United Nations

The United Nations Charter sets forth the “inherent dignity” and the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Upholding these human rights principles as “the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world” is fundamental to every undertaking of the United Nations.

The UN General Assembly

The United Nations currently comprises 193 member states, all of which belong to the UN General Assembly. The General Assembly controls the UN’s finances, makes non-binding recommendations, and oversees and elects members of other UN organs. It is the General Assembly that ultimately votes to adopt human rights declarations and conventions, which are also called treaties or covenants. For example, in 1948 when the UN Commission on Human Rights had completed its draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the General Assembly voted to adopt the document.

The Human Rights Council

Human Rights are the principal responsibility of the UN Human Rights Council, a subsidiary body of the General Assembly, which elects its forty-seven members. The Human Rights Council has responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights around the world. It works closely with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and engages the United Nations’ special procedures.

Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council

“Special procedures” refers to the Human Rights Council’s mechanisms to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Some special procedures are individuals (called Special Rapporteurs or “Independent Experts”) who may be called upon to investigate and report on human rights violations. Other special procedures are working groups, which are usually composed of five members who deal with a special topic.

Special procedures are categorized either as thematic mandates or country mandates. Thematic mandates focus on major phenomena of human rights abuses worldwide such as extreme poverty, involuntary disappearances, terrorism, or trafficking in persons. Currently there are thirty-six thematic mandates.[1] Country mandates report on human rights situations in specific countries or territories. Currently there are ten country special procedures mandates, including Sudan, Somalia, Palestinian Territories, Haiti, North Korea, and Cambodia.

Various activities can be undertaken by special procedures, including responding to individual complaints, conducting studies, providing advice on technical cooperation, and engaging in promotional activities. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) provides staffing and logistical support to aid mandate-holders in carrying out their work.

Universal Periodic Review

A key function of the Council is to conduct the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). A relatively new procedure that resulted from the 2005 UN reform process, UPR systematically examines the human rights performance of all 193 UN Member States. It is intended to complement, not duplicate, the work of other human rights mechanisms, including the UN human rights treaty bodies. This is the first international human rights mechanism to address all countries and all human rights.

In the UPR process each country is reviewed every four and a half year. The review includes a self-assessment of its human rights situation by the country under review, a summary of information received from stakeholders (including national human rights institutes, non-governmental organizations, and other civil society actors), and also a report prepared by the OHCHR. On the basis of these reports, each country/s human rights record is evaluated and recommendations given for areas needing improvement.

Treaty Bodies

Each of the core international human rights treaties calls for a permanent oversight committee to ensure that the treaty is implemented. These committees of independent, impartial experts, known as the “treaty monitoring bodies” or treaty bodies, are elected by the States parties to each treaty.

Currently, there are nine treaty bodies:

  • The Committee against Torture (CAT),
  • The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW),
  • The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD),
  • The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR),
  • The Committee on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW), the Human Rights Committee (HRC)
  • The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and
  • The Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED).

When a state ratifies a human rights treaty, it assumes the responsibility to report regularly on its progress in legislative and practical measures taken to implement the treaty. All of the treaty bodies are empowered to evaluate and respond to these reports and make recommendations for improvement. Most treaty bodies are also able to consider individual complaints about violations of the rights of that treaty. Another important function of the treaty bodies is to elaborate international human rights law through the development of general recommendations, which define and clarify the meaning of articles of a treaty.

Intergovernmental Organizations

Some intergovernmental organizations that work to protect human rights include:

  • International Labor Organization (ILO) – Develops international labor standards and provides technical assistance training to governments.
  • United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – Works with other UN bodies, governments, and nongovernmental organizations to provide community-based services in primary healthcare, basic education, and safe water and sanitation for children in developing countries. Human rights are fundamental to its programming.
  • United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) – Promotes economic and political empowerment of women in developing countries, working to ensure their participation in development planning and practices, as well as their human rights.
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – Pursues intellectual cooperation in education, science, culture, and communications and promotes development through social, cultural, and economic projects.
  • World Health Organization (WHO) – Conducts immunization campaigns, promotes and coordinates research, and provides technical assistance to countries that are improving their health systems.

Other UN Bodies and Human Rights

The UN Security Council, comprising fifteen member states, is responsible for making decisions regarding international peace and security. It can make recommendations and decisions for action, including providing humanitarian aid, imposing economic sanctions, and recommending peacekeeping operations. The Security Council has been responsible for establishing international tribunals to prosecute serious violations of humanitarian law. For example, special tribunals have been set up to prosecute war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and acts of genocide in Rwanda.

[1] For a list of thematic mandates see: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Themes.aspx