Skip to Main Content

United Nations: Basic Structure

Basic Structure of the General Assembly

Every UN member state is part of the General Assembly. Each state has one vote but may send up to five delegates to represent them.

The General Assembly meets in annual sessions, typically running from September to September. It also sometimes meets in special and emergency sessions.

During each session, the General Assembly will variously meet as a plenary and as six committees of the whole:

  • Plenary meetings are open to all member states and member states may discuss any topic.
  • Committees of the whole are also open to all member states but are focused on specific topics. A country's different delegates usually attend different committees of the whole, based on their areas of expertise. The committees may further divide themselves into smaller, specialized working groups and subcommittees.

The six main committees are:

  • First Committee (Disarmament & International Security
  • Second Committee (Economic & Financial) 
  • Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian & Cultural)  
  • Fourth Committee (Special Political & Decolonization) 
  • Fifth Committee (Administrative & Budgetary)
  • Sixth Committee (Legal) 

In February of each year, the General Assembly begins drafting an agenda that is completed by the start of the new session in September. Each agenda item is allocated to the plenary or to a specific committee.

Basic Structure of the Trusteeship Council

The Trusteeship Council was established to manage the transition of former colonies to self-government. In 1994, the last of its trustees achieved self-government and it no longer meets regularly.

Basic Stucture of the Security Council

The Security Council has 5 permanent members (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US) and 10 members elected for 2 year terms by the General Assembly.

The Security Council is responsible for maintaining peace and security. When peace is threatened, it is authorized by the Charter to lead the other member states in economic sanctions, diplomatic sanctions, and even military action against hostile states.

Because of the importance of its work, the Security Council meets in one continuous session, during which meetings can be called at any time.

Basic Structure of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) has 54 members elected by the General Assembly for 3 year terms.

ECOSOC coordinates the work of UN and UN affiliated economic, social, and environmental bodies, including the International Labour Organization (ILO), World Health Organization (WHO), and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

It also has many subsidiary bodies of its own, including:

  • Regional commissions that promote economic and social development in each region of the world
  • Functional commissions that work on specific issues such as the status of women, crime prevention, drug addiction, and forest preservation. 

It typically meets in about a half dozen three day to week long sessions, scattered throughout the year.

Basic Structure of the Secretariat

The Secretariat includes the UN's permanent administrative staff. It is lead by the Secretary-General, an administrative coordinator and diplomatic spokesman elected by the General Assembly for a 5 year, renewable term.