UN Human Rights System Doc & Info

Overview of the UN system

The United Nations (UN) is an international organization founded by the UN Charter, a legally binding document which was negotiated, written and adopted by 50 states, gathered on the occasion of the 1945 San Francisco Conference. This 111 articles Charter contains the purposes and principles of the missions and work of the UN.

Its main bodies/organs, established by the Charter, are the following:

  • the General Assembly (GA): main deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the UN. All 193 Member States of the UN are represented[1]. Decisions on matters such as peace and security, admission of new members, and budgetary matters require a two-thirds majority to become effective resolutions. The GA elects each year a GA-President.
  • the Security Council (SC): its primary responsibility is to maintain international peace and security. This organ has for mission to determine the existence of a threat to the international security, can call parties to a conflict to settle the dispute by peaceful means and recommend methods and/or terms of settlement. As a last resort it can also impose sanctions or even authorize the use of force. Under the Charter, all member States are obligated to comply with Council decisions. It has 15 members (5 permanent and 10 non-permanent members) and its presidency rotates and changes every month.
  • The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC): is the principal body for coordination, policy review, policy dialogue and recommendations on economic, social, environmental and development issues. It is the central mechanism for activities of the UN system. It has 54 members, elected by the GA for overlapping 3-years terms.
  • The Secretariat: organized in departments and offices, each having a distinct area of action and responsibility and carry out the day-to-day work of the UN. At the head of the Secretariat is the Secretary-General, the “chief administrative officer” of the UN[2].  The current Secretary-General of the UN, and ninth occupant of the post, is Mr. António Guterres of Portugal, who took office on 1 January 2017 for a mandate of five years.
  • The International Court of Justice: is the principal judicial organ of the UN. Its seats is located in the Hague (Netherlands). Its role is to settle legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions.
  • The Trusteeship Council (inactive): established to supervise the 11 trust Territories. By 1994 all of them attained self-government or independence. The Council then suspended operation on 1 Nov. 1994.

[1] Each of the 193 Member States is a member of the General Assembly. States are admitted to membership in the UN by decision of the GA upon the recommendation of the SC.

[2] See the UN Charter.

The UN Human Rights System

The UN Charter proclaims that one of the purposes of the UN is to promote and encourage respect for Human Rights (HR) and fundamental freedoms for all. On this basis, it is assumed that all bodies of the UN integrate (more or less) a HR approach to their work. In other words, all UN bodies are expected to carry out the UN Human Rights program, a combination of common standards, internationally agreed human rights as well as those proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Altogether, the program/system functions through three approaches:

  • Standard-setting: elaboration and adoption of international human rights standards through its Charter, legally binding treaties, non-binding declarations, general principles and agreements and resolutions of UN bodies;
  • Monitoring: Treaty monitoring bodies (‘Committees’), Special Procedures (on themes and on countries), Commissions of Inquiry;
  • Implementing: in particular, technical assistance through the Voluntary Fund for Advisory Services and Technical Assistance in the field of Human Rights.

Some organs of the UN solely focus on Human Rights. Among those bodies, some are said Charter-based (the Human Rights Council, the OHCHR). They are composed of states representatives and have a role of enforcement of Human Rights. Some are said Treaty-Based and function as committees of experts, each associated with a HR treaty. Their mission is to monitor the compliance of states that ratified the said treaty.


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GHR’s Team