The UN Human Rights System

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) protects individuals against human rights abuses and guarantees certain fundamental freedoms.

Back in 1948, it was this focus on the value of the individual and the need of every person for protection that led to the UN General Assembly's unanimous adoption of UDHR. The atrocities committed during the Second World War demonstrated the need for more than just peaceful relations between states – citizens were also to be protected against human rights abuses by their own Governments. This is what the UN sought to achieve with UDHR.

From ideals to legislation
UDHR is not a treaty and is therefore not legally binding on state parties. This is why it was necessary to have the ideals and good intentions enacted in legislation. The Cold War era stalled progress, but eventually more and more legally binding treaties were adopted in support of UDHR. In 1965, the UN General Assembly finally adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which was joined a year later by the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) followed in 1966. Today, the UN Human Rights System has nine core treaties to protect human rights.

One system – two tasks
The UN system of human rights protection has two main tasks: it develops international human rights, and it monitors and protects existing human rights.

The development of international human rights depends on how many states ratify – meaning make a legally binding commitment to – the various treaties. The number varies from treaty to treaty. Because of this, a number of treaties are almost universal in their legal force, while others apply in only a few countries. The UN aims for all states to ratify the treaties.

The gradual development of human rights is accompanied by monitoring of whether states actually respect those rights. To avoid empty promises, each core treaty has an associated committee which is tasked with monitoring that contracting parties to a treaty duly comply with it.

The monitoring is effected by the states submitting reports to the UN every 2-5 years demonstrating how the given treaty is implemented in their national legislation. Based on this information, each UN committee makes a number of recommendations, which the state is then expected to comply with. A committee may also receive material from other UN bodies, NGOs, academic institutions, the press, etc.

Control mechanisms over and above the treaties
The UN Human Rights Council has a number of control mechanisms that are independent of the individual core treaties. One such mechanism is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a procedure carried out every four years in which all 192 UN members' standards and observances of human rights are examined. The Danish Institute for Human Rights plays a substantial role in connection with the Danish UPR. The Institute advises the Danish Government on the drafting of the Danish UPR report. We also assist a group of Danish organisations in drafting a joint report on Denmark.

A second control mechanism consists of the Special Procedures, an umbrella term for the independent experts and working groups who operate in certain countries, addressing special themes. The countries might be Somalia or North Korea, and the themes might be torture, imprisonment and the like.

The Complaint Procedure is the third control mechanism. This procedure addresses repeated, reliably attested gross violations of human rights.