United Nations

United Nations

United Nations (UN), international organization established immediately after World War II. It replaced the League of Nations. In 1945, when the UN was founded, there were 51 members; 192 nations are now members of the organization (see table entitled United Nations Members).

Organization and Principles

The Charter of the United Nations comprises a preamble and 19 chapters divided into 111 articles. The charter sets forth the purposes of the UN as: the maintenance of international peace and security; the development of friendly relations among states; and the achievement of cooperation in solving international economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems. It expresses a strong hope for the equality of all people and the expansion of basic freedoms.

The principal organs of the UN, as specified in the charter, are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council (see trusteeship, territorial), the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat. Other bodies that function as specialized agencies of the UN but are not specifically provided for in the charter are the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the associated International Finance Corporation and International Development Association, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Labor Organization, the International Maritime Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations Children's Fund, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the Universal Postal Union, the World Health Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, and the World Meteorological Organization. Temporary agencies have included the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the International Refugee Organization (whose responsibilities were later assumed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which is still in existence.

The official languages of the UN are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. The working languages of the General Assembly are English, French, and Spanish (in the Security Council only English and French are working languages).

The Secretariat and the Secretary-General

All UN administrative functions are handled by the Secretariat, with the secretary-general at its head. The charter does not prescribe a term for the secretary-general, but a five-year term has become standard. Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general, was succeeded by Dag Hammarskjöld (1953-61), who served until his death. U Thant, acting secretary-general, was elected secretary-general (1962), was reelected in 1966, and served through 1971. Succeeding secretaries-general were: Kurt Waldheim (1972-81); Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (1982-91), Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-96), Kofi Annan (1997-2006), and Ban Ki-Moon (2007-). (See also the table entitled United Nations Secretaries-General.) The secretary-general transcends a merely administrative role by his authority to bring situations to the attention of various UN organs, by his position as an impartial party in effecting conciliation, and especially by his power to "perform such … functions as are entrusted to him" by other UN organs. Also strengthening the office of secretary-general is the large Secretariat staff, which is recruited on a wide geographic basis and is required to work exclusively in the interests of the organization.

The General Assembly

The only UN body provided by the charter in which all member states are represented is the General Assembly. The General Assembly was designed to be a deliberative body dealing chiefly with general questions of a political, social, or economic character. It meets in a regular annual session beginning the third Tuesday in September; special sessions are sometimes held. It has seven main committees set up to deal with specific matters designated as (1) political and security, (2) economic and financial, (3) social, humanitarian, and cultural, (4) trusteeship, (5) administrative and budgetary, (6) legal, and (7) special political. It also has procedural, standing, and many ad hoc committees. The assembly passes on the budget and sets the assessments of the member countries. It may conduct studies and make recommendations but may not advise on matters under Security Council consideration, unless by Security Council request. In the assembly, decisions on routine matters are taken by a simple majority of members voting; a two-thirds majority is required for matters of importance, such as the admission of new members, the revision of the charter, and budgetary and trusteeship questions.

The Security Council

The Security Council was constructed as an organ with primary responsibility for preserving peace. Unlike the General Assembly, it was given power to enforce measures and was organized as a compact executive organ. Also unlike the assembly, the Security Council in theory functions continuously at the seat of the UN.

The council has 15 members. Five—China (until 1971 the Republic of China [Taiwan]; since then the People's Republic of China), France, Great Britain, the United States, and Russia (until 1991 the USSR)—are permanent. The 10 (originally six) nonpermanent members are elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly; equitable geographic distribution is required. Customarily there are five nonpermanent members from African and Asian states, one from Eastern Europe, two from Latin America, and two from Western Europe and elsewhere. In the council the presidency is occupied for one-month terms in the alphabetical order of the members' names in English.

