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United Nations: United Nations Overview



As the world's largest and most prominent international governmental organization (IGO), the United Nations provides a vast amount of information on international security, economic and social development, human rights, humanitarian affairs, the environment, and international law. Thousands of UN publications address global, regional, and national problems. Researchers regularly seek and use these primary source documents.

Structure of the United Nations

Users can more readily access and utilize UN information if they understand the structure of the organization. The principal divisions of the UN are called "organs."

General Assembly

The General Assembly is the main governing organ of the UN and is composed of representatives from all 193 member nations.  It establishes policies for the Secretariat, receives reports from the organization's sub-bodies, approves the organization's budget, and appoints the Security Council's candidate for Secretary-General. It delegates most matters to the other five main UN organs, listed below.

Security Council

The Security Council attempts to maintain international peace and security. Any one of its five permanent members--France, Great Britain, China, Russia, or the United States--can veto a decision of the Council. Ten other members serve two-year terms.  The Council sends peacekeeping missions to conflict zones with the consent of the governments involved. It may enforce its decisions with economic sanctions or even military action.


As the largest UN body, the Secretariat supports other UN entities and administers their programs. Its activities range from conducting studies to administering peacekeeping operations.

Economic and Social Council

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) coordinates the UN's economic and social programs and works with the Specialized Agencies and hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) whose goals coincide with those of the United Nations.

International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice (ICJ)--also known as the World Court--is the UN's judicial arm. Its judges are selected by the General Assembly and the Security Council. Only national governments can be parties in cases brought before the ICJ.

Trusteeship Council

The Trusteeship Council was created to hasten the end of colonialism. By 1994, it had fulfilled its mandate by helping to bring the last of eleven Non-Self Governing Territories to self-government, and it is no longer obligated to meet regularly.