Almost everybody has heard of the United Nations. But how many people know what it actually does? Or how it works? Or why, as world leaders gather to kick off its 71st session, the institution has struggled to live up to the promise of its founders: making the world a better, more peaceful place.

Birth of the United Nations: When, Where and Why

The United Nations Charter was signed at a conference in San Francisco in June 1945, led by four countries: Britain, China, the Soviet Union and the United States.

When the Charter went into effect on Oct. 24 of that year, a global war had just ended. Much of Africa and Asia was still ruled by colonial powers.
After fierce negotiations, 50 nations agreed to a Charter that begins, “We the peoples of the United Nations.”

Why is that opening line notable? Because today, the United Nations can, to some, seem to serve the narrow national interests of its 193 member countries — especially the most powerful ones — and not ordinary citizens.

These parochial priorities can stand in the way of fulfilling the first two pledges of the Charter: to end “the scourge of war” and to regain “faith in fundamental human rights.”