In 1997 a UN commission proposed changes to the council, including adding five new permanent members without veto powers, adding four additional nonpermanent members, and placing restrictions on the use of the veto. The proposed changes were regarded by many nations as a groundwork for negotiations on the eventual restructuring of the council. Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, and South Africa have sought permanent seats on the council, and in July, 2005, the first four nations submitted a General Assembly resolution calling for the expansion of the council (but not for veto-power for new permanent members). The African Union, however, has called for new permanent members to have the veto and for Africa to receive two permanent seats. There has been no significant progress on the issue, but in Sept., 2008, the General Assembly unanimously called for intergovernmental negotiations on the enlargement of the council, which began in Feb., 2009.

There are two systems of voting in the Security Council. On procedural matters the affirmative vote of any nine members is necessary, but on substantive matters the nine affirmative votes required must include those of the five permanent members. This requirement of Big Five unanimity embodies the so-called veto. In practice the council has, on most substantive matters, not treated an abstention by a permanent member as a veto. In two situations, however, those of recommending applicants for UN membership and of approving proposed amendments to the charter, the actual concurrence of all permanent members has been required. The veto has prevented much substantive action by the UN, but it embodies the reality that resolution of major crises requires agreement of the major powers.

Under the charter the council may take measures on any danger to world peace. It may act upon complaint of a member or of a nonmember, on notification by the secretary-general or by the General Assembly, or of its own volition. In general the council considers matters of two sorts. The first is "disputes" (or situations that may give rise to them) that might endanger peace. Here the council is limited to making recommendations to the parties after it has exhausted other methods of reaching a solution. In the case of more serious matters, such as "threats to the peace," "breaches of the peace," and "acts of aggression," the council may take enforcement measures. These may range from full or partial rupture of economic or diplomatic relations to military operations of any scope deemed necessary. By the terms of the charter, the UN was forbidden to intervene in matters "which are essentially … domestic," but this limitation was not intended to hinder Security Council measures to prevent threats to peace. The charter was intentionally ambiguous regarding domestic issues that could also be construed as threats to peace and left a potential opening for intervention in domestic issues that threaten to have dangerous international repercussions.



The earliest concrete plan for the formation of a new world organization was begun under the aegis of the U.S. State Department late in 1939. The name United Nations was coined by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941 to describe the countries fighting against the Axis. It was first used officially on Jan. 1, 1942, when 26 states joined in the Declaration by the United Nations, pledging themselves to continue their joint war effort and not to make peace separately. The need for an international organization to replace the League of Nations was first stated officially on Oct. 30, 1943, in the Moscow Declaration, issued by China, Great Britain, the United States, and the USSR.

At the Dumbarton Oaks Conference (Aug.-Oct., 1944), those four countries drafted specific proposals for a charter for the new organization, and at the Yalta Conference (Feb., 1945) further agreement was reached. All the states that had ultimately adhered to the 1942 declaration and had declared war on Germany or Japan by Mar. 1, 1945, were called to the founding conference held in San Francisco (Apr. 25-June 26, 1945). Drafted at San Francisco, the UN charter was signed on June 26 and ratified by the required number of states on Oct. 24 (officially United Nations Day). The General Assembly first met in London on Jan. 10, 1946.

It was decided to locate the UN headquarters in the E United States. In Dec., 1946, the General Assembly accepted the $8.5 million gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to buy a tract of land along the East River, New York City, for its headquarters. The principal buildings there, the Secretariat, the General Assembly, and the Conference Building, were completed in 1952. The Dag Hammarskjöld Memorial Library was dedicated in 1961.

Original Vision and Cold War Realities

In practice the UN has not evolved as was first envisaged. Originally it was composed largely of the Allies of World War II, mainly European countries, Commonwealth countries, and nations of the Americas. It was conceived as an organization of "peace-loving" nations, who were combining to prevent future aggression and for other humanitarian purposes. Close cooperation among members was expected; the Security Council especially was expected to work in relative unanimity. Hopes for essential accord were soon dashed by the frictions of the cold war, which affected the functioning of the Security Council and other UN organs.

