Background Information on the U.N. Branches

Select one of the following links to learn more about that branch of the United Nations.

The following articles are also available for download in PDF format
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The General Assembly

The General Assembly is the main deliberative organ of the United Nations. It is composed of representatives of all Member States, each of which has one vote. Decisions on important questions, such as those on peace and security, admission of new Members and budgetary matters, require a two-thirds majority. Decisions on other questions are reached by a simple majority. These decisions may be adopted without a vote, or with a vote, which may be recorded, non-recorded or by roll-call.

While the decisions of the Assembly have no legally binding force for Governments, they carry the weight of world opinion on major international issues, as well as the moral authority of the world community.

The work of the United Nations year-round derives largely from the decisions of the General Assembly--that is to say, the will of the majority of the Members as expressed in resolutions adopted by the Assembly.

Functions and Powers of the General Assembly

Under the Charter, the functions and powers of the General Assembly include:

  • To consider and make recommendations on cooperation in the maintenance of international peace and security, including disarmament and arms regulation;
  • To discuss any question relating to international peace and security and, except where a dispute or situation is being discussed by the Security Council, to make recommendations on it;
  • To discuss and, with the same exception, make recommendations on any question within the scope of the Charter or affecting the powers and functions of any organ of the United Nations;
  • To initiate studies and make recommendations to promote international political cooperation, the development and codification of international law; the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, and international collaboration in economic, social, cultural, educational and health fields;
  • To make recommendations for the peaceful settlement of any situation, regardless of origin, which might impair friendly relations among nations;
  • To receive and consider reports from the Security Council and other United Nations organs;
  • To consider and approve the United Nations budget and to apportion the contributions among Members;
  • To elect the non-permanent members of the Security Council, the members of the Economic and Social Council and those members of the Trusteeship Council that are elected;
  • To elect jointly with the Security Council the Judges of the International Court of Justice; and, on the recommendation of the Security Council, to appoint the Secretary-General.

Under the "Uniting for peace" resolution adopted by the General Assembly in November 1950, the Assembly may take action if the Security Council, because of a lack of unanimity of its permanent members, fails to act in a case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression. The Assembly is empowered to consider the matter immediately with a view to making recommendations to Members for collective measures, including, in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression, the use of armed force when necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Main Committees of the General Assembly

Because of the great number of questions which the Assembly is called upon to consider session of the Assembly, for example), the Assembly allocates most questions to its six Main Committees:

  • First Committee--Disarmament and International Security Committee
  • Second Committee--Economic and Financial Committee
  • Third Committee--Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee
  • Fourth Committee--Special Political and De colonization Committee
  • Fifth Committee--Administrative and Budgetary Committee
  • Sixth Committee--Legal Committee

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The Security Council

The Security Council has primary responsibility, under the Charter, for the maintenance of international peace and security. It is so organized as to be able to function continuously, and a representative of each of its members must be present at all times at United Nations Headquarters.

When a complaint concerning a threat to peace is brought before it, the Council's first action is usually to recommend to the parties to try to reach agreement by peaceful means. In some cases, the Council itself undertakes investigation and mediation. It may appoint special representatives or request the Secretary-General to do so or to use his good offices. It may set forth principles for a peaceful settlement.

When a dispute leads to fighting, the Council's first concern is to bring it to an end as soon as possible. On many occasions, the Council has issued cease-fire directives which have been instrumental in preventing wider hostilities. It also sends United Nations peace-keeping forces to help reduce tensions in troubled areas, keep opposing forces apart and create conditions of calm in which peaceful settlements may be sought. The Council may decide on enforcement measures, economic sanctions (such as trade embargoes) or collective military action.

A Member State against which preventive or enforcement action has been taken by the Security Council may be suspended from the exercise of the rights and privileges of membership by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council. A Member State which has persistently violated the principles of the Charter may be expelled from the United Nations by the Assembly on the Council's recommendation.

A State which is a Member of the United Nations but not of the Security Council may participate, without a vote, in its discussions when the Council considers that that country's interests are affected. Both Members of the United Nations and non-members, if they are parties to a dispute being considered by the Council, are invited to take part, without a vote, in the Council's discussions; the Council sets the conditions for participation by a non-member State.

The Functions and Powers of the Security Council

Under the Charter, the functions and powers of the Security Council are:

  • To maintain international peace and security in accordance with the principles and purposes of the United Nations;
  • To investigate any dispute or situation which might lead to international friction;
  • To recommend methods of adjusting such disputes or the terms of settlement;
  • To formulate plans for the establishment of a system to regulate armaments;
  • To determine the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression and to recommend what action should be taken;
  • To call on Members to apply economic sanctions and other measures not involving the use of force to prevent or stop aggression;
  • To take military action against an aggressor; To recommend the admission of new Members;
  • To exercise the trusteeship functions of the United Nations in "strategic areas"

The preceding information is reprinted in edited form from the United Nations homepage:

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The ICJ: A Layman's Explanation
by Christopher Schuller
ICJ President 2002, 2003

The International Court of Justice, located in The Hague, Netherlands, is the judicial arm of the United Nations. U.N. member states bring their disputes before the ICJ, whose jurisdiction is dependent on both states' prior acceptance of whatever verdict the court delivers.

The ICJ does not try war criminals; rather, it resolves what we might call 'civil' disputes in an American trial court: it settles border disagreements, assesses fault for breaches of treaties, and arbitrates questions of interpretation of international law between member states.

In these proceedings, the "Applicant" (plaintiff) and "Respondent" (defendant) each submit their written pleadings, Memorials and Counter-Memorials, respectively, in advance of actual written arguments before the court.

The Court also serves as a judicial advisory body to the General Assembly and Security Council, both of whom may ask the Court for Advisory Opinions regarding specific GA or Security Council resolutions' compliance with the U.N. Charter.

The U.N.'s ICJ consists of thirteen Justices, a President, and a Vice-President.



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