All UN Member States are represented in the General Assembly. Each Member State has one vote. Decisions on such key issues as international peace and security, admitting new members and the UN budget are decided by a two-thirds majority. Other matters are decided by simple majority. Many decisions are reached by consensus without a formal vote.
Under the UN Charter, the functions and powers of the General Assembly (GA) include:
- To discuss any question relating to international peace and security (except when a dispute or situation is being discussed by the Security Council);
- To make recommendations for the peaceful settlement of any situation which might harm the friendly relations among nations;
- To discuss and make recommendations on the powers and functions of any organ of the United Nations;
- To request studies and make recommendations to promote international cooperation, the development of international law, the protection of human rights, and international collaboration on economic, social, cultural, educational and health issues;
- To receive and discuss reports from the Security Council and other UN organs;
- To discuss and approve the UN budget;
- To elect non-permanent members of the Security Council, the members of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and additional members of the Trusteeship Council (when necessary); to elect the judges of the International Court of Justice (jointly with the Security Council); and on the recommendation of the Security Council, to appoint the Secretary-General.
Although the General Assembly’s recommendations on global issues are an important expression of world opinion, the Assembly cannot force a Member State to follow its recommendations on a particular issue.
The Assembly holds its annual regular session from September to December. When necessary, a special session on subjects of particular concern may be called at the request of the Security Council, of a majority of the Member States, or of one member if the majority of the Member States agree. In addition, an emergency session can be called within 24 hours in the same manner.
At the beginning of each regular session the General Assembly holds a General Debate when many Heads of State come to express their views on the most pressing international issues. Following the General Debate, most issues are discussed in one the Assembly’s six main committees:
- First Committee (Disarmament and International Security);
- Second Committee (Economic and Financial);
- Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural);
- Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization);
- Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary);
- Sixth Committee (Legal).
Establishing and adopting the agenda is the first order of business in each GA session. Most of the more than 160 items on the agenda are considered on a regular basis, and only a few new items are added or deleted each year.
In establishing the GA agenda, the UN Secretariat first compiles a series of preparatory documents leading up to the draft agenda. Then, the General Committee discusses the draft agenda and submits its recommendations to the GA, which adopts the agenda.
Resolutions and decisions, including those recommended by the six main committees, are adopted in plenary meetings, usually before the end of the regular session in December. The Assembly adopts its resolutions and decisions by a majority of members present and voting. Important matters, including recommendations on international peace and security, the election of members to other UN organs and budgets are decided by a two-thirds majority.
The day-to-day work of the United Nations during the year is determined by the resolutions and decisions made during the Assembly’s regular session. This work is carried out by:
- Various committees and other bodies established by the Assembly to study and report on specific issues, such as disarmament, peacekeeping, development and human rights;
- International conferences called for by the Assembly;
- The UN Secretariat that includes the Secretary-General and his staff of international civil servants.
The President of the General Assembly
Any Member State can put forward a candidate for President of the General Assembly (PGA). He/she is not required to be, but always has been, a citizen of the Member State presenting the candidacy. The PGA is elected in his/her personal capacity and for the duration of the term of office represents the membership as a whole.
The Member State of the PGA cannot at the same time hold the office of Vice-President or Chair of a Main Committee. Thus, the five permanent members of the Security Council, who are always Vice-Presidents, cannot hold the office of the PGA.
The Presidency of the General Assembly rotates among the five regional groups, namely the Group of Asian States (61st session), the Group of Eastern European States (62nd session), the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States (63rd session), the Group of African States (64th session), the Western European and other States Group (65th session). The full list of past PGAs is available on the GA website.
How is the PGA elected?
The President is elected by a simple majority vote of the GA. Usually, the Member States of a regional group agree on one candidate and present a clean slate. In such cases, the election can take place by acclamation.
The President is elected at least three months before formally assuming office, usually in mid-June. This allows him/her to prepare and to assemble a team before the GA session begins in September.
What is the role and mandate of the PGA?
The PGA is the guardian of the GA Rules of Procedure but has no say in the actual decision-making of the GA – in fact, the PGA does not have a vote in the GA. Even on procedural matters, the PGA always remains under the authority of the GA.
With very little formal power and a one-year, non-renewable term of office, the PGA depends on the moral authority of and the convening power of the office as main instruments to keep the 193 Member States working together. Often, the good offices of the PGA have allowed the GA to remain a universal forum for all Member States, even those involved in disputes, and even when addressing difficult and politically sensitive questions.
The Charter of the UN establishes only the function of the PGA. The exact role and mandate have been defined and agreed on by the GA and are described in the GA Rules of Procedure, in GA revitalization resolutions, and in other GA resolutions which assign responsibilities and tasks to the PGA.
