The United Nations (UN) is the largest intergovernmental organization in the world, with a current membership of 193 member states and two permanent non-member observer states (Palestine and Vatican City/Holy See). Every member state has equal representation in the UN General Assembly. The United Nations was created in 1945 following World War II. Its mission is to maintain international peace and security by preventing conflict, mediating for nations in conflict, and creating the conditions to hold peace. Additionally, the UN also protects human rights, delivers humanitarian aid, upholds international law, and promotes sustainable development.
Founding Members of the United Nations
The Charter of the United Nations was crafted by the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, and China in the aftermath of World War II and signed by 50 countries on June 26, 1945. Poland, which could not attend the initial event, added its signature on October 15, 1945 to become the 51st founding member. The charter took effect on October 24, 1945, marking the official birth of the United Nations and its connected International Court of Justice.
Since 1945, some of the founding member states have dissolved (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Soviet Union), and new states have succeeded them, and others have changed their names. The founding members included the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand, Belarus, Turkey, Australia, Belgium, Mexico, the Netherlands, Panama, South Africa, Panama, and Norway, among many others. Since its founding, the United Nations has added 142 member countries for its current total of 193 (plus two). The criteria for joining the United Nations are actually quite straightforward:
- The state/territory that wishes to join submits an application promising to accept the obligations of the United Nations Charter, such as pursuing peace, promoting human rights, and working alongside other countries in the spirit of global cooperation.
- The U.N. Security Council votes on the applicant's eligibility. The applicant must be approved by all five permanent members of the council (The United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China, and France) as well as at least four of the 10 temporary members of the council, which rotate every two years.
- If the applicant is approved, the vote moves to the General Assembly, where a simple two-thirds majority is required to admit the territory—now validated as a fully fledged country—into the United Nations.
Countries Not in the United Nations
It is actually quite unusual for a country to exist without becoming a member of the United Nations, simply because one of the required steps in becoming a country is to be recognized by the United Nations. However, there are two "permanent non-member observer states" that arguably fit the description: Holy See/Vatican City and Palestine
As non-member observer states, both countries are welcomed in the General Assembly and have access to most United Nations benefits and service opportunities, but cannot cast votes. Both permanent observer states also have the potential to join the United Nations eventually as full members. However, the reasons these two particular states are not currently full members are unique to their specific situations.
Holy See/Vatican City
The Holy See is the government of Vatican City, which is the global headquarters of the Catholic church and the smallest independent nation in the world. It is also the only independent nation to choose not to apply for membership of the United Nations. The logic behind this decision is said to be that the Pope prefers not to directly affect international policy. That said, other sources speculate that if Holy See were to apply, issues might arise regarding whether it was able to meet the U.N.'s definition of a country (particularly its ability to contribute to global security) and whether it was in fact a religious organization rather than a true state.
Although it has applied for full United Nations membership multiple times, Palestine has been limited to permanent observer status because of its violent and ongoing territorial dispute with U.N. member Israel. Although a majority of United Nations members (138 of 193, as well as fellow observer state Vatican City/Holy See) have recognized Palestine as a sovereign state worthy of membership, several crucial members—including the United States, United Kingdom, and France, three permanent members of the Security Council—refuse to allow Palestine to become a member until its conflict with Israel is resolved peacefully.
Should Israel and Palestine peacefully come to an agreement, it is likely that the United Nations would vote to grant Palestine full membership status. However, as the conflict has already endured for more than 50 years and defied repeated attempts to achieve a peaceful resolution, the likelihood of such a solution materializing appears low.
Independent states not yet fully recognized as countries by the United Nations
Although the Holy See and Palestine are not full U.N. members, they are recognized as independent states. However, there also exist many additional states and territories that wish to be recognized as countries but have yet to be recognized by the required number of United Nations members.
Kosovo (recognized by 100+ members)
This European state declared its independence from parent country Serbia in 2008 and is currently recognized by more than 100 U.N. member states (sources vary, and some states have withdrawn their recognition). However, two of the dissenting nations are China and Russia, whose votes are required for Kosovo to attain full membership (and nationhood), so it remains in a holding pattern.
This island country just off the coast of China was actually a founding member of the U.N., admitted as part of the Republic of China (ROC), which also included the Chinese mainland. However, a civil war in China forced the Republic of China's government to retreat to just the island of Taiwan, with the communist People's Republic of China (PRC) taking over control of the mainland. When it became clear that the ROC would be unable to retake control of the mainland (where the overwhelming majority of Chinese people lived), the United Nations stripped the ROC of its membership and declared the PRC the rightful holder of China's U.N. membership.
The ROC has applied for membership as the independent country of Taiwan, but as one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, PRC-controlled China is in a position to veto Taiwan's candidacy in perpetuity. China has also forced all existing U.N. members to choose to recognize either China or Taiwan (and severed diplomatic relations with any country that chose Taiwan).
Western Sahara (recognized by 44 members)
Inhabitants of this sparsely populated desert nation have been seeking independence from neighboring Morocco for decades. Various referendums that would enable those living in the region to vote on whether to secede or not have been proposed. But thus far, disputes over the voting process—particularly whether the many thousands of Moroccan immigrants who have moved to the region in recent decades would get a vote—have prevented the referendum from taking place.
Additional states with little recognition:
- South Ossetia (recognized by five members)
- Abkhazia (recognized by five members)
- Northern Cyprus (recognized by one member)
In addition to these states, there exist dozens of additional territories, with various legal titles and degrees of independence, that could conceivably become United Nations member states if they so desired and their "parent" countries acceded. Granted, a fair number of these territories are tiny, often even uninhabited islands for whom nationhood is highly unlikely. But others, such as Greenland, Hong Kong, and Puerto Rico, are so close to being independent that they appear to already be fully recognized countries to the average person. These territories could very possibly stand on their own if they so desired and their "parent" country agreed.