Research Guides United Nations Office at Geneva Library & Archives

Legal Research Guide

Introduction to UN and International Law

The UN Charter, in its Preamble, set an objective: "to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained". Ever since, the development of, and respect for international law has been a key part of the work of the Organization.

This work is carried out in many ways - by courts, tribunals, multilateral treaties - and by the Security Council, which can approve peacekeeping missions, impose sanctions, or authorize the use of force when there is a threat to international peace and security, if it deems this necessary. These powers are given to it by the UN Charter, which is considered an international treaty. As such, it is an instrument of international law, and UN Member States are bound by it.

The UN Charter codifies the major principles of international relations, from sovereign equality of States to the prohibition of the use of force in international relations.

Courts and Tribunals

Main UN Bodies

Security Council

Some of the action of the Security Council have international law implications, such as those related to peacekeeping missions, ad hoc tribunals, sanctions, and resolutions adopted under Chapter VII of the Charter. In accordance with Article 13(b) of the Rome Statute, the Security Council can refer certain situations to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), if it appears international crimes (such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, the crime of aggression) have been committed.

For Security Council documentation:

General Assembly

The UN Charter gives the General Assembly the power to initiate studies and make recommendations to promote the development and codification of international law. Many subsidiary bodies of the General Assembly consider specific areas of international law and report to the plenary. Most legal matters are referred the Sixth Committee, which then reports to the plenary. The International Law Commission and the UN Commission on International Trade Law report to the General Assembly. The General Assembly also considers topics related to the institutional law of the United Nations, such as the adoption of the Staff Regulations and the establishment of the system of international justice.

For General Assembly documentation:

General Assembly - Sixth Committee (Legal)

The General Assembly's Sixth Committee is the primary forum for the consideration of legal questions in the General Assembly. All UN Member States are entitled to representation on the Sixth Committee as one of the main committees of the General Assembly.

For Sixth Committee documentation:

Other UN Entities and Ofiices

Specialized Agencies, Subsidiary Organs, and Multilateral Negotiating Bodies