United Nations Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt at United Nations for Human Rights Commission meeting in Lake Success, New York, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, public domain

Eleanor Roosevelt at United Nations for Human Rights Commission meeting in Lake Success, New York, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, public domain

United Nations Human Rights

United Nations human rights issues have been one of the most discussed aspects of the international organization. In this article, we shall discuss United Nations human rights mechanisms. We shall examine United Nations human rights from the perspective of UN organs such as the UN General Assembly, the United Nations Security Council (and within the UNSC the Responsibility To Protect Doctrine), and also the UN Economic and Social Council, which will serve as a complement to other articles on the International Court of Justice, and UN human rights within the context of the International Criminal Court. It is difficult to examine the history of human rights and international relations without looking at the role that the formation of the United Nations played in the advancement of international human rights law

The United Nations Human Rights Mandate

The United Nations has a history of legal support for issues of human rights. Even early in the formation of the United Nations, states continued to push for the importance of human rights as it related to the United Nations. For example, Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease (2014) explain how important United Nations human rights were, when they discuss the early importance of human rights in the UN. They explain that “[s]ince 1945, states have used their plenary or constitutive sovereignty to create international human rights obligations that in turn have restricted their operational sovereignty. The international law of human rights, developed on a global scale mostly at the United Nations, clearly regulates what legal policies states can adopt even within their own territorial jurisdictions” (162). For example, the United States and Britain, two of the key states in the formation of the United Nations, pressed for human rights in the UN Charter (despite the fact that they agreed under the idea that their actions of colonialism and the territories they controlled would not apply) (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014: 171).

The United Nations Charter and Human Rights

The United Nations Charter has been cited as one of the first documents in the 20th century to reference human rights. There are multiple references to human rights in the Charter. For example, “In Article 1, the UN Charter states that one of the purposes of the organization is to “promote and encourage respect for human rights.” Then, as DeLaet (2006) notes, “Throughout the document, the Charter makes reference to the objective of reaffirming faith in and promoting basic human rights (28). Among other points, the UN Charter does call for “equal rights and self-determination of peoples,” as well as other human rights.

Now, it should be noted that those who called for the reference of rights in the UN Charter did so not because human rights was their primary interest, but rather, because of security concerns; they felt that holding leaders accountable for human rights could prevent security concerns as well (Forsythe, 2006). In fact, while human rights are mentioned, “the UN Charter gives much more prominence to traditional notions of security” (29).

Again, would be incorrect to think say that the United Nations was intended first and foremost to be a human rights organization. As Mertus (2009) explains, “[t]o be sure, human rights provisions were scattered throughout the Charter.  But these scattered references were never intended to serve as a system for human rights protection. Even the vague provisions on human rights which were included in the Charter had a tough time squeaking in over the objection of the Soviet Union” (37). 

In addition, as Forsythe (2006) notes, while the language of human rights existed, the enforcement mechanisms were not as strong. So, while “[t]he theory of rights was revolutionary…neither the United Nations nor any other international organization in 1945 was given clear supranational authority to ensure their respect. The UN Charter allowed the Security Council  to take binding decisions on security questions, but not on social questions. The Charter also contained a prohibition on UN interference in national domestic affairs” (38). Despite the issues that countries had with Nazi actions within Germany, they issue of state sovereignty was still not something that creators of the United Nations were willing to completely challenge. 

United Nations Human Rights and Sovereignty

Again, one of the most difficult aspect of human rights in the United Nations is the notion of state sovereignty, and how this can hinder human rights actions by the UN. Despite the decades long push for human rights, “[t]he territorial-political state remains the most important legal-political entity in the modern world despite the obvious importance of ethnic, religious, and cultural identifications and an increasing number of actors in civil society everywhere” (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014: 163). In fact, this tension between human rights and state sovereignty is clearly evident at the United Nations. The UN wants to advocate for human rights, but states are the main actors in the United Nations (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014). And as we shall see, UN human rights policies are often challenged by states on issues of sovereignty. Yet, as UN human rights agendas continue to press forward, there are questions about the strength of state sovereignty.

Some have attempted to counter this by looking at Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which does give the United Nations Security Council the right to use force against another country. While this is the case, it should be noted that “the Security Council historically has considered a threat to international peace and security to exist only when one state violates the territorial integrity of another state. In other words, the United Nations has not typically treated human rights abuses as threats to international peace and security” (DeLaet, 2006: 29).

Yet, while the UN Charter was not very specific (and detailed) with its human rights, and while there was clear political motivation for including human rights language in the document (Forsythe, 2006), it nonetheless was a great beginning for the rise in international human rights law (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014). Because, as we shall see, the international human right movement within the United Nations took off in the following years and decades.

The First Specific UN Human Rights Document

In 1948, one of the most important human rights documents–the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–was passed by the United Nations General Assembly with a vote of 48-0 (with nine abstentions). This document laid the foundations for UN human rights issues, outlining thirty human rights. In addition, “[t]he UDHR specifies the more general mandates of the UN Charter in this field, and it thus places limits on governments claim to unbridled sovereignty. According to the Charter and the Universal Declaration,…the established standards of civilized conduct apply to all states and hence the sensitive relationship between governments and those over whom they rule” (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014: 161).

Shortly after the passage of the UDHR, the United Nations human rights push continued, with states working on two separate but related human rights documents: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These documents were heavily contested politically; the United States and its allies supported the ICCPR for its importance to civil and political rights such as freedom of voting, speech, and assembly, whereas the Soviet Union and their allies favored the ICESCR due to its support of food and education rights. Nevertheless, both documents came into force in the United Nations. Together the three documents have been understood as the International Bill of Human Rights.

Following these documents, we have seen scored of additional human rights documents passed through the United Nations.  For example, the United Nations human rights has encompassed issues of gender equality, children’s rights, rights for persons with disabilities, calls for protections against racism, among many other conventions and actions. The United Nations human rights regime has developed greatly since the early formation of the organization. However, there are still many challenges to ensuring all United Nations human rights issues will be protected.

United Nations Human Rights Organs

There are many entities within the United Nations that can promote the notions of human rights. For example, the United Nations Security Council has the ability to pass resolutions on human rights issues. In addition, it can use economic sanctions, peacekeeping forces, or military action against a state that is violating human rights. Other organs such as the UNGA also have human rights powers. For example, the UNGA can pass resolutions condemning human rights violations. Moreover, “[t]he General Assembly has created a segment of the UN Secretariat to deal with Palestinian rights and a committee to oversee Israeli practices pertaining to human rights in the territories militarily occupied since 1967” (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014: 200). Moreover, the UNGA “also voted to hold the World Conference on Human Rights during June 1993 in Vienna” (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014: 200). 

In addition, the role of the Secretary General of the United Nations is another important actor for human rights. The Secretary General can speak on behalf of human rights. Many of them have backed human rights initiatives or actions already in place in the United Nations (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014). In addition to the Secretary General of the United Nations is also the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This position was first established in 1994, and has continued to emphasize human rights. Work. Regarding the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “[b]eyond an annual report on international human rights at the UN, probably the most important work of the first high commissioner was to establish human rights field missions inside countries either as part of, or as separate from, UN peacekeeping operations” (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014: 208). There are also legal institutions within the United Nations to help protect human rights. For example, the United Nations helped create the International Criminal Court, and also has its own human rights court, the International Court of Justice.




Forsythe, D.P. (2006). Human Rights in International Relations. Second Edition. Cambridge, England. Cambridge University Press.

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