United Nations Research Guide

This guide will suggest background resources and tips on navigating United Nations documents.

The Main Organs of the United Nations

The United Nations is comprised of five main organs:  the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Secretariat, and the International Court of Justice.  Historically, a sixth main organ, the Trusteeship Council, played a significant role in the process of decolonization.  The Trusteeship Council suspended its operations in 1994 and is no longer active, but it cannot be formally dissolved without amending the UN Charter.

Brief descriptions of the UN's main organs are provided below, along with links to their respective websites.  For a comprehensive listing of all UN-affiliated entities, visit the online Directory of UN System Organizations.

  • The General Assembly
    The General Assembly is the primary deliberative and policymaking arm of the UN, at which all 193 member states are represented.  It meets annually in September to debate pressing issues and to make decisions and recommendations on important questions of peace and security, economic and social development development, the protection of human rights, the codification of international law, and the admission of new member states, among other matters.  It also approves the UN's budget and the financial assessments of member states.  Some decisions require a two-thirds majority while others are decided by a simple majority.
  • The Security Council
    The Security Council has primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security.  It is comprised of 15 members, five of which are permanent (China, the Russian Federation, France, the U.K., and the U.S.).  The other ten members are elected by the General Assembly to two-year terms.  The Security Council investigates acts of aggression and other threats to peace.  Whenever possible, it attempts to settle disputes through peaceful means, but it also has the authority to impose sanctions and authorize the use of force.  Nine votes, including the votes of all five permanent members, are required for the Council to issue a decision.  The UN Charter obligates all member states to comply with Council decisions.
  • The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
    The Economic and Social Council, usually referred to by the acronym ECOSOC, provides a central forum for discussing the world's economic, social, and environmental challenges and for formulating policy recommendations to address them.  It coordinates about 70 percent of the UN's human and financial resources, including those of the 15 specialized agencies, eight functional commissions, and five regional commissions under its jurisdiction.  ECOSOC is comprised of 54 UN member states, which are elected by the General Assembly to serve overlapping three-year terms.  Seats are allocated among five regions in order to ensure equitable geographic representation.
  • The Secretariat
    The Secretariat is UN's administrative arm, comprised of civil servants responsible for carrying out the day-to-day operations of the organization.  Led by the Secretary-General, the Secretariat collects and analyzes data, conducts research on a wide range of economic and social issues, maintains the facilities used by other UN organs, provides interpreter services, and translates documents into the UN's official languages.  The Secretary-General is appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council for a 5-year, renewable term.  In addition to mediating international disputes and coordinating peacekeeping activities, the Secretary-General serves as the public face of the UN and acts as the principal spokesperson for its policy initiatives.
  • The International Court of Justice
    The International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, is the UN's principal judicial organ.  It is located in the Peace Palace in The Hague, a city in the Netherlands, making it the only one of the UN's principal organs that is not based in New York City.  The Court adjudicates interstate disputes in contentious cases in accordance with international law and issues advisory opinions on questions of law referred to it by authorized UN organs. The Court is comprised of 15 judges elected by both the General Assembly and the Security Council to serve nine-year terms.  No two judges from the same jurisdiction may serve simultaneously.  Seats are informally apportioned geographically to ensure that judges from all of the world's main legal systems are represented on the Court.
  • The Trusteeship Council
    The Trusteeship Council was established to oversee the 11 "trust territories" established under the UN Charter.  These included former colonies previously administered under mandates issued by the League of Nations, as well as territories seized from nations that were defeated in World War II.  The Council suspended its operations in 1994 when Palau, the last remaining trust territory, gained its independence.  Should the need arise, the Council may resume operations at the request of the majority of its members, the members of the General Assembly or the members of the Security Council.