The charter had envisaged a regular military force available to the Security Council and directed the creation of the Military Staff Committee to make appropriate plans. The committee—consisting of the chiefs of staff (or their deputies) of the Big Five—was unable to reach agreement, with the USSR and the other four states on opposing sides; thus no regular forces were established. The same split frustrated the activities of two special Security Council bodies, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Commission on Conventional Armaments. Hence no arrangements were concluded for regulating the production of atomic bombs or reducing other types of armaments (see disarmament, nuclear). The charter anticipated that regional security agreements would supplement the overall UN system, but in fact such comprehensive alliances as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organization of American States, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, and the Warsaw Treaty Organization to an extent bypassed the UN system.

There were some early instances of Soviet cooperation with the United States and other powers that allowed for UN successes in restoring or preserving peace. These included the settlement (1946) of the complaint of Syria and Lebanon that France and Great Britain were illegally occupying their territory; the partitioning of Palestine (see Israel); the fighting over Kashmir between India and Pakistan (see India-Pakistan Wars); and the withdrawal of the Dutch from Indonesia. However, in many other issues of more direct importance to the great powers, conflict between the USSR and the remaining members of the Big Five prevented resolution. The Security Council was crippled by the veto, which by the end of 1955 had been used 78 times, 75 of them by the Soviet Union.

Growing Activity of the Assembly

In reaction to the limitations that the cold war imposed on the Security Council, the United States, Britain, France, and other nations tried to develop the General Assembly beyond its original scope. In the assembly the United States and Great Britain had strong support from among the Commonwealth and Latin American countries and generally commanded a majority. The Soviet Union could muster only a smaller bloc, sufficient to create debate between East and West but less effective in voting.

Of more importance were procedures evolved in the Korean crisis in 1950. At that time the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council because of the UN refusal to admit the People's Republic of China as a member. Since the USSR was not present to cast a veto, the Security Council was enabled to establish armed forces to repel the North Korean attack on South Korea (see Korean War). Thus, at a time when the young organization had begun to seem politically sterile, it gave birth to the first UN army and to the widest "collective security" action in history up to that time, although the United States provided the bulk of both fighting personnel and matériel. In addition, firmer UN action in future crises was prepared for when, in Nov., 1950, the assembly adopted the "Uniting for Peace" resolution, which permitted it to take its own measures when use of the veto paralyzed the council. Although the assembly has been convened a few times under this resolution, its authority to require action by members has remained vague, and it has never developed workable enforcement machinery.

Some areas were opened for UN intervention, however, where world opinion and great power responsiveness favored it. In the struggle for independence in Morocco, Algeria, and elsewhere, the ruling colonial powers claimed these conflicts to be domestic; with their seats on the Security Council they were in a position to veto assembly resolutions, and with the official governments of rebellious territories under their control they were enabled to forestall UN intervention. In the Hungarian revolt (1956), requests that the USSR withdraw its troops from Hungary and that UN observers be admitted to the country were rejected by the Soviet Union. In the Suez crisis (1956), however, the General Assembly resolution for an immediate cease-fire and for withdrawal of invading forces was heeded by Great Britain, France, and Israel (see Arab-Israeli Wars).

Expanding Role of the Secretary-General

Parallel to the growing activity of the assembly was the expanding role of the secretary-general. Trygve Lie, as secretary-general, made vigorous efforts to muster world opinion in such difficulties as the Korean crisis, but his labeling of North Korea as the aggressor earned him Soviet enmity and thus limited his effectiveness. Under the "quiet diplomacy" of Dag Hammarskjöld the secretary-generalship gained greater scope. The secretary-general, not the deadlocked Security Council, was entrusted with organizing and establishing UN forces in the Suez crisis. He worked closely with the General Assembly on other issues. In 1958, when an assembly resolution asking for a strong force of UN observers in Lebanon had been vetoed by the council, the secretary-general nevertheless followed the assembly's recommendation.

Beyond such missions Hammarskjöld interpreted his office as responsible for preserving peace even when the assembly itself was deadlocked and could issue no definite instructions. In practice he operated largely under a General Assembly mandate but frequently took executive steps that could not be completely detailed by instructions. Thus the office of secretary-general was evolving as the UN's de facto executive authority in matters of international conflict, and the Security Council began to meet much less frequently.

