Protect Human Rights

The term “human rights” was mentioned seven times in the UN's founding Charter, making the promotion and protection of human rights a key purpose and guiding principle of the Organization.  In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights brought human rights into the realm of international law.  Since then, the Organization has diligently protected human rights through legal instruments and on-the-ground activities.

UN Photo/Fardin Waezi
Students at Butkhak High School in Kabul, Afghanistan, cheer in unison on the last day of Global Action Week, an international campaign advocating free, quality education for all.

How does the UN promote and protect human rights?

High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has lead responsibility in the UN system for the promotion and protection of human rights.  The office supports the human rights components of peacekeeping missions in several countries, and has many country and regional offices and centres. The High Commissioner for Human Rights regularly comments on human rights situations in the world and has the authority to investigate situations and issue reports on them. 

Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council, established in 2006, replaced the 60-year-old UN Commission on Human Rights as the key independent UN intergovernmental body responsible for human rights.

Human Rights Treaty Bodies

The human rights treaty bodies are committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties

Special Procedures

The special procedures of the Human Rights Council are prominent, independent experts working on a voluntary basis, who examine, monitor, publicly report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective.

UNDG-HRM

The UN Development Group’s Human Rights Mainstreaming Mechanism (UNDG-HRM) advances human rights mainstreaming efforts within the UN development system. 

Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect

The Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide acts as a catalyst to raise awareness of the causes and dynamics of genocide, to alert relevant actors where there is a risk of genocide, and to advocate and mobilize for appropriate action; the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect leads the conceptual, political, institutional and operational development of the Responsibility to Protect.

What legal instruments help the UN protect human rights?

The International Bill of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was the first legal document protecting universal human rights.   Together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the three instruments form the so-called International Bill of Human Rights. A series of international human rights treaties and other instruments adopted since 1945 have expanded the body of international human rights law.

Democracy

Democracy, based on the rule of law, is ultimately a means to achieve international peace and security, economic and social progress and development, and respect for human rights – the three pillars of the United Nations mission as set forth in the UN Charter. At the 2005 World Summit, all the world’s governments reaffirmed “that democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives” and stressed “that democracy, development and respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing”. Democratic principles are woven throughout the normative fabric of the United Nations. The 2009 Guidance Note on Democracy of the Secretary-General sets out the United Nations framework for democracy based on universal principles, norms and standards and commits the Organization to principled, coherent and consistent action in support of democracy.

What other UN offices and bodies are responsible for protecting human rights?

Security Council

The UN Security Council, at times, deals with grave human rights violations, often in conflict areas.  The UN Charter gives the Security Council the authority to investigate and mediate, dispatch a mission, appoint special envoys, or request the Secretary-General to use his good offices.  The Security Council may issue a ceasefire directive, dispatch military observers or a peacekeeping force.  If this does not work, the Security Council can opt for enforcement measures, such as economic sanctions, arms embargos, financial penalties and restrictions, travel bans, the severance of diplomatic relations, a blockade, or even collective military action.

Third Committee of the General Assembly

The General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) examines a range of issues, including human rights questions.  The Committee also discusses questions relating to the advancement of women, the protection of children, indigenous issues, the treatment of refugees, the promotion of fundamental freedoms through the elimination of racism and racial discrimination, and the right to self-determination.  The Committee also addresses important social development questions.

Various Other UN Bodies

Different intergovernmental bodies and interdepartmental mechanisms based at the United Nations headquarters in New York, as well as the United Nations Secretary-General, address a range of human rights issues. The General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and their subsidiary organs make policy decisions and recommendations to Member States, the United Nations system and other actors. The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council, has a mandate to discuss indigenous issues, including human rights. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights interacts with and provides advice and support on human rights issues to these bodies and mechanisms. The Office also works to mainstream human rights in all areas of work of the Organization, including development, peace and security, peacekeeping and humanitarian affairs. Human rights issues are also addressed in the context of the post-conflict UN peacebuilding support activities

Secretary-General

The Secretary-General appoints special representatives, who advocate against major human rights violations:

The ‘Human Rights Up Front’ Initiative (HRuF) is an initiative by the UN Secretary-General to ensure the UN system takes early and effective action, as mandated by the Charter and UN resolutions, to prevent or respond to serious and large-scale violations of human rights or international humanitarian law. The initiative underlines a shared responsibility among the various UN entities to work together to address such violations. HRuF seeks to achieve this by effecting change at three levels: cultural, operational and political.  These changes are gradually transforming the way the UN understands its responsibilities and implements them. The initiative has been progressively rolled-out since late 2013. Through various presentations, letters and policy documents, the Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-General have presented HRuF to the General Assembly and to staff and UN system leaders. 

UN Peace Operations

Many United Nations peacekeeping operations and political and peacebuidling missions also include the human rights-related mandates aimed at contributing to the protection and promotion of human rights through both immediate and long-term action; empowering the population to assert and claim their human rights; and enabling State and other national institutions to implement their human rights obligations and uphold the rule of law. Human rights teams on the ground work in close cooperation and coordination with other civilian and uniformed components of peace operations, in particular, in relation to the protection of civilians; addressing conflict-related sexual violence and violations against children; and strengthening respect for human rights and the rule of law through legal and judicial reform, security sector reform and prison system reform. 

Commission on the Status of Women

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is the principal global intergovernmental body dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the advancement of women.  UN Women, established in 2010, serves as its Secretariat.

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