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section heading icon     the UN and other bodies

This page highlights the United Nations (particularly agencies such as the Human Rights Committee) and other bodies such as the African Commission on Human & Peoples' Rights that are concerned with international human rights. 

It is under development and currently covers -

section marker icon     the UNCHR

In March 2006 agreement was reached on establishment of a Human Rights Council (HRC) to replace the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (CHR).

The Commission was based in Geneva and promoted as "the world’s foremost human rights forum", had 53 members serving staggered three year terms and elected from closed slates put forward by regional groups. It met each year for six weeks and was criticised as a body responsible for the UN's 'credibility deficit'.

Kofi Annan disingenuously lamented in 2005 that the CHR had been undermined by allowing participation of countries whose purpose was "not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others."

Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch more succinctly said

If you're a thug, you want to be on the committee that tries to condemn thugs

Colleague Peggy Hicks of Human Rights Watch commented that having rights abusers on the panel had a broadly debilitating effect on its work.

In the case of Sudan, the Sudanese government's presence on the commission meant that African states and others watered down language that human rights groups around the world thought appropriate to address crimes against humanity. In general, what the presence of abusive countries on the commission means is that much of its energy is taken up with the blocking actions and delaying tactics that end up weakening action on human rights abuses worldwide. Yes, they delay action on their own internal situations, but they have a vested interest in seeing that the overall ability is as weak as possible.

The CHR coexisted with and is serviced by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The expectation is that the new Council will have a similar relationship.

It will have
47 members, in regional blocs, to

address violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and promote effective coordination and the mainstreaming of human rights within the United Nations system ... with the aim of ensuring the effective enjoyment by all of all human rights -- civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development.

The UN March 2006 statement

emphasizes the responsibilities of all States, in conformity with the Charter, to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language or religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.  But it acknowledges that non-governmental organizations play an important role, at the national, regional and international level, in the promotion and protection of human rights.

Studies include Defining Civil and Political Rights: The Jurisprudence of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (Aldershot: Ashgate 2004) by Alex Conte, Scott Davidson & Richard Burchill and the broader Human Security and the UN: A Critical History (Bloomington: Indiana Uni Press 2006) by S Neil MacFarlane & Yuen Foong Khong. They are complemented by Paul Kennedy's The Parliament of Man: The United Nations and the Quest for World Government (London: Allen Lane 2006) and A New Deal For The World: America's Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 2006) by Elizabeth Borgwardt.

section marker icon     other UN bodies

Other major UN bodies involved in human rights issues include the -

  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)
  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
  • International Labour Organisation (ILO)
  • International Law Commission (ILC)
  • Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)
  • World Health Organisation (WHO)

S.I. Skogly's The Human Rights Obligations of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (London: Cavendish 2001)

section marker icon     the ACHPR

The African Commission on Human & Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) is an intergovernmental body established under the 1981 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Banjul Charter on Human & Peoples' Rights. That Charter is often described as the first major convention to detail the duties of the individual to state, family and society.

The Commission formally comprises 11 people appointed by the OAU and is funded - without much enthusiasm - by that body.

The ACHPR has educational and promotional responsibilities, centred on conference organisation and data collection. It is thus similar to the Inter-American Commission. It has no court. OAU states are obliged to produce reports every two years regarding implementation of rights under the Charter, an obligation that has been largely dispected (with states providing inadequate or late reports, or simply not providing reports).


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version of December 2006
© Bruce Arnold | caslon analytics