Short history of the UN

Prior to the UN

Prior to the establishment of the United Nations, the League of Nations existed as the premier organisation for international cooperation. Established in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations was established to ensure international peace, security and cooperation between nations following the First World War. At its height, the League of Nations had 58 members. In the 1930s, its success waned as the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) gained influence, eventually leading to the start of World War II in 1939. The International Labour Organization was also created under the Treaty of Versailles as an affiliated agency of the League. The League of Nations ceased its activities after failing to prevent the Second World War.


Founding of the UN

The name “United Nations,” coined by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was first used in the “Declaration by United Nations” of 1 January 1942, during the Second World War, when representatives of 26 nations pledged their Governments to continue fighting together against the Axis powers.

The UN was founded following the Second World War, in 1945 when the Charter of the United Nations was drafted at the UN Conference on International Organisation in San Francisco, California. The Charter is the constituting instrument of the UN, setting out the rights and obligations of member states, and establishing the United Nations organs and ­procedures. 50 nations and several non-governmental organisations attended and signed the Charter, committing to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights.

The UN officially came into existence on October 24, 1945 after ratification of the Charter. The day is now celebrated each year around the world as United Nations Day.


The UN today

Today, almost every fully recognised independent state is a member state of the UN, with membership currently totalling 193 countries.

The work of the UN reaches every corner of the globe. Although best known for peacekeeping, peacebuilding, conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance, there are many other ways the United Nations and its system (specialised agencies, funds and programmes) affect our lives and make the world a better place.

The UN works on a broad range of issues, from sustainable development, environment and refugees protection, disaster relief, counter terrorism, disarmament and non-proliferation, to promoting democracy, human rights, gender equality and the advancement of women, governance, economic and social development and international health, clearing landmines, expanding food production, and more, in order to achieve its goals and coordinate efforts for a safer world for this and future generations.


The Aims of the United Nations:

  • To keep peace throughout the world
  • To develop friendly relations between nations
  • To help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease, illiteracy, and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms
  • To be a centre for helping nations achieve these aims


The Principles of the United Nations:

  • All Member States have sovereign equality
  • All Member States must obey the Charter
  • Countries must try to settle their differences by peaceful means
  • Countries must avoid using force or threatening to use force
  • The UN may not interfere in the domestic affairs of any country
  • Countries should try to assist the United Nations


Due to the powers vested in its Charter and its unique international character, the United Nations can take action on the issues confronting humanity in the 21st century, such as peace and security, climate change, sustainable development, human rights, disarmament, terrorism, humanitarian and health emergencies, gender equality, governance, food production, and more.

The UN also provides a forum for its members to express their views in the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and other bodies and committees. By enabling dialogue between its members, and by hosting negotiations, the Organization has become a mechanism for governments to find areas of agreement and solve problems together.

The UN's Chief Administrative Officer is the Secretary-General.

2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the United Nations.


United Nations Handbook 2017/18

Each year, the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade produces the UN Handbook, an annual and useful guide for those working with and within the United Nations. Download the 2017/18 handbook via the MFAT website.