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The United Nations (UN) is an intergovernmental organization composed of 193 Member States. The UN creates and monitors implementation of international law, including the main international human rights agreements.
According to its Charter, the purposes of the UN are:
1. To maintain international peace and security […];
2. To develop friendly relations among nations […];
3. To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and
4. To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.
The UN Member States principally make decisions through the General Assembly, Security Council, and Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The UN’s subsidiary bodies and specialized agencies focus on refugees, the environment, health, and many other issues.
UN Human Rights Mechanisms
The UN promotes, monitors, and protects human rights through a variety of mechanisms. Some are composed of independent human rights experts, while others are led by State representatives.
The principal UN human rights bodies are:
- UN Human Rights Council: an intergovernmental body composed of 47 States that discuss and make recommendations on human rights topics. The Council also manages two other human rights mechanisms:
- Universal Periodic Review: a peer review process through which UN Member States’ overall human rights records undergo scrutiny every four years
- Special Procedures: independent experts appointed to monitor human rights conditions in specific countries or on particular topics
- UN human rights treaty bodies: 10 committees of independent experts that oversee States’ implementation of the core UN human rights treaties. Visit this page to see which UN human rights treaties and complaints mechanisms a State has joined.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) coordinates and supports the work of the UN human rights mechanisms, including by disseminating useful information and facilitating civil society engagement. The OHCHR also provides assistance to national governments and maintains country offices and regional offices.
Other UN Bodies
In addition to the main UN human rights mechanisms, there are other UN bodies and procedures relevant to the protection of human rights and development of international human rights law.
- The International Court of Justice resolves disputes between States on issues of international law, including on some issues related to human rights.
- The International Labour Organization also plays an important role in promotion, protection, and standard-setting on topics related to work and employment.
- 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 Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) coordinates the work of the UN specialized agencies with regard to economic and social themes, engages in its own promotion and protection activities, and formulates policy recommendations within the UN system.
- In the area of refugee law, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees contributes to legal standard-setting, in addition to providing 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. Its Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee (referred to as the “Third Committee”) provides a forum for discussion of human rights issues, as well.