The United Nations Human Rights System


"[The United Nations] was designed to promote international cooperation among sovereign states in which each would give up some of its sovereignty in the common interest of all nations to promote peace, security, economic development, social justice and fundamental human rights and freedoms."

- The Canadian Encyclopedia

At the very birth of the United Nations at the San Francisco Conference of 1945, a proposal was put forward to embody a declaration on human rights in the United Nations Charter. In 1946, the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations was established, and the UN General Assembly began consideration of a draft Declaration of Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms.

A Drafting Committee composed of Commission members from eight States was struck to prepare two documents: one, a "Declaration", which would set forth general principles or standards of human rights, and two, a "Covenant" or "Convention", which would define specific rights and their limitations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was subsequently adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, as the first of the planned human rights documents. The Universal Declaration was considered to constitute an international "standard of achievement for all peoples and nations". In the following years, work continued on the drafting of the first of several legally binding instruments that would cover a broad range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. These instruments would specify how human rights standards were to be implemented by participating states ("States Parties"), and would require States Parties to submit periodic reports on their actions.

The first of the human rights conventions to be opened for signature by the UN General Assembly was the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), which marked a milestone in the long struggle against apartheid and all other forms of racism. Soon thereafter, the General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both on December 16, 1966. At the same time, the General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol on Civil and Political Rights, which provided for an international mechanism to deal with complaints from individuals claiming to be victims of violations of the rights set forth in that Covenant.

Further legally-binding international human rights instruments have been created over the decades which further expand upon and develop the basic principles outlined in the Universal Declaration. These are: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006). Canada is a party to all seven of the covenants and conventions named.

Human Rights Reporting

Each international human rights covenant or convention requires States Parties to submit periodic reports on the State's progress on implementing its provisions. For each covenant or convention, a special UN committee has been set up to review the reports. Once reports are submitted to the appropriate UN committee, the latter schedules a review of the report. Reports may be reviewed from a few months to a year after they are submitted, depending on the committee's schedule.

The formal review of a particular country report may last from one to three days and takes place in the presence of a delegation from the reporting country. The committee may ask questions of the delegation, hear additional information that the delegation may wish to present, and generally engage in discussion with the delegation on the substance of the report and related issues.

Following the review, UN Committees issue "Concluding Observations" that summarize the Committee's evaluation of the country's progress in implementation, and may make recommendations and suggestions as to further measures which the country might take. The Concluding Observations are not considered binding in international law, but are considered "authoritative", that is, carrying considerable moral obligation and weight. States are expected to take follow-up measures on such recommendations and to address these issues in subsequent reports.

It is understood that the reports, while they are to be as accurate and as objective as possible, present each government's own self-assessment of its progress in promoting human rights. While governments are encouraged to be attentive to, and to stimulate, wide-ranging public discussion of human rights issues, it is understood that States' reports cannot represent all sides and all possible shades of opinion on issues open to interpretation and debate.

Consequently, in the interval between submission and review, UN Committee members may, as part of their study of a given report, take steps to gather additional information from other sources, such as communications and presentations by non-governmental organizations working in the human rights field. In recent years, UN Committees have shown increasing interest in such alternate sources of information as a counterbalance and complement to governmental sources, and as a means of stimulating discussion.

United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms

In addition to the committees specifically created under the covenants and conventions mentioned above, a number of other mechanisms have been created by the United Nations to oversee various aspects of human rights issues. The main mechanisms are briefly described here.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights: As of 15 September 1997, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Centre for Human Rights have been consolidated into a single Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), tasked with coordinating human rights throughout the UN system. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Web site contains extensive information on the HCHR office and its functions, a helpful organization chart of UN Human Rights structures, an extensive archive of UN documents and treaties, and information on current international human rights developments, activities and news.

The General Assembly of the United Nations, made up of all Member States, has as one of its functions to carry out studies and make recommendations for the purpose of promoting the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms (Article 13 of the United Nations Charter). It normally meets from September to mid-December of each year. Most items concerning human rights which are on the agenda of the General Assembly are referred to the Assembly's Third Committee, which deals with social, humanitarian and cultural matters.

The Economic and Social Council of the United Nations may "make recommendations for the purpose of promoting respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all". The Council, composed of 54 members representing as many States Parties, is empowered to make arrangements to obtain reports on the steps taken to give effect to its own recommendations and to recommendations of the General Assembly relevant to the Council's area of competence. The Council usually has three regular sessions each year and may hold further special sessions.

The Human Rights Council

The Commission on the Status of Women was established in 1946. It makes reports and recommendations to the Economic and Social Council on the promotion of women's rights, and on urgent problems requiring immediate attention in the field of women's rights and the equality of rights of men and women. It is made up of representatives of 32 members elected by the Council for four years, and meets every two years for a session of three weeks.

For detailed information on these and other UN human rights institutions, consult the

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Web site.