About the General Assembly
Forum for multilateral negotiation
Established in 1945 under the Charter of the United Nations, the General Assembly occupies a central position as the chief deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the United Nations. Comprised of all 193 Members of the United Nations, it provides a unique forum for multilateral discussion of the full spectrum of international issues covered by the Charter. It also plays a significant role in the process of standard-setting and the codification of international law.
The Assembly meets from September to December each year (main part), and thereafter, from January to September (resumed part), as required, including to take up outstanding reports from the Fourth and Fifth Committees. Also during the resumed part of the session, the Assembly considers current issues of critical importance to the international community in the form of high-level thematic debates organized by the President of the General Assembly, in consultation with the membership. During that period, the Assembly traditionally also conducts informal consultations on a wide range of substantive topics as mandated by its resolutions.
Functions and powers of the General Assembly
The Assembly is empowered to make recommendations to States on international issues within its competence. It has also initiated actions – political, economic, humanitarian, social and legal – which have benefitted the lives of millions of people throughout the world. The landmark Millennium Declaration, adopted in 2000, and the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, reflect the commitment of Member States to reach specific goals to attain peace, security and disarmament, along with development and poverty eradication; to safeguard human rights and promote the rule of law; to protect our common environment; to meet the special needs of Africa; and to strengthen the United Nations. In September 2015, the Assembly agreed on a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, contained in the outcome document of the United Nations Summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda (resolution 70/1: “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development).
According to the Charter of the United Nations, the General Assembly may:
- Consider and approve the United Nations budget and establish the financial assessments of Member States
- Elect the non-permanent members of the Security Council and the members of other United Nations councils and organs and, on the recommendation of the Security Council, appoint the Secretary-General
- Consider and make recommendations on the general principles of cooperation for maintaining international peace and security, including disarmament
- Discuss any question relating to international peace and security and, except where a dispute or situation is currently being discussed by the Security Council, make recommendations on it
- Discuss, with the same exception, and make recommendations on any questions within the scope of the Charter or affecting the powers and functions of any organ of the United Nations
- Initiate studies and make recommendations to promote international political cooperation, the development and codification of international law, the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and international collaboration in the economic, social, humanitarian, cultural, educational and health fields
- Make recommendations for the peaceful settlement of any situation that might impair friendly relations among countries
- Consider reports from the Security Council and other United Nations organs
The Assembly may also take action in cases of a threat to the peace, breach of peace or act of aggression, when the Security Council has failed to act owing to the negative vote of a permanent member. In such instances, according to its “Uniting for peace” resolution of 3 November 1950, the Assembly may consider the matter immediately and recommend to its Members collective measures to maintain or restore international peace and security.
The search for consensus
Each of the 193 Member States in the Assembly has one vote. Votes taken on designated important issues – such as recommendations on peace and security, the election of Security Council and Economic and Social Council members, and budgetary questions – require a two-thirds majority of Member States, but other questions are decided by a simple majority.
In recent years, an effort has been made to achieve consensus on issues, rather than deciding by a formal vote, thus strengthening support for the Assembly’s decisions. The President, after having consulted and reached agreement with delegations, can propose that a resolution be adopted without a vote.
Revitalization of the work of the General Assembly
There has been a sustained effort to make the work of the General Assembly more focused and relevant. This was identified as a priority during the fifty-eighth session, and efforts continued at subsequent sessions to streamline the agenda, improve the practices and working methods of the Main Committees, enhance the role of the General Committee, strengthen the role and authority of the President and examine the Assembly’s role in the process of selecting the Secretary-General.
During the seventieth and seventy-first sessions, the Assembly adopted landmark resolutions on the revitalization of the work of the General Assembly (A/RES/70/305 and A/RES/71/323), which, inter alia, established an oath of office and a code of ethics for the Presidents of the General Assembly and provided for informal interactive dialogues with candidates for the position of President of the General Assembly.
The practice of convening high-level thematic debates is also a direct outcome of the revitalization process.
It has become an established practice for the Secretary-General to brief Member States periodically, in informal meetings of the General Assembly, on his recent activities and travels. These briefings have provided a well-received opportunity for exchange between the Secretary-General and Member States.
The Credentials Committee, appointed by the General Assembly at each session, reports to the Assembly on the credentials of representatives.
The Assembly’s annual general debate provides Member States the opportunity to express their views on major international issues. On this occasion, the Secretary-General presents on the opening day of the debate his report on the work of the Organization.
With the conclusion of the general debate, the Assembly begins consideration of the substantive items on its agenda. Because of the great number of items on the agenda, the Assembly allocates to its six Main Committees items relevant to their work. The Committees discuss the items, seeking, where possible, to harmonize the various approaches of States, and present their recommendations, usually in the form of draft resolutions and decisions, to the Plenary of the Assembly for consideration and action.
The six Main Committees are: the Disarmament and International Security Committee (First Committee); the Economic and Financial Committee (Second Committee); the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee (Third Committee); the Special Political and Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee); the Administrative and Budgetary Committee (Fifth Committee); and the Legal Committee (Sixth Committee).
On a number of agenda items, however, such as the question of Palestine and the situation in the Middle East, the Assembly acts directly in its plenary meetings.
Subsidiary organs of the General Assembly
Under Article 22 of the Charter, the General Assembly may establish such subsidiary organs as it deems necessary for the performance of its functions.
Various regional groupings have evolved over the years in the General Assembly for electoral purposes as well as vehicles for consultation and to facilitate procedural work. The groups are: the African States; the Asia-Pacific States; the Eastern European States; the Latin American and Caribbean States; and the Western European and other States. The post of President of the General Assembly rotates among these regional groups.
Special sessions and emergency special sessions
In addition to its regular sessions, the Assembly may meet in special and emergency special sessions. To date, the Assembly has convened 32 special sessions on issues that demanded particular attention.
Carrying on the work of the Assembly
The work of the United Nations derives largely from the decisions of the General Assembly and is mainly carried out by the following:
- Committees and other subsidiary organs established by the Assembly to study and report on specific issues, such as disarmament, peacekeeping, decolonization, economic development, the environment and human rights.
- The Secretariat of the United Nations – the Secretary-General and his staff of international civil servants.
- The Department for General Assembly and Conference Management, which serves as the focal point within the UN Secretariat for all matters relating to the General Assembly