Tuesday, 15 February 2011 18:58

The United Nations and Specialized Agencies

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* This article is adapted from Basic Facts About the United Nations  (United Nations 1992).

Origin of the United Nations

The United Nations was, in 1992, an organization of 179 nations legally committed to cooperate in supporting the principles and purposes set out in its Charter. These include commitments to eradicate war, promote human rights, maintain respect for justice and international law, promote social progress and friendly relations among nations, and use the Organization as a centre to harmonize their actions in order to attain these ends.

The United Nations Charter was written in the closing days of the Second World War by the representatives of 50 governments meeting at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in 1945. The Charter was drafted on the basis of proposals worked out by the representatives of China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States. It was adopted and signed on 26 June 1945.

To millions of refugees from war and persecution, the United Nations has provided shelter and relief. It has acted as a major catalyst in the evolution of 100 million people from colonial rule to independence and sovereignty. It has established peace-keeping operations many times to contain hostilities and to help resolve conflicts. It has expanded and codified international law. It has wiped smallpox from the face of the planet. In the five decades of its existence, the Organization has adopted some 70 legal instruments promoting or obligating respect for human rights, thus facilitating an historic change in the popular expectation of freedom throughout the world.


The Charter declares that membership of the UN is open to all peace-loving nations which accept its obligations and which, in the judgement of the Organization, are willing and able to carry out these obligations. States are admitted to membership by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council. The Charter also provides for the suspension or expulsion of Members for violation of the principles of the Charter, but no such action has ever been taken.

Official Languages

Under the Charter the official languages of the United Nations are Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. Arabic has been added as an official language of the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council.


The United Nations is a complex network consisting of six main organs with a large number of related programmes, agencies, commissions and other bodies. These related bodies have different legal status (some are autonomous, some are under the direct authority of the UN and so on), objectives and areas of responsibility, but the system displays a very high level of cooperation and collaboration. Figure 1 provides a schematic illustration of the structure of the system and some of the links between the different bodies. For further information, reference should be made to: Basic Facts About the United Nations (1992).

Figure 1. The Charter established six principal organs of the United Nations


International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice is the principal judicial organ of the UN. The Court is open to the parties to its Statute, which automatically includes all Members of the UN. Other States can refer cases to the Court under conditions laid down by the Security Council. In addition, the Security Council may recommend that a legal dispute be referred to the Court. Only States may be party to cases before the Court (i.e., the Court is not open to individuals). Both the General Assembly and the Security Council can ask the Court for an advisory opinion on any legal question; other organs of the UN and the specialized agencies, when authorized by the General Assembly, can ask for advisory opinions on legal questions within the scope of their activities (for example, the International Labour Organization could request an advisory opinion relating to an international labour standard).

The jurisdiction of the Court covers all matters provided for in the UN Charter or in treaties or conventions in force, and all other questions which States refer to it. In deciding cases, the Court is not restricted to principles of law contained in treaties or conventions, but may employ the entire sphere of international law (including customary law).

The General Assembly

The General Assembly is the main deliberative organ. It is composed of representatives of all Member States, each of which has one vote. Decisions on important questions, such as those on peace and security, admission of new Members and budgetary matters, require a two-thirds majority. Decisions on other questions are reached by a simple majority.

The functions and powers of the General Assembly include the consideration of and formulation of recommendations on the principles of cooperation in the maintenance of international peace and security, including disarmament and the regulation of armaments. The General Assembly also initiates studies and makes recommendations to promote international political cooperation, the development and codification of international law, the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, and international collaboration in the economic, social, cultural, educational and health fields. It receives and deliberates on reports from the Security Council and other UN organs; considers and approves the UN budget and apportions the contributions among Members; and elects the non-permanent members of the Security Council, the members of the Economic and Social Council and those members of the Trusteeship Council that are elected. The General Assembly also elects jointly with the Security Council the Judges of the International Court of Justice and, on the recommendation of the Security Council, appoints the Secretary-General.

At the beginning of each regular session, the General Assembly holds a general debate, in which Member States express their views on a wide range of matters of international concern. Because of the great number of questions which the General Assembly is called upon to consider (over 150 agenda items at the 1992 session, for example), the Assembly allocates most questions to its seven main committees:

  • First Committee (disarmament and related international security matters)
  • Special Political Committee
  • Second Committee (economic and financial matters)
  • Third Committee (social, humanitarian and cultural matters)
  • Fourth Committee (decolonization matters)
  • Fifth Committee (administrative and budgetary matters)
  • Sixth Committee (legal matters).


Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

ECOSOC was established by the Charter as the principal organ to coordinate the economic and social work of the UN and the specialized agencies and institutions. The Economic and Social Council serves as the central forum for the discussion of international economic and social issues of a global or inter-disciplinary nature and the formulation of policy recommendations on those issues, and works to promote respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. ECOSOC may make or initiate studies and reports and recommendations on international economic, social, cultural, educational, health and related matters, and call international conferences and prepare draft conventions for submission to the General Assembly. Other powers and functions include the negotiation of agreements with the specialized agencies defining their relationship with the UN and the coordination of their activities, and consultation with NGOs concerned with matters with which the Council deals.

Subsidiary bodies

The subsidiary machinery of the Council includes functional and regional  commissions,  six  standing  committees  (for  example, the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations and on Transnational Corporations) and a number of standing expert bodies on such subjects as crime prevention and control, development planning, and the transport of dangerous goods.

Relations with non-governmental organizations

Over 900 NGOs have consultative status with the Council, with varying levels of involvement. These NGOs may send observers to public meetings of the Council and its subsidiary bodies and may submit written statements relevant to the Council’s work. They may also consult with the UN Secretariat on matters of mutual concern.

Security Council

The Security Council has primary responsibility, under the Charter, for the maintenance of international peace and security. While other organs of the UN make recommendations to governments, the Council alone has the power to take decisions which Member States are obligated under the Charter to carry out.


The Secretariat, an international staff working at UN Headquarters in New York and in the field, carries out the diverse day-to-day work of the Organization. It services the other organs of the UN and administers the programmes and policies laid down by them. At its head is the Secretary-General, who is appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council for a term of five years.

Trusteeship Council

In setting up an International Trusteeship System, the Charter established the Trusteeship Council as one of the main organs of the UN and assigned to it the task of supervising the administration of Trust Territories placed under the Trusteeship System. Major goals of the System are to promote the advancement of the inhabitants of Trust Territories and their progressive development towards self-government or independence.

The Role of the United Nations System in Occupational Health and Safety

While the improvement of working conditions and environment will normally be part of national policy to further economic development and social progress in accordance with national objectives and priorities, a measure of international harmonization is necessary to ensure that the quality of the working environment everywhere is compatible with workers’ health and welfare, and to assist Member States to this effect. This is, essentially, the role of the UN system in this field.

Within the UN system, many organizations and bodies play a role in the improvement of the working conditions and the working environment. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has a constitutional mandate to improve working conditions and environment to humanize work; its tripartite structure can ensure that its international standards have a direct impact on national legislation, policies and practices and is discussed in a separate article in this chapter.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has a mandate in occupational health derived from its Constitution, which identified WHO as “the directing and coordinating authority on international health work”, and stated WHO’s functions which include the “promotion of ...economic and working conditions and other aspects of environmental hygiene”. Additional mandates are derived from various resolutions of the World Health Assembly and Executive Board. WHO’s occupational health programme aims to promote the knowledge and control of workers’ health problems, including occupational and work-related diseases, and to cooperate with countries in the development of health care programmes for workers, particularly those who are generally underserviced. The WHO, in collaboration with the ILO, UNEP and other organizations, undertakes technical cooperation with Member States, produces guidelines, and carries out field studies and occupational health training and personnel development. The WHO has set up the GEENET—the Global Environmental Epidemiology Network—which includes institutions and individuals from all over the world who are actively involved in research and training on environmental and occupational epidemiology. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has been established as an independent research institute, but within the framework of the WHO. The statutes of the Agency set out its mission as “planning, promoting and developing research in all phases of the causation, treatment and prevention of cancer”. Since the start of its research activity, the Agency has devoted itself to studying the causes of cancer present in the human environment, in the belief that identification of a carcinogenic agent was the first and necessary step towards reducing or removing the causal agent from the environment, with the aim of preventing cancer that it might have caused. The Agency’s research activities fall into two main groups—epidemiological and laboratory-based experimental but there is considerable interaction between these groups in the actual research projects undertaken.

