The General Assembly

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The first of the UN organs established by the charter, the General Assembly is the pivot of the organization. All member states are represented. Each country, large or small, has one vote, and each country chooses its own representatives.


The central position of the General Assembly is firmly established in a series of charter provisions encompassing a wide range of functions and powers. First are the provisions setting forth its powers as the major deliberative body of the UN. With two exceptions (described below), the General Assembly has the right to discuss and make recommendations on any subject that falls within the scope of the charter itself, including the functions and powers of the other organs. Hence, it is in the General Assembly that all of the UN's important projects (except for the Security Council's peacekeeping operations) originate-those dealing with political questions, disarmament, economic and social development, human rights, decolonization of dependent territories, and development of international law.

The second group of charter provisions defining the pivotal position of the General Assembly concerns the financing of the UN. The General Assembly is empowered to "consider and approve" the budget of the organization (which includes that of the International Court of Justice at The Hague), and it also has the right to determine how the expenses shall be apportioned among the member nations.

Lastly, the General Assembly's position is secured by provisions that give it specific powers in relation to the other organs. Thus, both the Economic and Social Council and the Trusteeship Council are constituted under the direct authority of the General Assembly to carry out designated tasks in their respective spheres. The administrative arm of the UN, the Secretariat, is also at the disposition of the General Assembly. The General Assembly's powers, however, are much more limited where the Security Council and the International Court of Justice are concerned. Designed in some respects to be more powerful than the General Assembly, the Security Council is in no way answerable to the body for its activities-although it is required to make an annual report and, when necessary, special reports. Also, whereas the General Assembly is empowered to make recommendations to the council concerning the maintenance of international peace, it cannot give the council instructions. In the case of the International Court of Justice, any attempt to render its activities answerable to the General Assembly would have prejudiced the independent status that is normally accorded to judiciary bodies throughout the world. Nevertheless, inasmuch as the General Assembly not only has budgetary power but also elects the nonpermanent members of the Security Council and, concurrently with the Security Council, all the judges of the International Court, it can be said to exercise an appreciable degree of indirect control over both these bodies.

Thus, the one UN organ on which all member states have the constitutional right to be represented is able to make its will felt throughout the organization, and indeed the entire UN system. Because its powers closely resemble those of a national parliament, the General Assembly has been described as a "world parliament." Parliamentary powers are not to be confused, though, with governmental powers. Except insofar as the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, and the Secretariat are bound to carry out its requests, the General Assembly has no power to legislate and cannot enforce its decisions upon individual member nations. The only sanctions that the General Assembly can wield against an uncooperative member are the suspension of the rights and privileges of membership and expulsion from the organization, but even these sanctions can be invoked only on the recommendation of the Security Council. In effect, then, all General Assembly decisions are purely recommendations that reflect world public opinion; they have moral, though not legal, force. At the end of this chapter, an attempt is made to assess their effectiveness on this score.

Charter Restrictions on the Assembly's Power to Discuss and Recommend

The charter imposes two major restrictions on the General Assembly's powers to discuss and make recommendations. The first is embodied in the principle set out in Article 2, paragraph 7 of the charter, which states: "Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement." This principle is not so restrictive as it might seem, for whether a given issue is or is not of a domestic character is decided by the General Assembly itself. It can and often does override by majority vote the attempt of a member nation to bar a particular topic from debate by invoking Article 2, paragraph 7 of the charter. The most notable case in point was the General Assembly's annual discussion of South Africa's apartheid policy (before it was abolished) despite South Africa's contention that the matter was within its domestic jurisdiction. (See section on "Apartheid in South Africa" in the chapter on Human Rights.)

The second restriction is to be found in Article 12 of the Charter, which states that while the Security Council is exercising its functions in respect to any international dispute or situation, "the General Assembly shall not make any recommendation with regard to that dispute or situation unless the Security Council so requests." This stipulation, then, clearly establishes the absolute primacy of the Security Council over the General Assembly in times of crisis. Here, the main object of the founders of the UN was to ensure against the possibility of the smaller nations forming a majority bloc to interfere with any decisions that might be made by the Big Five acting in concert as permanent members of the Security Council, where each possesses the right of veto. (For a discussion of the veto right, see the chapter on the Security Council.)

