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The General Assembly

When the United Nations began in 1945, there were 26 countries that made up the General Assembly. Now 191 countries -- most of the world's nations -- are members, all deliberating weighty international issues ranging from human rights to nuclear disarmament.

All member states are represented in the General Assembly, the main decision-making body of the United Nations. As the only UN organ in which all member states are represented, the General Assembly is meant to serve as the world's forum.

But this is not a parliament -- the General Assembly's decisions are considered recommendations and only carry moral force. However, except for questions under consideration in the Security Council, the Assembly may make these recommendations on any matter within the scope of the UN's mandate. The time for talk is tight -- the Assembly's regular annual session lasts just three months, from September to December.

So what's up for discussion? Could be AIDS, could be protection of the environment, or it could be the international drug trade. (Some member states argue that developing countries -- who make up the majority of the General Assembly -- dictate the agenda.)

Whether you're a country with millions of people or an island nation with a few hundred, you've only got one vote. Decisions on key issues such as international peace and security, the UN budget and admission of new members require a two-thirds majority. Other decisions are made by simple majority.

But do the General Assembly's decisions ever make a difference? Well, sort of. If disagreement among the Security Council's permanent members prevents it from taking action, the General Assembly can consider a question that involves a threat to peace and make recommendations. A 1950 "Uniting for Peace" resolution also authorizes the Assembly to convene for emergency special sessions to recommend collective measures in the case of an act of aggression. Nine emergency special sessions have been held under this resolution, including one that resulted in a 1982 condemnation of Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights.

Presiding over the proceedings is a President, elected at the start of each regular session. The president's seat is rotated among the General Assembly's five regional groups. (Traditionally, each country can only hold the presidency once until all countries have had their turn. So far, only 57 countries have had their turn. Jan Kavan of the Czech Republic is the 2002 president.) Implementing the Assembly's recommendations are various international conferences convened under its auspices and an overwhelming battery of committees.

Fast Facts

- East Timor is the newest member of the UN.

- Membership is open to all nations willing to sign and carry out the obligations in the UN charter.

- Under the UN Charter, a member state can loose its vote in the General Assembly if it owes more money in membership fees that its standard contribution for the previous two years.

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