In 1969, Secretary-General U Thant proposed that a UN university be established. The Founding Committee was set up two years later, and in December 1973, the General Assembly approved a charter for the university. The following spring, the UNU Council, composed of academic leaders and prominent persons from 24 countries, was appointed. Members of the university council serve in their individual capacities rather than as representatives of governments. UNU commenced operations in September 1975. For 17 years the university maintained its headquarters in a high-rise office building in Tokyo. In 1992 it moved to a new building in the Shibuya district of Tokyo constructed and made available by the government of Japan. The university maintains a liaison office in New York.
UNU is an autonomous organ of the General Assembly. It is jointly sponsored by the UN and UNESCO, whose Secretary-General and Director General, respectively, together appoint the rector and members of the university council. Its charter guarantees academic freedom and emphasizes the primacy of scholarly excellence over any other considerations—for example, choices of programs and personnel—in determining its activities.
Like traditional universities, UNU is concerned with the advancement of knowledge. Unlike traditional universities, however, it has no students of its own, no faculty, and no campus. It is a completely new institution: an international community of scholars engaged in research, postgraduate training, and the dissemination of knowledge to help solve, in the words of its charter, "pressing global problems of human survival, development and welfare." It operates through worldwide networks of academic and research institutions and individual scholars who work together on projects concerned with such problems as peace, development, the environment, science, and technology. The UNU's areas of concentration are: peace and governance; environment; science and technology; and development.
The academic activities of the university are carried out primarily through a network of its research and training centers: UNU World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU/WIDER), Helsinki, Finland; UNU Institute for New Technologies (UNU/Intech), Maastricht, the Netherlands; UNU International Institute for Software Technology (UNU/IIST), Macau; UNU Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (UNU/INRA), Accra, Ghana; UNU Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU/IAS) in Tokyo; UNU Programme for Biotechnology in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNU/BIOLAC) in Caracas, Venezuela; UNU Leadership Academy (UNU/LA) in Amman, Jordan; UNU International Network on Water, Environment and Health (UNU/INWEH) in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; UNU Food and Nutrition Programme for Human and Social Development at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (US); UNU Fisheries Training Programme (UNU/FTP), Iceland; UNU Programme on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU/CRIS), Bruges, Belgium; UNU Geothermal Training Programme (UNU/GTP) in Reykjavik, Iceland; and The Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity (INCORE) in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, UK.
Between 1976 and 1996, some 1,450 UNU fellows received postgraduate training through the university's network. Fellows are selected after recommendation from their home institutions, which must be working in an area of concern to the university, and must be committed to returning to work at those institutions.
The UNU Press publishes scholarly works on the United Nations system in the areas of peace studies, regional studies, technology and development, human and social development, international law, food and nutrition, energy technology, and natural resources and environment. The UNU Press publishes one periodical, The Food and Nutrition Bulletin , issued quarterly. UNU publications are distributed in North America by UNIPUB based in Lanham, Maryland.
UNU is supported by voluntary contributions from governments, foundations, and individuals. Its principal source of support is investment income from an endowment fund that ensures academic freedom and financial independence. The annual budget in 2000 was approximately US$ 36 million.