Protect Human Rights

A group of children from the indigenous Emberá people smiling.

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 lay down the principles that 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.

How does the UN promote and protect human rights?

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

Headquartered in Geneva, with many regional offices, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 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 in addition to its regional offices, has HR Centres, Country/Stand-alone Offices and Human Rights Advisors all over the world.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights regularly comments on situations in the world relating to human rights issues, and has the authority to investigate situations and publish reports on them.

UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing Leilani Farha warns of widespread homelessness

OHCHR Regional Offices

Africa
The Americas
Asia and the Pacific
Europe and Central Asia
The Middle East
North Africa

Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council, which was established in 2006, meets in Geneva. It 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. Each State party to a treaty has an obligation to take steps to ensure that everyone in the State can enjoy the rights set out in the treaty.

The treaty bodies are composed of independent experts of recognized competence in human rights, who are nominated and elected for fixed renewable terms of four years by State parties.

The Human Rights Treaty Body system

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 Human Rights Working Group

The UN Development Group’s Human Rights Working Group 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?

Almost 70 years ago the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common human rights standard for all everyone, everywhere.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and two Covenants

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was the first legal document protecting universal human rights. It is generally agreed to be the foundation of international human rights law.

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.

Other instruments

A series of international human rights treaties and other instruments adopted since 1945 have expanded the body of international human rights law.

In 2007, the General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs plays a leading role in the work of the UN to help countries hold credible, transparent and inclusive elections. Since 1992, the UN has assisted more than 100 of its Member States with electoral support.

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?

Secretary-General

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

On 19 January 2018, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres established the International Commission of Inquiry envisioned by the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali. He appointed Lena Sundh (Sweden), Vinod Boolell (Mauritius) and Simon Munzu (Cameroon) to serve as Commissioners and selected Ms. Sundh as Chair. Established at the request of the signatory parties to the Agreement, the Commission of Inquiry was to advance national reconciliation and support the Malian authorities’ efforts in the fight against impunity. The Commissioners, who are serving in their personal capacities, investigated serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed in Mali since January 2012 and submitted a report to the Secretary General.

cover image depicting young children

The Highest Aspiration: A Call to Action for Human Rights

On 24 February 2020, Secretary-General António Guterres launched a Call to Action for Human Rights. “Human rights are our ultimate tool to help societies grow in freedom,” he told Member States on the opening day of the UN Human Rights Council’s 43rd session in Geneva, as he detailed a seven-point blueprint for positive change. Echoing the call for change, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that although threats to human rights, development and peace were on the rise, so were the practical, actionable solutions to these issues.

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 is not enough, 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, peacekeeping, women, peace and security, and responding to humanitarian crises. Human rights issues are also addressed in the context of the post-conflict UN peacebuilding support activities

UN Peace Operations

To celebrate International Day of UN Peacekeepers: Meet Nicole Ngoy, a human rights officer, working at the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Many United Nations peacekeeping operations and political and peacebuilding 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.