Among the greatest achievements of the United Nations is the development of a body of international law, which is central to promoting economic and social development, as well as to advancing international peace and security. The international law is enshrined in conventions, treaties and standards. Many of the treaties brought about by the United Nations form the basis of the law that governs relations among nations. While the work of the UN in this area does not always receive attention, it has a daily impact on the lives of people everywhere.
The Charter of the United Nations specifically calls on the Organization to help in the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means, including arbitration and judicial settlement (Article 33), and to encourage the progressive development of international law and its codification (Article 13).
Over the years, more than 500 multilateral treaties have been deposited with the UN Secretary-General. Many other treaties are deposited with governments or other entities. The treaties cover a broad range of subject matters such as human rights, disarmament and protection of the environment.
General Assembly as a forum for adopting multilateral treaties
The General Assembly is composed of representatives from each UN Member State and is the main deliberative body on matters relating to international law. Many multilateral treaties are in fact adopted by the General Assembly and subsequently opened for signature and ratification. The Legal (Sixth) Committee assists the work of the General Assembly by providing advice on substantive legal matters. The Committee is also made up of representatives from all UN Member States.
Development and codification of international law
International Law Commission
The International Law Commission was established by the General Assembly in 1947 to promote the progressive development of international law and its codification. The Commission is composed of 34 members who collectively represent the worlds principal legal systems, and serve as experts in their individual capacity, not as representatives of their governments. They address issues relevant to the regulation of relations among states, and frequently consult with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Court of Justice and UN specialized agencies, depending on the subject. Often, the Commission also prepares drafts on aspects of international law.
Some topics are chosen by the Commission, others are referred to it by the General Assembly. When the Commission completes work on a topic, the General Assembly sometimes convenes an international conference of plenipotentiaries to incorporate the draft into a convention. The convention is then opened to states to become parties — meaning that such countries formally agree to be bound by its provisions. Some of these conventions form the very foundation of the law governing relations among states. Examples include:
the Convention on the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, adopted by the General Assembly in 1997, which regulates the equitable and reasonable utilization of watercourses shared by two or more countries;
the Convention on the Law of Treaties between States and International Organizations or between International Organizations, adopted at a conference in Vienna in 1986;
the Convention on the Succession of States in Respect of State Property, Archives and Debts, adopted at a conference in Vienna in 1983;
the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons, including Diplomatic Agents, adopted by the General Assembly in 1973;