Extension of the Assembly's Power to Discuss and Recommend through the Uniting for Peace Resolution

Designed to secure maximum unity of action in moments of acute danger, Article 12, in fact, proved to be the chief obstacle to action of any kind during successive crises in the years just after World War II. The effectiveness of the entire system presupposed a spirit of unanimity among the great powers in their determination to end a particular dispute that appeared to threaten international peace and security. However, on each postwar occasion when the great powers might have been expected to display unanimity, the USSR and the four other permanent members of the Security Council took opposite sides in the dispute. As a result, precisely because each of them possessed the veto, all council action was deadlocked. Meanwhile, the General Assembly, prevented from taking action of its own accord because of Article 12, was forced to stand by helplessly.

It was the seriousness of the Korean crisis that finally impelled the General Assembly to take steps to break through its constitutional straitjacket. Following a deadlock in the council in 1950, when the USSR vetoed a United States-sponsored resolution in connection with the entry of the People's Republic of China into the Korean conflict on the side of North Korea, the General Assembly adopted a resolution that enabled it to circumvent the restrictions imposed by Article 12. This act, which came to be known as the "Uniting for Peace Resolution," provides that if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity among its permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility in the maintenance of peace, in a case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making recommendations to members for collective measures, including if necessary the use of armed force. Although the Uniting for Peace Resolution thus considerably extends the General Assembly's powers with respect to maintenance of international peace and security, it in no way represents an attempt to usurp the Security Council's prerogatives. Nor does it attempt to arrogate to the General Assembly the enforcement powers that the charter accorded to the Security Council alone. Even under the Uniting for Peace Resolution, the General Assembly can only recommend that members undertake collective peacekeeping measures; it cannot oblige them to do so. Nor can it impose peacekeeping action against the will of the parties to a dispute. It must obtain their explicit consent to the presence of UN personnel-observer commissions, mediators, troops-in their territories.

The Uniting for Peace Resolution has been invoked in several major crises: the Middle East (1958, 1967), Hungary (1956), Suez (1956), the Congo (1960), Afghanistan (1980), Palestine (1980, 1982), Namibia (1981), the occupied Arab territories (1982) and illegal Israeli actions in occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied Palestinian Territory (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004). In all cases, the emergency special sessions addressed situations in which the Security Council found itself deadlocked. (See the discussion of peacekeeping operations in the chapter on International Peace and Security.)



The General Assembly meets once a year in regular sessions that begin on the third Tuesday in September. Usually these sessions last about three months, ending before Christmas, but there is no fixed time limit, and many times the General Assembly has adjourned, continuing the session after the holidays. Special sessions on a particular topic may be held at the request of the Security Council, or of a majority of UN members, or of one member if the majority of members concur. An emergency special session may be called within 24 hours by the Security Council on the vote of any nine members, or by a majority of UN members, or by one member if the majority concurs.

Through 2005, the Assembly convened 28 special sessions on issues that demanded attention over the years, including problems of Palestine, UN finances, Namibia, disarmament, international economic cooperation, apartheid, drugs, the environment, population, children, the advancement of women, sustainable development of small island developing states, and the 60th commemoration of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.

Sessional Committees

Most of the substantive work during regular session is conducted through seven "Main Committees," which are reconstituted at every session. Each is composed of representatives of all member nations.

  • The First Committee deals with disarmament and related international security matters.
  • The Second Committee deals with economic and financial matters.
  • The Third Committee is concerned with social, humanitarian, and cultural matters and human rights.
  • The Fourth Committee handles special political questions and questions concerning the granting of independence to colonial territories.
  • The Fifth Committee deals with the administrative and budgetary matters of the organization.
  • The Sixth Committee debates legal questions, including the general development and codification of international law.
  • The Special Political Committee was created in 1948 as an ad hoc committee of the whole to discuss the Palestine question. It was subsequently absorbed by the Fourth Committee.

The General Assembly maintains two other sessional committees, both of which deal with General Assembly procedure. However, neither is a committee of the whole. The 28-member General Committee, composed of the General Assembly president, the 21 vice presidents, and the chairmen of the six main committees (see Election of Officers, below), examines the provisional agenda of each session and makes recommendations on the inclusion or exclusion of items and on their assignment to the appropriate main committee. The Credentials Committee is a nine-member body appointed by the General Assembly at the beginning of the session to examine the credentials of representatives and to work out any problems that might arise in this connection.

