Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 19: Building a Workable Peace (1946)

The General Assembly has many functions that are more important than admission, suspension, or expulsion of members of the United Nations. These functions are designed to help it serve both as a sounding board for world opinion and as a parliament in which general standards of notional action for international cooperation can be established.

As an organ through which world opinion can be expressed and mobilized, the General Assembly, like the League of Nations Assembly, is effectively organized. Every member state is represented. Any question involving international peace and security may be brought before the General Assembly by a member or even by a non-member state. Since the members represent many different political, economic, and social views as to domestic and international policies, there seems every reason to expect a wide range of opinion in debate.

This wide range of opinion will result also from the terms of the Charter itself. The General Assembly “may discuss any questions or any matters within the scope of the . . . Charter or relating to the powers and functions of any organs provided in the . . . Charter.” It may also discuss “the general principles of cooperation in the maintenance of international peace and security,” as well as the merits of particular disputes. No question of international concern seems, indeed, to lie outside the General Assembly’s role as a forum of world opinion.


Can the General Assembly act on a dispute?

Both as to the “general principles” and as to particular’ disputes, the General Assembly may “make recommendations” to the Security Council or to the member states. But if the Security Council is itself dealing with the dispute the General Assembly may not make a recommendation.

The Council may, however, request the General Assembly to help find a solution to the dispute, and it must keep the General Assembly informed as to the existence of any dispute and of its actions with respect to it. Conversely, the General Assembly “may call the attention of the Security Council to situations which are likely to endanger international peace and security.”

The General Assembly, thus, becomes the barometer of opinion on world peace and the spur to executive action by the Security Council to maintain it. This aspect of the powers and functions of the General Assembly parallels closely those of the League of Nations Assembly. That Assembly could deal with “any matter within the sphere of action of the League or affecting the peace of the world.” It could, therefore, take up budding disputes and discuss them on the floor. All disputes had, moreover, to be referred first of all to the League Council, as they must first be referred to the Security Council under the Charter. The Council might, however, “refer the dispute to the ` Assembly,” which then had the same powers as the Council. in recommending a settlement.

Can the Assembly pass international legislation?

The second broad function of the General Assembly is to set up international standards for economic and social as well as political cooperation. The comparison of the Assembly to a national legislature is a convenient fiction-but strictly a fiction. There are, however, some marked advances in the powers of the General Assembly as compared with those of the League of Nations Assembly.

The range of the General Assembly’s jurisdiction is extremely broad. Besides its powers of discussion and recommendation as to international disputes, it is specifically charged with studying and making recommendations that will (1) promote international cooperation and the development of a code of international law, (2) promote economic, social, and cultural cooperation among the nations and the realization of basic human freedoms everywhere, and (3) have general supervision over the trusteeship system in nonstrategic areas.

These three broad divisions just about cover the field of international relations. As compared with the League Covenant, the Charter provides the Assembly with a far ‘wider range of activity. But the words “make recommendations” reveal that the General Assembly’s powers are not so deep as they are wide. The Assembly’s function is not to legislate but to formulate policies. Its formal actions are not in the nature of laws; they do not go to the Security Council for concurrence nor are they imposed upon the member nations.

The Charter explicitly directs the General Assembly to promote international cooperation in the “economic, social, cultural, educational, and health fields.” Under the League Covenant the members agreed to cooperate in certain more restricted economic and social policies. But neither the League itself nor any of its organs was charged with stimulating such cooperative action.

Under the Charter this action is to be initiated at once by the General Assembly and by a number of agencies under its direction. This is a very real advance in the “legislative” powers of the international organization. It is a new departure in practical relations among nations, and its success may have a great deal to do with the durability of the peace.

Next section: What Is the Economic and Social Council?