For updates, reports, and critical evaluation of UN activities, visit the UN Watch website
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. General Assembly website
- First Committee – Disarmament and International Security
- Second Committee – Economic and Financial
- Third Committee – Social, Humanitarian and Cultural
- Fourth Committee – Special Political and Decolonization
- Fifth Committee – Administrative and Budget
- Sixth Committee – Legal
Sydney D. Bailey, The General Assembly of the United Nations: A Study of Procedure and Practice (1960)
Under 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 Special Sessions concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict:
- 1st session – Suez [Convened by the Security Council (S/3721 and A/3213); meetings held from 1-10 November 1956.] | Resolutions | Records of meetings [A/PV.561 to A/PV.572]
- 3rd session – Lebanon [Convened by the Security Council (A/3866); meetings held from 8-21 August 1958] | Resolution | Records of meetings [A/PV.732 to A/PV.746]
- 5th session – Six-Day War [Convened by a majority of UN members (A/PV.1525, p.3 – Amb. Goldberg’s remarks, A6717, and A/6718); meetings held from 17 June to September 18 1967] | Resolutions | Records of meetings [A/PV.1525 to A/PV.1559]
- 7th session – Israel-Palestine [Convened by a majority of UN members upon request by Senegal (A/ES-7/1 – opposed by Israel – A/35/344, A/ES-7-18); meetings held 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 [A/ES-7/PV.1 to A/ES-7/PV.32]
- 9th session – Golan Heights [Convened by the Security Council (S/Res/500); meetings held from 29 January to 5 February 1982] | Resolutions | Records of meetings [A/ES-9/PV.1 to A/ES-9/PV.12]
- 10th session – Israel-Palestine [Convened by a majority of UN members upon request by Qatar (A/ES-10/1) – objected to by Israel (A/ES-10/PV.1, pp. 6-7); meetings held on multiple dates beginning 24 Apr 1997; latest sessions, lOctober 2023; remains open]
Symposium on the Uniting for Peace Resolution, ASIL Unbound, Vol. 108 (2014)
Michael Ramsden, “Uniting for Peace” in the Age of International Justice, Yale J. Int’l. Law, Vol. 42, p. 1 (2016)
The United Nations Charter, Chapter IV, Article 20, provides for the General Assembly to meet in special sessions as deemed required:
“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)
- Requested or convened by the General Assembly
- Resolutions and decisions
The Legal Status of General Assembly Resolutions
Malcolm Shaw has expressed the basic understanding of the nature and 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).
For more detailed analyses see the literature referenced below.
The status of UN resolutions as related to customary international law was part of a study by the International Law Committee which began in 2012 and was concluded in 2018. The study reached 16 conclusions of which Conclusion 12 is directly relevant to the legal status of General Assembly and Security Council resolutions:
“Resolutions of international organizations and intergovernmental conferences
- A resolution adopted by an international organization or at an intergovernmental conference cannot, of itself, create a rule of customary international law.
- A resolution adopted by an international organization or at an intergovernmental conference may provide evidence for determining the existence and content of a rule of customary international law, or contribute to its development.
- 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 corresponds to a general practice that is accepted as law (opinio juris).”
Conclusion 15 of the study specifies parameters within which the application of a rule of customary international law may be opposed by a State:
- Where a State has objected to a rule of customary international law while that rule was in the process of formation, the rule is not opposable to the State concerned for so long as it maintains its objection.
- The objection must be clearly expressed, made known to other States, and maintained persistently.
- The present conclusion is without prejudice to any question concerning peremptory norms of general international law (jus cogens).”
- General Assembly Resolution, welcoming the conclusion of the study, A/RES/73/203 (20 Dec 2018)
- Report of the International Law Commission – Seventieth Session, Chap. V, A/73/10 (2018)
- Fifth report on Identification of Customary International Law, A/CN.4/717 and Add.1 (14 Mar 2018)
- Identification of Customary International Law – Comments and Observations Received from Governments, A/CN.4/716 (14 Feb 2018)
- Memorandum by the Secretariat, A/CN.4/710 (12 Jan 2018)
- Report of the International Law Commission Sixty-fifth Session, Chap. VII, A/68/10 (2013)
Selected Legal Literature on the Status of General Assembly Resolutions:
- Obed Y. Asamoah, The Legal Significance of the Declarations of the General Assembly of the United Nations (1966)
- Antonio Cassese, International Law in a Divided World, pp. 192-5 (1986)
- Jorge Castañeda, Legal Effects of United Nations Resolutions (1969)
- Richard A. Falk, On the Quasi-Legislative Competence of the General Assembly, Amer. J. Int’l. Law, Vol 60, p. 782 (1966)
- Oscar M. Garibaldi, The Legal Status of General Assembly Resolutions: Some Conceptual Observations, Proceedings, Amer. Soc. of Int’l. Law, Vol. 73, p. 324 (1979)
- D.H.N. Johnson, The Effect of Resolutions of the General Assembly of the United Nations, Brit. Yearbook of Int’l Law, 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, Eur. J. Int’l. Law, Vol. 16, p. 879 (2005)
- Alain Pellet, La Formation du Droit International dans le Cadre des Nations Unies, Eur. J. Int’l. Law, Vol. 6, p. 401 (1995)
- Michael Ramsden, International Justice in the United Nations General Assembly (2021)
- Oscar Schachter, The Quasi-Judicial Role of the Security Council and the General Assembly, Amer. J. Int’l Law, Vol. 58, p. 960 (1964)
- Oscar Schachter, United Nations Law, Amer. J. Int’l Law, Vol. 88, p. 1 (1994)
- Stephen M. Schwebel, The Effect of Resolutions of the U.N. General Assembly on Customary International Law, Proceedings, Amer. Soc. of Int’l. Law, Vol. 73, p. 301 (1979)
- F. Blaine Sloan, The Binding Force of a Recommendation of the General Assembly of the United Nations, Brit. Yearbook of Int’l. Law, Vol. 25, p. 1 (1948)
- F. Blaine Sloan, General Assembly Resolutions Revisited (40 Years After), Brit. Yearbook of Int’l Law, Vol. 58, No. 1 (1987)
- Stefan Talmon, The Legalizing and Legitimizing Function of UN General Assembly Resolutions, AJIL Unbound (January 2014)
- 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)