A Rough Guide to Human Rights in the Wider UN System

While the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms and the human rights treaty bodies are the major centres of gravity of the international human rights system, that system extends far beyond Geneva and far beyond the dedicated United Nations (UN) human rights mechanisms in both its scope and its reach.

General Assembly

The General Assembly is the supreme governing body of the UN, in which all the member States are represented, each with one vote. The General Assembly is mandated to discuss and make recommendations on any matters within the scope of the UN Charter. Under Article 13 of the Charter, the General Assembly is specifically mandated to “initiate studies and make recommendations for the purpose of…assisting in the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. Each year the General Assembly addresses over 150 agenda items, which are considered either in the plenary or in one of its six committees. Human rights issues are primarily dealt with by the Third Committee (Social, Cultural and Humanitarian Affairs). The Third Committee accepts reports from the Human Rights Council and from Special Procedures, and holds interactive dialogues with many Special Procedure mandate-holders. The Committee also drafts resolutions, many of which focus on human rights issues, and presents these to the General Assembly for adoption.

Security Council

The Security Council consists of five permanent and ten non-permanent members elected for two years. Article 24 of the UN Charter entrusts the Security Council with the primary responsibility for the “maintenance of international peace and security” while Chapter VII mandates the Security Council to determine the existence of any threat to international peace and security (Art 39) and to take measures it deems necessary or desirable (Art 40, 41) including military operations (Art 42). During the Cold War the Council rarely considered situations of grave human rights violations, deeming them to be ‘internal matters’ outside the Council’s mandate. Since the 1990s, however, grave human rights violations have been increasingly considered to constitute a threat to international peace and security, therefore falling within the Council’s mandate. On this basis, the Security Council authorised coercive action against Iraq to protect the Kurds in the north in the early 1990s. Since then, the wars in the former Yugoslavia, conflicts in Africa and, most recently, the civil wars in Libya and Syria have generated numerous Security Council resolutions that explicitly mention human rights and underline the State’s obligation to protect them. Resolution 1674, passed in 2006, explicitly noted the Council’s authority to use force to deal with grave human rights violations. The resolution noted that “systematic, flagrant and widespread” human rights violations “may constitute a threat to international peace and security” and reaffirmed the Council’s “readiness to consider such situations and, where necessary, to adopt appropriate steps”.

Other UN organs

With the elevation of human rights, in 2005, to be one of three ‘pillars’ of the UN system, all parts of the UN are gradually becoming more involved in human rights work. This ‘mainstreaming’ of human rights across the UN is crucial to the fulfilment of the rights contained in the International Bill of Rights. A non-exhaustive list of examples is presented below: