Main Organs of the United Nations

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The United Nations - the UN, that organisation which you've probably heard of, but aren't sure what it involves. A good summary is that it is the multi-national organisation, formed in 1945, now representing all 193 countries1. The UN has an enormous mandate, seeking to prevent world wars2 and improve the situation of humanity in numerous ways - whether that be improving human rights, the economic condition of its members or providing aid when needed. The 193 countries are bonded together (in theory) inside the UN by their common signing of the UN Charter...more on which below.

The United Nations does seem overwhelmed by bodies, but it technically has six main organs. These are the: General Assembly, Security Council, Trusteeship Council, Economic and Social Council; the International Court of Justice and the Secretariat. These are the bodies that were actually created within the UN Charter when the UN was formed. Thus each organ has reached its 70th birthday and look set to continue going strongly.3

As you may already have considered, the "main" is purely there because they were created first, not because they are necessarily the most important - most people will have heard of UNICEF4 and UNESCO5 but will never have heard of the Trusteeship Council. These bodies and others will be covered in the next entry in the United Nations project.

This entry will attempt to explain the purpose, make-up, history and various actions of these different bodies.

The International Court of Justice

The ICJ was the replacement for the Permanent Court of International Justice, created by the League of Nations in 1922, before it fell apart in the run up to World War 2. The ICJ's remit can best be described as two things: a country vs country court for contentious issues or an advisory body to give legal opinions on various issues submitted by countries or UN bodies. They are the only main organ not to be based in New York, instead placed in the Peace Palace in the Hague, the former headquarters of the League of Nations.

In theory, anyone who joins the UN accepts the ICJ as having jurisdiction over their country. One of the Security Council's tasks is to enforce ICJ decisions. However, to minimise wastage of time by taking a case and then having a country ignore its ruling (a particular problem by a country that could veto any Security Council ruling), it requires any party to a case to actually make it law to comply with any ICJ ruling.

There are 15 rotating judges from different nations on the ICJ bench. However to encourage countries to take their cases to the ICJ, any party gets to provide their own judge to the bench.6

Contentious issues cover several things, such as border disputes or violation of treaties. Advisory opinions can cover anything on international law, but the most notable case was on the legality of nuclear weapons - a case which 22 states would argue their case in front of the court.

The ICJ is a sufficiently complicated body that it shall feature in far more detail later in the project, including covering a number of the more interesting and controversial cases ever heard.

The Economic and Social Council

The ECOSOC has two main roles. One is to act as the coordinating body for all the UN bodies that aim to improve standards of living in the world - the UN's estimate is that these bodies make up 70% of its work - some of these secondary bodies are huge - the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Development Program, UNICEF, UNESCO amongst others. In this sense all the additional bodies can be derived from ECOSOC's authority. The second purpose is to formulate policies on how to deal with International economic problems to help improve the global economic situation.

The body is made of 54 members, proportionally drawn from around the world. The body as a whole meets for only four weeks a year. Instead various secondary meetings are set up around the year, with particular focus on those with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

There has always been some controversy about the architecture of the ECOSOC chamber in the UN headquarters, as created by Sven Markelius. Namely, that the ceiling is unfinished, with all pipes and ducts left uncovered. Sven claimed that this was to remind delegates that their work to improve the situation of the world's population was useful, but always unfinished. However persistent claims that this was a justification produced after the chamber ran over budget.

Concerning the ECOSOC itself (rather than its various sub-bodies), it has been increasingly accused of providing little benefit. Global economic policy is primarily set by the richest countries in the forms of the G87 and the G20. The ECOSOC has increasingly attempted to represent global economic policies of the smaller countries, but with little success. This is particularly exacerbated by the divisiveness within the Council. Without the ability to present a united body, there is little ability to persuade either the larger countries or the other 139 countries.

The Trusteeship Council

A body created to handle one of the failures of the League. Before the UN, numerous areas that were deemed not ready or capable of becoming independent countries were placed as mandates. They were handed to various important countries who were supposed to guide them along. Needless to say, not a single "mandate" made it to statehood during the League's existence. When the UN was founded, it was thought better that a reasonably neutral body should run them instead.

