The UN General Assembly

What is the first image that pops into your mind when you hear the words 'United Nations'? For many people, that image will be the General Assembly Hall at UN Headquarters in New York, with its iconic green marble desk, wood-panelled walls and rows of labelled seating for member states. So, what exactly is the UN General Assembly, and what is its function? Let's find out!

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The UN General Assembly The UN General Assembly

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Table of contents

    The UN General Assembly Members

    The UN General Assembly The UN General Assembly Hall in New York StudySmarterFig. 1 The UN General Assembly Hall in New York

    The UN General Assembly is one of the main bodies of the UN, and all 193 UN member states are represented there. The General Assembly convenes annually for regular sessions beginning in September. Regular sessions usually continue until December. From January, sessions are held again less intensively and continue until all items on the Assembly's agenda have been discussed. As well as being the UN's main representative body, the General Assembly is also the UN's principal forum for discussion and policy-making.

    Within the General Assembly, all members are given a single vote, and all votes carry equal weight. Most decisions and resolutions are adopted by a show of hands, without conducting a formal, recorded vote. However, members can also request a recorded vote, in which each member country is called up, and its position - "yes", "no", or "abstention" - is clearly stated and recorded. A recorded vote may also take place mechanically.

    A simple majority of votes is required for most decisions, such as adopting resolutions. For other issues, such as decisions on peace and security or the admission of a new member to the UN, a two-thirds majority is required.

    Since its inception in 1946, the composition of the UN General Assembly Members has changed dramatically. Starting with only 51 members in 1946, the UN General Assembly now comprises 193 member states and two observer members - the State of Palestine and the Holy See. Other regional or international organisations, such as the European Union, also send representatives to the General Assembly. This expansion of the membership of the UN General Assembly occurred due to geopolitical changes in the 20th Century, including decolonisation in Africa and Asia, and the break-up of the Soviet Union. The General Assembly now has a greater variety of voices and concerns than at any time in its history.

    Observer status in the UN General Assembly is a way to participate in the Assembly's debates without having a vote. The Holy See (The Vatican) only has a few hundred citizens who are mostly clergy and also citizens of other states, and so it has no real need for a vote in the UN General Assembly. The State of Palestine is a sovereign state entity, but only has jurisdiction over some parts of its territory - much of which is occupied by Israeli forces. Due to the political situation tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, the State of Palestine has not yet been granted full membership of the UN General Assembly.

    In addition to these two observer states, several regional or international organisations, such as the EU, the African Union and the Red Cross, have observer status at the UN. Each observer has its own individual set of rights regarding participation in debates.

    The Role of the UN General Assembly

    The Charter of the UN establishes the six principal organs of the UN. These are:

    The General Assembly's role in the UN is to discuss issues of vital global importance, including peace and security, conflicts and humanitarian disasters, and to formulate responses to them in the form of resolutions.

    The United Nations Charter is a document that sets out the primary purpose of the UN. The Charter was written in 1945, and every state that becomes a member of the UN must pledge to uphold the values and principles it sets forth.

    Purpose of the UN General Assembly

    As previously mentioned, the UN General Assembly holds regular annual sessions beginning in September. At the start of these sessions, a general debate takes place, allowing state officials and heads of state to join the sessions to bring to the assembly issues they believe require urgent international attention. Special sessions and emergency sessions of the UN General Assembly may also be called by the UN Security Council or by a majority of the members of the General Assembly. When an emergency session is called, the session must occur within 24 hours.

    The General Assembly also has a General Committee, elected three months before the first round of regular sessions every September. The General Committee is comprised of a President, 21 Vice-Presidents and the six chairs of the central committees of the General Assembly. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are among the 21 Vice-Presidents of the General Committee.

    UN General Assembly powers

    The powers of the UN General Assembly have been outlined within the UN Charter. These powers include.

    • The assessment of the financial contributions of member states and the approval of the UN budget

    • Nominations for non-permanent positions in the General Assembly and Security Council.

    • Recommendations concerning any issue relating to international peace and security, except disputes or situations that the Security Council is currently debating

    • Promoting international political cooperation through studies and recommendations

    • Recommendations for peaceful resolution in the event situations arise that may compromise friendly relations among nations.

    • In cases of a threat to the peace or acts of aggression, the General Assembly has the power to act if the Security Council has failed to act due to the non-vote of a permanent member of the Security Council.