Plenary Meetings

Since all the main committees are committees of the whole, the distinction between the General Assembly meeting in committee and meeting in plenum is largely one of protocol. Always conducted by the president or a vice president, plenary meetings are much more formal affairs. Normally, no one below the rank of head of delegation may actively participate in the proceedings, and no one is allowed to speak from his or her chair but must go to the speaker's rostrum. (None of the conference rooms in which the committees meet is provided with a speaker's rostrum.) The Assembly Hall itself is reserved for plenary meetings and is rarely used by the committees.

It is in plenary meetings that all formal or ceremonial functions occur: opening and closing of the General Assembly session, election of officers and members of other organs, adoption of resolutions and decisions on all agenda items, and addresses by heads of state or government or by other high national officials who visit the UN while the General Assembly is in session. Plenary meetings also constitute the forum for the statements of general policy that the head of each member delegation is entitled to make as part of what is known as the "general debate," which takes place during the first three weeks or so of the regular session. Because of the great number of questions which the General Assembly is called upon to consider (156 agenda items at the 2005-06 session) it allocates most questions to its six main committees.

Voting Procedure

Each member of the General Assembly and its committees has one vote. Article 18 of the charter decrees that decisions on "important" questions shall be made by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting. Among the important questions specified are recommendations with regard to maintenance of peace and security; election of the nonpermanent members of the Security Council and of the members of the Economic and Social Council and the Trusteeship Council; admission of new UN members, suspension of rights and privileges of membership, and expulsion of members; questions relating to the operation of the trusteeship system; and budgetary questions. Decisions on other questions, including the determination of additional categories of important questions requiring a two-thirds majority vote, are made by a simple majority of the members present and voting. The phrase "members present and voting" means members casting either affirmative or negative votes; members who abstain are considered as not voting. Thus, although the number of abstentions is usually listed for information purposes, it does not count in the final tally as to whether a resolution has received the requisite majority-provided that the rules of quorum have been observed. A quorum is constituted when a majority of the members are present; no decision may be taken without one. The president of the General Assembly, however, may declare a meeting open and permit the debate to proceed when at least one-third of the members are present. The chairman of a main committee may open a meeting when one-quarter of the members are present.

Voting may be by a show of hands, by roll call, or, in certain instances such as elections, by secret ballot. The normal method was intended to be by a show of hands, but any member can request a roll call. There has been an increasing tendency to do so, especially on the more contentious issues. Before a roll-call vote is taken, a lot is drawn to determine the country that is to vote first. Starting with that country, voting proceeds according to the alphabetical order of the official names of states in English. Mechanical voting equipment was installed in the Assembly Hall and first used at the 1965 session. Similar equipment is used in some conference rooms.

Seating Arrangements

The charter allows each member state a maximum of five representatives in the General Assembly. Most members, in addition to their five representatives, send five alternative representatives and a number of advisers to each session. Six seats are assigned to every delegation in the Assembly Hall. Both in the hall and in conference rooms, delegations are seated in alphabetical order according to the official names of the countries in English. The seating is rearranged before each session by drawing lots to select the country with which the alphabetical seating will start.

Election of Officers

At each regular session, the General Assembly constitutes itself anew. During the opening meetings, the main officers are elected, who serve until the end of the session. If a special or emergency session is called, it is normally presided over by officers elected in the previous September.

The first officer to be elected is the president. Delegates vote by secret ballot, and a simple majority suffices. In choosing the president, regard has to be paid to the equitable geographical rotation of the office among the following groups of states: African, Asian, Eastern European, Latin American, and Western European and other states. By tacit agreement, no representative of a permanent member of the Security Council ever is elected president of the General Assembly or chairman of a committee.

Following the election of the president, the main committees are officially constituted and retire to elect their own officers. Here again the matter of equitable geographical representation arises, and it is precisely regulated by a resolution adopted by the General Assembly in 1963. Of the six committee chairmen, one must be chosen from African, Asian, Eastern European, Latin American or Caribbean, and Western European or other states. The sixth chairmanship rotates over a period of twenty sessions between African, Asian, and Latin American and Caribbean states.

