The previous section – Treaties and Committees – dealt with the agreements and groups that deal with establishing what human rights are. This section deals with the UN branches and system that aim to ensure that every individual enjoys these rights.
The general purpose of the UN committees is not to determine criminal responsibility or recommend punishments. Instead, the goal of the human rights committees is to create a dialogue with countries to encourage them to follow the treaties. The Human Rights Committee (CCPR), for instance, only has the power to make comments during the review sessions. Despite this, the process of publicly reviewing a country’s human rights record has a strong persuasive value.
National human rights commissions, such as the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK), operate in a similar way. The decisions that these commissions make are not legally binding judgments or related to punishment. Their decisions instead are recommendations for the duty bearer on how to resolve a rights violation or to prevent it from happening again.
Each country is responsible for giving out legal punishment where appropriate, but in cases where a country is unable or unwilling to do so the International Criminal Court (ICC) has the authority to step in and investigate cases. The ICC only deals specific types of crimes that it is uniquely able to handle: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of “aggression” (an invasion, occupation, annexation or blockade through military force). Brief definitions of each of these can be found on the ICC’s website here.
The UN has a number of specific mechanisms related to human rights, such as the Human Rights Council (HRC) and its ‘special procedures‘ and Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In addition to these, many other UN agencies aid in the efforts to respect, protect and fulfill human rights, and their roles are clear from their names. These include the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Overall, these UN agencies and processes reflect an evolution in human rights activities. For the first fifty years of the UN, the focus of human rights efforts was on setting standards. This was done by writing treaties and creating committees to monitor and refine them. At the turn of the century much of that standard setting work was complete, and the focus changed to implementing the treaties and encouraging countries to follow the standards, thus making human rights a reality for everyone.
The UPR is the HRC’s process for conducting full reviews of the human rights situations of each of the UN’s member countries on a regular basis – the end of the second cycle of reviews will be at the end of 2016. Countries are evaluated on how well they have fulfilled the terms of the Charter of the UN, the UDHR, and the optional human rights treaties that they have accepted.
Further reading: OHCHR – Documentation of UPR Sessions by Country
‘Special Procedures‘ refers to the special rapporteurs, special representatives, independent experts and working groups that address country– or theme-specific mandates for the HRC. For example, a special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea was appointed in 2010, and in 2013 a commission of inquiry was created to investigate claims of severe rights violations coming from North Korean refugees.
Many of the mandates are thematic, however, and not related to any particular country. Browsing the simplified list of these themes below gives a sense of the current challenges facing human rights advocates around the world.
Further reading: OHCHR – Country mandates; OHCHR – Thematic mandates
- enforced or involuntary disappearances
- arbitrary detention
- extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions
- torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
- internally displaced persons
- sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography
- armed conflict
- violence against women, its causes and consequences
- the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice
- contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia and religious intolerance
- contemporary forms ofslavery, including its causes and its consequences
- freedom of religion or belief
- the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression
- the situation of human rights defenders
- the rights of indigenous peoples
- the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
- the right to food
- the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation
- the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism
- the human rights of migrants
- contemporary forms ofracism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance
- trafficking in persons, especially women and children
- the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises
The OHCHR is the executive branch to the HRC’s legislative branch. The high commissioner’s office oversees the HRC and the staff work to promote and protect human rights and to support those working under the special procedures mechanisms.
Individual or group that work to defend or promote human rights and are not associated with any particular government or the UN itself are called human rights defenders. This includes human rights activists, observers, and civil society organizations (CSOs, also called NGOs). Defenders (like everyone) have a right to criticize and protest against violations of human rights, and governments have a responsibility to promote and protect the defenders. Defenders fill important roles of being impartial observers or providing a critical voice about the actions of a government, and the comments and testimony of recognized defenders are often included during the UPR process or the sessions of other rights committees.
Further reading: OHCHR – Who is a defender