The General Assembly
The General Assembly is the principal political organ of the United Nations and has the most comprehensive functions. All 193 UN member states are represented in the General Assembly, and all have the same rights. It is the hub for all activities of the United Nations.
Unlike the Security Council, which can take decisions binding on all member states, resolutions by the General Assembly are merely recommendations. One exception to this is decisions by the General Assembly on budgetary questions, which are binding under international law. The General Assembly has comprehensive responsibilities for economic, social and trusteeship issues. In contrast, its powers in relation to peacekeeping are subsidiary to those of the Security Council, which has primary responsibility for maintaining international peace.
The General Assembly is convened every autumn for a regular one‑year session. The most intensive phase of this session lasts from the third week of September until the end of the year. Special sessions or special emergency sessions of the General Assembly can be convoked at the request of the Security Council or of a majority of member states.
The Security Council
Under Article 24 of the United Nations Charter, the Security Council bears chief responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. Its task is to prevent, contain and settle conflicts which pose a threat to peace. To this end, its members negotiate resolutions or declarations which contain recommendations, appeals, orders and expressions of encouragement or condemnation. The Security Council does not have its own armed forces, although such a force is provided for in the Charter (Articles 43‑46).
The Security Council is composed of 15 UN member states, of which five – China, France, Russia, the US and the UK – are permanent members. The remaining ten members are elected as non‑permanent members for two‑year terms, with five being elected each year. Until 1965 there were only six non‑permanent members.
All UN members are obliged to implement Security Council resolutions, meaning that they must, for example, enforce sanctions imposed by the Security Council or provide troops for a peacekeeping mission. The Security Council is dependent on member states’ cooperation for implementation. To guarantee that it has the necessary authority to inspire such cooperation, some of the most influential states in the world are permanent members of the Security Council. However, the present composition of the Security Council reflects the power relations of 1945. Germany is therefore in favour of Security Council reform, which would, among other things, lend greater authority to the Council’s decisions.
A Security Council mandate defines a task and authorises a particular measure or policy in response. For example, a mandate for a peacekeeping mission stipulates whether the mission may use all necessary means, including armed force, in order to carry out its mandate. A mandate on sanctions states for how long they will be imposed and/or under what conditions they should be lifted again.
The Security Council meets nearly every working day, as well as sometimes at the weekend or on public holidays. But formal meetings in the Security Council Chamber, as shown on TV, are the exception rather than the rule. The Security Council spends most of its time in a relatively small side room working on informal consultations, discussing, for example, reports from the Secretary‑General and negotiating resolutions based on them. Although those consultations are technically confidential, the results are known in detail to most diplomats in New York within a few hours. However, that kind of transparency is not unwelcome since transparent decision‑making facilitates future implementation.
During the last few years, the Security Council has increasingly held what are known as open sessions, at which all 193 UN member states can speak on any particular issue dealt with by the Security Council, such as the situation in the Middle East. Even though no resolutions are adopted during those meetings, they enjoy a lot of media coverage.
The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is the United Nations’ central organ for economic and social development questions. It is composed of 54 members. Each year, 18 members are elected for a three‑year term by the General Assembly based on geographical representation. Re‑election is possible. Germany has been an ECOSOC member continuously since 1974, the only exception being in 2008.
ECOSOC coordinates the work of fourteen specialised agencies of the United Nations, ten functional commissions and five regional commissions. More than 3000 non‑governmental organisations (NGOs) have consultative status with ECOSOC. Accredited NGOs can provide expert analysis or play an advisory role by submitting recommendatory reports to ECOSOC in their respective fields of work. The General Assembly receives reports from, among others, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) through the Economic and Social Council.
ECOSOC meets for an annual substantive session in July, alternating between New York and Geneva. UN member states which are not ECOSOC members can participate in open meetings without a vote.
The High‑level Segment is a meeting at ministerial level on a topical matter. Following the IMF and World Bank spring meeting each year, ECOSOC conducts a dialogue with the heads of the international financial institutions and the World Trade Organization on current economic and social questions. The ECOSOC organisational sessions take place between January and May each year, at which elections are held for the subordinate organs and bodies. Decisions are taken by simple majority, every member has one vote. When adopting resolutions during the annual meetings, ECOSOC members traditionally strive to take decisions by consensus.
Non‑governmental organisations and the United Nations
Non‑governmental organisations today play a role in almost all fields of work of the United Nations. However, there are no uniform regulations as to their status and participation rights within the UN system. Germany advocates intensive civil society participation in the United Nations. The General Assembly Special Sessions in particular are enriched by the presence of a large number of NGOs.
NGOs can apply for consultative status with the Economic and Social Council, as explicitly provided for in Article 71 of the UN Charter. The legal basis currently applicable is ECOSOC resolution 1996/31 which contains detailed regulations. There are three types of NGO consultative status with ECOSOC:
- Type I (general consultative status): for NGOs working on the majority of ECOSOC issues.
- Type II (special consultative status): for NGOs able to make specific contributions in individual ECOSOC areas.
- List or roster status: for all other NGOs.
Depending on their status, NGOs have different rights of participation in the work of ECOSOC and its functional commissions, for example the right to make oral statements, the right to circulate statements as official UN documents or the right to suggest agenda items. ECOSOC decides whether or not an NGO will be approved and which type of consultative status it will be granted, basing its decisions on recommendations from the Committee on Non‑Governmental Organisations. Applications can be filled in online on the United Nations website.
United Nations financing
Article 17 of the UN Charter states that the organisation’s expenses shall be borne by the members as apportioned by the General Assembly. If a member is in arrears in the payment of its financial contributions for two years, it loses its right to vote in the General Assembly. Exceptions may be made if the member’s failure to pay is due to circumstances beyond its control (Article 19).
The regular United Nations budget for the 2018/2019 biennium, approved by the 73rd session of the General Assembly on 22 December 2018, amounts to 5.811 billion US dollars, inclusive of all supplements. The numerous United Nations programmes and funds (UNDP, UNFPA, UNEP etc.) receive additional financing through voluntary contributions from the member states.