The United Nations

Introduction / Quick Facts

Getting to know the UN

To do good human rights reporting, understanding the UN and how it works is very important. The UN is a rich source of information, learning and contacts. It has agencies focused on many different sectors and issues, like children, women, health, poverty, population, disability and education.

The UN employs thousands of human rights advocates and defenders all over the world, including an international peacekeeping force, the Blue Berets. It has research and statistics departments that churn out papers and numbers about practically every aspect of human life. It has hundreds of offices and employs thousands of people all over the world.

Quick Facts

  • Where are the main UN offices? The main offices of the UN are in New York in the US. The UN also has offices in Geneva (Switzerland), Vienna (Austria) and Nairobi (Kenya)
  • Who leads the UN? The Secretary-General is the UN’s leader, spokesperson and “chief administrative officer.” The current Secretary-General is Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, who was appointed in January 2007.
  • How long is a Secretary-General term? Each Secretary-General serves for five years, but the same person can be reappointed for several terms.
  • How is the UN funded? The UN is funded by member states and by voluntary contributions. Each member state contributes according to its means, calculated as a percentage of gross national income. This means that the richest states pay the most. At present, the US pays the most, but to ensure that the UN does not become overly dependent on any one state, the maximum a state can contribute is 22% of the UN’s total budget.
  • What are the official languages of the UN? The UN has six official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

The UN Charter

The founding document of the UN is the UN Charter. The UN Charter is a multilateral treaty that serves as the UN’s constitution. It is the highest authority of international law, is legally binding on all parties and overrides any other treaties or agreements that member states sign.

The Vatican City

The tiny Vatican City, the home of the Roman Catholic Church, is recognized as a sovereign state. The Vatican City has fewer than 1,000 citizens, including the Pope, his Cardinals, the clergy and the Swiss Guards who protect the Vatican Palace. The Vatican City has chosen not to become a member, but has permanent observer status at the UN.

Member states

Any sovereign state can join the UN. The first 51 member states joined when they signed the UN Charter in 1945. Since then, membership has steadily increased and today the UN has 193 member states – every country in the world except the Vatican City.

Human rights

Human rights are fundamental to the UN. The UN’s work in human rights is carried out by many bodies and agencies. Some of these are directly concerned with particular human rights, for example, UN Women, which promotes gender equality and women’s empowerment. Others focus on particular issues, but take a human rights approach, or a rights-based approach, to dealing with these issues, for example the World Health Organization.

The UN System

UN System” is an umbrella term that is used to refer to all the international organizations, treaties and conventions that were created by the UN, and which the UN manages and enforces.

The main structures in the UN System

The five main UN bodies are the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Secretariat and International Court of Justice.

UN General Assembly

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) is comprised of the 193 member states of the UN, represented by their delegates. Each member state is regarded as equal in the UN and each state’s vote is of equal value. The General Assembly is the most representative body of the UN, and ultimately approves all UN treaties and instruments. It also elects the members of the Security Council, Economic and Social Council, and the Human Rights Council. Additionally it oversees the subsidiary programs of the UN as well as the charter-based committees, treaty-based committees and other committees.

The General Assembly may also adopt resolutions. On most issues, a resolution is adopted if the majority of states vote for it. On important issues, a two-thirds majority is needed for adoption. Important issues include peace and security; election of members to other bodies of the UN System; admission, suspension and expulsion of member states, and the UN budget.

Only resolutions on budget are binding on the members. None of the other resolutions are binding, which means that member states are not obliged to comply with a resolution of the UN if they are firmly opposed to it.

UN Security Council

The Security Council’s job is to maintain world peace and security,. It has the power to impose sanctions, authorize military action, and deploy UN peacekeeping troops to areas where there is conflict.

There are 15 member states of the Security Council. Of these, five states – China, France, Russia, the UK and US – are permanent members. The permanent members – known as the P5 – each have the power to veto a resolution. The other 10 nonpermanent members of the Security Council are elected by the General Assembly every two years.

UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

ECOSOC is the main forum for discussing international economic and social issues and for drafting policy recommendations for discussion by the General Assembly and other bodies in the UN System. It also oversees several functional commissions, regional commissions and expert bodies related to economic and social issues.

UN Secretariat

Headed by the Secretary-General, and employing an international staff, the Secretariat provides a support services to UN bodies for their meetings; for example, research, information, logistics and other tasks.

International Court of Justice (ICJ)

The ICJ is the judicial body of the UN. It is based in The Hague, Netherlands and acts as a world court. Its main function is to hear and rule on legal

disputes between states and to provide advisory opinions on questions submitted to it by the organs of the UN or specialized agencies authorized to make such requests.

Confusion alert!

It is easy to confuse:
The International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is a UN body that rules on legal disputes between states, with the International Criminal Court (ICC) which tries individuals for crimes against humanity, genocide and other international crimes. The ICC is not a UN body and is not part of the UN System.

Human Rights Bodies within the UN System

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights(OHCHR) is the main UN body dealing with human rights. It offers expertise and support to the different human rights monitoring agencies in the UN System.

The current High Commissioner is South African lawyer Navanethem Pillay, whose four-year term began on September 1, 2008.

Human rights monitoring bodies

The UN System has two categories of human rights monitoring bodies:

  • UN Charter-based bodies and mechanisms, created based on the UN Charter.
  • UN Treaty-based bodies, created under international human rights treaties and made up of independent experts who monitor states’ compliance with their treaty obligations.

Charter-based bodies and mechanisms

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is an intergovernmental council made up of 47 states. It strengthens, promotes and protects human rights around the world.

