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Human Rights and the United Nations

UN Human Rights Legal Bodies

Major Human Rights Treaty Bodies

Regional and Other Human Rights Bodies

Functions of the Human Rights System

The International Human Rights System In Action - Case Studies

Human Rights and the United Nations
The United Nations is a global organization that includes nearly every country in the world.   When a country becomes a member of the UN, it is legally bound to uphold the obligations set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, which include the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all people. As part of its mission to protect human rights, the UN oversaw the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as most other global human rights treaties.

UN Human Rights Legal Bodies

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
The OHCHR is charged with coordinating all of the human rights activities of the UN. It provides staff and logistical support to the Human Rights Council and the core treaty bodies, and it coordinates UN action to promote human rights.

Human Rights Council
The UN Charter called for the creation of a Commission on Human Rights, which was reorganized into the current Human Rights Council. The Council consists of 47 UN member countries that meet regularly to review the status of human rights in all countries around the world, address situations of human rights violations, and make recommendations on how to improve the fulfillment of human rights.  

Treaty Monitoring Bodies
Nine core international human rights treaties have entered into force. Each of these treaties established a committee of independent experts to monitor implementation of the treaty provisions by its member countries. Each country that has signed and ratified a treaty is required to submit regular reports to the monitoring body on their compliance with the terms of the treaty.


Major Human Rights Treaty Bodies


Regional and other Human Rights Bodies

The United Nations is not the only international organization involved in creating, monitoring, and enforcing international human rights law. Some of the following international organizations focus on a particular category of human rights issues, while others restrict their focus to a geographic region. This web of human rights treaties and declarations, governed by a network of international and regional human rights bodies, provides activists with many avenues for improving human rights conditions in their countries. Governments that may resist or ignore one means of addressing human rights violations can be encouraged or compelled through another mechanism.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) oversees a group of legally binding conventions that guarantee certain human rights related to work, especially: “freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor; the effective abolition of child labor; and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.”

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is an independent, permanent court that tries persons accused of the most serious international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The ICC is based on a treaty ratified by 100 countries.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights together interpret and enforce the American Convention on Human Rights and the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. The Commission investigates individual complaints, conducts independent monitoring, and refers cases to the Inter-American Court. The Court rules on cases involving violations of the Convention brought by governments or by the Commission and offers advisory opinions on the correct interpretation of regional human rights treaties. 

The European Court of Human Rights
enforces the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects rights, such as the right to life, freedom from torture, the right to vote, and freedom of expression. Individuals and countries bring complaints before the Court, which then passes judgment. The judgments of the Court are binding and typically involve compensation for the victim of the violation. 


The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Court on Human and People’s Rights together oversee implementation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The Commission receives regular reports on human rights conditions from governments that are signatories to the Charter. The Court adjudicates allegations of human rights violations brought by the Commission, governments, and individuals. 


Functions of the Human Rights System

The UN and other human rights bodies engage in a variety of activities to protect, monitor, and advance human rights worldwide, including the following:

CREATE TREATIES: An important function of human rights bodies is to expand our understanding of the scope and content of human rights. One way to do this is to oversee the drafting of new treaties. For example, in 2003 and 2007, two new human rights treaties written by UN bodies entered into force: 1) the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and 2) the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The UN and other human rights bodies also issue declarations and comments that define and clarify existing human rights treaties, educating governments and civil society on their responsibilities under international law.

MONITOR AND REPORT: International and regional human rights bodies monitor and report on human rights conditions in member countries. Parties to international and regional human rights treaties are required to submit regular reports detailing their compliance. Sometimes a human rights body independently undertakes missions to monitor human rights conditions in a particular country or for a particular group of people. The reports can include information from domestic or international human rights groups, independent experts, and government sources. These reports are used to expose human rights violations to a global audience and pressure countries to improve their human rights records.

TAKE COMPLAINTS: Some UN and regional human rights bodies, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, are able to take complaints from individuals and others whose human rights have been violated. These bodies may request a government response to the complaint, hear testimony from the victim, and make a public report on the case. If the individual is found to have suffered a violation of human rights, the body may mediate a settlement between the victim and the government, require the country to report on what steps it has taken to remedy the violation, and in some instances refer unresolved cases to international courts.

ENFORCE HUMAN RIGHTS STANDARDS: The UN Security Council can impose consequences on countries that engage in massive human rights violations by enforcing sanctions or authorizing humanitarian intervention. Regional organizations, including the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court, investigate and rule on cases involving human rights violations in their member countries. The International Criminal Court and special international criminal tribunals (such as those created for Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone) provide legal remedies for massive human rights violations. These tribunals have the power to impose criminal sentences on people found guilty of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression.