Besides these two organizations with a central focus on work and health, respectively, several UN bodies include health and safety matters within their specific sectoral or geographical functions:

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has the mandate to safeguard and enhance the environment for the benefit of present and future generations, including the working environment. It has a basic coordinating and catalytic function for environment in general within the UN system. It discharges this function through programme coordination and the support of activities by the Environment Fund. In addition to its general mandate, UNEP’s specific mandate with regard to the working environment stems from Recommendations 81 and 83 of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, and UNEP Governing Council Decisions requesting the Executive Director to integrate the principles and objectives related to the improvement of the working environment fully into the framework of the environment programme. UNEP is also required to collaborate with the appropriate organizations of workers and employers, in the development of a coordinated system-wide action programme on the working and living environment of workers, and with the UN bodies concerned (for example, UNEP cooperates with the WHO and the ILO in the International Programme on Chemical Safety).

UNEP maintains the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC), which strives to bridge the gap between the world’s chemical knowledge and those who need to use it. UNEP’s network of environmental agreements is also having an ever-increasing international effect, and gathering momentum (for example, the historic Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol on the protection of the ozone layer).

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is concerned with hazards  resulting  from  ionizing  radiation  associated  with  the nuclear fuel cycle. The IAEA encourages and guides the development of peaceful uses of atomic energy, establishes standards for nuclear safety and environmental protection, aids member countries  through  technical  cooperation,  and  fosters  the  exchange of scientific and technical information on nuclear energy. The activities of the Agency in the area of radiological protection of workers involve the development of these standards; preparation of safety guides, codes of practice and manuals; holding of scientific meetings for exchange of information or preparation of manuals or technical guidebooks; organizing training courses, visiting seminars and study tours; development of technical expertise in developing Member States through the awards of research contracts  and  fellowships;  and  helping  the  developing  Member  States in the organization of radiation protection programmes through the provision of technical assistance, experts’ services, advisory missions, and advisory services on nuclear law regulatory matters.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank have included provisions on occupational safeguards in development assistance agreements. The UNDP is engaged in a large number of projects designed to assist developing countries to build up their nascent economies and raise their living standards. Several thousand internationally recruited experts are kept steadily at work in the field. Several amongst these projects are devoted to the improvement of occupational safety and health standards in industry and other walks of economic life, the implementation of which is entrusted to the ILO and WHO. Such field projects may range from the provision of short-term consultancy to more massive assistance over a period of several years for the establishment of fully fledged occupational safety and health institutes designed to provide training, applied field research and direct service to places of employment.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) deals with the safety of workers on board ships. IMO provides a forum for member governments and interested organizations to exchange information and endeavour to solve problems connected with technical, legal and other questions concerning shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships. IMO has drafted a number of conventions and recommendations which governments have adopted and which have entered into force. Among them are international conventions for the safety of life at sea, the prevention of marine pollution by ships, the training and certification of seafarers, the prevention of collisions at sea, several instruments dealing with liability and compensation, and many others. IMO has also adopted several hundred recommendations dealing with subjects such as the maritime transport of dangerous goods, maritime signals, safety for fishermen and fishing vessels, and the safety of nuclear merchant ships.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has a role in protecting agricultural workers against hazards resulting from the use of pesticides, farm tools and machinery. A number of activities of FAO are directly or indirectly concerned with occupational safety and health and ergonomics in agricultural, forestry and fishery work. In fishery activities, FAO collaborates at the secretariat level with the ILO and the IMO on the IMO Sub-Committee on Safety of Fishing Vessels and participates actively in the work of the IMO Sub-Committee on Standards of Training and Watchkeeping. FAO collaborates with ILO in regard to conditions of work in the fishing industry. In forestry activities, the FAO/ECE/ILO Committee on Forest Working Techniques and Training of Forest Workers deals at the interagency level with health and safety matters. Field projects and publications in this area cover such aspects as safety in logging and industry and heat stress in forest work.

In the agricultural field some of the diseases of economic importance in livestock also present hazards to persons handling livestock  and  animal  products  (e.g.,  brucellosis,  tuberculosis, leptospirosis, anthrax, rabies, Rift Valley fever). For these disease-related activities, close liaison is maintained with WHO through joint committees. FAO is also concerned with the harmonization of registration requirements for pesticides and the assessment of pesticide residues in food and in the environment. As regards atomic energy in food and agriculture, programmes are coordinated with the IAEA in order to assist scientists of developing countries to make safe and effective use of relevant isotope techniques (e.g., the use of radio-labelled enzyme substrates for detecting occupational exposure to insecticides).

The UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) aims to accelerate the industrial development of developing countries. It is concerned with occupational safety and health hazards, environment and hazardous waste management in relation to the industrialization process.

Regional UN Economic Commissions play a role in promoting more effective and harmonized action within their regions.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is concerned with the occupational aspects of the international transfer of goods, services and technology.



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