Introduction – United Nations Human Rights System

The promotion and protection of human rights throughout the world in all countries is an extensive and multi-faceted process. As a result, the United Nations human rights system is complex.

To understand how the system functions, it is often helpful to consider the system as having three main components: the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), UN Charter-based bodies and treaty-based bodies. The OHCHR acts to bridge the latter two.


Since the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, the promotion and encouragement of respect for human rights for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion, as stipulated in the United Nations Charter, has been one of the fundamental goals of the organization. The Charter recognizes the importance of the promotion of “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion” for “the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”

To achieve a common understanding of these human rights and freedoms, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948. The UDHR set out the fundamental human rights to be universally protected as a common standard for all peoples and all nations – a guarantee of the human rights of every individual everywhere. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “Although the UDHR is not a legally binding instrument (i.e., it does not create legal obligations for States), it has over time been widely accepted as a universal agreement on fundamental human rights norms that duty bearers are expected to respect, protect and fulfil. It therefore carries significant moral weight, and a number of its provisions now constitute customary international law.”

To transform the UDHR into legally binding obligations, two separate treaties were adopted by the General Assembly in 1966 – one for civil and political rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and one for economic, social and cultural rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.