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 Human Rights 
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"Humanity faces grave challenges today. The threat of terror is real and immediate. Yet fear of terrorists can never justify adopting their methods. Nor can we be complacent about the broader prevalence of cruel and inhuman punishment, which in so many of our societies disproportionately affects the most vulnerable people: the imprisoned, the politically powerless and the economically deprived. Instead, we must respond to this evil wherever we find it by reaffirming humanity’s most basic values."

Kofi Annan,
UN Secretary General


The promotion and protection of human rights has been a major preoccupation for the United Nations since 1945, when the Organization's founding nations resolved that the horrors of The Second World War should never be allowed to recur. Respect for human rights and human dignity "is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world", the General Assembly declared three years later in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Over the years, a whole network of human rights instruments and mechanisms has been developed to ensure the primacy of human rights and to confront human rights violations wherever they occur.

United Nations intergovernmental bodies dealing with human rights

The General Assembly is the main deliberative body of the United Nations. Made up of 185 Member States, it reviews and takes action on human rights matters referred to it by its Third Committee and by the Economic and Social Council.

A subsidiary body of the General Assembly concerned with human rights is the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and other Arabs of the Occupied Territories.

The Economic and Social Council, composed of 54 member Governments, makes recommendations to the General Assembly on human rights matters, and reviews reports and resolutions of the Commission on Human Rights and transmits them with amendments to the General Assembly. To assist it in its work, the Council established the Commission on Human Rights, the Commission on the Status of Women and the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. It also works closely with agencies of the United Nations system which have a special interest in human rights matters.

The Commission on Human Rights is the main policy-making body dealing with human rights issues. Composed of 53 member Governments, it prepares studies, makes recommendations and drafts international human rights conventions and declarations. It also investigates allegations of human rights violations and handles communications relating to them.

The Commission has established a number of subsidiary bodies, including the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.

The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities undertakes studies and makes recommendations to the Commission concerning the prevention of discrimination against racial, religious and linguistic minorities. Composed of 26 experts, the Sub-Commission meets each year for four weeks. It has set up working groups and established Special Rapporteurs to assist it with certain tasks.

The Commission on the Status of Women, composed of 32 members, prepares recommendations and reports to the Economic and Social Council on the promotion of women's rights in political, economic, social and educational fields. It makes recommendations to the Council on problems requiring attention in the field of women's rights.

The Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, composed of 40 members, is the main United Nations policy-making body on criminal justice. It develops and monitors the United Nations programme on crime prevention.

To enhance respect for fundamental human rights and to further progress towards their realization, the United Nations adopted a three-pronged approach: (a) establishment of international standards, (b) protection of human rights, and (c) United Nations technical assistance.

Establishment of international standards

International Human Rights standards were developed to protect people's human rights against violations by individuals, groups or nations.

The following declarations adopted by the international community are not legally binding: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Declaration on the Right to Development (1986) and the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (1992). Many countries have incorporated the provisions of these declarations into their laws and constitutions. International covenants and conventions have the force of law for the States that ratify them.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are legally binding human rights agreements. Both were adopted in 1966 and entered into force 10 years later, making many of the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights effectively binding. Conventions include the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (entered into force in 1951); the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (entered into force in 1969); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (entered into force in 1981); the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (entered into force in 1987); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (entered into force in 1990); and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (adopted in 1990, not yet in force).


Conventional mechanisms (treaty bodies), and extra-conventional mechanisms (United Nations special rapporteurs, representatives, experts and working groups) have been set up in order to monitor compliance with the various international human rights instruments and to investigate alleged human rights abuses.

Under the conventional mechanisms the following treaty bodies, composed of experts serving in their personal capacity, were established to monitor compliance with United Nations human rights instruments: the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC); the Committee against Torture (CAT), the Human Rights Committee (Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). It should be noted that these Committees are established under the respective instruments, with members elected by the States parties, with the exception of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, whose membership is elected by ECOSOC.