At its formation, 11 "Trust Territories" were placed under its care. As the breakdown of colonialism continued, another 59 regions would pass through its care. The council would over the next 50 years move all 70 territories to independent status, concluding in May 1994. With their task done the Council became inactive, existing only on paper.

Slightly bizarrely the council cannot simply cease to exist. It still has a President and Vice-President.8 To truly depose of the body would require an amendment to the Charter - this is deliberately a rather challenging process, and has been deemed too much work to make this de facto shut down formalised. It has been agreed that the next time there is any change of the Charter, this will be folded in.

It is hard to say how well the Council did in its role - certainly it managed to take its territories and move them towards statehood - something the League never managed. However many of these States would seem to have proved incapable of acting as stable states, let alone fair and free ones. To decide whether it succeeded really depends on where you choose to set the goalposts - would holding onto the territories until they were more "ready" have been the same as what the Council was created to prevent?


The permanent body of the United Nations, the Secretariat consists of 16,000 staff in 175 different countries around the world, led by the Secretary-General, currently Ban Ki-Moon. These personnel are hired world-wide and fill the positions of all the United Nations bodies. Coupled with 14,000 peacekeeping troops currently on loan to the United Nations, the Secretariat consists of 30,000 personnel.

The Secretariat is under the control of the Secretary-General. The Secretary-General is picked by the General Assembly, with a candidate recommended by the Security Council (which means no Permanent member can dissent to them). They serve a maximum of two five-year terms. Thus far, only one Secretary-General - the excellently named Boutros Boutros-Ghali - has not been selected for a second term. Of real importance is to think not think of the Secretary-General as the President or Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations. Instead think of him9 as the Chief Administrative Officer, keeping the United Nations in working order for whatever the countries want to do with it.

Judging the Secretariat on effectiveness is tricky. Before starting it should be borne in mind that it is one of a kind - fulfilling a mix of charitable and administrative functions, but doing so in a vast number of countries with the enormous administrative difficulties that causes.

Generally the Secretariat should be positively judged - think of all the good each of its well known bodies has provided. Then think of the additional co-ordination is allows between countries. Most of the failures that can be ascribed to the UN are that it is slow to act, or it fails to resolve conflicts sent to it - but these are political aspects, which are supposed to be dealt with in the next two organs. The Secretariat has been accused at times of being clunky and slow to react - attacks that are certainly justified, however the nature of the body does somewhat impair any decisive move, no country's civil service operates under such constraints.

One final note, both inside and outside the peacekeeping forces, hundreds of UN personnel have died. The risks have grown wildly in the last 15 years, primarily because when present in a region where two countries are at conflict, they can normally be trusted not to deliberately attack UN workers. However most of the conflict post Cold-War is by non-State-Actors attacking governments, and are willing to take whatever actions they think might aid them. The second Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld himself died in a plane crash, now thought to have been shot down. This means that 1/8th of the leaders of the Secretariat have died in its service.

The Security Council

The first of the two organs in this entry that most readers will have heard of, at least in passing. Almost certainly the most criticised United Nations body, it possesses a range of unique rules, powers and remits. A mix of successes and failures over the last 70 years, it has always been full of controversy.

First to consider is what the Security Council is for. The Charter gives 4 goals for the UN - the first of which is to prevent war. It is the Security Council that the General Assembly primarily deputises this goal. The Security Council is required to ensure international peace and security. To do that it must prevent aggressive acts by States that might threaten that.

Second is the well known membership controversy. The Security Council is currently made up of 15 nations.10 This consists of 10 non-permanent member states who serve for two year, non-repeatable terms, selected on a geo-political spread. It also contains the five permanent members of the Council: the United Kingdom, the United States of America, France, the Russian Federation11 and the People's Republic of China. Each member has one vote, and nine must agree on anything in order for the council to act. However if any permanent member dissents then their no vote overrides any agreement between the others. The obvious thing to note here is that the United Nations was formed by the major winning powers of WW2. This means that more powerful nations today do not possess the same power as they might otherwise expect. One final note, is that the permanent members are the only powers legitimately allowed by the Non-Proliferation Treaty to possess nuclear weapons.

