Structure of the United Nations System

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The UN system is often referred to as a "family" of organizations. The charter of the UN, signed in San Francisco on 26 June 1945, defined six main organs of the new world body, each with specific tasks and functions. However, because it was impossible to foresee all the demands that might be made on the organization, provision was made for extending its capacities as the need arose. Thus, three of the main organs are specifically empowered to establish "such subsidiary organs" as may be considered necessary for the performance of their functions. In addition, Article 57 of the charter provides that the various specialized agencies established by intergovernmental agreement and having international responsibilities in economic, social, cultural, educational, health, and related fields "shall be brought into relationship" with the UN. Since the signing of the charter, the UN has established numerous subsidiary organs and has entered into relationship with various independent organizations. Reproduced is a chart showing the various organs and bodies within the UN system.

For assistance in interpreting the chart, a brief survey of the UN's main organs, the different categories of subsidiary organs, and the related agencies is given below. A detailed description of the functioning of each of the main organs and an account of the work of selected subsidiary organs are contained in later chapters of the first section of this volume. The structure and work of the UN specialized and technical agencies are described in the second section.


  1. The General Assembly, composed of representatives of all member states, is the UN's central deliberative body, empowered to discuss and make recommendations on any subject falling within the scope of the charter itself. It also approves the UN's budget and determinesalone or with the Security Councilpart of the composition of the other main organs, including the Security Council.
  2. The Security Council, a 15-member body, has primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. In times of crisis, it is empowered to act on behalf of all member states and to decide on a course of collective action that is mandatory for the entire membership. The charter names five states as permanent members of the Security Council: China, France, the United Kingdom, Russian Federation, and the United States (those that were chiefly responsible for the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945). The remaining Security Council members are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms.
  3. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is assigned the task of organizing the UN's work on economic and social matters and the promotion of human rights. It consists of 54 members elected for overlapping three-year terms by the General Assembly.
  4. The Trusteeship Council operated the UN trusteeship system established under the charter. It was originally composed of member nations administering trust territories, the permanent members of the Security Council, and a sufficient number of other members, elected by the General Assembly for three-year terms, to ensure an equal division of administering and nonadministering powers. After 1975, it was composed of the five permanent members of the Security Councilthe United States, the sole remaining administering power, and the four permanent nonadministering powers. The last trust territory, the Pacific island of Palau, voted for affiliation with the United States in late 1993. The Trusteeship Council voted in 1994 to suspend operation, convening only at the request of its President, a majority of its member states, the General Assembly, or the Security Council.
  5. The International Court of Justice is the principal judicial organ of the UN. It consists of 15 judges elected to nine-year terms by the General Assembly and the Security Council voting independently. It may not include more than one judge of any nationality. The Members of the Court do not represent their governments but are independent magistrates.
  6. The Secretariat is the administrative arm of the organization. It is headed by a Secretary-General appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council for a five-year, renewable term.


The UN Charter specifically confers the right to create subsidiary organs upon the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the Economic and Social Council. The subsidiary bodies fluctuate in number from year to year, according to the changing requirements of the main organ concerned. Both the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council, for instance, often create subsidiary bodies to assist them in new fields of concern and dissolve others that have completed their work. Some of the subsidiary organs in turn set up their own subsidiary unitsworking groups, subcommittees, and the like.

Subsidiary Organs of the General Assembly

The General Assembly's subsidiary organs range in complexity and status from temporary committees to semiautonomous institutions that maintain their own secretariats or administrative departments. The names of the institutions or programs in existence in 2006, most of which were set up under the joint aegis of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council and operate through ECOSOC, appear in the lower left -hand column of the UN Family of Organizations chart. The remaining subsidiary organs are too numerous to list; the chart merely indicates their principal types: main and other sessional committees, standing committees and ad hoc bodies, and other subsidiary organs and related bodies.

The main and sessional committees comprise representatives of all member states and are formally reconstituted at each regular General Assembly session to discuss the various items on the agenda for that year. Two sessional committees are not committees of the wholethe 28-member General Committee, which reviews the General Assembly's agenda prior to its adoption at each session, and the nine-member Credentials Committee, which examines the credentials of delegations sent to each General Assembly session.

There are many standing committees, ad hoc bodies, and other subsidiary organs and related bodies. Some of the more important of these are:

  • the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), a 16-member expert committee which reviews the budgets submitted by the Secretary-General;
  • the Committee for Programme and Coordination, a 34-member committee, that reviews the programmatic aspects of the Secretary-General's budget;
  • the 18-member Committee on Contributions, which recommends the scale of assessments that nations are required to pay as their share of the United Nations budget;
  • the Chief Executives Board (CEB) for Coordination, formerly the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC), established by ECOSOC in 1946. It is composed of the Secretary-General and the executive heads of 26 member organizations and is assisted by two high-level committees, the High Level Committee on Programmes (HLCP) and the High Level Committee on Management (HLCM). Its purpose is to promote cooperation on all of the substantive and management issues facing the UN system.

Substantive committees have been set up by General Assembly resolutions to study specific subjects of interestfor example, the peaceful uses of outer space, South Africa's former system of apartheid, and independence for colonial territories. Such committees, whose members are elected by the General Assembly or appointed by its president, usually meet several times a year. At each regular session, they report on their deliberations. They continue as long as is considered necessary. Even when their mandate seems completed, they are not necessarily formally disbanded but may be adjourned indefinitely and reactivated when the need arises. It is through these committees that the General Assembly accomplishes most of its work outside the spheres of responsibility that are specifically entrusted to the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, or the various semiautonomous bodies referred to above.

