item on the agenda adopt measures on the agenda that are recommended in the resolution.

When the United Nations was established in 1945, there were only 51 Member States and the resolutions were adopted by voting. Today, however, we have 193 Member States and around 80% of the resolutions of the General Assembly have been adopted by consensus, i.e. without voting.

When resolution is adopted by voting, it is necessary to have a simple majority that agrees with the text of the resolution. You do not have to worry and try to understand the perspectives of a minority that is disagreeing. When resolution is adopted by consensus, account must be taken of the views of all participants and it is necessary to engage in negotiations that often result in compromises by taking into account different perspectives. This process is inclusive.

Achieving the widest agreement, i.e. consensus today is more vital than ever, given the dramatic increase in the number of Member States over the years. Since the resolutions of the General Assembly are recommendations and, in fact, are not legally binding for the member states, reaching a consensus has evolved to ensure the broadest possible implementation of the decisions of the General Assembly.

During Model UN simulations, delegates often do not think about the implementation of resolutions, and are therefore largely unaware of the value of reaching consensus on voting. Most of the resolutions adopted by the UN conferences are adopted by voting. This method does not reflect the changes that have occurred in the UN over decades.

As the world’s largest international platform for decision-making, it is natural that the UN is changing. You cannot really understand the UN as an organization without understanding the decision-making process that has evolved since 1945. However, it is important to note that reaching consensus is not the same as unanimous decision-making. Consensus does not mean that all member states have agreed on each word or even each of the positions in the draft resolution. Member States may agree to adopt a draft resolution without a vote, but nevertheless have reservations for certain parts of the resolution. The only important thing is that there is nothing in the resolution that is so contrary to the views and policies of any Member State before it is voted. When Member States have reservations on certain elements of the draft resolution they have agreed to be adopted by consensus, States that do not sponsor resolutions have the opportunity to explain their views before appropriate measures are taken or after taking these measures as set forth in the resolution.

Decision-making in the Security Council

The legally binding nature of the Security Council resolutions is often the subject of circumventing the international law. Nevertheless, International Public Law defines resolutions that have been adopted in accordance with Article VII of the UN Charter as legally binding (actions in accordance with peace agreements, peace breaches, and acts of aggression). The Council is also empowered to adopt resolutions under Article VI of the UN Charter relating to the settlement of the conflict by peaceful means but they are not considered legally binding. In the case of Namibia, the International Court of Justice suggested that resolutions other than those adopted under Article VI may also be binding, which some Member States have opposed. It is beyond any doubt that the resolutions adopted under the other articles of the Charter dealing with the international administration of the organization (such as the admission of a new member state) are legally binding, where the Charter gives the Security Council the authority to issue them.

The Security Council’s decision is based on the right to decide in accordance with Article 24 of the Charter of the United Nations: “In order to ensure prompt and effective action by the  United Nations, its members entrust the Security Council with primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security and agree that the Security Council is acting on their behalf in the performance of their duties on the basis of this responsibility”. The operational strength of this jurisdiction has been confirmed in Article 25 of the Charter of the United Nations, which affirms that “the United Nations members agree to accept and implement the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with this Charter”. Representatives of the members of the Security Council must always be present at the UN Headquarters in New York in order to hold meetings at any time in case of emergency.

The decision of the United Nations Security Council is a unilateral act of the United Nations. The Security Council is not a separate subject of international law, but the United Nations as an international organization, through its bodies, carries out tasks in achieving the goals for which it was founded. The Security Council’s decision is an expression of an independent will as it is the result of the decision-making process of the members of the Security Council according to the rules of organization. The Council consists of 15 United Nations Member States: five permanent members (People’s Republic of China, Republic of France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States) and ten non-permanent members elected by the General Assembly and rotated for a period of two years (these are currently Bolivia, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland and Sweden).

The decision represents the final result of the Council’s process of work, which is conducted according to the rules expressed in the UN Charter and the organizational acts of the Council. Decisions made by the fifteen members of the Security Council on all important issues – e.g. the decision on the implementation of direct measures to resolve the conflict – requires a confirmed vote of nine members. A negative vote – a veto – by a permanent member prevents the adoption of a proposal, even if it has the necessary number of affirmative votes. Restraint is not considered veto. Since the establishment of the Security Council, China (RK /NRK) has used a veto 5 times; France 18; Russia / USSR 122; United Kingdom 32; and the United States 80 times. The majority of the veto votes of the USSR were included in the first ten years of the existence of the Council, and the number of vetoes since 1984 was: China – 2; France – 3; Russia – 4; United Kingdom – 10; and the United States – 42.

In the end, who is taking part in the decision-making process in the UN?

While only the governments of Member States have the authority to make decisions in the United Nations in the form of resolutions, contracts, action plans, etc., the decision-making process is increasingly opening up to a number of non-state actors, including non-governmental organizations, the private sector, trade unions, foundations, think tanks, local authorities and academic researchers. This was particularly expressed during a series of world conferences and summits in the 1990s when civil society and other groups were seen as sources of knowledge that can disseminate the significance of decisions made and be of great help in encouraging their implementation.

Reform of the United Nations Security Council

More recently, the need for a Security Council reform is being discussed more and more frequently. We are witnessing the silent evolution of the largest universal organization and the UN is still of exceptional significance as the only organization of that kind in the world. Since the establishment of the United Nations nearly 73 years ago, the situation in the world has changed significantly. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has requested during his mandate a team of advisers to make recommendations on UN reform by the end of 2004. It was even then suggested that the number of permanent members be increased. France and the United Kingdom supported this, but a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly did not give their consent.

The countries that are loudest in the demands for permanent membership in the UN Security Council are Germany, Japan, Brazil and India. Japan and Germany are ranked second and third in funding the UN budget, while Brazil and India have the largest number of military troops in UN peacekeeping missions. There is also a lot of talk about representation of the continents, the number of inhabitants, the economy and the surface of the states. In order to improve the functioning of the UN and achieve its primary goals, certain changes are necessary. What kind of transformation in the international community will happen in the future and how this will affect the United Nations and its bodies, remains to be seen.


  1. Public International Law, Milenko Kreća, Faculty of Law, University of Belgrade, 8th edition, 2016.
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Author: Milena Nikolić