Effects of a Growing Membership

By the late 1950s the UN was being revolutionized by a change in membership. Since the inception of the UN there had been a steady growth of feeling that the organization should comprise all the nations of the world. But new membership was long blocked by East-West rivalry; each side was antagonistic to admission of new members unfavorable to its views, and as non-Communist countries outnumbered Communist ones the USSR was especially intransigent. From 1947 to 1955 only Yemen (1947), Pakistan (1947), Myanmar (1948), Israel (1949), and Indonesia (1950) gained admission. The way to a compromise was led by Canada in 1955; 16 new members were admitted in that year, and thereafter expansion was rapid.

Accompanying expansion came voting realignment. The clear majority of the United States and its allies disappeared as the Afro-Asian group of nations (see Third World) obtained over half of the assembly seats. New voting blocs formed, including the NATO nations, the Arab nations, the Commonwealth nations, and, increasingly, a general Afro-Asian bloc. Latin America shifted away from its pro-U.S. position. Other themes began to equal that of the cold war in assembly debates, and more militant stands were taken against remnants of colonialism.

The changed nature of the UN was revealed in UN Africa policy in the early 1960s. The UN acted strongly in the crisis in the Congo, and during its involvement there the secretary-general developed his office to an unprecedented extent. When the UN was invited (1960) by the Congo government to send troops there, a UN force was quickly organized by Hammarskjöld from among neutral European and African states. The UN troops, confronted by social and political chaos, engaged in direct military action to force Katanga province to reintegrate with the Congo, which it finally did in 1963.

UN action in the Congo and later in sending peacekeeping forces to Cyprus (1964) demonstrated a willingness to intervene in basically internal situations, both to restore order and to prevent the spread of disorder to neighboring states. This willingness was especially evident in the attention paid to the remaining colonial areas, mainly in Africa. The UN repeatedly condemned the colonial policies of Portugal (until that country began to free its colonies after the 1974 coup) and the racial policies of South Africa and Rhodesia, against which severe economic sanctions were applied.

Diminished UN Influence and Its Uncertain Revival

Having lost its automatic majority in the assembly, the United States joined the Soviet Union in limiting UN power and authority, mainly by keeping major issues within the purview of the Security Council and the veto, with inaction the usual result. There was a corresponding decline in the freedom of movement allowed the secretary-general. In the wake of Hammarskjöld's Congo operation and accidental death, the Soviet Union's "troika" plan for a three-person secretary-generalship—an Eastern, a Western, and a neutralist member, each with a veto—was a sign that the USSR would not tolerate another activist secretary-general. Although its plan was defeated, the USSR's goal was largely achieved, since succeeding secretaries-general avoided actions that might be controversial.

Severe financial pressures have also served to restrict UN action. A number of countries, including the USSR, have refused to pay for UN actions, such as the Congo operation, not directly approved by the Security Council. The United States successfully pushed for a reduction of its assessment to 25% of the UN budget in 1977, instead of one third or more, but has still been in substantial arrears. (By the late 1990s the problem of U.S. arrears had grown so great that the United States was in danger of losing its vote in the General Assembly.)

Finally, the major powers have tended to deal with each other outside the framework of the UN. While certain agreements in peripheral areas of disarmament and international cooperation have been worked out within the UN—e.g., the peaceful use of atomic energy (see Atomic Energy Agency, International), cooperation in outer space, and arms limitation on the international seabed—most major negotiations and agreements have been on a bilateral basis.

As a result, until 1991 the UN played a relatively secondary role in most world crises, including the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973; the India-Pakistan War of 1971; the Vietnam War; and the Afghanistan War. However, with Soviet cooperation, the UN played a major role approving action in the Persian Gulf in 1991 to drive Iraq from Kuwait, and it actively supervised the subsequent cease-fire, embargo, and removal of strategic weapons from Iraq (see Persian Gulf War).