To monitor the implementation of treaty obligations at the national level, the treaty bodies examine reports of States parties. Each year they engage in dialogue with approximately 100 national Governments and issue concluding observations, commenting on the situtations of the countries and offering suggestions and recommentations for improvement. In addition, the Committees are entitled to hear and consider certain individual communications.

Under the extra-conventional mechanisms, a number of procedures have been established to monitor compliance with human rights norms. Thematic procedures include the Representative of the Secretary-General on internally displaced persons; working groups on enforced or involuntary disappearances and on arbitrary detention; and special rapporteurs dealing with extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; torture; the independence and impartiality of the judiciary; jurors and assessors and the independence of lawyers; religious intolerance; the use of mercenaries; freedom of opinion and expression; racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia; the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography; and the elimination of violence against women.

In addition, there exists a procedure, established by the Economic and Social Council in 1970 (the so-called 1503 Procedure), for dealing with communications relating to gross and attested violations of human rights. If considered admissable, communications are reviewed by a Working Group of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, which decides whether to transfer the communication to the Working Group of the Commission on Human Rights. Communications remain confidential until such time as the Commission may decide to make recommendations to the Economic and Social Council.

Dialogue between States and United Nations bodies has led to concrete results, such as the suspension of executions, release of detainees and medical treatment for prisoners, as well as changes in the domestic legal system of States parties to human rights instruments.

UN human rights advisory services and technical assistance

The United Nations advisory services programme began in 1955 on a small scale, providing institution-building assistance and other services to Member States at their request. In 1987, the Secretary-General established the Voluntary Fund for Advisory Services and Technical Assistance in the field of Human Rights.

Over the last few years, the United Nations Centre for Human Rights and Electoral Assistance Division have received increasing numbers of requests for technical assistance, which is usually offered in the following areas:

  • Reforming national laws: Incorporation of international human rights norms into national laws and constitutions is a key element in the protection of human rights. Assistance in drafting new constitutions and laws in line with human rights conventions has been provided to, inter alia, Bulgaria, Malawi and Mongolia.
  • Supporting democratization and advising on electoral procedures: Since democratization has been a priority issue for advisory services, assistance has been provided to several nations on holding elections and setting up national human rights institutions. The Centre for Human Rights advised several countries, including Romania and Lesotho, on the legal and technical aspects of democratic elections.
  • Assisting in the drafting of national laws and preparation of national reports: Regional and subregional training courses have been held in Africa, Latin America and Asia and the Pacific.
  • Strengthening national and regional institutions: Assistance has been provided to institutions in various countries to strengthen human rights protection and promotion activities.
  • Training criminal justice personnel--judges, lawyers, prosecutors and police: Training in the field of human rights includes seminars, courses, workshops, fellowships, scholarships, the provision of information and documentation.

Good offices of the Secretary-General

The Secretary-General can use his "good offices" confidentially to raise human rights concerns with Member States, including issues such as the release of prisoners and commutation of death sentences. Results of such communications are reported to the Security Council.

Although the idea of creating a post of High Commissioner for Human Rights dates back to the 1960s, the General Assembly established the post of High Commissioner only in December 1993.

The High Commissioner carries out the "good offices" function in the field of human rights on behalf of the Secretary-General and is therefore now the United Nations official with principal responsibility for human rights activities. He is responsible for promoting and protecting human rights for all and maintains a continuing dialogue with Member States. His functions may be summarized as follows:

  • Crisis management
  • Prevention and early warning
  • Assistance to States in periods of transition
  • Promotion of substantive rights
  • Coordination and rationalization of the human rights programme

The Centre for Human Rights in Geneva, part of the United Nations Secretariat, in this connection implements the policies proposed by the High Commissioner.

For further information, please contact:

United Nations Centre for Human Rights
United Nations Office at Geneva
8-14 Avenue de la Paix
1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
Tel.: 41 22 917 3924
Fax: 41 22 917 0213

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