What is it?
The United Nations (UN) helps solve problems that challenge humanity. It is a massive web of organisations, bodies, courts and treaties that was formed in 1945 with the aim of preserving peace through international cooperation and collective security.
It is not a world government and does not make laws like national governments do. But it does provide the means to help resolve international conflicts and formulate policies on matters affecting all of us, including our human rights. If the UN has said something on how a country should ensure a particular children’s right, for instance, this is terrific advocacy leverage to get that right respected at a national level.
Today, nearly every country on the planet is a UN Member State with there being 193 members. When States become members, they agree to accept the obligations of the UN Charter, which is an international treaty setting out the basic principles of international relations.
According to the Charter, the UN has four purposes (one of which you will notice concerns human rights):
to maintain international peace and security;
to develop friendly relations among nations;
to cooperate in solving international problems and in promoting respect for human rights;
and to be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations.
In terms of structure, the UN has six main organs. Five of them - the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council (which became obsolete after the end of the decolonisation process, which it oversaw) and the Secretariat - are all based on UN Headquarters in New York. The sixth, the International Court of Justice, is located at The Hague in the Netherlands.
There are then more than 30 affiliated organisations known together as the “UN system” which relate to, or are managed by, the six main organs mentioned above. For example, the Human Rights Council is a subsidiary body of the General Assembly.
What does it do?
The UN’s main human rights work can mostly be broken down into two main areas - standard setting and enforcement. Below is a short summary of some of the work the UN does on human rights. You can find out more about what some specific bodies do by reading their dedicated pages.
Human rights standard setting
Through the UN, national governments have agreed principles to make the world a safer and healthier place for people to live with dignity, respect and equality. These principles are enshrined in many international treaties, which are agreements that States sign up to that have produced a large body of international law, including human rights law.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the General Assembly in 1948, sets out basic rights and freedoms which all humans, therefore including children, are entitled to. Among them are the right to life, liberty and nationality; to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to work and to be educated; the right to food and housing; and the right to take part in government; and many others.
These rights are then made legally binding under international law by virtue of two international covenants, to which most States are parties. One deals with civil and political rights (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, often shortened to the ICCPR), and the other is on economic, social and cultural rights such as the right to health, right to housing among others. This second treaty is called the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
With the Declaration, these two covenants are often referred to as the International Bill of Rights, and have laid the groundwork for some 80 other covenants and declarations, which include some specific rights for children (mainly under the Convention on the Rights of the Child).
Enforcing human rights
With its standards-setting work nearly complete, the UN is shifting the emphasis towards ensuring people can actually enjoy their human rights. Many different arms of the UN enforce human rights, and below is a brief overview of the main ones.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has oversight of all the UN’s human rights work. In particular, it coordinates and facilitates the work of other UN bodies enforcing human rights (eg the Human Rights Council, the Committee on the Rights of the Child), works with governments to improve their observance of human rights and seeks to prevent human rights violations.
The UN Human Rights Council (often referred to as the HRC, or the Council) is an intergovernmental body based in Geneva whose function is to monitor States’ compliance with human rights law and protect fundamental rights and freedoms around the world. It holds public meetings (three regular sessions a year, as well as the ability to hold Special Sessions to tackle an urgent human rights crises) to review the human rights performance of States, adopt new standards and promote human rights. It also appoints independent experts to report on specific human rights abuses or to examine the human rights situation in specific countries. Read more about the HRC and suggested children’s rights advocacy ideas on our dedicated page.
There are a number of ways that the HRC enforces human rights, including:
Special procedures, which monitor, advise, and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries or territories (called “country mandates”, eg the Independent expert on the situation of human rights in Burundi), or on major issues (called “thematic mandates”, eg Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children). Go to our dedicated special procedure page for more.
Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which is a mechanism where the Human Rights Council examines the human rights situations in every UN Member State. Each State is examined once every four and half years, and importantly the Council considers reports from NGOs here. Go to our dedicated UPR page for more, including some suggested advocacy ideas.