Since the early 1970s, the UN expanded its activity in the development of less developed countries. The UN and its related agencies have had a significant impact in disease control, aid to refugees, and technological cooperation. It has provided a mechanism through which developed countries can jointly contribute with a minimum of national antagonism and from which less developed countries can receive aid with a minimum of suspicion and resentment. The UN has also been active in setting standards of human dignity and freedom, such as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the establishment of international labor standards, and has been a forum for discussion on some environmental issues, such as at the "Earth Summit" in 1992.

The current UN is an all but universal global institution. Its peacekeeping forces were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988, and in 2001 the UN itself, along with Secretary-General Annan, was awarded the prize. Beginning in the 1990s, the UN was increasingly involved in peacekeeping efforts throughout the world. Although the UN played a subsidiary role in the Persian Gulf War, its potential to gain a more prominent peacekeeping role was enhanced with the end of the cold war. In recent years the UN has supervised the 1993 elections in Cambodia (as part of its largest peacekeeping effort ever) and the 1999 referendum in East Timor (although it could not prevent the violence the followed), and it has mounted peacekeeping operations in Angola, Bosnia, Congo (Kinshasa), Eritrea and Ethiopia, Haiti, Kosovo, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan and Chad among others. In addition, the UN has provided police forces in regions, such as Kosovo, Bosnia, and East Timor, where the local government could not.

The Security Council's assertiveness in enforcing the Gulf War cease-fire resolutions in the early 1990s seemed indicative of a new vigor. Later divisions on the council over that issue, however, and limited success with respect to peacekeeping in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, and Sierra Leone indicate that, unless the parties overseen by such forces are desirous of peace, perhaps the council can assert itself successfully only when the great powers are convinced that their interests are at stake. The fact was made all-too-obvious by the divisions that emerged between the United States and Britain, on one side, and France, Russia, and China over whether to approve military action against Iraq in 2003. Other divisions hampered the UN's ability to develop (2007) a fully workable peacekeeping mission in Sudan and Chad, where rebellion in Sudan's Darfur region and bordering parts of Chad created large numbers of refugees beginning in 2003. On the other hand, the UN peacekeeping mission along the Eritrea-Ethiopia border (2000-2008) was ended after the two benefiting nations undermined it. In an effort to ensure that UN peacekeeping missions that are mounted are effective, Annan pushed for forces that were large enough to be able to enforce the peace, though that was not always possible. UN peacekeeping forces have also become more assertive about using force to protect themselves and civilians and more active in enforcing the peace.

A related and pressing problem has been the financial crisis created by the arrears owed by the United States and other nations, a crisis exacerbated by the expense of increased peacekeeping operations. Even as the nations of the world have been expanding the UN's role as peacekeeper, its ability to fund such operations has been hampered by nonpayment of UN dues. American dissatisfaction with the UN has led to opposition within Congress to payment of UN dues and resulted in unyielding U.S. opposition to the reelection of Boutros-Ghali as secretary-general. Kofi Annan, who succeeded Boutros-Ghali in 1997, worked to streamline UN operations and reduce costs, in part to restore American confidence and interest in the organization. In 1999 the U.S. Congress passed legislation that would pay some of the nation's back dues, but it also called for a further reduction in the assessment that the United States is expected to pay. An agreement in Dec., 2000, called for a reduction in U.S. dues to 22% of the UN's budget. In 2000, U.S. arrears had reached $1.3 billion, according to UN calculations, but by the end of 2004 that had been reduced by more than 80%.

In 2004 the UN's reputation was tarnished by revelations about corruption in the oil-for-food program that allowed Iraq, beginning in 1996 and ending after the U.S.-led invasion, to export oil to generate income that was to be used to purchase food and other humanitarian relief. Saddam Hussein's government received sizable kickbacks through the program (although the money Iraq earned through smuggling oil abroad was much greater), and many outside Iraq illicitly profited as well. A detailed UN investigation into the program, led by Paul Volcker, began in 2004, and it released its final report in 2005. The investigation accused the UN official who had headed the program of personally benefiting from it, and faulted the conduct of others, including two of Annan's close advisers. The integrity of Annan's son, who benefited from employment and payments from a company involved in the program, was questioned, although Annan himself was not accused of benefiting or of manipulating the program to benefit anyone. However, Annan was criticized for having exercised inadequate oversight (as was the Security Council) and for having failed to make a thorough inquiry into the affair when questions first arose about it.

