The Economic and Social Council

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Many of the most outstanding accomplishments of the UN to date are in the economic and social fields. Under Article 55 of the charter, the organization is committed to promote the following goals:

  1. "higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development;
  2. "solutions of international economic, social, health, and related problems; and international cultural and educational cooperation; and
  3. "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion."

The responsibility for UN activities aimed at the achievement of these goals is vested in the General Assembly and, under its authority, the Economic and Social Council.


The activities of the Economic and Social Council, carried out through its subsidiary bodies in cooperation with the specialized agencies, have touched on all aspects of human well-being and affected the lives of people everywhere. A list of the major spheres of activity supervised by the council is given below; the chapters on Economic and Social Development, Technical Cooperation Programs, Social and Humanitarian Assistance, and Human Rights contain further information on matters directly under its purview.

Economic Development.

Although this field encompasses both developed and developing nations, emphasis is on the problems of the latter group. The activities of the council include evaluating long-term projections for the world economy; fostering international trade, particularly in commodities, between industrialized and nonindustrialized countries; improving the international flow of private and public capital; promoting industrialization and the development of natural resources; resolving related political and legal issues, such as permanent sovereignty over natural resources and land reform; developing programs of technical cooperation for developing nations; and applying the latest innovations of science and technology to improve the industrialization of developing countries.

Social Progress.

Among the social problems handled under the aegis of the council are housing, population, international traffic in narcotic drugs, the welfare of children in the developing countries, and the status of the world's refugees, the aging, and the disabled. Particular attention is paid to the role of women in development.

Human Rights.

The council and its subsidiary organs have elaborated a series of important principles for the promotion of fundamental freedoms. Measures include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a number of declarations and recommendations on specific rights-for example, the rights of women, freedom of information and the press, and racial equality. The most recent declaration was adopted in Vienna in June 1993, namely, the "Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action."

Related Special Problems.

An example of a special problem of interest to the council is the improvement of statistical techniques, since efficient statistics are essential to economic and social development. Work in this field includes techniques to improve world statistics in specific economic branches, such as industry and finance; standards of national statistical services; and methods of comparing statistics from different countries.

Problems Dealt with by the UN Related Agencies.

The specialized agencies, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) undertake a wide range of activities in the economic and social fields. It is a function of the council to coordinate these activities. Accounts of each of the related agencies are given in the separate chapters devoted to them.


Under the charter, the council is authorized to make or initiate studies, reports, and recommendations on economic, social, cultural, educational, health, and related matters; to make recommendations to promote respect for, and observance of, human rights; to prepare draft conventions for submission to the General Assembly on matters within its competence; to call international conferences on matters within its competence and in accordance with rules prescribed by the UN; to enter into agreements, subject to the approval of the General Assembly, with specialized agencies; to coordinate the activities of the specialized agencies and obtain regular reports from them; to perform, with the approval of the General Assembly, services at the request of member nations or the specialized agencies; to consult with nongovernmental agencies whose work is related to matters dealt with by the council; to set up subsidiary organs to assist its work; and to perform any other functions that may be assigned to it by the General Assembly.


Originally, the Economic and Social Council consisted of 18 members, but the amendments to the charter that came into force on 31 August 1965 raised the number to 27. Another amendment that came into force on 24 September 1973 increased the membership to 54.

When the council was constituted in January 1946, the General Assembly elected the council's first 18 members for staggered terms: 6 members each for one, two, and three years, respectively. Subsequently, all terms were changed to three years, so that each year one-third of the membership is elected by the General Assembly.

