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United Nations and the Rule of Law

United Nations Rule of Law Website and Document Repository

Promoting the rule of law at the national and international levels is at the heart of the United Nations’ mission.  Establishing respect for the rule of law is fundamental to achieving a durable peace in the aftermath of conflict, to the effective protection of human rights, and to sustained economic progress and development.  The principle that everyone – from the individual right up to the State itself – is accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, is a fundamental concept which drives much of the United Nations work.

The principle of the rule of law embedded in the Charter of the United Nations encompasses elements relevant to the conduct of State to State relations. The main United Nations organs, including the General Assembly and the Security Council, have essential roles in this regard, which are derived from and require action in accordance with the provisions of the Charter.

"For the United Nations, the rule of law refers to a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires, as well, measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency."

Report of the Secretary-General on the
Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in
Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies

The General Assembly has considered rule of law as an agenda item since 1992, with renewed interest since 2006 and has adopted resolutions at its last three sessions. (A/RES/61/39, A/RES/62/70, A/RES/63/128). The Security Council has held a number of thematic debates on the rule of law (S/PRST/2003/15, S/PRST/2004/2, S/PRST/2004/32, S/PRST/2005/30, S/PRST/2006/28) and adopted resolutions emphasizing the importance of these issues in the context of women, peace and security (SC res 1325, SC res. 1820), children in armed conflict (e.g., SC res 1612), the protection of civilians in armed conflict (e.g., SC res 1674). The Peacebuilding Commission has also regularly addressed rule of law issues with respect to countries on its agenda.

The Organization includes judicial mechanisms, such as the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, and the ad hoc criminal tribunals and hybrid tribunals.

UN activities

UN rule of law activities support the development, promotion and implementation of international norms and standards in most fields of international law.

The United Nations works to support a rule of law framework at the national level: a Constitution or its equivalent, as the highest law of the land; clear and consistent legal framework, and implementation thereof; strong institutions of justice, governance, security and human rights that are well structured, financed, trained and equipped; transitional justice processes and mechanisms; and a public and civil society that contributes to strengthening the rule of law and holding public officials and institutions accountable. These are the norms, policies, institutions and processes that form the core of a society in which individuals feel safe and secure, where disputes are settled peacefully and effective redress is available for harm suffered, and where all who violate the law, including the State itself, are held to account.

Over 40 UN entities are engaged in rule of law issues and the Organization is conducting rule of law operations and programming in over 110 countries in all regions of the globe, with the largest presence in Africa. Many UN entities carry out activities in the same countries. Five or more entities are currently working simultaneously on the rule of law in at least 24 countries, the majority of which are in conflict and post-conflict situations.

Efforts to Coordinate UN Rule of Law Activities

UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson
UN Deputy
Jan Eliasson

Responsibility for the overall coordination of rule of law work rests with the Rule of Law Coordination and Resource Group, chaired by the Deputy Secretary-General and supported by the Rule of Law Unit.

The membership of the Group consists of the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Office of Legal Affairs (OLA), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The Group has developed broad policy guidance to avoid duplication and maximize synergies, and is taking a new strategic and results-based approach to United Nations rule of law work. The Group has agreed a Joint Strategic Plan for 2009-2011 and has to date developed the following Guidance Notes of the Secretary General: UN Approach to Rule of Law Assistance, UN Approach to Justice for Children, and The United Nations and Constitution-making.

The Rule of Law Coordination and Resource Group, supported by the Rule of Law Unit, is tasked with acting as a repository for the Organization’s rule of law materials and best practices, and establishing and managing web resources. In fulfilling this mandate, the Group has developed the United Nations Rule of Law Website and Document Repository.

Please find below some key documents on the UN and the rule of law