The six main UN organs

The General Assembly

The General Assembly is the main deliberative organ of the United Nations and includes all its Members. It may discuss any matter arising under the UN Charter and make recommendations to UN Members (except on disputes or situations which are being considered by the Security Council). In the Assembly, each nation, large or small, has one vote and important decisions are taken by a two-thirds majority vote.

The Assembly meets every year from September to December. Special sessions may be summoned by the Assembly, at the request of the Security Council, or at the request of a majority of UN Members.

The work of the General Assembly is also carried out by its six main committees, the Human Rights Council, other subsidiary bodies and the UN Secretariat.

The Security Council

The Security Council has primary responsibility under the Charter for maintaining peace and security. It can be convened at any time, whenever peace is threatened. Member States are obligated to carry out its decisions. When a threat to peace is brought before the Council, it usually first asks the parties to reach agreement by peaceful means. If fighting breaks out, the Council tries to secure a ceasefire. It may then send peacekeeping missions to troubled areas or call for economic sanctions and embargoes to restore peace.

The Council has 15 members, including five permanent members: China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The other 10 are elected by the General Assembly on the basis of geographical representation for two-year terms. Decisions require nine votes; except on procedural questions, a decision cannot be taken if there is a negative vote by a permanent member (known as the “veto”). The Council also makes recommendations to the General Assembly on the appointment of a new Secretary-General and on the admission of new members to the UN. Many countries want to expand the membership of the Council to include new permanent and non-permanent members.

The Economic and Social Council

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is the central body for coordinating the economic and social work of the United Nations and the UN family of organizations. It has 54 member nations elected from all regions. As much as 70 per cent of the work of the UN system is devoted to promoting higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development. The Council recommends and directs activities aimed at promoting economic growth of developing countries, supporting human rights and fostering world cooperation to fight poverty and under-development.

To meet specific needs, the General Assembly has set up a number of specialized agencies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and programmes such as the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The work of these agencies and programmes is coordinated by ECOSOC.

The Trusteeship Council

The Trusteeship Council was assigned under the UN Charter to supervise the administration of Trust Territories — former colonies or dependent territories — which were placed under the International Trusteeship System. The system was created at the end of the Second World War to promote the advancement of the inhabitants of those dependent Territories and their progressive development towards self-government or independence.

Since the creation of the Trusteeship Council, more than 70 colonial Territories, including all of the original 11 Trust Territories, have attained independence with the help of the United Nations. As a result, in 1994, the Council decided formally to suspend its operation and to meet as and when occasion might require.

The International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the UN’s main judicial organ. Presiding over the ICJ, or “World Court”, are 15 judges, each from a different nation, elected by the General Assembly and Security Council. The Court settles legal disputes between nations only and not between individuals, in accordance with international law. If a country does not wish to take part in a proceeding it does not have to do so, unless required by special treaty provisions. Once a country accepts the Court's jurisdiction, it must comply with its decision.

The seat of the International Court of Justice is at The Hague in the Netherlands. The offices of the Court occupy the “Peace Palace”, which was constructed by the Carnegie Foundation, a private non-profit organization, to serve as the headquarters of the Permanent Court of International Justice, the predecessor of the present Court. The UN makes an annual contribution to the Foundation for the use of the building.

The Secretariat

The Secretariat is made up of an international staff working at UN Headquarters in New York, as well as UN offices in Geneva, Vienna, Nairobi and other locations. It consists of departments and offices with a total staff of around 16,000, drawn from some 175 countries. Including civil staff in peacekeeping missions the total number comprises approximately 30,000 staff. Staff members carry out the substantive and administrative work of the United Nations as directed by the General Assembly, the Security Council and the other organs.

The Secretariat is headed by the Secretary-General. He is appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council for a five-year term. As the chief administrative officer of the Organization, the Secretary-General directs its work. He is also responsible for implementing decisions taken by the various organs of the United Nations.

The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which, in his opinion, may threaten international peace and security. He may use his “good offices” to prevent conflicts or promote peaceful settlement of disputes between countries. The Secretary-General may also act on his own initiative to deal with humanitarian or other problems of special importance.

There have been only eight Secretaries-General since the founding of the UN:

  1. Trygve Lie (Norway), 1946-1952
  2. Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden), 1953-1961
  3. U Thant (Burma, now Myanmar), 1961-1971
  4. Kurt Waldheim (Austria), 1972-1981
  5. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (Peru), 1982-1991
  6. Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt), 1992-1996
  7. Kofi Annan (Ghana), 1997-2006
  8. Ban Ki-moon (Republic of Korea), since 2007.