The General Assembly resolutions adopting the amendments to the charter that increased the membership of the council also laid down an equitable pattern for the geographical distribution of the additional seats. The 54 members are elected with respect to geographic representation (i.e., to include members from African states, Asian states, Latin American states, Middle Eastern States, and European and other states). Elections are by a two-thirds majority vote on a secret ballot in the General Assembly, and immediate reelection of members is permissible. Although the permanent members of the Security Council have no privileged position on the Economic and Social Council and the charter does not guarantee them membership in the council, it has been the custom to reelect them continuously. In general, the General Assembly has less difficulty in agreeing on its Economic and Social Council selections than in filling Security Council vacancies. Moreover, if, in the opinion of the council, a matter on its agenda is of particular concern to a UN member not represented on the council, it may invite that state to participate in its discussions but without a vote.

In 2006, ECOSOC had the following members: Albania, Angola, Armenia, Austria, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Brazil, Canada, Chad, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, France, Germany, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Madagascar, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Namibia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Poland, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United Republic of Tanzania, United States.


In 1993, the Economic and Social Council undertook a major restructuring. Whereas it used to hold two sessions each year, one at UN headquarters in the spring and one in Geneva in the summer, it now holds only one substantive (4-week long) meeting per year in summer, rotating each year between Geneva and New York. A president and four vice-presidents are elected by the council for each year. The council also holds an organizational session in January to plan its program of work for the year.

Each of the 54 members of the council has one vote. The big powers possess no veto or other special voting privilege. A proposal or motion before the council may be adopted without a vote unless a member requests one. When a vote is taken, decisions are carried by a simple majority of the members present.


The council accomplishes its substantive work through numerous subsidiary organs in the form of commissions, committees, and ad hoc and special bodies. In Article 68, the charter specifically states that the council "shall set up commissions in economic and social fields and for the promotion of human rights." Several types of commissions and other organs have been set up within this provision, including the regional commissions, to deal with economic and social problems in the different geographical areas of the world, and the functional commissions, to handle social, human rights, and environmental questions.

Regional Commissions

There are five regional commissions: the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE); the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP); the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC); the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA); and the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). Each has its own staff members, who are considered part of the regular staff of the UN. Regional commission expenditures come out of the regular UN budget. The regional commissions are discussed in the chapter on Economic and Social Development.

Functional Commissions

Since 1946, the council established functional commissions and subcommissions to advise and assist it in its work.

The Statistical Commission, with 24 members, assists in developing international statistical services, promoting the development of national statistics and improving their comparability, coordinating the statistical work of the specialized agencies and the central statistical services of the UN Secretariat, and advising the UN organs on general questions relating to the collection, analysis, and dissemination of statistical information.

The Commission on Population and Development, with 47 members, studies population changes, including migration, and their effect on economic and social conditions and advises on policies to influence the size and structure of populations and on any other demographic questions on which the UN or its specialized agencies may seek advice.

The Commission for Social Development, with 46 members, advises the council on social policies in general and on all matters in the social field not covered by the specialized agencies; it gives priority to the establishment of objectives and programs and to social research in areas affecting social and economic development.

The Commission on Human Rights, with 53 members, makes recommendations and prepares reports to the council on human rights questions, including the status of women, the protection of minorities, the prevention of all forms of discrimination, and the implementation of international conventions on human rights. Its various working groups are composed of experts nominated by members to explore problems such as arbitrary detention, involuntary disappearances, and the rights of indigenous peoples.

The Commission on Human Rights has also established working groups on specific human rights questions, including slavery, indigenous populations, minorities, enforced or involuntary disappearances, and mental health detainees. It also encompasses a Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.

The Commission on the Status of Women, with 45 members, prepares reports on matters concerning the promotion of women's rights in the political, economic, social, and educational fields and makes recommendations to the council on matters requiring immediate attention in the field of women's rights. The commission has established a working group on communications concerning the status of women.

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs, with 53 members, advises the council and prepares draft international agreements on all matters relating to the control of narcotic drugs. Over the years, the commission has established five subsidiary bodies. The Subcommission on Illicit Drug Traffic and Related Matters in the Near and Middle East and the Meeting of Heads of National Drug Law Enforcement Agencies (HONLEA), Asia and the Pacific, were the first subsidiary bodies to be established; both were convened for the first time in 1974. The need for similar coordination in other regions of the world led to a global network of HONLEA meetings: the Meeting of HONLEA, Africa, was established in 1985; the Meeting of HONLEA, Latin America and the Caribbean, in 1987; and the Meeting of HONLEA, Europe, in 1990.

