The United Nations Organization has created a global structure for protecting human rights, based largely on its Charter, non-binding declarations, legally binding treaties, as well as on various activities aimed to advance democracy and human rights throughout the world. In this context, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) plays the leading role in the promotion and protection of human rights. The office was established by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on 20 December 1993, in the wake of the World Conference on Human Rights. It is headed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who co-ordinates the different human rights monitoring instruments in the United Nations system: Charter-based and treaty-based mechanisms.
UN Charter-Based Mechanisms
The United Nations human rights mechanisms that derive their power from the United Nations Charter include the Human Rights Council and Special Procedures.
The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body composed of 47 States, and responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the world. It was created by UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251, on 15 March 2006, to replace the Commission on Human Rights. The Human Rights Council holds a minimum of 3 sessions per year, in Geneva, and has the ability to discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention.
An important mechanism of the Human Rights Council is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a State-driven process that reviews the human rights records of all UN Member States once every four years, and provides each State with the opportunity to declare what action has been taken to improve their human rights situation and fulfill their human rights obligations.
Special Procedures are the mechanisms established by the Commission on Human Rights and assumed by the Human Rights Council to address either human rights situations in specific countries or territories (country mandate), or major phenomena of human rights violations worldwide (thematic issues). Special procedures are either individuals (called “Special Rapporteur”, “Special Representative of the Secretary-General” or “Independent Expert”) or a working group usually composed of five members (one from each region).
UN Treaty-Based Mechanisms
The human rights treaty bodies are committees of independent experts whose task is to monitor the implementation of the nine core international human rights treaties. Each country that has signed and ratified a core international human rights treaty must submit regular reports on its human rights situation to the body concerned.
The UN treaty bodies are:
- The Human Rights Committee (CCPR);
- The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR);
- The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD);
- The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW);
- The Committee Against Torture (CAT);
- The Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT);
- The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC);
- The Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW);
- The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD);
- The Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED).
Main Geneva-based UN Specialized Agencies and other International Organisations dealing with Human Rights Protection and Promotion*
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a United Nations specialized agency mandated to lead and coordinate international action for the worldwide protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems. It was established, on 14 December 1950, by the United Nations General Assembly, and is governed by both the UN General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a UN specialized agency devoted to promoting social justice and internationally recognized human and labour rights. Its main aims are to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue on work-related issues. It was created in 1919, as part of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, to reflect the belief that universal and lasting peace can be accomplished only if it is based on social justice.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is a UN specialized agency responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends. The WHO Constitution enshrines the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being, which includes access to timely, acceptable, and affordable health care of appropriate quality.The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is a UN specialized agency created, in 1967, to encourage creative activity and promote the protection of intellectual property throughout the world. It mainly works to protect and promote intellectual property rights, enshrined as human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is an international organization, initially established in 1951 as the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM) to help resettle people displaced by World War II. It is the leading intergovernmental organization in the field of migration, and works closely with governmental, intergovernmental, as well as non-governmental partners.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is an independent, neutral organization ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence. Established in 1863, the ICRC is at the origin of the Geneva Conventions, as well as of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Although the ICRC is not a human rights institution, the interplay between international humanitarian law and international human rights law cannot be underestimated. In virtue of the complementarity between these two branches of law, in fact, it is worth mentioning that the ICRC plays a fundamental role in ensuring the application of the human rights protection regime during times of armed conflict.
* Please note that the above-mentioned list is not meant to be exhaustive.