The final officers to be elected are the 21 vice presidents. Of these, 16 are elected in accordance with a geographical pattern: six from African states, four from Asian states, three from Latin American and Caribbean states, two from Western European and other states, and one from an Eastern European state. (The election of the president of the General Assembly has the effect, however, of reducing by one the number of vice presidencies allocated to the region from which the president is elected.) The remaining five vice presidents represent the permanent members of the Security Council: China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States.


Under the General Assembly's rules of procedure, the provisional agenda for a regular session must be issued no later than 60 days before the opening. However, up to 30 days before the opening, the Secretary-General, any of the other principal organs of the UN, or any member of the UN may request the inclusion of suplementary

1.1946Paul-Henri SpaakBelgium
2.1947Oswaldo AranhaBrazil
3.1948Herbert V. EvattAustralia
4.1949Carlos P. RomulPhilippines
5.1950Nasrollah EntezaIran
6.1951Luís Padilla NervoMexico
7.1952Lester B. PearsonCanada
8.1953Vijaya Lakshmi PanditIndia
9.1954Eelco N. van KleffensNetherlands
10.1955José MazaChile
11.1956Prince Wan WaithayakonThailand
12.1957Sir Leslie MunroNew Zealand
13.1958Charles MalikLebanon
14.1959Víctor Andrés BelaúndePeru
15.1960Frederick H. BolandIreland
16.1961Mongi SlimTunisia
17.1962Sir Muhammad Zafrulla KhanPakistan
18.1963Carlos Sosa RodríguezVenezuela
19.1964Alex Quaison-SackeyGhana
20.1965Amintore FanfaniItaly
21.1966Abdul Rahman PazhwakAfghanistan
22.1967Corneliu ManescuRomania
23.1968Emilio Arenales CatalánGuatemala
24.1969Angie E. BrooksLiberia
25.1970Edvard HambroNorway
26.1971Adam MalikIndonesia
27.1972Stanislaw TrepczynskiPoland
28.1973Leopoldo BenitesEcuador
29.1974Abdelaziz BouteflikaAlgeria
30.1975Gaston ThornLuxembourg
31.1976Hamilton S. AmerasingheSri Lanka
32.1977Lazar MojsovYugoslavia
33.1978Indalecio LiévanoColombia
34.1979Salim A. SalimTanzania
35.1980Rüdiger von WechmarFederal Republic of Germany
36.1981Ismat T. KittaniIraq
37.1982Imre HollaiHungary
38.1983Jorge E. IlluecaPanama
39.1984Paul J. F. LusakaZambia
40.1985Jaime de PiniésSpain
41.1986Humayun Rasheed ChoudhuryBangladesh
42.1987Peter FlorinGerman Democra Republic
43.1988Dante M. CaputaArgentina
44.1989Joseph Nanven GarbaNigeria
45.1990Guido de MarcoMalta
46.1991Samir S. ShihabiSaudi Arabia
47.1992Stoyan GanevBulgaria
48.1993Samuel R. InsanallyGuyana
49.1994Amara EssyCôte d'Ivoire
50.1995Diogo Freitas do AmaralPortugal
51.1996Razali IsmailMalaysia
52.1997Hennadiy UdovenkoUkraine
53.1998Didier OperttiUruguay
54.1999Theo-Ben GurirabNamibia
55.2000Harri HolkeriFinland
56.2001Han Seung-sooRepublic of Korea
57.2002Jan KavanCzech Republic
58.2003Julian Robert HunteSt. Lucia
59.2004Jean PingGabon
60.2005Jan EliassonSweden
Note: General Assembly presidents normally preside over special and emergency special sessions of the world body during their tenure. The exceptions were: José Arce of Argentina, who presided over the second special session in 1948, and Rudecindo Ortega of Chile, who presided over the first and second emergency special sessions held in 1956.

items. Additional items may also be included at any time if a majority of the General Assembly agrees.

Normally, the agenda includes well over 100 items. The great majority of substantive (that is to say, nonprocedural) items arise out of decisions made by previous sessions, and their inclusion in the agenda is automatic. Thus, the General Assembly frequently requests the Secretary-General, a special committee, or another UN organ to submit a special report on a given topic. The report, at the time that it is due, automatically becomes part of the agenda item on the topic. There also are several items that the General Assembly is obliged to consider at each session under the Charter-for example, the annual report of the Secretary-General on the work of the UN and the reports of the three councils.