The Commission on Science and Technology for Development. The United Nations has been concerned with the effects of advances in science and technology to world peace and social development since its inception in 1945 at the dawn of the nuclear era. In 1963 the first United Nations Conference on the Application of Science and Technology for the Benefit of the Less Developed Countries met in Geneva and began to form an agenda for international action. This was followed in 1979 by the United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for Development, held in Vienna, which produced the Vienna Programme of Action. In affirmation of the conference's program, the General Assembly established an Intergovernmental Committee on Science and Technology for Development, open to all states, to draw up policy guidelines, monitor activities within the United Nations system, promote implementation of the Vienna Programme, identify priorities, and mobilize resources. In 1989, on the tenth anniversary of the 1979 Conference, the General Assembly expressed its disappointment with the implementation of the Vienna Programme of Action and eventually decided to transform the Intergovernmental Committee and its subsidiary body, the Advisory Committee on Science and Technology for Development, into a functional commission of ECOSOC (General Assembly Resolution 46/235).

The Commission on Science and Technology for Development met for the first time in May 1993. It has 33 members elected by ECOSOC for a term of four years on the principle of equitable geographic distribution. At its first session, the commission recommended to ECOSOC that it be charged with the following tasks:

  1. assisting the council in providing science and technology policy guidelines and recommendations to member states, in particular developing countries;
  2. providing innovative approaches to improving the quality of coordination and cooperation in the area of science and technology within the United Nations system, with a view to ensuring optimum mobilization of resources;
  3. providing expert advice to other parts of the United Nations systems.

The Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice was established in December 1991 by General Assembly Resolution 46/152. An existing ECOSOC Committee on Crime Prevention and Control was dissolved, and its funds were made available to the new commission, which met for the first time in April 1992. The new commission is charged with developing, managing, monitoring, and reviewing implementation of the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme created at a Ministerial Meeting held in Versailles, France, in 1991. In addition, it will consult member states on the draft ing of a convention on crime prevention and criminal justice. Priority areas of the commission include: national and transnational crime; organized crime; economic crime, including money laundering; the role of criminal law in the protection of the environment; crime prevention in urban areas; and juvenile and violent criminality. The main difference between the former committee and the new commission is that the decisions of the commission will be decisions of the governments, rather than of independent experts. Decisions at this level were considered essential to tackle the problems of drug trafficking, illegal arms sales, terrorism, dumping of industrial waste, and criminal negligence resulting in environmental degradation, corruption, and financial offences. The commission has 40 members.

The Commission on Sustainable Development. As a result of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the council established a new functional commission in February 1993: the Commission on Sustainable Development. The 53-member commission began its work of monitoring the implementation of UNCED's Agenda 21 action plan with its first session in New York in June 1993. The commission's mandate includes: monitoring progress towards the UN target of providing 0.7 percent of gross national product of industrialized countries for official development assistance; considering information on the implementation of environmental conventions; and recommending action to the General Assembly. The commission will interact with other UN intergovernmental bodies, regional commissions, and development and financial institutions. A high-level Advisory Board, consisting of eminent persons from all regions of the world, will provide input to the commission and the council through the Secretary-General.

The United Nations Forum on Forests. At the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) the forest issue was among the most controversial, polarizing developing and developed countries. At the meeting, the governments of UNCED came up with a set of principles regarding the management, conservation, and sustainable development of forests. Subsequently, a panel, forum, and further proposals for action were established, culminating in the creation of the Forum on Forests in 2000. The forum's goals are to combat deforestation and degradation of forests, to work for forest conservation and protection of unique types of forests and fragile ecosystems, working on rehabilitation and conservation strategies for countries with low forest cover, working for the promotion of natural and planted forests, and considering the economic, social, and cultural aspects of forests, among other items.