PGA mandates from the GA Rules of Procedure
According to the GA Rules of Procedure, the PGA shall:
- open and close each GA plenary meeting
- direct the discussions in plenary meetings (e.g. managing the list of speakers and according the right to speak)
- ensure observance of the GA Rules of Procedure
- rule on points of order
- propose adjournment or suspension of a meeting
PGA mandates from revitalization resolutions
The revitalization resolutions request the PGA to:
- organize thematic debates
- suggest the theme for the General Debate
- prepare a report on the best practices and lessons learned for his/her successor
- enhance public visibility of the PGA and the GA
- meet regularly with the Secretary-General, the President of the Security Council, and the President of ECOSOC
PGA mandates from individual GA resolutions
Mandates assigned to the PGA by individual resolutions can pertain to the organization of events such as high-level meetings, the negotiation of outcome documents, or consultations on a specific topic. The PGA may appoint one or more Permanent Representatives as facilitators for such processes.
What else does the PGA do?
The PGA interacts and engages with the media, civil society and the wider public. He/she can attend UN Conferences and other international and regional intergovernmental meetings and visit Member States.
How are the Vice-Presidents elected?
The GA elects the twenty-one Vice-Presidents for the next session on the day of the election of the PGA. Like the PGA, the Vice-Presidents formally assume office at the opening of the GA session. The five permanent members of the Security Council are always among the Vice-Presidents. To ensure balanced geographical representation, the remaining Vice-Presidencies are distributed among the regional groups as follows:
- 6 members from the Group of African States
- 5 members from the Group of Asian States
- 1 member from the Group of Eastern European States
- 3 members from the Group of Latin American States
- 2 members from the Western European or other States Group
The list adds up to 22. There are only 21 Vice-Presidents, as the regional group putting forward the PGA gets one less vice-presidential mandate. Each regional group usually agrees on a clean slate. This allows for election by acclamation.
What is the role of the Vice-Presidents?
All Vice-Presidents are members of the General Committee. When the PGA is absent, one of the Vice-Presidents is called upon to assume the role of “acting President of the GA,” with the same mandate and responsibility as the PGA. Vice-Presidents from permanent members of the Security Council (P-5) do not usually assume this role.
Officers of the Main Committee
The Main Committees consist of all Member States of the GA. Each Main Committee is headed by a bureau consisting of a Chair, three Vice-Presidents, and a Rapporteur.
The six Main Committees roughly correspond to the GA’s major fields of responsibility:
- Disarmament and International Security Committee (First Committee)
- Economic and Financial Committee (Second Committee)
- Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee (Third Committee)
- Special Political and Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee)
- Administrative and Budgetary Committee (Fifth Committee)
- Legal Committee (Sixth Committee)
How are the Officers of the Main Committees elected?
The Main Committees usually elect their Chairs and other officials on the day of the election of the PGA. No Member State can serve both as Vice-President and Chair of a Main Committee during the same GA session.
Main Committee Chairs usually rotate among the five regional groups. Each regional group is allocated one chair. The sixth chair rotates among the Groups of African, Asian, and Latin American and Caribbean States based on an agreement that will expire at the end of the 68th General Assembly. The three Vice-Chairs and the Rapporteur are allocated to the four regional groups that do not hold the chair.
Each regional group usually agrees on a clean slate which allows for election by acclamation. As clean slates are not always ready in time, the election of some bureau members can be postponed until the first formal meeting of the respective Main Committee.
The General Committee is chaired by the PGA, and its voting members consist of the 21 Vice-Presidents and the six Chairs of the Main Committees. It essentially deals with the agenda of the GA, making recommendations to the GA on the inclusion of items and their allocation to the Main Committees. It also makes recommendations on organizational issues, and on issues such as the conduct of meetings, meeting records, and documentation. The General Committee does not make declarations on political questions.
UN System and the General Assembly
1 The United Nations
The United Nations in the strictest sense is what is established by the Charter, i.e., the Organization’s membership and its principal organs as well as the subsidiary bodies of the principal organs.
UN Funds and Programmes, such as UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF and WFP, are a special type of subsidiary body of the GA. They are fully developed institutions engaged in operational activities and funded through voluntary contributions by Member States. They have distinct intergovernmental governing structures, for example executive boards, that report through ECOSOC to the GA. GA resolutions are binding on the Funds and Programmes. On administrative matters the heads of the Funds and Programmes report to the Secretary-General.
Specialized Agencies such as ILO, WHO, or FAO, are UN bodies with their own intergovernmental structure separate from the GA. GA resolutions are not binding on Specialized Agencies. Many of the Specialized Agencies predate the UN. They have entered into formal relationships with the UN but retain their own intergovernmental structures. For example, the World Health Organization is governed by the World Health Assembly in a similar way as the UN is governed by the GA. The heads of the Specialized Agencies are not accountable to the Secretary-General. Many of them recognize the Secretary-General’s coordinating role within the UN System, particularly his/her role as the chair of the Chief Executives Board (CEB).
4 Other bodies related to the UN
There are other intergovernmental bodies which have established looser forms of relationships with the UN than the Specialized Agencies. Two such bodies are the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Trade Organization.