General Assembly

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All Member States of the Organization (193 as of February 2021) are represented in the General Assembly – one of the six main organs of the UN.  The functions and powers of the General Assembly are set forth in Chapter 4 of the UN Charter.  The scope of work of the Assembly covers areas such as development, peace and security, and international law.  Every year, beginning in September, all members meet in a session held at the headquarters in New York.

Standing Committees

Rules of Procedure of the General Assembly (2017)

The GA Handbook: A practical guide to the United Nations General Assembly, 2d ed. (2017)

Emergency special sessions

Under the Resolution 377A(V), “Uniting for Peace”, adopted by the General Assembly on 3 November 1950, an “emergency special session” can be convened within 24 hours:

“…. if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security. If not in session at the time, the General Assembly may meet in emergency special session within twenty-four hours of the request therefor. Such emergency special session shall be called if requested by the Security Council on the vote of any seven members, or by a majority of the Members of the United Nations”.

Emergency Sessions concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict:

  • 1st session – Suez [Convened by the Security Council on 1-10 November 1956] | Resolutions | Records of meetings [A/PV.561 to A/PV.572]
  • 3rd session – Lebanon [Convened by the Security Council on 8-21 August 1958] | Resolutions | Records of meetings [A/PV.732 to A/PV.746]
  • 5th session – Six-Day War [Convened by the Security Council on 17-18 June 1967] | Resolutions | Records of meetings [A/PV.1525 to A/PV.1559]
  • 7th session – Israel-Palestine [Convened by Senegal on 22-29 July 1980; 20-28 April 1982; 25-26 June 1982; 16-19 August 1982 and 24 September 1982] | Resolutions | Records of meetings
  • 9th session – Golan Heights [Convened by the Security Council on 29 January to 5 February 1982] | Resolutions | Records of meetings
  • 10th session – Israel-Palestine [Multiple sessions, first convened by Qatar on 24 Apr 1997; latest session, 13 Jun 2018; remains open]

Special sessions

The United Nations Charter (Chapter IV, Article 20) provides for the General Assembly to meet in special sessions:

“The General Assembly shall meet in regular annual sessions and in such special sessions as occasion may require. Special sessions shall be convoked by the Secretary-General at the request of the Security Council or of a majority of the Members of the United Nations.”

The First (1947) and Second (1948) Special Sessions of the General Assembly were convened to address questions concerning the then Palestine Mandate.   

First Special Session – 28 April – 15 May 1947.  Created UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP).

Second Special Session – 16 April – 14 May 1948. Addressed various matters involving the Palestine situation.

The Eighth Special Session – 20 – 21 April 1978 – concerned the financing of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL)

The Legal Status of General Assembly Resolutions

“Except for certain internal matters, such as the budget [Article 17], the Assembly cannot bind its members. It is not a legislature in that sense, and its resolutions are purely recommendatory. Such resolutions, of course, may be binding if they reflect rules of customary international law and they are significant as instances of state practice that may lead to the formation of a new customary rule, but Assembly resolutions in themselves cannot establish binding legal obligations for member states. The Assembly is essentially a debating chamber, a forum for the exchange of ideas and the discussion of a wide-ranging category of problems.” Malcom N. Shaw, International Law, 8th ed., pp. 929-930 (2017).

Draft Conclusions provisionally adopted by the ILC Drafting Committee on the Identification of Customary International Law, A/CN.4/L.869 (2015):

    1. A resolution adopted by an international organization or at an intergovernmental conference cannot, of itself, create a rule of customary international law.
    2. A resolution adopted by an international organization or at an intergovernmental conference may provide evidence for establishing the existence and content of a rule of customary international law, or contribute to its development.
    3. A provision in a resolution adopted by an international organization or at an intergovernmental conference may reflect a rule of customary international law if it is established that the provision.

In 2016, in the Fourth report on identification of customary international law, it was proposed to amend the above by replacing ‘cannot’ in subsection 1 with ‘does not’; in subsection 2 replacing ‘establishing’ with ‘determining’; and in subsection 2 deleting the phrase ‘or contribute to its development’: A/CN.4/695, p. 22 (1916)

Selected  legal literature on the status of UN resolutions:

    • Obed Y. Asamoah, The Legal Significance of the Declarations of the General Assembly of the United Nations (1966)
    • Anthony Cassese, International Law in a Divided World, pp. 192-5 (1986)
    • Jorge Castañeda, Legal Effects of United Nations Resolutions, New York (1969)
    • Richard A. Falk, On the Quasi-Legislative Competence of the General Assembly, AJIL, Vol 60, p. 782 (1966)
    • D.H.N. Johnson, The Effect of Resolutions of the General Assembly of the United Nations, BYIL, Vol. 32, p. 97 (1955-56)
    • Marko Divac Öberg, The Legal Effects of Resolutions of the UN Security Council and General Assembly in the Jurisprudence of the ICJ, EJIL, Vol. 16, p. 879 (2005)
    • Alain Pellet, La Formation du Droit International dans le Cadre des Nations Unies, EJIL, Vol. 6, p. 401 (1995)
    • Oscar Schachter, United Nations Law, AJIL, Vol. 88, p. 1 (1994)
    • Stephen M. Schwebel, The Effect of Resolutions of the U.N. General Assembly on Customary International Law, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law), Vol. 73, p. 301 (1979)
    • Stephen M. Schwebel, United Nations Resolutions, Recent Arbitral Awards and Customary International Law, in Realism in Law-Making (eds. M. Bos and H. Siblesz), p. 203 (1986)
    • F. Blaine Sloan, The Binding Force of a Recommendation of the General Assembly of the United Nations, 25 BYIL, Vol. 25, p. 1 (1948)
    • F. Blaine Sloan, General Assembly Resolutions Revisited (40 Years After), BYIL, Vol. 58, p. 39 (1987)
    • A. J. P. Tammes, Decisions of International Organs as a Source of International Law, Collected Courses of the Hague Academy of International Law, vol. 94 (1958)
    • Michel Virally, La Valeur Juridique des Recommendations des Organisations Internationales, AFDI, Vol. 2, p. 66 (1956)
    • Judge Christopher Weeramantry, Dissenting Opinion, East Timor Case, ICJ Reports, p. 185 (1995)