Other Subsidiary Organs

Article 68 of the charter provides that, in addition to the commissions specifically mentioned in the charter, the council should establish "such other commissions as may be required for its functions." However, the other subsidiary organs created have not been given the name "commission." Instead, they are called "standing committees" or "expert bodies."

In 2006, ECOSOC had the following standing committees and expert bodies: Committee for Programme and Coordination, Commission on Human Settlements, Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, Committee on Negotiations with Intergovernmental Agencies, Ad hoc Open-ended Working Group on Informatics, Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods and on the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names, Committee for Development Policy, Meeting of Experts on the United Nations Programme in Public Administration, Ad Hoc Group of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Energy and Sustainable Development. Two other related bodies are the International Narcotics Control Board and the Board of Trustees of the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women.

Semiautonomous bodies, which generally report both to the council and to the General Assembly, include the following: Committee for Programme and Coordination, High-level Committee on the Review of Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), United Nations Development Fund for Women, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and the World Food Programme (WFP).


The charter empowers ECOSOC to make arrangements to consult with international organizations of private citizens, known as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and distinguished from intergovernmental organizations. Consultations with NGOs bring informed opinion other than that of governments and their officials before the council and provide it with a source of special experience and technical knowledge. NGOs granted consultative status are divided into two categories. Those in Category I are organizations with a general interest in the work of the council, and their activities are particularly germane to it and to the UN as a whole. Those in Category II are organizations with an interest in some particular aspect of the work of the council. In May 1987, 35 NGOs were listed in Category I and 299 in Category II. Another 490 were listed on the NGO roster for consultation as the occasion arises. By the late 1990s, more than 100 NGOs were listed in Category I, more than 600 in Category II, and more than 800 were listed on the roster for occasional consultation, for a total of more than 1,500 NGOs in consultative status. In 2006 there were 2,719 NGOs in consultative status with the ECOSOC. All such officially recognized organizations may send observers to the public meetings of the council and its commissions and may submit memoranda for circulation. Representatives of Category I organizations are entitled to participate in council debates and propose items for the agenda. Representatives of Category II organizations may, with the permission of the chair, make oral statements at council meetings.

Consultative status in Category II has been granted to nearly all important international business associations, cooperative societies, farmers' organizations, trade unions, and veterans' organizations; to leading professional groups, such as associations of architects, engineers, lawyers, newspaper publishers and editors, social welfare workers, tax experts, and many others; and to various women's and youth associations. Many associations formed along denominational lines-Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Roman Catholic-also have consultative status. Most organizations that enjoy such official UN standing are international, in that they have members in more than one country. An organization whose membership is restricted to one particular country may obtain consultative status in the council only with the consent of the country's government.

The participation of NGOs in the work of the council took a historic turn during preparations for the Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. More than 1,400 NGOs participated in UNCED, and their contributions to the historic conference were acknowledged to be invaluable. In view of this remarkable participation, the Secretary-General recommended that relevant and competent NGOs be accorded unusual participation in and access to ECOSOC's new functional commission, the Commission on Sustainable Development, which will monitor the progress of implementation of UNCED's Agenda 21 action plan.

Since many delegations expressed the need to transform the United Nations into a forum that was more accessible to NGOs, ECOSOC established a Working Group on the Review of Arrangements for Consultations with Non-Governmental Organizations in 1993. The Working Group held its first session in June 1994 with a mandate to review the arrangements for consultation with nongovernmental organizations, arrangements which had not been revised since they were first adopted by the council in 1968.

In his 1994 Agenda for Development Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Gali noted that NGOs undertake development projects valued at more than us$ 7 billion annually. He stated: "The time has arrived to bring NGO and United Nations activities into an increasingly productive relationship of consultation and cooperation." In 1996 ECOSOC adopted a resolution regarding consultation with NGOs that recognized the growth of national and regional NGOs, the broadening role of the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, and the adoption of standard rules for the participation of NGOs in UN international conferences. ECOSOC recommended that the General Assembly examine the question of participation of NGOs in all areas of work in the UN.