Also in 2005 Annan attempted to win international support for a group of comprehensive reforms within the United Nations, but agreement proved difficult to secure. UN members did approve the establishment of a Peacebuilding Commission, intended to aid war-torn nations in reestablishing political stability and economic growth. In Dec., 2005, under pressure from the United States and other wealthy nations, UN members approved a two-year budget with a spending cap for 2006 that was expected to be reached in June of that year. The intention was to link the approval of further spending to passage of management reforms by the General Assembly.

The General Assembly approved (Mar., 2006) the replacement of the UN Human Rights Commission with a Human Rights Council. The move was designed to restore credibility to the UN's human rights body, which was criticized for having included among its member nations many countries that had been denounced for violations of human rights, but the new body soon faced similar criticisms. In May the Assembly refused to approve the centerpiece of Annan's ambitious administrative reform plans for the United Nations; some modest reforms were approved in July. The budget cap, meanwhile, had been removed in June by the General Assembly. Annan was succeeded as secretary-general by South Korean diplomat Ban Ki-Moon in 2007.


The United Nations publishes a series of comprehensive yearbooks (1947-). See also M. Waters, The United Nations (1967); L. M. Goodrich, E. I. Hambro, and A. P. Simons, Charter of the United Nations: Commentary and Documents (3d ed. 1969); D. W. Wainhouse, International Peacekeeping at the Crossroads (1973); L. M. Goodrich, The United Nations in a Changing World (1974); D. P. Moynihan, A Dangerous Place (1978); Conference on United Nations Procedures, Global Negotiations and Economic Development (1980); E. Luard, A History of the United Nations (2 vol., 1982-89); J. P. Humphrey, Human Rights and the United Nations (1983); P. R. Baehr and L. Gordenker, The United Nations: Reality and Ideal (1984); Department of Public Information, The United Nations and Human Rights (1984); R. Riggs and J. Plano, The United Nations: International Organization and World Politics (1987); P. J. Fromuth, ed., A Successor Vision: The United Nations of Tomorrow (1988); A. Roberts, United Nations, Divided World: The UN's Role in International Relations (1988); R. Berridge, Return to the United Nations: UN Diplomacy in Regional Conflicts (1991); S. Meisler, United Nations: The First Fifty Years (1995); T. Hoopes and D. Brinkley, FDR and the Creation of the U.N. (1997); S. C. Schlesinger, Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations (2003).

Secretariat, United Nations: see United Nations.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is a United Nations agency that works to promote and protect the human rights that are guaranteed under international law and stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. The office was established by the UN General Assembly on 20 December 1993.

The office is headed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who co-ordinates human rights activities throughout the UN System and supervises the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. The current High Commissioner is South African lawyer Navanethem Pillay, whose four-year term began on 1 September 2008.

As of 2008, the agency had a budget of US$120m and 1,000 employees based in Geneva.

Functions and organization


The mandate of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights derives from Articles 1, 13 and 55 of the Charter of the United Nations, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and General Assembly resolution 48/141 of 20 December 1993, by which the Assembly established the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. In connection with the programme for reform of the United Nations (A/51/950, para. 79), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Centre for Human Rights were consolidated into a single Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on 15 September 1997.


The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:

  1. Promotes universal enjoyment of all human rights by giving practical effect to the will and resolve of the world community as expressed by the United Nations;
  2. Plays the leading role on human rights issues and emphasizes the importance of human rights at the international and national levels;
  3. Promotes international cooperation for human rights;
  4. Stimulates and coordinates action for human rights throughout the United Nations system;
  5. Promotes universal ratification and implementation of international standards;
  6. Assists in the development of new norms;
  7. Supports human rights organs and treaty monitoring bodies;
  8. Responds to serious violations of human rights;
  9. Undertakes preventive human rights action;
  10. Promotes the establishment of national human rights infrastructures;
  11. Undertakes human rights field activities and operations;
  12. Provides education, information advisory services and technical assistance in the field of human rights.