The UN contains agencies that work directly with governments and civil society to improve human rights. These agencies run educational programs, provide training to government officials, and fund projects that increase understanding of human rights and responsibilities worldwide. In some cases, these agencies directly improve conditions for people, fulfilling human rights such as the right to food, the right to education, women’s rights, or the right to a clean environment.


The International Human Rights System in Action

        The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR):
        Case of Theoneste Bagosora

At the beginning of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Theoneste Bagosora was the highest authority with control over the Rwandan military. The ICTR found that he was responsible for planning the massacre of ethnic Tutsis, the assassinations of opposition government officials, and the murders of 10 Belgian peacekeepers. He organized and armed the militias that carried out most of the killings and compiled lists of Tutsis and moderate Hutus to be killed. Roughly 800,000 people were killed in the genocide. Bagosora was sentenced to life in prison in 2008.  He is the first person to be convicted by the tribunal of organizing the genocide. 


       The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
       Fausto Mendoza Giler and Diogenes Mendoza Brazo, Ecuador

In 2001 Mr. Diogenes Monserrate Mendoza Bravo submitted a complaint to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on his behalf and that of his 16-year old son, Fausto Fabricio Mendoza Giler, who the Ecuadoran National Police had brutally beaten and killed. Despite the fact that the police officers responsible were clearly identified, no one was prosecuted for the crime. The Commission helped to mediate a friendly agreement between the victims and government through communications and meetings. As a result, Ecuador accepted responsibility for the violation of the victims’ rights, provided the victims with monetary compensation for the damages suffered, and agreed to prosecute those responsible, though prosecutions have not yet occurred. 


        International Labor Organization:
        Better Factories Cambodia Program

The International Labor Organization, working with the U.S. and Cambodian governments, created the Better Factories Cambodia program to monitor and report on working conditions in Cambodian garment factories.  As part of a trade agreement between the U.S. and Cambodia, the U.S. promised better access to markets for Cambodian garment factories in exchange for improved working conditions and rigorous monitoring. As part of the program, the ILO conducts regular unannounced site visits to monitor working conditions and publishes its findings in semi-annual reports and on the internet. The detailed reporting allows international buyers to select factories that comply with international labor standards and creates pressure on Cambodian factories to improve their performance.  


        United Nations:  
        Peacekeeping in Namibia

South Africa illegally occupied Namibia beginning in 1966, sparking a decades-long civil war between the Namibian independence movement and forces loyal to South Africa.  In 1988, South Africa and the Namibians finally negotiated a peace agreement to be overseen by the United Nations.  Despite continuing violence in the first few months of the peace agreement, the UN mission managed to establish conditions for free and fair elections held in November 1989.  The transition government demobilized combatants, assisted with the return of refugees, released political prisoners, and repealed the discriminatory legislation which was a legacy of rule by apartheid South Africa. In 1990, Namibia gained independence and has remained free and democratic ever since.


  • BBC. “Rwanda genocide mastermind jailed.”
  • Better Factories Cambodia.  “About Better Factories.”
  • Indian Law. “Inter-American court rules for Awas Tingni Indians.”
  • Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.  Fausto Mendoza Giler and Diógenes Mendoza Bravo v. Ecuador, Case 533-01, Report No. 47/06, Inter-Am. C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.127 Doc. 4 rev. 1 (2007).
  • International Criminal Court. “About the Court.”
  • International Labour Organization. “Conventions and Recommendations.”
  • UN. OHCHR. Human Rights Bodies.
  • UN. OHCHR. International Law.
  • UN. OHCHR. “Human Rights Treaty Bodies – Individual Communications.”
  • UN. “International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.”
  • U.S. Department of State.  “Background Note: Namibia.”


  • ENFORCE HUMAN RIGHTS STANDARDS ©  Antonio Dasiparu/AFP/Getty Images (Peacekeepers East Timor)
  • TAKE COMPLAINTS ©  United Nations Photo # 141312/Jean-Marc FERRE (Fourth Session of Human Rights Council, March 2007)
  • MONITOR AND REPORT ©  United Nations Photo # 170043/Tilak Pokharel (United Nations Mission in Nepal Assists in Nepal Elections, February 2007)
  • DIRECTLY IMPROVE HUMAN RIGHTS ©  United Nations Photo # 141483/Evan Schneider  (Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre) visits a girls’ education project in Giza, Egypt, March 2007)
  • CREATE TREATIES ©  United Nations Photo# 141882/Paulo Filgueiras (Jamaica signs the UN Convention on Rights of Disabled Persons, March 2007)