Subsidiary Organs of the Security Council

The Military StaffCommittee was established by the charter to advise the Security Council on the military aspects of maintaining international peace. However, the Military StaffCommittee secretariat, though it holds regular formal meetings, has never been consulted on any of the UN's peacekeeping operations. The other subsidiary bodies shown on the chart in the lower right-hand column were set up, as their names suggest, to conduct the council's peacekeeping operations in the areas specified. Between June 1948 and May 2006, there were 60 peacekeeping operations, of which 45 were complete. (For further information on the work of these bodies, see the chapter on International Peace and Security.)

The Security Council maintains two standing committees, each including representatives of all Security Council member states: Committee of Experts on Rules of Procedure (studies and advises on rules of procedure and other technical matters); and Committee on Admission of New Members. Additionally, there are various ad hoc committees, established as needed; these comprise all council members and meet in closed session. Ad hoc committees include the Security Council Committee on Council meeting away from Headquarters; Governing Council of the United Nations Compensation Commission established by Security Council resolution 692 (1991); and Committee established pursuant to Resolution 1373 (2001) concerning Counter-Terrorism.

The Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the charter, which deals with "action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression," may set up committees to monitor compliance by member states with its resolutions. These committees include: in 1966, when it imposed mandatory economic sanctions against the illegal regime in Southern Rhodesia; in 1977, when it imposed a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa; in 1991, after Iraq's unsuccessful invasion of Kuwait, to supervise the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction; in 1992, concerning the situations in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and Somalia; in 1993, concerning Angola; in 1994, concerning the volatile situation created by Hutu rebels in Rwanda; in 1995, concerning Liberia; in 1997, in the wake of years of civil war in Sierra Leone; in 1998, concerning an arms embargo on Yugoslavia, including Kosovo; in 1999, concerning Afghanistan; in 2000, concerning the situation between Eritrea and Ethiopia; in 2001 and 2003, again concerning Liberia; in 2004, concerning the Democratic Republic of the Congo; in 2004, concerning Côte d'Ivoire; and in 2005, concerning the Sudan.

Subsidiary Organs of the Economic and Social Council

As indicated on the chart, there are four types of subsidiary organs of the Economic and Social Council:

  1. the semiautonomous bodies (organizations, programs, and funds);
  2. regional commissions;
  3. functional commissions; and
  4. sessional, standing, and ad hoc committees.


The specialized and technical agencies are separate autonomous organizations with their own policy-making and executive organs, secretariats, and budgets. The precise nature of their relationship with the UN is defined by the terms of special agreements that were established with the Economic and Social Council and subsequently approved by the General Assembly, as provided for in Article 63 of the charter. Since Article 63 also empowers the Economic and Social Council to coordinate the activities of the specialized agencies through consultation and recommendations, they are required to report annually to it.

Mention should be made here of the special status of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which was succeeded by the World Trade Organization. At its inception in 1948, GATT was a treaty establishing a code of conduct in international trade and providing machinery for reducing and stabilizing tariffs. The treaty was concluded pending the creation of a specialized agency to be known as the International Trade Organization, whose draft charter was completed in 1948 but was never ratified by the important trading powers. With the successful conclusion of the Uruguay Round of GATT, a new body, the World Trade Organization, supplanted it in 1995. (For further details, see the chapter on the World Trade Organization.)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is distinguished from the other agencies in that it was specifically established under the aegis of the UN and is therefore considered in a category by itself. The IAEA reports annually to the General Assembly and only "as appropriate" to the Economic and Social Council. Because of the nature of its work, the IAEA also reports to the Security Council, again only "as appropriate."


These institutions were created before the United Nations itself, at a conference at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in the United States in 1944. In the UN Charter, however, they were considered to be an integral part of the system of UN agencies. However, their agreements with the UN bind them only loosely to the rest of the system. The nature of these organizations is very different from the one country, one vote basis of the UN and the other specialized agencies (see World Bank and International Monetary Fund [IMF] in the second part of this volume). Membership in the Bretton Woods institutions is subject to financial subscription, and voting is weighted according to members' shares, effectively giving wealthy countries more control than poorer countries. When the World Bank became affiliated with the United Nations, it maintained its complete independence as far as coordination, refused to provide regular information to the UN, limited UN attendance at its meetings, and insisted on a clause eliminating any UN involvement in its budgets. While there is growing cooperation between the World Bank and some UN technical cooperation funds, like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), a 1993 study by the Joint Inspection Unit found that there was not much operational cooperation between the UN system organizations and the World Bank organizations.


Since the early 1980s, the United Nations has been criticized for being a "vast, sprawling bureaucracy," and politicians have not hesitated to call it "bloated" or "swollen." This perception led to a drive for reform in the mid-1980s during which major contributing countries initiated a 13 percent staffcut. Another round of "rationalization" of the system and its secretariats was initiated in 1991. Tightening the budget remained a focus throughout the 1990s. The proposed UN budget for the 200203 biennium was us$2.519 billion. This represented a 0.5% real resource reduction from the 20002001 biennium. During the previous six years, the UN had no budgetary growth. Even in dollar terms, the UN's total budget was lower in 2002 than it was in 1994-1995. For the 20022003 budget, small increases were made in areas such as: international peace and security; the promotion of sustained economic growth and sustainable development; the development of Africa; the promotion of human rights; the coordination of humanitarian assistance efforts; the promotion of justice and international law; disarmament; drug control; crime prevention; and combating international terrorism. For the 2006-07 biennium, the General Assembly adopted a budget of us$3.79 billion, while limiting first-year expenditures by the Secretary-General, who pledged further reform.

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Structure of the United Nations System

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