UN/DPI Photo. Photo by A. Brizzi
Flags of U.N. member states at headquarters in New York
You hear about the United Nations (U.N.) constantly in the news, although you might not always realize it. For example:
  • "Peacekeeping" operations are sponsored by the United Nations. Currently, the U.N. has peacekeeping forces in more than a dozen different countries including Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Cyprus and Lebanon (full list).
  • There have been U.N. weapons inspectors in and out of Iraq for a dozen years. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is a U.N. agency that inspects the nuclear programs of nations to ensure that nuclear materials are not being diverted for military use.
  • The Security Council is a U.N. organization that makes some of the most important international decisions on the planet.
  • The Earth Summit and the Kyoto Protocol were U.N.-sponsored efforts -- the largest international environmental efforts ever.
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a U.N. document ratified by the members of the General Assembly.
  • The World Court or International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Netherlands, acts as the judicial portion of the United Nations and hears cases and international disputes from around the world.
  • The World Health Organization is a U.N. program.
  • UNICEF is a U.N. program. Originally, UNICEF helped children affected by WWII.
  • Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the U.N., is often in the news.
The U.N. has this remarkable influence because nearly every nation on the planet is a member.

In this edition of HowStuffWorks, you will learn the basics of the United Nations so you can grasp the scope and reach of its operations. The next time you hear about the U.N. on the news, you will have a much better understanding of this international organization.