In order to fulfil their goal, the Security Council has a number of powers granted to it. It can enact these purely by itself, needing no agreement from other bodies or countries. These can be summed up by the term sanctions, but that covers several varieties. Below are the normal possibilities, some or all of which might be enacted after a warning to cease and desist aggressive action is ignored.

  • Travel Embargo - frequently used as a "lower-level" sanction either by itself or part of a great set. Not the literal blockading of a country that it might imply, it is instead imposed against responsible figures in the country who are then unable to leave. Since these are usually dictatorial figures who like to travel wildly this has more might then it might otherwise seem to.

  • Diplomatic Sanctions - this is to separate a country off from the international community. Were the severest form of this to be enacted then every embassy of the targeted country would be shut. However shutting off diplomacy is viewed as counter-productive to resolving global tensions, this is not used against recognised countries. Instead it can be seen placed against forces that seek recognition as a legitimate State. One example of this would be Turkish Cyprus, which claims to consider itself a country, but is incapable of gaining recognition from any country due to this ruling.12

  • Economic Sanctions - this is the commonly seen one, as it is seen to have power without the need to deploy troops and risk a full-out conflict. There are endless tiers and variations here of just what type are imposed. One style is targeted economic sanctions, imposed upon the same responsible figures, usually freezing their assets and preventing any international finance with them. On a country basis the same freezing of assets and expulsion from the international markets can take place. Some trade might be permitted to allow for certain purchases, in an attempt to pressure a country to comply without causing its collapse.

  • Military Action - the separations here are particularly notable. One is the difference between voluntary peace-keeping and involuntary. The former has at least one party in the conflict calling for UN intervention to enforce a ceasefire zone between the opposing forces. The latter, as might be expected, doesn't. While commonly referred to as "peace-keeping" there are actually different forms, including peace-making, peace-enforcing and peace-keeping. While it was the case that the latter was more passive, essentially just occupying a zone between the two sides, with the others taking more aggressive roles, the lines have blurred, with most actions requiring all types.

    This action is reasonably rare for a couple of reasons. These include the desire not to risk significant numbers of lives as well as the concern that the deployment might actually make the situation worse. However the most common by far is the politics of the SC, and why it is so constantly criticised. Many conflict zones around the world happen to affect the interests of at least one Permanent member, who might veto any dramatic action. This is primarily the reason that Africa makes up most of the peacekeeping missions, while the Middle East has so few.

    Unlike the League, which really struggled at times to produce peace-keeping forces, the Charter actually requires States to pony up forces if required by the SC. However, such demands are not necessary, with many contributing forces. Additionally, representation on the SC generally requires a degree of fulfilling your share, with the medium and large countries providing significant numbers. The P5 will generally also make up any lack. These numbers are also heavily bolstered as the SC almost always works with a local organisation (the African Union is a common partner, for example) who will themselves provide significant assistance.

    The failures of the Security Council are generally better known, but that is hardly surprising - failures always are. Additionally, the nature of peace-keeping is not complete success, nor is it itself capable of succeeding - the job of peacekeeping it buy space and time for diplomacy and work of other agencies to permanently improve the region.

    Namibia, Mozambique and Guatemala amongst several others were significant successes where an operation stabilised the region sufficiently for a region to create its own government. The UN is currently deployed in numerous countries, and even where little progress is being made to permanently solve the region, security is being provided for other UN operations. One interesting example is the stabilisation of Somalia. Deemed a failed state, consisting only of warlord-controlled territories, this AU-led, UN-backed, operation has successfully stabilised the capital, Mogadishu, and swathes of the country. This has led to the first fragile steps towards progress that actually look like they could last, as opposed to other attempts made in the interim.

One final area of note, is that numerous "important questions" considered by the United Nations require both passing by the Security Council (with its vetoes) and a two-thirds majority by the General Assembly. This includes Charter alterations and the recognition of new countries. It is this latter that means Palestine and Taiwan are unable to become full States, despite being de facto countries.