One of the main jobs of the UNHRC is to ensure that Universal Periodic Reviews of states’ compliance with human rights standards are conducted. The UNHRC also receives and considers complaints from individuals and organizations about human rights violations.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

The current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is Navanethem Pillay, whose four-year term began on September 1, 2008. Pillay is a lawyer and academic from South Africa. During the apartheid era of autocratic, racist, white minority rule in South Africa, Pillay defended many anti-apartheid activists in court.

UN System Chart

Confusion alert!

It is easy to confuse the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) with the Commission on Human Rights. The Commission on Human Rights was the original body that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It led development and monitoring of human rights until 2006. But it no longer exists.

In 2006, the Commission was replaced by the Human Rights Council. The UN Human Rights Council has a more extensive mandate than the Commission did. Its special expanded functions include monitoring and review of states’ performance, hearing complaints against states for violations of human rights and recommending action.

For more about the UN Human Rights Council, see

When you are doing background research, watch out! Many websites still refer to the Commission on Human Rights, because the UNHCR is currently undergoing an institution building process in order to incorporate and adapt the Commission’s structures and functions. If you have any doubts, visit the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights ( and go to the Human Rights Bodies dropdown menu, where you will find up-to-date information.

The UNHCR has procedures for receiving complaints regarding consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested human rights violations called the “1503 Procedure”.

A complaint may be deemed inadmissible if:

  • It has manifestly political motivations and is not consistent with human rights law;
  • It does not contain a factual description of the alleged violations, including the rights which are alleged to be violated;
  • Its language is abusive;
  • It is not submitted by the victim or by a person or group with direct knowledge of the violation or with clear evidence;
  • It is exclusively based on reports disseminated by mass media;
  • It refers to a situation already being dealt with by the UN or regional bodies;
  • Domestic remedies have not been exhausted, unless it appears that such remedies would be ineffective or unreasonably prolonged

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a process through which the UNHRC can review human rights situations and records of all 193 member states. It does this every four years. The procedure aims to be cooperative and it is up to each state to describe the human rights situation in their country. With support from the UNHRC, states conduct reviews and submit reports.Ultimately, the UPR aims to provide information that will enable the UN to address human rights violations across the world.

Spotlight on “the darkest corners”

The Universal Periodic Review "has great potential to promote and protect human rights in the darkest corners of the world.”
– Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General.

Special Procedures of the Human Rights CouncilFrom time to time, the UNHCR will research a particular theme, for example, violence against women, freedom of expression or detention without trial, or human trafficking. The processes and means through which the UN conducts this research are known as “Special Procedures.”

The term “Special Procedures” is also used to refer to investigations of human rights violations in particular countries. The people who carry out Special Procedures mandates are “mandate holders.” They can function as individuals or in working groups, they are experts in their field and, in an effort to keep mandate-holders independent and impartial, receive no payment for their work.

When Special Procedures mandate-holders receive information about human rights violations in a particular state, they send letters to the government asking for clarification. They may carry out country visits if the government of the country in question agrees. After country visits, the mandate-holders issue a public report, called a mission report, containing their findings and recommendations.

Treaty-based bodies

The main work of the treaty bodies is to review states’ reports about steps they have taken to comply with their obligations. Four committees (CCPR, CERD, CAT and CEDAW) can receive petitions from individuals who claim that their rights under the treaties have been violated. The treaty bodies also interpret and comment on the treaties, and organize discussions on themes.

There are nine human rights treaty bodies, one for each of the main international treaties. The treaty bodies are supported by the Human Rights Treaties Branch of the OHCHR, which is based in Geneva:

Keeping the peace in a violent world

“Today, we have more than 110,000 men and women deployed in conflict zones around the world. They come from nearly 120 countries – an all-time high, reflecting confidence in United Nations peacekeeping. They come from nations large and small, rich and poor – some of them from countries recently afflicted by war themselves. They bring different cultures and experiences to the job, but they are united in their determination to foster peace. Some are in uniform but many are civilians and their activities go far beyond monitoring. They train police, disarm ex-combatants, support elections and help build state institutions. They build bridges, repair schools, assist flood victims and protect women from sexual violence. They uphold human rights and promote gender equality. Thanks to their efforts, life-saving humanitarian assistance can be delivered and economic development can begin.”

– Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the UN, in a 2008 speech honoring 60 years of UN peacekeeping. (

What is peacekeeping?

The UN defines peacekeeping as creating the conditions for lasting peace. The principles guiding peacekeepers are:

  • Consent of the parties;
  • Impartiality;
  • Non-use of force except in self-defense and defense of the mandate.

UN peacekeepers wear distinctive blue berets or helmets for easy recognition. The first UN peacekeeping force was deployed to the Middle East in 1948, to monitor the peace brokered between Israel and neighboring Arab states. Since then, there have been 64 missions. Peacekeepers often come under fire and over 2,860 UN peacekeepers from 120 different countries have been killed while on missions.

In 2011, at the time of writing this manual, UN peacekeepers were active in Western Sahara, Sudan, Congo, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Kashmir, Afghanistan, East Timor, Cyprus, Middle East, Golan Heights, Lebanon and Kosovo.

Many Blue Berets have been killed during peacekeeping missions. Unfortunately, there have also been some reports of Blue Berets committing human rights abuses. These reports have been investigated and publicized by national and international human rights organizations.

For more about UN peacekeeping operations, see the UN Peacekeeping website:

UN Programs

The UN has several offices and programs, established by the General Assembly, that deal with human rights issues. These include:

Specialized and Other Agencies

In addition, there are several international organizations whose work relates to human rights. Some, though established by separate agreements and with their own governing bodies, are considered UN specialized agencies.

There are also international financial institutions which are specialized agencies whose work has significant impact on human rights conditions.