    The UN General Assembly Resolution

    The UN General Assembly Abdulla Shahid UN General Assembly President StudySmarterFig. 2 Abdulla Shahid UN General Assembly President

    Apart from just discussing the day's critical issues, the UN General Assembly can also adopt resolutions which call for specific actions by its members to tackle the problem at hand. The text of the resolution is first put together, often with the help of one of the General Assembly Committees. The text is then discussed, amended and eventually voted on by members. A resolution can be passed with a simple majority of votes by Assembly members, but the Assembly can also decide that a two-thirds majority is necessary if the issue is significant.

    If the resolution is about procedural or budgetary issues or demands action from a subdivision of the UN, then it is considered binding, meaning the body concerned must carry out the resolution. However, if the resolution concerns UN General Assembly members, then it is considered non-binding, meaning there are no consequences if the members ignore the resolution's recommendations.

    Despite the non-binding nature of many UN General Assembly resolutions, some resolutions have catalysed action that has affected millions of people worldwide. Here are a few examples of resolutions of historical importance that have been adopted by the General Assembly :

    Resolution 217 - The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This resolution was adopted to ratify the Universal Declaration of Human rights formally. At this point in history, the UN had 58 members, and 48 members chose to adopt this resolution. Members such as Poland, The Soviet Union, South Africa and Saudia Arabia abstained and Honduras and Yemen did not participate.

    Resolution 1515 was adopted by the General Assembly in 1960 and supported the granting of independence to countries under colonial rule.

    Resolution ES-11/3 - This resolution was adopted on the 7th of April 2022 to further respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This resolution came out of an emergency session. It led to the suspension of Russia's membership of the UN Human Rights Council due to allegations of war crimes by its forces in Ukraine.

    A binding resolution is one that must be implemented by the UN body or member state - or states - concerned. Non-binding resolutions only have the force of recommendation. Many of the UN General Assembly resolutions are non-binding, as the Assembly is unable to force its members to act in a certain way. By contrast, the UN Security Council can issue binding resolutions, which demand actions by member states.

    The United Nations General Assembly - Key takeaways

    • The General Assembly is the UN's principal deliberative and policy-making body.
    • Within the General Assembly, all members are given a single vote.
    • Since its inception in 1946, the composition of the UN general assembly has expanded enormously: In 1946 there were just 51 members, while today there are 193 members and two observer states.
    • The difference between observer states and members of the General Assembly is that observer states are not afforded any voting rights, although they can take part in debates.
    • The UN General Assembly holds regular sessions from September every year. At the start of these sessions, a general debate takes place which allows representatives and heads of state to bring issues of concern to the Assembly.
    • The UN General Assembly can adopt binding resolutions, re-question itself or other UN bodies (for example, on budgetary or procedural matters). Unlike the UN Security Council, however, it can't issue binding resolutions demanding action from member states. Many of the UN General Assembly resolutions only have the force of recommendation.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 The UN General assembly hall in New York (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UN_General_Assembly_hall.jpg) by Patrick Gruban (https://www.flickr.com/photos/19473388@N00) licenced by CC-BY-SA 2. 0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en) on Wikimedia Commons
    2. Fig. 2 Abdulla Shahid UN General Assembly President (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:21_09_2021_-_Abertura_do_Debate_Geral_da_76a_Sess%C3%A3o_da_Assembleia_Geral_das_Na%C3%A7%C3%B5es_Unidas_(AGNU)_(51500038731).jpg) by Palácio do Planalto (https://www.flickr.com/people/51178866@N04) licenced by CC-BY-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about The UN General Assembly

    What does the General Assembly do in the UN?

    The General Assembly's role in the UN is to discuss issues of vital global importance and to formulate responses to them.

    Who are the members of UN General Assembly?

    All 193 UN members are a part of the UN General Assembly, this comprises the vast majority of the world's nation-states. 

    How many countries are in the UN General Assembly?

    There are 193 members of the UN General Assembly, though what constitutes a country is debatable. 

    What is the General Assembly of the UN made up of?

    The UN General Assembly is made up of all the UN members plus the observer states who are not permitted to vote. 

    What is the General Assembly of the UN?

    The UN General Assembly is the main representative body of the UN.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is a permanent observer state in the UN?

    Which of the following events drastically increased the number of members in the UN General Assembly?

    Which of these rights are not afforded to observer states in the UN General Assembly?

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