The General Assembly

The theoretical top body, the General Assembly (GA) is the full body of the United Nations. With a one-Nation, one-Vote system, in theory Palau has as much authority as China. Of course, each major country will be able to influence its bloc of allies. Despite this, one surprising fact is that most resolutions considered by the General Assembly are actually passed by full consensus. Additionally, while unlike the Security-Council its resolutions are not legally binding, topics or countries that the General Assembly focuses on have a certain weight that draws attention and work towards resolution on them.

Additionally the GA acts as the world's premier "open diplomacy" venue. While hidden negotiations between embassies and in Geneva occur, and are important, in the GA representatives of a country must justify their actions and reasons for failure to negotiate in front of every other nation. As well as placing pressure on parties to negotiate, it can itself provide an additional source of potential successful negotiations. An example of this can include how during the Cuban missile crisis negotiations took place both by back channels and on the floor of the General Assembly.

One note concerning the GA's powers refer to that of moving around the Security Council. This can come in several forms, whether it be by taking actions that lie with the GA's sole remit or by taking actions usually controlled by the Security Council alone. The example of the former might be that of Palestine. Recently the USA vetoed Palestinian membership of the UN in the Security Council, in response the GA voted Palestine as a full-observer State, which grants many of the same rights as possessing full membership.

The example of the latter is the almost publicly unknown resolution "uniting for peace". This allows a vetoed SC resolution, trapped in deadlock, to have the issue come back to the General Assembly. It may then commit many of the actions normally seen in a SC resolution. These might involve declaring a country's actions illegal (such as considering apartheid in South Africa), employing economic sanctions or even deploying peacekeepers. The latter two are especially controversial: the GA can't impose binding resolutions on member-states, so instead it asks nations to impose voluntary sanctions on countries and military force was in fact the one thing not permitted under this resolution. The use of the "uniting for peace" resolution has actually been fairly evenly used against the various permanent members - the first use deployed peacekeepers to cease the fighting after the Suez Canal Crisis, a resolution that had been vetoed by the UK and France. The extreme stretching of the law means this has rarely been used but its use has been suggested concerning Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria in recent times, with little enthusiasm to do so.

The final use concerns those "important questions" mentioned earlier, requiring both the Security Council and the General Assembly to agree. While nothing agreed by the Security Council has ever been failed in the GA, this is only due to several ideas being dropped by the SC under threat of failure within the General Assembly. One very obvious example is when Boutros-Boutros was selected - the GA had demanded that the next Secretary-General come from Africa, and so they did.

So is the General Assembly effective? It was never intended to do a great deal of the United Nations work but now meets almost all the year and considers a great deal of questions, both by itself and from junior committees. It also helps set the direction that the Secretary-General and the other organs will then try to implement. However it often seems in thrall to the Security Council and doing less work than many of the bodies it created. Perhaps the key tasks of the GA were to be the last space for diplomacy and to consider those "important questions". It seems to have an increased amount of success in both those arenas - it is a hard body to judge in its own right since it is so tied up with the success of the United Nations as a whole. As to what your view of the whole organisation is? For now this researcher leaves that to you, with the hope that now you know where some of the blame and praise truly lies.

1The term "all 193 countries" is used, since many States use membership in the UN as proof of a country's sovereignty, although the UN does not recognise Taiwan, unlike many people.2Both every war, but especially to prevent a repeat of WW2.3Except the Trusteeship Council, to be explained below.4The United Nations Children's Fund.5The United Nations Education, Social and Cultural Organisation.6This is to allow their side of judicial opinions to be held, as presumably the two judges will cancel each other out.7Or G7, with the current political turmoil between the West and Russia.8This researcher can only hope that they do other things with their time.9Thus far it has always been a him, though there is a real likelihood of the next candidate being female.10The number of non-permanent members has risen over time.11The successor state to the USSR12Turkey itself recognises the region as a country, but is the only one to do so.

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