In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The United Nations and its Principal Organs

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Origins
  • The Charter of the United Nations
  • The General Assembly
  • The Security Council
  • The International Court of Justice and the United Nations
  • The Secretary-General
  • Other United Nations Principal Organs: ECOSOC and the Trusteeship Council
  • Specialized Agencies

International Law The United Nations and its Principal Organs
Gary Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0167


Created in the aftermath of the Second World War with the primary objective of saving “succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” no international organization has generated as much literature on the part of both international lawyers and international relations scholars as has the United Nations. The organization has been central to most of the major global challenges and crises of the past seventy years and counting. The United Nations was established to serve first and foremost as a collective security organization, tasked with the maintenance of international peace and security as its primary objective, but also with responsibilities in the fields of human rights cooperation and economic and social progress. The system enshrined within the UN Charter entrusted the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security to the Security Council, within which the victorious major wartime allied powers conferred upon themselves a special status which included privileges not afforded to the UN’s membership at large. In light of the UN’s primary raison d’etre, it is not surprising that the various facets of its role in matters of international peace and security have been at the forefront of academic treatments of the work of the organization. Over time, however, the United Nations has developed its capacities in other areas through the work of its specialized agencies and programs, for example that of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF, and UNESCO. Correspondingly, over time the scope of academic legal coverage of the United Nations and its activities has also broadened. Although a considerable body of international legal literature exists on the United Nations institutional and procedural frameworks, as well as the major areas of general activity undertaken by UN organs and agencies, there is also a secondary body of literature consisting of works which provide treatments of specific events, themes, or phenomena within which the UN is directly involved or otherwise has some stake.

General Overviews

There are numerous general overviews of the United Nations as an international organization, which seek to provide comprehensive treatments of varying degrees of its involvement in international affairs from the time of its creation to the present day. Some of these overviews, like Luard 1982, Meisler 1995, and Ryan 2000, are historical in nature, tracing key stages in the evolution of the organization in a chronological fashion. Other general overviews of the United Nations take a broadly thematic approach, providing treatment in turn of the various activities within which the United Nations has been engaged, such as Kennedy 2006 and Weiss and Daws 2008. There is also a considerable body of literature concerned with the principles of international institutional law, including Klabbers 2015, Sands and Klein 2009, Schermers and Blokker 2011, and White 2016. While not works specifically on the UN, its preeminent position among international organizations means that much of the content of these works is centered upon the key features of the composition, processes, and powers of UN organs.

  • Kennedy, Paul. The Parliament of Man. London: Penguin, 2006.

    Kennedy traces the origins of the United Nations before proceeding to provide an overview of the historical development of its various roles, including within collective security and peacekeeping; economic development; environmental progress; and human rights protection. The book concludes with thoughts upon the future of the UN and the challenges which it faces in the 21st century.

  • Klabbers, Jan. An Introduction to International Organizations Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.4337/9781782540953

    Provides a detailed treatment of the full range of legal issues arising in respect of the status and powers of international organizations, including their legal personality, membership, financing, structures, and external relations.

  • Luard, Evan. A History of the United Nations. London: Macmillan, 1982.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-16757-9

    Although somewhat dated, this two-volume work is one of the best and most detailed historical accounts of the United Nations through its first three and a half decades, covering its formative years and most of the Cold War period.

  • Meisler, Stanley. United Nations: The First Fifty Years. New York: Grove Press, 1995.

    This is a detailed history of the major events to have taken place during the first fifty years of the UN’s existence. Beginning with a helpful discussion of the debates at Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco, it trawls through many of the challenges faced by the organization, culminating with consideration of the perceived failings of its response to events in Somalia and Former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s.

  • Ryan, Stephen. The United Nations and International Politics. Basingstoke, UK, and London: Macmillan, 2000.

    This is a brief introductory overview of the main events in the United Nations history from its creation to the end of the 20th century.

  • Sands, P., and P. Klein. Bowett’s Law of International Institutions. 6th ed. London: Sweet & Maxwell, 2009.

    Provides an overview of the major international and regional institutions, with respect to their powers and purposes, and the principles by which they operate. Described as “common institutional problems,” particular attention is given to issues of the legal personality, membership, and financing of international and regional institutions.

  • Schermers, H., and N. Blokker. International Institutional Law. 5th ed. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004187962.i-1273

    Probably the most extensive of the texts on international institutional law, this serves as the definitive handbook of the legal principles by which international organizations are constituted and function. Adopts a comparative approach and makes extensive use of case studies to illustrate the key principles.

  • Weiss, Thomas G., and Sam Daws, eds. The Oxford Handbook on the United Nations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    This edited collection of forty chapters provides scholarly perspectives upon various aspects of the United Nations system. There are specific discussions of the principal UN organs; their relationships with non-UN actors; and detailed treatments of the activities of the UN within the areas of international peace and security; human rights; and development. Possible reforms to the United Nations are also considered.

  • White, N. D. The Law of International Organizations. 3d ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2016.

    Covers similar ground to the other texts on international institutional law, although White specifically considers the role of international organizations in international law-making, and their imposition of sanctions and military measures.

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