The General Assembly first considered the rule of law at its World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993.  Following the Vienna World Conference and the establishment of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Third Committee of the General Assembly, responsible for most of the human rights work of the General Assembly, debated and adopted yearly resolutions on strengthening of the rule of law until 2002.

The Third Committee and the United Nation’s dedicated human rights bodies (the Commission on Human Rights until 2005 and from 2006 onwards the Human Rights Council) have made significant advances in developing the international normative framework and specific aspects of the rule of law. The Third Committee continues to regularly consider the rule of law in the administration of justice, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, and the reform of criminal justice institutions.

In 2005, the world leaders gathered for the United Nations World Summit identified the rule of law as one of the four key areas demanding greater attention. In the outcome document they unanimously recognized the need for “universal adherence to and implementation of the rule of law at both the national and international levels” and reaffirmed Member States’ commitment to “an international order based on the rule of law and international law.” Member States decided to establish a dedicated rule of law assistance unit within the Secretariat to strengthen the United Nations activities to promote the rule of law.

Following the World Summit Outcome document, a new agenda item, the rule of law at the national and international levels, was introduced to the Sixth Committee (Legal) of the General Assembly. The General Assembly has thereafter debated the rule of law annually and adopted annual resolutions (61/39,62/7063/12864/11665/3266/10267/167/97, 68/116, 69/123).  The Sixth Committee has usually selected a subtopic for its discussion. Under the agenda item rule of law at the national and international levels, the Committee has considered the promotion of the rule of law at the international level (64th Session), the laws and practices of Member States in implementing international law (65th), the rule of law and transitional justice in conflict and post-conflict situations (66th) the peaceful settlement of disputes (68th), sharing State’s national practices in strengthening the rule of law through access to justice (69th), and the role of multilateral treaty processes in promoting and advancing the rule of law (70th). 

In addition to the Sixth Committee, specific aspects of the rule of law have been addressed by several other committees and subsidiary bodies of the General Assembly. For example both the Plenary of the General Assembly and the Second Committee (economic and financial issues) considered and negotiated resolutions on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor from 2007 to 2009. The Third Committee (social, humanitarian and cultural issues) has negotiated resolutions on the rule of law and criminal justice in the 67th and 68th Sessions. The Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations (under the Fourth Committee) has given guidance and recommendations to the Organization regarding its rule of law work in peacekeeping operations, framing its recommendations with an overall consideration of the rule of law in the context of peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

The rule of law has also figured prominently in the Assembly’s consideration of other topics, such as the Responsibility to Protect and counter-terrorism.