Universal System

A number of bodies—all formed under the umbrella of the intergovernmental organization the United Nations—engage in judicial or quasi-judicial decision-making, standard-setting and monitoring with regard to the international obligations of States, including in the area of human rights.  The most significant of these entities are the International Court of Justice, which resolves inter-State disputes on issues of international law, and the UN treaty bodies, which oversee compliance with the principal universal human rights treaties, including through individual complaint mechanisms.  The UN special rapporteurs (and other special procedures) and International Labour Organization also play important roles in promotion, protection, and standard-setting.

In addition to those principal entities, other UN bodies and procedures relevant to the protection of human rights and development of international human rights law include the following:

  • The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental entity within the UN system, comprised of 47 Member States, charged with the universal protection and promotion of human rights.  The Council was created by the UN General Assembly on 15 March 2006 by resolution 60/251 and replaces the now-defunct Commission on Human Rights which had operated from 1946 to 2006.  The Advisory Committee of 18 experts advises the Council.  The Human Rights Council also accepts individual complaints regarding systemic human rights violations anywhere in the world.  The Working Group on Communications and Working Group on Situations screen the complaints, bringing to the attention of the Council communications which demonstrate “consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested violations” of any human right or fundamental freedom.
  • Carried out under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, the Universal Periodic Review involves the review, every four years, of the human rights records of the 192 Member States of the United Nations.  The Universal Periodic Review procedure was created in 2006, along with the Human Rights Council.  The aim is to review each State’s record by the year 2011.
  • The International Law Commission has the specific mandate, established in the UN Charter, of developing and codifying international law, including in areas pertinent to human rights protection.  The Commission is composed of 34 individual members who serve five-year terms.
  • The Office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights plays a coordinating and leadership role in the protection and promotion of human rights within the UN system, as well as providing assistance to national governments.  It also maintains 11 country offices and 8 regional offices.
  • The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) coordinates the work of the UN specialized agencies, with regard to economic and social themes, as well as engaging in its own promotion and protection activities, and formulating policy recommendations within the UN system.
  • With regard to the area of refugee law, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees contributes to legal standard-setting, in addition to its on-the-ground assistance to refugees.
  • The United Nations General Assembly is the political and policy-making organ of the United Nations, and may make recommendations in the area of human rights.
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