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United Nations: Overview of the UN

A guide to finding United Nations resources.

Note on Finding Print Resources

Print resources can be found in the United Nations, International Documents, or Reference sections, which are all located on the 2nd floor of Cohen Library.

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Overview of the United Nations

The United Nations is an inter-governmental organization dedicated to promoting peace and security among nations and developing global efforts to fight economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems.  It was established on October 24, 1945 with the ratification of the UN Charter by a majority of member states.

Because of its size and complexity, researching the UN can be a daunting task.  It is important to understand the UN’s organizational structure and publishing policies because these can affect how and where you will be able to find certain documents.  This research guide gives a basic overview of the UN and addresses some common research questions.  For more information, see the United Nations Documentation: Research Guide.

Organizational Structure

The United Nations is made up of six main bodies, under which multiple subsidiary organizations operate:

General Assembly: This is the deliberative body of the UN, in which all member states have one vote. Issues on which the General Assembly deliberates and makes recommendations include matters of peace and security, budgetary matters, and nearly anything else within the scope of the UN Charter. Major questions require a two-thirds majority, and minor questions are resolved by a simple majority.

Security Council: This department is charged with maintaining international peace and security. Its main functions include hearing complaints, recommending peaceful solutions, and working to end conflict in areas where hostilities have already erupted through such means as cease-fire directives and UN peacekeeping forces.

Economic and Social Council: This body discusses international economic and social issues, identifies issues hindering the standard of living in various regions of the world, and makes policy recommendations to alleviate those issues.

Trusteeship Council: This council oversees the United States trust territories. It has been inactive since November 1, 1994 when the last remaining trust territory gained independence.

International Court of Justice: Located in The Hague, the ICJ is the judicial body of the UN. It includes 15 elected judges and settles cases according to International Law.

Secretariat: This body is the administrative branch of the UN and is charged with administering the policies and programs of the other bodies. The Secretary General is the top official in the Secretariat.

Founding Materials

The United Nations has three founding documents:

  1. UN Charter: This document acts like a constitution for the UN.

  2. Statute of the International Court of Justice: This document lays out the roles, responsibilities and procedures of the ICJ.

  3. Universal Declaration of Human Rights: This is a list of rights that the UN believes belong to all people. It is also available in over 300 different languages at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a subsidiary of the UN.

Types of Documents

The UN publishes a variety of documents.  It is important to understand what type of document you are looking for when you begin your research because it will affect your search methods and the resources you may use.  Items considered UN Documents will have a UN Document Symbol (more about that later) whereas items considered UN Publications will not:


  • Official Records: These are the final records of the major bodies of the UN, excluding the ICJ and the Secretariat.  They may include resolutions and decisions, committee reports, and meeting records.  Items described as “supplements” or “annexes” are also typically considered Official Records.

  • Masthead Documents: These are preliminary or precursor documents, consisting of drafts, initial publications of certain items, working documents, and a variety of miscellany.  Some Masthead Documents are eventually published as Official Records, so a given document may have two different UN Document Numbers. 


  • Sales Publications: Sales publications are UN publications on a variety of topics of interest that are not included in the official depository system.  They may include annual publications, statistics, studies, etc. and are assigned UN Sales Numbers, which are governed by different rules than UN Document Symbols.

  • Other Publications: The UN also publishes a variety of other documents, mostly news-related items such as periodicals and press releases.  Often, press releases will summarize decisions and resolutions that have yet to be officially published.  Once again, these items are not governed by the UN Document Symbol system.

UN Document Symbols

Developed by the UN, UN Document Symbols are simply a method of cataloguing documents by creating organization and other information. Each symbol consists of a series of letters and numbers denoting information such as the originating body, any subcommittees or conferences that were involved, and, sometimes, the type of document.

For example, the Document Symbol A/CONF.157/PC/63/Add.4 stands for:

General Assembly/World Conference on Human Rights/Preparatory Committee/Document number 63/addendum number 4

For more information on the UN Document Symbol system, see the UN’s research guide.The example above was taken from this research guide.

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Thanks to Tammy Pettinato of the University of Louisville School of Law and to Amy Atchison and her interns at the UCLA School of Law for permitting the use of their guide, Researching United Nations Materials, as a template.