United Nations General Assembly
The United Nations General Assembly is one of the six principal organs of the United Nations. It is made up of all United Nations member states and meets in regular yearly sessions under a president elected from among the representatives. The first session was convened on 10 January 1946 in the Westminster Central Hall in London and included representatives of 51 nations.
The regular session usually begins on the third Tuesday in September and ends in mid-December. Special sessions can be convened at the request of the Security Council, of a majority of UN members, or, if the majority concurs, of a single member. A special session was held in October 1995 at the head of government level to commemorate the UN's 50th anniversary.
Voting in the General Assembly on important questions - recommendations on peace and security; election of members to organs; admission, suspension, and expulsion of members; budgetary matters - is by a two-thirds majority of those present and voting. Other questions are decided by majority vote. Each member country has one vote. Apart from approval of budgetary matters, including adoption of a scale of assessment, Assembly resolutions are not binding on the members. The Assembly may make recommendations on any matters within the scope of the UN, except matters of peace and security under Security Council consideration.
As the only UN organ in which all members are represented, the Assembly serves as a forum for members to launch initiatives on international questions of peace, economic progress, and human rights. It can initiate studies; make recommendations; develop and codify international law; promote human rights; and further international economic, social, cultural, and educational programs.
The Assembly may take action on maintaining international peace if the UN Security Council is unable, usually due to disagreement among the permanent members, to exercise its primary responsibility. The "Uniting for Peace" resolutions, adopted in 1950, empower the Assembly to convene in emergency special session to recommend collective measures – including the use of armed force – in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression. Two-thirds of the members must approve any such recommendation. Emergency special sessions under this procedure have been held on nine occasions. The most recent, in 1982, considered the situation in the occupied Arab territories following Israel's unilateral extension of its laws, jurisdiction, and administration to the Golan Heights.
During the 1980s, the Assembly became a forum for the North-South dialogue - the discussion of issues between industrialized nations and developing countries. These issues came to the fore because of the phenomenal growth and changing makeup of the UN membership. In 1945, the UN had 51 members. It now has 191, of which more than two-thirds are developing countries. Because of their numbers, developing countries are often able to determine the agenda of the Assembly, the character of its debates, and the nature of its decisions. For many developing countries, the UN is the source of much of their diplomatic influence and the principal outlet for their foreign relations initiatives.
At the first Special Session of the UN General Assembly held in 1947, Oswaldo Aranha, then head of the Brazilian delegation to the UN, began a tradition that has remained until today whereby the first speaker at this major international forum is always a Brazilian.
General Assembly reform
On March 21, 2005, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan presented a report, In Larger Freedom, that critiqued the General Assembly as focusing so much on consensus that it was passing watered-down resolutions reflecting "the lowest common denominator of widely different opinions." He also criticized the Assembly for trying to address too broad an agenda, instead of focusing on "the major substantive issues of the day, such as international migration and the long-debated comprehensive convention on terrorism." Annan recommended streamlining the General Assembly's agenda, committee structure, and procedures; strengthening the role and authority of its President; enhancing the role of civil society; and establishing a mechanism to review the decisions of its committees, in order to minimize unfunded mandates and micromanagement of the UN Secretariat. Annan reminded UN members of their responsibility to implement reforms, if they expect to realize improvements in UN effectiveness:
- It should be clear that none of this will happen unless Member States take a serious interest in the Assembly at the highest level and insist that their representatives engage in its debates with a view to achieving real and positive results. If they fail to do this the Assembly's performance will continue to disappoint them and they should not be surprised.
For two articles dealing with membership in the General Assembly, see: