The Rule of Law in the UN’s Intergovernmental Work

The Rule of Law in the UN’s Intergovernmental Work2019-02-19T16:32:24+00:00

General Assembly (GA)

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 2012, the General Assembly held a High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law  which opened its 67th Session. The resulting Declaration was a milestone in the General Assembly’s consideration of the thematic since it included in one document agreed language on the full breadth of subject areas falling within the concept both at the international and national levels. Member States also took the opportunity to make over 400 pledges  to advance the rule of law in their own jurisdictions as a concrete outcome of the High-level Meeting.

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.

Security Council (SC)

The Security Council first used the concept of the “rule of law” in 1996 in resolution 1040 where it expressed its support for the Secretary-General’s efforts to promote “national reconciliation, democracy, security and the rule of law” in Burundi.

In 2000, the influential Brahimi-report on peacekeeping argued strongly for a new paradigm in peacekeeping and peacebuilding, emphasizing the important role of the rule of law. Since then, the Council has mandated support for the rule of law in many peacekeeping operations and special political missions. There are currently 19 Security Council mission mandates that include strengthening the rule of law.

In most peacekeeping operations and special political missions the role of the United Nations has been that of support to the national police, justice and corrections authorities, and of coordinating international assistance in these areas. However, in two situations, Kosovo and Timor-Leste, the United Nations has had direct responsibility for the administration of justice, including control of police and prison services. Recently, in resolution 2149 (2014) on the Central African Republic, in addition to the rule of law assistance mandate given to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), the Security Council mandated “urgent temporary measures” to maintain basic law and order on the request of the Government of the Central African Republic (S/RES/2149 (2014)).

Rule of law activities have also been integrated into thematic Council resolutions and presidential statements. The Council held its first thematic debate on the rule of law in 2003. The resulting Presidential Statement mandated the Secretary-General to report on the rule of law and transitional justice in conflict and post-conflict societies.. This report became foundational for the Council’s consideration of the rule of law, including, for example, a definition by the Secretary-General of the rule of law for the purposes of the United Nations. The Security Council has further debated “the promotion and strengthening of the rule of law in the maintenance of peace and security” in 2006, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. In the resulting resolutions and presidential statements, the Council has focused on a plethora of rule of law issues, including protection of civilians, peacekeeping and international criminal justice. In February 2014, Presidential Statement (S/PRST/2014/5) reaffirmed the continued recognition of the need for universal adherence to and implementation of the rule of law. It also underscored that sustainable peace requires an integrated approach based on coherence between political, security, development, human rights, including gender equality, and rule of law and justice activities.

In addition to the thematic debates dedicated to the rule of law, the importance of the restoration and strengthening of the rule of law has been prominently recognized in other thematic discussions and outcome documents of the Security Council, for example on Children and Armed Conflict, on the Protection of Civilians and on Women, Peace and Security.

The Security Council has also been central to strengthening the rule of law by promoting accountability for the most serious international crimes. Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter, the Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, finding that accountability was essential for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Whilst the centre of gravity for accountability efforts has now shifted to the International Criminal Court, the Security Council has an important role in moving forward the principle of accountability for serious international crimes, and for highlighting their link with international peace and security. Article 16 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court allows for a referral of a situation by the Security Council to the ICC, under Chapter VII of the Charter. This has been exercised in respect of the situations in Darfur and in Libya.

Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

In the Declaration of the High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law, Member States recognized the positive contribution of the Economic and Social Council to strengthening the rule of law, pursuing the eradication of poverty and furthering the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. ECOSOC is mandated to assess the progress of the development goals, and it plays a major role in the preparations, monitoring and implementation of a post-2015 development agenda which include development issues relevant to the rule of law. The Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ) was established by the Economic and Social Council in 1992, as one of its functional commissions. The CCPCJ acts as the principal policymaking body of the United Nations in the field of crime prevention and criminal justice. Its mandate includes improving international action to combat national and transnational crime and the efficiency and fairness of criminal justice administration systems. It coordinates with other United Nations bodies that have specific mandates in the areas of crime prevention and criminal justice, and is the preparatory body to the United Nations Crime Congresses. The CCPCJ also offers Member States a forum for exchanging expertise, experience and information in order to develop national and international strategies, and to identify priorities for combating crime. Since 2006, the CCPCJ also functions as a governing body of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Human Rights Council (HRC)

The Human Rights Council has actively advanced the rule of law. A series of resolutions have been adopted by the Council that directly relate to both human rights and the rule of law, including on the administration of justice; on the integrity of the judicial system; and on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The Human Rights Council has established several special procedure mechanisms directly related to the rule of law, such as the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, the Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.