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United Nations and its Principal Bodies

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Organs of UN

The UN Charter established six principal organs of the United Nations: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat. However, apart from these, the United Nations family is much bigger, encompassing 15 agencies and several programs and bodies.

Out of six principal bodies, five are operational currently. The Trusteeship Council played a significant role in the process of decolonisation. It has suspended its operations since 1994 and is no longer active. But it cannot be formally dissolved without amending the UN Charter.

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General Assembly

The General Assembly is the main deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the UN All 193 Member States of the UN are represented in the General Assembly, making it the only UN body with universal representation. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meets annually. The decisions on important questions, such as peace and security, admission of new members and budgetary matters, require a two-thirds majority of the UNGA. Other questions are decided by simple majority.  Each year, assembly elects a President to serve a one-year term of office. The current (June 2021) President of the UNGA is Volkan Bozkir of Turkey.

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Security Council

The Security Council (UNSC) is the most important part of the UN. Under the UN Charter, it has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.  UNSC has 15 members (5 permanent and 10 non-permanent). Each Member has one vote. Additionally, five permanent members (U.S.A., China, Russia, UK & France) also have a veto power. Under the Charter, all member states are obligated to comply with the UNSC decisions.

The Security Council takes lead in determining the existence of a threat to the international peace or an act of aggression. In case of disputes, it calls upon the parties involved and tries to settle it by peaceful means and recommends methods of adjustment or terms of settlement. In certain cases, it can also impose sanctions or authorise the use of force to maintain peace.

Because of its vast powers, it is considered to be the only UN body with teeth. India has been elected as a non-permanent member of UNSC for a two-year term 2021-22. This is the eighth time that India has secured the post. India will also be UNSC President in August 2021 and again for a month in 2022.

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The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

The Economic and Social Council is the principal body for coordination, policy review, policy dialogue and recommendations on economic, social and environmental issues, as well as implementation of internationally agreed development goals (SDGs). The budget of ECOSOC is largest of any UN subsidiary body.

ECOSOC membership is based on geographic representation: 14 seats are allocated to Africa, 11 to Asia, 6 to eastern Europe, 10 to Latin America and the Caribbean, and 13 to western Europe and other areas. Members are elected for three-year terms by the General Assembly. Four of the five permanent members (the U.S.A., UK, Russia, & France) of the Security Council have been continuously reelected because they provide funding for most of ECOSOC’s budget. Decisions are taken by simple majority vote. The presidency of ECOSOC changes annually.

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Trusteeship Council

The Trusteeship Council was established to oversee the 11 “trust territories” established under the UN Charter.  These included former colonies previously administered under mandates issued by the League of Nations, as well as territories seized from nations that were defeated in World War II.  The Council suspended its operations in 1994 when Palau, the last remaining trust territory, gained its independence. Should the need arise, the Council may resume operations at the request of the majority of its members, the members of the General Assembly or the members of the Security Council.

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International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, is the UN’s principal judicial organ.  It is located in the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, making it the only one of the UN’s principal organs that is not based in New York.

The idea for the creation of an international court to arbitrate international disputes first arose during the various conferences that produced the Hague Conventions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The body subsequently established, the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) was established by the League of Nations in 1922. The court was later converted to ICJ after 2nd WW by the San Francisco Conference, which also created the UN All members of the UN are parties to the statute of the ICJ, and nonmembers may also become parties.

The Court adjudicates interstate disputes in contentious cases in accordance with international law. It also issues advisory opinions on questions of law referred to it by authorised UN organs. Although advisory opinions are only consultative, they are considered important.

Cases before the ICJ are resolved in one of three ways: (1) they can be settled by the parties at any time during the proceedings; (2) a state can discontinue the proceedings and withdraw at any point; or (3) the court can deliver a verdict.

The Court is composed of 15 judges elected by both the General Assembly and the Security Council to serve nine-year terms. No two judges from the same jurisdiction may serve simultaneously. Seats are informally apportioned geographically to ensure that judges from all of the world’s main legal systems are represented on the Court.

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The key principle is that the Court only has jurisdiction on the basis of consent. The court has no true compulsory jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is often a key question for the Court, because it is challenged by the respondent. Article 36 outlines four bases on which the Court’s jurisdiction may be founded.

  1. Special agreement – First, 36(1) provides that parties may refer cases to the Court (jurisdiction founded on “special agreement” or compromise). This method is based on explicit consent and is, perhaps, the most effective basis for the Court’s jurisdiction. It is effective because the parties concerned have a desire for the Court to resolve the dispute, and are thus more likely to comply with the Court’s judgment. Parties will usually define the nature of the dispute between them and the legal questions on which they wish the Court to rule.
  2. Compromissory clause – Second, 36(1) also gives the Court jurisdiction over “matters specifically provided for … in treaties and conventions in force”. Many treaties will contain a compromissory clause, providing for dispute resolution by the ICJ Cases founded on compromissory clauses have not been as effective as cases founded on special agreement, since a state may have no interest in having the matter examined by the Court and may refuse to comply with a judgment.
  3. Optional clause declaration – Thirdly, Article 36(2) allows states to make declarations accepting the Court’s jurisdiction as compulsory (“optional clause declarations”). Not all countries accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ.
  4. Doctrine of forum prorogatum – It entails the consent of the respondent state with regards to the ICJ having jurisdiction over the case.

Only states may be parties in contentious cases before the ICJ Individuals, corporations, parts of a federal state, NGOs, UN organs and self-determination groups are excluded from direct participation in cases, although the Court may receive information from public international organisations. This does not preclude non-state interests from being the subject of proceedings if one state brings the case against another. For example, a state may, in case of “diplomatic protection”, bring a case on behalf of one of its nationals or corporations.

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The Secretariat

The Secretariat is an administrative arm of the UN, composed of bureaucrats responsible for carrying out the day-to-day operations.  It is led by the Secretary-General. It collects and analyses data, conducts research on a wide range of economic and social issues, maintains the facilities used by other UN organs, provides interpreter services, and translates documents into the UN’s official languages.  The Secretary-General is appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council for a 5-year, renewable term.  In addition to mediating international disputes and coordinating peacekeeping activities, the Secretary-General serves as the public face of the UN and acts as the principal spokesperson for its policy initiatives. The current Secretary General of the UN is Antonio Guterres.

The Secretariat influences the work of the United Nations to a degree much greater than indicated in the UN Charter. This influence largely results from the fact that the Secretariat’s staff is composed of permanent expert officials, rather than political appointees of member nations. The staff is recruited on a merit basis, with regard to equitable geographic distribution, and its members are required to take an oath of loyalty to the United Nations and are not permitted to receive instructions from their home governments. The Secretariat’s personnel in effect constitute an international civil service. 

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