The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is divided into organizational units, as described below. The Office is headed by a High Commissioner with the rank of Under-Secretary-General.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Under-Secretary-General)

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is accountable to the Secretary-General.

The High Commissioner is responsible for all the activities of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as for its administration, and carries out the functions specifically assigned to him or her by the General Assembly in its resolution 48/141 of 20 December, 1993 and subsequent resolutions of policy-making bodies; advises the Secretary-General on the policies of the United Nations in the area of human rights; ensures that substantive and administrative support is given to the projects, activities, organs and bodies of the human rights programme; represents the Secretary-General at meetings of human rights organs and at other human rights events; and carries out special assignments as decided by the Secretary-General.

The current High Commissioner is Canadian Louise Arbour.

Deputy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Assistant Secretary-General)

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in the performance of his or her activities, is assisted by a Deputy to the High Commissioner who acts as Officer-in-Charge during the absence of the High Commissioner. In addition, the Deputy to the High Commissioner carries out specific substantive and administrative assignments as decided by the High Commissioner. The Deputy is accountable to the High Commissioner.

Staff Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Staff Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is headed by a Chief who is accountable to the High Commissioner. The core functions of the Staff Office are as follows:

  1. Assisting the High Commissioner in the overall direction and supervision of the activities of the human rights programme;
  2. Assisting the High Commissioner in the formulation, communication, implementation and evaluation of policies, practices and activities for the promotion and protection of human rights;
  3. Assisting the High Commissioner in maintaining relations with Governments, other United Nations agencies and entities, international organizations, regional and national institutions, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and academia;
  4. Assisting the High Commissioner in maintaining liaison on policy matters with the Executive Office of the Secretary-General and other relevant offices at Headquarters, as well as with the spokespersons of the Secretary-General at New York and Geneva and the media;
  5. Carrying out fund-raising functions and special projects as assigned by the High Commissioner;
  6. Assisting the High Commissioner in developing and maintaining a framework for the management and planning of the activities of the human rights programme and facilitating the development of the overall work programme, and in preparing annual management reports on activities and achievements;
  7. Representing the High Commissioner at meetings and making statements on his or her behalf.

Administrative Section

The Administrative Section is headed by a Chief who is accountable to the High Commissioner. The core functions of the Administrative Section, in addition to those set out in section 7 of Secretary-General's bulletin ST/SGB/1997/5, are as follows:

  1. Advising the High Commissioner on the budgetary, financial and personnel matters relating to the human rights programme;
  2. Assisting the High Commissioner and appropriate staff in the discharge of their financial, personnel and general administrative responsibilities and administering the associate expert and internship programmes.

New York Office

The New York Office is headed by a Director who is accountable to the High Commissioner. The core functions of the New York Office are as follows:

  1. Representing the High Commissioner at Headquarters, at meetings of policy-making bodies, with permanent missions of Member States, at interdepartmental and inter-agency meetings, with non-governmental organizations and professional groups, at academic conferences and with the media;
  2. Providing policy advice and recommendations on substantive matters to the High Commissioner;
  3. Supplying information and advice on human rights to the Executive Office of the Secretary-General;
  4. Providing substantive support on human rights issues to the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council and other policy-making bodies established in New York;
  5. Providing materials and information to the permanent missions, United Nations departments, agencies and programmes, non-governmental organizations, the media and others regarding the human rights programme;
  6. Providing support to the High Commissioner and other officials, and to Special Rapporteurs and Special Representatives when on mission in New York;
  7. Undertaking other specific assignments as decided by the High

Research and Right to Development Branch

The Research and Right to Development Branch is headed by a Chief who is accountable to the High Commissioner. The core functions of the Research and Right to Development Branch are as follows:

