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What’s the Role of the UN in Protecting Human Rights?

The United Nations is the world’s largest intergovernmental organization. Currently made of five main organs – the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice, and the UN Secretariat – the UN serves an important role in the world. How does it protect human rights? In this article, we’ll discuss the history and purpose of the UN, how it fulfills its goals, and what challenges the organization faces.

The story of the United Nations

In 1920, at the Paris Peace Conference that ended WWI, the League of Nations was born. It was the first intergovernmental organization with the goal to maintain world peace. While the organization proved to be ineffective, the concept of a unified group of nations lived on. The United Nations was officially established in 1945 in response to WWII. The League of Nations officially dissolved in 1946.

When the UN first met, there were 51 Member States who ratified the United Nations Charter. In 1948, the assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which elaborated on the Charter’s principles and established universal human rights. This was a high priority for the UN following the Holocaust and other atrocities during the war. The UDHR has since become a guiding document for various human rights treaties and instruments. Currently, the UN has 193 members and is headquartered in New York City.

The purpose of the UN

Article 1 of the UN Charter lays out the purpose of the organization in four parts, which are paraphrased here:

  1. To maintain international peace and security (which includes preventing and removing threats, suppressing acts of aggression, and settling disputes)
  2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respecting the equal rights and self-determination of people
  3. To achieve international cooperation in solving economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems (including promoting respect for human rights and freedoms)
  4. To be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations as they try to accomplish these goals

How does the UN protect human rights?

The UN has lofty goals. These are challenging to accomplish, especially given the size and complexity of the UN system. What instruments and entities are used to protect human rights? There are more than we can cover in this article, but here are some key examples.

Treaties and legal instruments

The International Bill of Human Rights

The International Bill of Human Rights is made of three instruments: The UDHR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The UDHR is the foundation of international human rights law. The two covenants reiterate many of the articles in the UDHR, but the covenants are legally-binding treaties.


A convention is a legally binding agreement between contracting countries and the UN. Several conventions address human rights issues, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Entities that address human rights:

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

Based in Geneva, the OHCHR is the main UN entity that protects and promotes human rights. It supports the human rights aspects of peacekeeping missions and maintains offices in different regions such as Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, and Europe and Central Asia. The High Commissioner for Human Rights has the authority to investigate human rights situations, publish reports, and comment on human rights issues.

The Human Rights Council

In 2006, the HRC replaced the UN Commission on Human Rights. Its mission is to promote and protect human rights. The Council has 47 elected members that address human rights violations, make recommendations, and discuss “thematic human rights issues and situations.” Members are elected for staggered three-year terms on a regional group basis.

The Security Council

The Security Council frequently deals with human rights abuses, especially in conflict zones. The Council has the authority for certain actions. They can investigate, mediate, dispatch a mission, appoint special envoys, dispatch a peacekeeping force, and issue a ceasefire directive. They can also establish travel bans, economic sanctions, arms embargoes, and more.

UN peacekeepers

The UN sends out many peacekeeping operations and peace-building missions. Working on the ground, human rights teams are responsible for protecting civilians, addressing conflict-related human rights violations, and strengthening respect for human rights and the rule of law.

The UN Development Group’s Human Rights Working Group

This group was established in 2009 at the request of the UN Secretary-General. Abbreviated as UNDG-HRWG, this group’s role is to advance human rights mainstreaming efforts with the UN development system. The OHCHR serves as the Chair. Priorities include making human rights expertise available to national development actors and helping the UN development system deliver rights-based development results.

Treaty bodies

There are ten human rights treaty bodies made of independent experts in human rights. They are elected for fixed renewable four-year terms by State parties. Their role is to monitor the implementation of the core international human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Special advisors/experts

Special Advisors

There are two Special Advisors (who are individuals appointed by the Secretary-General) that focus on human rights: the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide and the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect. The Special Advisor on genocide raises awareness of the causes and nature of genocide, warns when there’s a risk of genocide, and advocates for appropriate action. The Special Advisor on protection leads the “conceptual, political, institutional and operational development of the Responsibility to Protect.” The Responsibility to Protect is an international norm identifying the international community’s responsibility to stop genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

Special Representatives

In addition to Special Advisers, the Secretary-General also appoints special representatives who advocate against major human rights abuses. There are currently three special representatives focused on Children and Armed Conflict; Sexual Violence in Conflict; and Violence Against Children.

Special Rapporteurs

The Human Rights Council appoints Special Rapporteurs, who are human rights experts. Their role is to monitor, advise, and report on human rights situations in specific countries and worldwide. They respond to individual complaints, conduct studies, and travel to countries to assess human rights situations.

What challenges threaten the UN’s role in protecting human rights?

The UN has many entities and instruments addressing human rights, but the organization faces significant challenges in its role as a protector of human rights. Here are three problems:

The Security Council veto power

There are mechanisms within the UN system that cause problems. The veto power system of the Security Council is a key example. Because of their role in founding the United Nations, the US, UK, China, France, and Russia get special status as permanent members of the Security Council. They’re also given a special voting power: “the right to veto.” That means if any one of these five Members decides to vote “no” in the 15-member Security Council, the decision or solution won’t move forward. A decision could have support by every single member except one of the five Permanent Members, but their veto stops it cold. When a decision involves a human rights issue – which it often does – that veto power is significant.

The veto system is controversial and often debated. In 2018, Member States called for removing the veto power and expanding the Security Council’s permanent seats. The African Group pointed out that most of the issues the Council discusses relate to the African continent. The meeting coverage reads: “Despite having the largest number of Member States in the United Nations, Africa continues to be undermined and has no representation in the permanent category…”

A damaged reputation

Many scandals and controversies have tainted the UN’s record on human rights. One of the most pressing issues involves the Human Rights Council. In 2020, the General Assembly elected fifteen new members, including China, Pakistan, and the Russian Federation. China managed to be elected despite weak support; compared to its previous election, it lost the support of 41 Member States. Of the countries elected, it got the fewest votes. This is due to China’s deteriorating reputation on human rights, which includes a violent response to pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong and abuses targeting China’s Uyghur Muslim population. The fact that States with poor human rights records can hold a place on the Human Rights Council does not inspire confidence in the UN.

Not enough power to address global issues

The last main challenge facing the UN is the scope and scale of human rights issues. As an intergovernmental, global organization, the UN has a responsibility to deal with all of them. Issues include poverty, climate change, sustainability, children’s rights, disarmament, healthcare, food security, gender equality, forced migration, and more. The cost and complexity of addressing these issues are hard to fathom, but there’s another factor that affects the UN’s effectiveness as a human rights protector: its power.

Despite its size and influence, the UN does not hold much actual power over its Member States. It doesn’t take long to find evidence that many of the 193 Member States are not upholding international human rights law. While Article 6 of the Charter does give the UN power to expel Members who have “persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter,” it never has. Even if it did expel a Member, how does that halt the human rights violations still going on? What can the UN do about countries not bound to its treaties? The UN’s toothlessness leaves many wondering just how effective the organization can be at upholding human rights. As the world deals with increasingly complex issues – like climate change and a rise in authoritarianism – can the UN in its current state fulfill its role? Drastic reform may be needed. For now, the future remains uncertain.

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.