Organization & Structure of the United Nations

The United Nations was established by the signing of the United Nations Charter on June 26, 1945. The Charter outlines the organizational structure of the United Nations and details the powers of the organs created by the Charter. There were originally 51 member states; there are currently 192. The United Nations is the successor of the League of Nations, which was considered ineffectual, largely due to its failure to prevent World War II. The principal purposes of the United Nations are to promote and maintain international peace and security, to encourage international cooperation, and to promote respect for human rights.

The Charter is one of the three founding documents of the United Nations. The other two are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Statute of the International Court of Justice.

The Charter created six major organs: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic & Social Council (ECOSOC), the Secretariat, the Trusteeship Council and the International Court of Justice.

The General Assembly (UN Document Symbol A/-) is the principal deliberative body of the United Nations. Each member state has one vote. The General Assembly issues formal statements of its will or opinion in the form of Resolutions. The Resolutions are not binding on member states. The General Assembly approves budgets, elects members of the Security Council and ECOSOC, and consults with the Security Council in appointing judges to the International Court of Justice. Most of the work of the General Assembly is handled by six main committees. Each committee is responsible for specific areas. The Sixth Committee is responsible for international legal matters.

The Security Council’s (UN Document Symbol S/-) role is to investigate and initiate international response to any threat to international peace and security. The 15 Security Council member states include five permanent members- the United States, France, United Kingdom, Republic of China, and the Russian Federation. The other member states are elected by the General Assembly. The Security Council is empowered to institute sanctions, initiate peacekeeping action and authorize military action. Resolutions of the Security Council are binding upon member states if they address threats to peace or acts of aggression. The Security Council has established several subsidiary bodies including the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia.

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) (UN Document Symbol E/-) coordinates economic, humanitarian and social programs of the United Nations. ECOSOC oversees economic issues, provides policy guidance, and proposes policy initiatives.

The Secretariat (UN Document Symbol ST/-) is responsible for the operations of the United Nations. It administers the programs and policies of the other principal organs.

The Trusteeship Council (UN Document Symbol T/-) was established to administer United Nations trust territories. Its operations were suspended in 1994, when Palau, the last trust territory, was granted independence.

The International Court of Justice (a.k.a. the World Court), is responsible for settling legal disputes submitted by member states (contentious cases) and for issuing advisory opinions on legal questions submitted by United Nations bodies (advisory proceedings).

In contentious proceedings, the parties submit pleadings to the Court. Pleadings are not available to the public until the oral phase of the proceeding begins. Judgments are final and binding on the parties and there is no appeal. The Court must consider all relevant treaties & conventions, customary law, and case law. 

Advisory opinions are issued by the Court in response to requests from United Nations organs or agencies. They are usually not binding.

In addition to the six organs, the organizational structure of the United Nations includes an elaborate array of subsidiary bodies including committees, commissions, boards, tribunals and ad hoc bodies. The subsidiary bodies act independently and often have their own constitution and publications. 

Research Methodology

The nature of a particular research task may significantly impact research methodology. General research might begin with a treatise on the United Nations or a visit to the website of a specific UN entity. Comprehensive research projects will typically be continued by searching for documents using indexes and databases such as the Official Document System, UNBISnet, or UN-I-QUE. Recent documents and major documents will usually be available electronically, while older materials may require using print resources. Locating a particular document or publication may sometimes begin and end with a Google search. More likely, searches in the UN databases or locating a print version will be necessary.

Since it is helpful to limit research to the specific organ or body responsible for the issue of interest, a general understanding of the organization and functions of the United Nations is essential to an effective strategy. The United Nations web site is a good starting point, particularly the Global Issues page, which offers information on specific U.N. related issues. The Encyclopedia of Public International Law (Reference KZ1160 .E53 1992) and Ozmanczyk, Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Agreements (Reference KZ4968 .O84 2003) include lengthy entries about the United Nations, its organs and hundreds of related topics. Treatises on law and the United Nations include Chesterman, Law and Practice of the United Nations: Documents and Commentary (KZ4986 .C54 2008). 

United Nations research is usually easier if you can narrow your research to a particular time period. Recent materials are usually available online while older materials frequently require the use of books or microfiche. Most UN documents are numbered chronologically. Some invaluable tools for identifying relevant documents, such as yearbooks, are organized chronologically. The Yearbook of the United Nations (JZ4947 .U55) provides a detailed overview of the UN’s operations. The United Nations Juridical Yearbook (KZ4949 .U55)(HeinOnline) includes the text of treaties and other UN documents, summaries of legal activities of the UN, selected legal opinions, and a bibliography. Many of the UN organs and sub-entities publish their own yearbooks. Notable yearbooks produced by non-UN entities include The Annual Review of United Nations Affairs (JZ4945 .A66) and The Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law (KZ21 .M39) (HeinOnline).

