Frequently Asked Questions - Mandate and History

What is the mandate of UNCITRAL?

The United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) (established in 1966) is a subsidiary body of the General Assembly of the United Nations with the general mandate to further the progressive harmonization and unification of the law of international trade. UNCITRAL has since prepared a wide range of conventions, model laws and other instruments dealing with the substantive law that governs trade transactions or other aspects of business law which have an impact on international trade. UNCITRAL meets once a year, typically in summer, alternatively in New York and in Vienna.

What does UNCITRAL mean by the "harmonization" and "unification" of the law of international trade?

"Harmonization" and "unification" of the law of international trade refers to the process through which the law facilitating international commerce is created and adopted. International commerce may be hindered by factors such as the lack of a predictable governing law or out-of-date laws unsuited to commercial practice. The United Nations Commission on International Trade Law identifies such problems and then carefully crafts solutions which are acceptable to States having different legal systems and levels of economic and social development.

"Harmonization" may conceptually be thought of as the process through which domestic laws may be modified to enhance predictability in cross-border commercial transactions. "Unification" may be seen as the adoption by States of a common legal standard governing particular aspects of international business transactions. A model law or a legislative guide is an example of a text which is drafted to harmonize domestic law, while a convention is an international instrument which is adopted by States for the unification of the law at an international level. Texts resulting from the work of UNCITRAL include conventions, model laws, legal guides, legislative guides, rules, and practice notes. In practice, the two concepts are closely related.

Who participates in the drafting of UNCITRAL texts?

UNCITRAL texts are initiated, drafted, and adopted by the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law, a body made up of 70 elected Member States representing different geographic regions. Participants in the drafting process include the Member States of the Commission and other States (referred to as "observer States"), as well as interested international inter-governmental organizations ("IGO's") and non-governmental organizations ("NGO's").

How many States are members of the Commission?

As is the case with most subsidiary bodies of the General Assembly, which is composed of all States members of the United Nations, membership in UNCITRAL is limited to a smaller number of States, so as to facilitate the deliberations. UNCITRAL was originally composed of 29 States. Its membership was expanded in 1973 to 36 States, in 2004 to 60 States and again in 2022 to 70 members. The membership is representative of the various geographic regions and the principal economic and legal systems of the world. Members of the Commission are elected for terms of six years, the terms of half the members expiring every three years.

Are delegates provided financial assistance for travel and accommodation?

In principle, participation is self-funded. However, a lack of financial resources is clearly a barrier to participating in the work of UNCITRAL. The General Assembly therefore decided, in Resolution 48/32 of 9 December 1993, to establish the UNCITRAL Trust Fund to grant travel assistance to developing countries that are members of the Commission, at their request and in consultation with the Secretary-General.

Subject to the availability of funds, partial funding of either the flight or accommodation could be paid, upon request to the Secretariat, to attend the Commission or a Working Group session.

The availability of funds depends entirely on contributions: to ensure broad participation in Working Group III on Investor-State Dispute Settlement Reform, the European Union and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation have offered to provide financial assistance over the next three years until 2020. Other donors wishing to make voluntary contributions to the UNCITRAL Trust Fund to grant travel assistance to developing countries should contact the UNCITRAL Secretariat for further information.

Is there financial assistance for travel and accommodation for delegates of Working Group III?

Delegates from developing and least developed States who have been nominated for the Working Group III session are eligible to request financial assistance. A specific request for financial assistance would need to be routed to the UNCITRAL Secretariat through the delegate's Permanent Mission. As a matter of principle, requests are granted on a first come first serve approach to one Government official per State being in charge of the relevant topic, but taking into account the following priority rules:

Least developed States have priority over developing States;

UNCITRAL Member States have priority over non-member States; and

States that have not attended UNCITRAL meetings should be encouraged to attend and therefore have priority.

What are the regional groups represented within the Commission?

There are five regional groups represented within the Commission: African States; Asian States; Eastern European States; Latin American and Caribbean States; Western European and Other States.

How are the interests of developing countries taken into consideration by UNCITRAL?

In accordance with its mandate, (Para. 9 of General Assembly resolution 2205 (XXI) of 17 December 1966, UNCITRAL takes into account in its work "the interests of all peoples, and particularly those of the developing countries, in the extensive development of international trade"). Members of the Commission represent different geographic areas, and are elected by the General Assembly "having due regard to the adequate representation of the principal economic and legal systems of the world, and of developed and developing countries." (Id., para. 1).

Developing countries play an active role in both drafting and adoption UNCITRAL texts. The commitment of the Commission and the Secretariat to providing training and technical assistance to those countries is also long-standing and constant. Similarly, the General Assembly has expressed strong support for this work. For example, General Assembly resolution 55/151 of 12 December 2000 entitled "Report of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law" "… reaffirms the importance, in particular for developing countries, of the work of the Commission concerned with training and technical assistance in the field of international trade law, such as assistance in the preparation of national legislation based on legal texts of the Commission".

Is UNCITRAL part of the World Trade Organization (WTO)?

No. UNCITRAL is a subsidiary body of the General Assembly of the United Nations. The Secretariat of UNCITRAL is the International Trade Law Division of the Office of Legal Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat. In contrast, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is an intergovernmental organization independent from the United Nations.

The issues dealt with by the WTO and UNCITRAL are different. The WTO deals with trade policy issues, such as trade liberalization, abolition of trade barriers, unfair trade practices or other similar issues usually related to public law, whereas UNCITRAL deals with the laws applicable to private parties in international transactions. As a consequence, UNCITRAL is not involved with "state-to-state" issues such as anti-dumping, countervailing duties, or import quotas.