Adoption of the Agenda

The adoption of the agenda is not a mere formality. The General Assembly has to approve the entire agenda and may amend or delete any item by majority vote. A decision to reject a particular member's request to have an item placed on the agenda could have considerable political significance. It is the function of the General Committee (which could be described as the steering committee) to make recommendations to the General Assembly on the inclusion of requested items in the agenda. Most of the pros and cons of including a controversial item in the agenda are thrashed out in this committee rather than in plenary, and the committee's proceedings sometimes afford a preview of the positions that countries will take on certain questions when they come up for substantive debate. Another important function of the General Committee is to recommend the assignment of agenda items to the various main committees for debate. It may also recommend that an important item be debated in plenary without being referred to a committee.


Depending on the nature of the question and on the views of the majority, General Assembly debates may lead to one or a combination of the following: recommendations, phrased in varying degrees of urgency, to individual countries or to all countries; initiation of studies and reports; creation of new UN organs, committees of inquiry, and permanent special bodies that are assigned specific tasks; and adoption of international covenants, treaties, and agreements.

Significance of the Enlarged Membership and Changing Voting Patterns

Since 1960, when the impact of the number of newly independent African and Asian nations first began to make itself felt in the UN, the General Assembly's voting patterns have undergone a marked alteration. Until then, the majority of controversial resolutions had tended essentially to reflect a simple East-West division of opinion. In the resulting lineup of votes, the Western view, marshaled under the leadership of the United States, easily attained comfortable majorities on most issues, since it was supported not only by the countries of Western Europe but by the Latin American states as well. The formation of what has come to be known as the "Afro-Asian group," coupled with the general detente in East-West relations, introduced a new element into the voting equation.

Interested in wielding influence within the world body and preoccupied with the problems of development and decolonization rather than with cold war issues as such, African and Asian countries sought to unite themselves into an independent or "nonaligned" voting bloc. On occasion, the unity of the group is split by divided interests. This division occurs most frequently in major political issues of special importance to the big powers, when some small countries may find it expedient to associate themselves with the big power on which they are dependent for financial aid. At other times, notably on items connected with economic development, African and Asian nations may join the developing countries of the Latin American group in order to create a formidable voting bloc that can force through requests to which the highly developed nations, from East and West alike, may be reluctant to accede.

Then again, the emergence of what is in effect a floating third voting force in the General Assembly has resulted in the creation of special alliances as occasion demands. For example, the former Soviet bloc and the nonaligned groups often combined to defeat or hurry the West on colonial issues. This development also opened up possibilities for striking voting bargains on individual draft resolutions. Accordingly, one group might support an initiative taken by a second group in exchange for the latter's support on a different item.

The indiscriminate wielding of voting strength by small nations is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Indeed, many small nations have shown indications of growing restraint, realizing that there is little point in pushing through resolutions requiring, for example, increased expenditure on economic development if the big powers, which make the largest financial contributions, are not prepared to implement them. Similarly, these nations have recognized that there is little to be gained from trying to compel the big powers to go beyond their own pace in agreeing upon measures for disarmament or for resolving their differences on peacekeeping issues.

One important outcome of the growing recognition by the small nations of the practical limitations of their voting strength, coupled with the realization by the Western powers that they no longer can be certain of majority support, even on items of particular importance to them, has been a general recourse wherever possible to compromise resolutions that command unanimous or nearly unanimous support. However, notwithstanding this partial solution to the problems created by the emergence of a floating third voting force in the General Assembly, the big powers, especially those from the West, have become increasingly dissatisfied with this situation, and some of their leaders have come to question the principle of "one country, one vote."

While the decisions of the General Assembly have no legally binding force for governments, they carry the weight of world opinion on major international issues, as well as the moral authority of the world community. Even so, the fact that a resolution receives an overwhelming majority vote does not guarantee its effectiveness. Nor does the fact that a resolution was adopted by a slender margin necessarily mean that it will serve no purpose. In general, it may be said that a resolution will be effective insofar as its adoption is not regarded by any country as inimical to its national interests. The most effective resolutions, then, are those that concern matters on which all members are prepared to accept a degree of compromise (though this acceptance may not necessarily be reflected in the actual voting) and that establish goals all members are eager to achieve or to which they have no objection. Like the UN itself, resolutions can be only as effective as the membership wants them to be.

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The General Assembly

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