The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

United Nations (UN)

With 193 Member States and around 68,900 employees in the world, the UN is the largest international organization in the world. Its membership is open to all States that accept the obligations established in the Charter, and its aim is to achieve universal adherence. The latest country who became a member of the United Nations is the Republic of South Sudan, on 14 July 2011, after it proclaimed its independence on 9 July.

The Charter of the UN

The Charter of the UN is the treaty that founded the organization. It was signed in San Francisco in 1945. The States that participated in the San Francisco Conference chose to give this treaty a higher status than all other treaties (Art. 103 of the UN Charter). This means that, in case a contradiction or conflict arises, States’ obligations to the Charter must prevail over those under other conventions. Hence, no other Convention may derogate from the Charter’s principles. ▸ Hierarchy of normsInternational conventions

The Charter defines the goals of the worldwide organization. To “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” (preamble), the Charter sets out two main objectives for the UN:

  • the maintenance of international peace and security through a system of collective security: Member States commit to renounce the use of force as a means of settling their disputes, and the UN commits to protect the international public order;
  • the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples, through respect for human rights and the development of technical cooperation among States.

These two pillars of the UN are entrusted to different organs of the organization. Its principal organs and their commissions make up the UN per se; these organs, their subsidiary bodies, and the programs, funds, and specialized agencies of the UN form the entire “UN system” or “UN family.” ▸ Collective securityHuman rightsPeacekeepingPublic order

The UN Organs

The five principal organs provided for in the Charter are:

  • the General Assembly (Chapter IV of the Charter),
  • the Security Council (Chapter V),
  • the Economic and Social Council (Chapter X),
  • the International Court of Justice (Chapter XIV), and
  • the Secretariat (Chapter XV).

Chapter XIII of the Charter established a Trusteeship Council to oversee the transition of non-independent territories to self-government. It has fallen into disuse. ▸ Economic and Social CouncilGeneral Assembly of the UNInternational Court of JusticeSecretariat of the UNSecurity Council of the UN

These organs have mandates that enable them to create subsidiary bodies. The principal organ delegates the relevant duties to such a body but retains the overall control and responsibilities. The subsidiary bodies are not international organizations in the legal sense; that is, they do not have an independent international legal personality. This means that they continue to depend legally on the principal organ that created them. Examples of such bodies include the World Food Program (WFP), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Development Program (UNDP), the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and peacekeeping operations. ▸ International Criminal TribunalsPeacekeepingUNICEFUN Development ProgramUnited Nations High Commissioner for RefugeesWorld Food Program

Specialized Agencies of the UN

In certain cases, States may want to be more independent from the UN than the principal organs can be, particularly in areas of technical cooperation. They then set up a new entity—with its own membership, rules, and mandate—through an international convention. These are called specialized agencies of the UN, but they are legally independent from it. This is the case for the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and sixteen other agencies. ▸ Food and Agriculture OrganizationWorld Health Organization

The UN and Humanitarian Affairs

The head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is an Under-Secretary-General and coordinates an Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which is the main decision-making forum for emergencies. Its members are the heads of the UN bodies and specialized agencies involved directly in humanitarian relief: UNDP, UNICEF, UNHCR, WFP, FAO, and WHO. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) participates directly, and NGOs may also be invited to do so. ▸ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Collective SecurityEconomic and Social CouncilFood and Agriculture OrganizationGeneral Assembly of the UNInternational Court of JusticeInternational Criminal TribunalsOffice for the Coordination of Humanitarian AffairsPeacekeepingPublic orderSecretariat of the UNSecurity Council of the UNUNICEFUnited Nations High Commissioner for RefugeesUnited Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights/Human Rights CouncilWorld Food ProgramWorld Health Organization

United Nations (headquarters)

One UN Plaza

New York, NY 10017 USA

Tel.: (1) 212 963-1234

Fax: (1) 212 963-4879

Office of the United Nations in Geneva

Palais des Nations

CH 1211 Geneva, Switzerland

Tel.: (41) 22 917 12 34

Fax: (41) 22 917 00 23

@ http://

For Additional Information: Alston, Philip, ed. The United Nations and Human Rights: A Critical Appraisal . New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Condorelli, Luigi, ed. The United Nations and International Humanitarian Law . Paris: Pedone, 1996.

Fassbender, Bardo. “All Illusions Shattered? Looking Back on a Decade of Failed Attempts to Reform the UN Security Council.” Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law 7 (2004): 183–218.

Price, Richard M., and Mark Zacher, eds. The United Nations and Global Security . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Roberts, Adam, and Benedict Kingsbury, eds. United Nations, Divided World: The UN’s Roles in International Relations . New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Simma, Bruno, ed. The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary . New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.