In accordance with a charter provision, the council from time to time calls for international conferences on special world problems falling within its sphere of competence. Thus, in the 1990s, the UN held conferences on such subjects as the environment, population, food, housing, and the status of women. In the early- to mid-2000s, the UN held conferences against racism, xenophobia, and related forms of intolerance, on the problem of HIV/AIDS, on sustainable development, disarmament, narcotic drugs, water, biodiversity, and sustainable cities, among other issues. These conferences led to the establishment of the UN Environment Program, the World Food Council, the Center for Human Settlements (Habitat), and other programs and to the adoption of world plans of action for the environment, clean water, population, the aging, the disabled, and other subjects of international concern.


In his 1992 Agenda for Peace, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali issued a wide-ranging strategy for the future of the United Nations system, including proposals for changes in ECOSOC. It was suggested that those would reflect changes in the very definition of economic and social progress that had naturally resulted from the dissolution of the former USSR. In addition, a wealth of information now existed on successful and unsuccessful efforts at development, information that in itself called for a fundamental change in the structure of the United Nations so that it could respond more effectively to its members' needs in the area of economic and social development.

In his Agenda, the Secretary-General proposed that ECOSOC report to the Security Council on economic and social developments that might pose threats to international peace and security. He also urged the creation of a high-level, intersessional mechanism to enable ECOSOC to react in a timely way to new developments. He also called for lines of communication between the General Assembly and ECOSOC to be clarified and streamlined. In addition, the Secretary-General urged that the relationship between ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies be redefined. For example, he reported to the General Assembly in 1992 (A/47/434) that members of ECOSOC were frustrated by discussing the same issues four times in the same calendar year: in the council's subsidiary body, in the committee session, in the council plenary, and in the General Assembly.

Intense negotiations occurred during a resumed session of the 47th session of the General Assembly in June 1993. A draft package of reforms was proposed that had as its main aim eliminating duplication of work in the General Assembly and ECOSOC and providing guidelines for a division of labor. For example, it was suggested that the governing bodies of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) be transformed into smaller executive boards under the overall authority of ECOSOC. Other proposals would have affected the procedures of ECOSOC and would have subsumed the council's two subcommittees (on economic and social issues) into the plenary body.

Although there was clearly a consensus on the need for reform and rationalization, the developing countries (in particular those countries that make up the Group of 77) blocked passage of the package because of concerns over the numerical and regional composition of governing bodies of the different funds and programs of the United Nations. The smallest countries felt that the drastic reduction in representation would exclude them from participation in the decision-making processes of these bodies. In March 1996 Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Gali emphasized ministerial participation and increasing involvement of the new global leaders for the revitalization of ECOSOC. In July 1996 he noted that ongoing reform efforts produced significant improvements but that ECOSOC's capacity to monitor and coordinate the work of the UN system needed to increase.

In his acceptance speech on 17 December 1996, Secretary-General-designate KofiAnnan outlined certain goals for UN reform under his tenure. He pledged to make the UN leaner, more efficient and more effective, more responsive to the wishes and needs of its members and more realistic in its goals and commitments. One of his first reforms was the creation of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) on 17 March 1997. DESA was created as the result of the consolidation of the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development, the Department for Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis and the Department for Development Support and Management Services. DESA's program is to provide substantive support to the Second and the Third Committees of the General Assembly and to ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies. As well, as part of continuing reform, ECOSOC initiated in 1998 a tradition of meeting each April with finance ministers heading key committees of the Bretton Woods institutionsthe World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These consultations initiated inter-institutional cooperation that paved the way for the holding of an International Conference on Financing for Development, held in March 2002 in Monterrey, Mexico. At that conference, ECOSOC was assigned a primary role in monitoring and assessing follow-up to the Monterrey Consensus.

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