United Nations as a global human rights instrument

What is United Nations?

United Nations (UN) is an intergovernmental organisation tasked to promote international cooperation. It has 193 member states and 2 observing parties. One of the UN’s primary purposes is “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”, and member states pledge to undertake “joint and separate action” to protect these rights[1]. There are nine core legally binding international human rights treaties within the United Nations human rights system which deal with a broad range of human rights[2].

For each treaty there is a dedicated committee which monitors the way in which States are fulfilling their human rights obligations under the respective treaty.

Which UN bodies are important?

Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council (HRC) is the most important intergovernmental human rights body in the United Nations. It provides a number of avenues through which various concerns may be made known to United Nations experts and Government representatives. The Council is composed of 47 Member States, each represented by a Government delegation. HRC is responsible for addressing situations of human rights violations around the world. The Council also receives thematic and country-specific reports from a series of independent expert mechanisms, including special procedures, as well as from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights[3]. The complaint procedure of the Human Rights Council is the only universal complaint procedure covering all human rights and fundamental freedoms in all States Members of the United Nations.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The High Commissioner for Human Rights has the lead responsibility within the United Nations system for implementing the United Nations human rights programme. The High Commissioner plays an important role in promoting and protecting human rights through public statements, dialogue with Governments, liaison with United Nations and other bodies, recommendations and by ensuring that human rights remain an integral part of the work of the United Nations[4].

Which UN documents are important?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected[5].

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

ICCPR is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly with resolution 2200A (XXI) on 19 December 1966 and is in force from 23 March 1976. The covenant commits its parties to respect the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, electoral rights and rights to due process and a fair trial. It has 170 state parties[6]. The ICCPR is part of the International Bill of Human Rights, along with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)[7].


[1] http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/un-charter-full-text/

[2] Promoting and Protecting Minority Rights: A Guide for Advocates, United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner, Geneva and New York, 2012.

[3] https://www.hrw.org/topic/united-nations/human-rights-council

[4] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/pages/home.aspx

[5] http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

[6] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CCPR.aspx

[7] https://web.archive.org/web/20080313093428/http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu6/2/fs2.htm

Photo: UN/ Manuel Elias

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