Founding Documents

The Charter, 3 Bevans 1153, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Statute of the International Court are all available on the Internet. All three are in Brownlie, Basic Documents in International Law (KZ64 .B37 1981).

The Charter is also found in the Yearbook of the United Nations (JZ4947 .U55). The most important sources of commentary on the Charter include Simma, Charter of the U.N.: a Commentary (KZ4991 .C48 1994) and Goodrich, Charter of the United Nations: Commentary and Documents (KZ4991 .G66 1949).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is also found in International Human Rights Instruments of the United Nations, 1948-1982 (Reference K3238 .I57 1983). Commentary on the Universal Declaration can be found numerous publications including Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent (K3238.31948 .M67 1999) and Eide, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: a Commentary (K3240.7 .U54 1992).

The Statute of the International Court is also found in Documents on the International Court of Justice (KZ6277 .D62 1979). An excellent overview of the Court is found in Rosenne's the World Court: What it is and How it Works (KZ6260 .R67 2003). Commentary can be found in Zimmermann, The Statute of the International Court of Justice: a Commentary (KZ6275 .S735 2006) and Rosenne, The Law and Practice of the International Court, 1920-2005 (KZ6277 .R67 2006).


The United Nations Charter requires that the Secretariat publish all treaties entered into force by any members of the United Nations. The treaties are published in the United Nations Treaty Series (UNTS) (KZ172 .T74). The UNTS is several years out of date, but fortunately, the UN Treaty Collection includes recent treaties and conventions as well as information on the status of treaties. Other treaty sources include International Legal Materials (KZ64 .I58) (HeinOnline) (LexisNexis- intlaw;ilm) (Westlaw- ilm), and the Tufts Multilaterals Project.

United Nations Databases

The United Nations Documentation: Research Guide is helpful for determining where to look for particular types of documents. The Guide outlines available documents for each of the organs and links to electronic sources of the various types of available documentation. The Guide is especially helpful for differentiating between charter-based and treaty-based documents, which are sometimes found in different sources.

The United Nations Official Document System (ODS) contains U.N. parliamentary documentation including resolutions and decisions since 1993. Older documentation is being gradually added to the system. Resolutions date back to 1946. If you do not have a citation and cannot locate documents on ODS, use UNBISNET to identify document numbers, then retrieve them on ODS. Older documents will generally require a visit to the microfiche room.

UNBISNET is a catalog of UN documents and publications dating back to 1979 with selected older documents. UNBISNET is updated daily.

United Nations Info Quest (UN-I-QUE) is used for identifying U.N. document symbols for specific documents. UN-I-QUE can be helpful in formulating ODS database searches.

The United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld Library  also provides several detailed bibliographies, subject guides, and pathfinders that concentrate on UN publications.

Indexes of United Nations Documents

The UN-I-QUE database dates back to 1949, but does not include complete bibliographic information. The cumulative Index to United Nations Documents and Publications (Readex) is available on CD-ROM. There are also several paper indexes including United Nations Documents Index (1950-1973) (JZ4935 .U54), UNDEX (1973-1978) (JZ4935 .U541), and UNDOC: Current Index (1979-1996) (JZ4935 .U544).

International Court of Justice Documents

The advisory opinions and judgments (contentious proceedings) of the Court are found on the ICJ website along with pleadings, rules of court, practice directions for states appearing before the Court, annual reports, and other documents. The opinions and judgments are also published in Reports of Judgments, Advisory Opinions and Orders (KZ214 .I58). They are cited as I.C.J. Reports with an indication of page and year. Example: Oil Platforms (Islamic Republic of Iran v. United States of America), Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 2003, p. 161. The Court also publishes Pleadings, Oral Arguments, Documents (KZ218 .P54), however, the content on the ICJ website is more comprehensive.

Understanding United Nations Publications

Documentation published by the United Nations comes in several forms. Official records include meeting records, annexes and supplements of the organs. Masthead documents (also known as mimeos) are provisional records and working documents of the organs. Some documentation appears as both masthead documents and as official records. Sales publications include yearbooks, major reports, conference proceedings, the United Nations Treaty Series, and indexes to proceedings of the main organs.

The United Nations has devised an elaborate system of document symbols for identifying and locating UN documents. The document symbols utilize an alpha-numeric combination in which the first portion of the symbol indicates which organ or subsidiary organization produced the document. Subsequent portions indicate the subsidiary body (if there is one), the type of document, and a session number or date. Example: A/RES/63/278 is General Assembly Resolution from the 63rd session, the 278th document.

This system is not used for sales publications. The International Court of Justice also uses an entirely different documentation system. 

A detailed guide to UN document symbols can be found at the UN Documentation Centre or in United Nations Document Series Symbols (JZ4936 .U54 1977).

Current Awareness

The U.N. News Centre, includes the UN Daily News, RSS feeds and press releases. The U.N. Foundation produces a blog and a free daily email newsletter, UN Wire. Major newspapers such as the New York Times and Financial Times also provide coverage of major United Nations news.