Regular Sessions are held three times a year for a total of 10 weeks in March (four weeks), June (three weeks) and September (three weeks). Importantly the Annual Day on the Rights of the Child - the one day a year where children’s rights dominate the Council’s agenda - is held during the March session. CRIN reports live from Geneva on the Annual Day on the Rights of the Child - just follow the links from UN latest news for recent coverage.
Treaty bodies, as their name suggests, are set up under individual treaties. They are committees of independent experts responsible for monitoring how States implement a treaty. There are currently nine human rights treaty bodies that monitor the implementation of the core international human rights treaties. Because children have human rights too, all these treaty bodies help enforce human rights for children. There is then the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is the treaty body that enforces and monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Go to our treaty bodies for more. We also have a dedicated page for the Committee on the Rights of the Child.
The General Assembly (GA) is one of the six principal organs of the UN and is based in New York. It has been called the closest thing to a world parliament. Comprising of all 193 UN Member States, it provides a forum for discussion for countries around the world on a range of issues, including human rights. All Members States get one equal vote when it comes to General Assembly decisions (called “Resolutions”). Read more about the General Assembly on our dedicated page.
The Security Council (SC) has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. So it’s not surprising that the bulk of the Security Council’s work on children’s rights focuses on children in armed conflict. It has powers to investigate any dispute or situation that could lead to conflict, and it is authoritised to decide on economic sanctions or military action against States for breaches of the peace. More information on the Security Council can be found on our dedicated page.
Massive violations of humanitarian law in armed conflicts have caused the Security Council to set up international tribunals to try persons accused of war crimes. The first was the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1993, followed quickly by a second international tribunal set up in 1994 to hear cases involving accusations of genocide in Rwanda.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is a permanent tribunal set up to prosecute individuals for the most heinous violations of human rights – genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Post 2017 it will also have jurisdiction over the crime of aggression, a war crime which covers acts that are so grave that they manifestly violate the UN Charter. The Court was established in July 2002 under the Rome Statute, and only has jurisdiction to prosecute for crimes committed since then. The Court officially sits in the The Hague.
Only 122 out of the 193 UN Member States recognise the Court’s jurisdiction, and there is controversy surrounding what some States see as impinging on their sovereignty to protect their citizens from allegations. In particular, the United States is concerned as its international policies are commonly disliked, meaning it’s worried its citizens around the world may be arrested and tried out of spite.
Other UN organisations working on children’s rights
All human rights are interlinked, including children’s rights. So like treaty bodies, there are a number of UN organisations dealing with specific issues that have an impact on children’s rights. It’s important that we keep these in mind so we look at human rights as they affect the whole child. The main ones are:
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is explicitly concerned with promoting and protecting the rights of the child, and is the lead UN organisation working for the long-term survival, protection and development of children. It has programmes in over 150 countries that focus on immunisation, primary health care, nutrition and basic education.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is concerned with the attainment of all people of the highest possible level of health (physical, mental and social well being), including implementing children’s right to health.
The International Labor Organisation (ILO) seeks the promotion of social justice and internationally recognised human and labour rights. It sets labour standards and the rights of workers via conventions and recommendations, including ILO Convention No.182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour and ILO Convention No.138 on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment and Work.
Then there is also: The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), The Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Other areas of UN work with a human rights focus
Peacekeeping - This is where UN forces intervene to help stop a conflict escalating with the aim of resolving it. A number of UN peacekeeping operations have a human rights component since armed conflicts are often where gross violations of human rights occur. More specifically, peacekeeping missions help strengthen national capacities in human rights law, administration and education; investigate reported human rights violations; and assist governments in taking corrective measures when needed.
Development - Promoting respect for human rights is becoming increasingly central to UN development assistance. In particular, the right to development is seen as part of a holistic process to improve the wellbeing of all individuals which integrates all rights (civil, cultural, economic, political and social).