  1. Promoting and protecting the right to development, in particular by:
    1. Supporting intergovernmental groups of experts on the preparation of the strategy for the right to development;
    2. Assisting in the analysis of the voluntary reports by States to the High Commissioner on the progress and steps taken for the realization of the right to development and on obstacles encountered;
    3. Carrying out research projects on the right to development and preparing substantive outputs for submission to the General Assembly, the Commission on Human Rights and treaty bodies;
    4. Assisting in the substantive preparation of advisory service projects and educational material on the right to development;
    5. Providing substantive analysis and support to the High Commissioner in his or her mandate to enhance system-wide support for the right to development;
  2. Carrying out substantive research projects on the whole range of human rights issues of interest to United Nations human rights bodies in accordance with the priorities established by the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and resolutions of policy-making bodies;
  3. Providing substantive services to human rights organs engaged in standard-setting activities;
  4. Preparing documents, reports or draft reports, summaries and synthesis and position papers in response to particular requests, as well as substantive contributions to information materials and publications;
  5. Providing policy analysis, advice and guidance on substantive procedures;
  6. Managing the information services of the human rights programme, including the documentation centre and library, enquiry services and the human rights databases;
  7. Preparing studies on relevant articles of the Charter of the United Nations for the Repertory of Practice of United Nations Organs.

Treaties and Commission Branch

The Treaties and Commission Branch (formerly Support Services Branch) is headed by a Chief who is accountable to the High Commissioner. The core functions of the Treaties and Commission Branch are as follows:

  1. Planning, preparing and servicing sessions/meetings of the Human Rights Council, the Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities and related working groups and of the committees established by human rights treaty bodies and their working groups;
  2. Ensuring that substantive support is provided in a timely manner to the human rights treaty body concerned, drawing on the appropriate resources of the human rights programme;
  3. Preparing state party reports for review by the treaty body concerned and following up on decisions and recommendations;
  4. Preparing or coordinating the preparation and submission of all substantive and other documents and the support from other management units to the activities of treaty bodies serviced, and following up on decisions taken at meetings of those bodies;
  5. Planning, preparing and servicing sessions of board of trustees of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, and implementing relevant decisions;
  6. Processing communications submitted to treaty bodies under optional procedures and communications under the procedures established by the Economic and Social Council in its resolution 1503 (XLVIII) of 27 May 1970 and ensuring follow-up.

Capacity Building Branch

The Capacity Building Branch (formerly Activities and Programmes Branch) is headed by a Chief who is accountable to the High Commissioner. The core functions of the Capacity Building Branch are as follows:

  1. Developing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating advisory services and technical assistance projects at the request of Governments;
  2. Managing the Voluntary Fund for Technical Cooperation in the Field of Human Rights;
  3. Implementing the Plan of Action of the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education, including the development of information and educational materials;
  4. Providing substantive and administrative support to human rights fact-finding and investigatory mechanisms, such as special rapporteurs, representatives and experts and working groups mandated by the Commission on Human Rights and/or the Economic and Social Council to deal with specific country situations or phenomena of human rights violations worldwide, as well as the General Assembly's Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories;
  5. Planning, supporting and evaluating human rights field presences and missions, including the formulation and development of best practice, procedural methodology and models for all human rights activities in the field;
  6. Managing voluntary funds for human rights field presences;
  7. Managing the United Nations Voluntary Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations and United Nations Voluntary Fund for the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People.


High Commissioners for Human Rights

United Nations High Commissioners for Human Rights
Name Country Term Notes
José Ayala-Lasso Ecuador 1994–1997
Mary Robinson Ireland 1997–2002
Sérgio Vieira de Mello Brazil 2002–2003 Killed in the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad on 19 August 2003
Bertrand Ramcharan Guyana 2003–2004 Acting High Commissioner
Louise Arbour Canada 2004–2008 Did not seek a second term
Navanethem Pillay South Africa Since 1 September 2008

On 24 July 2008, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon nominated Navanethem Pillay to succeed Louise Arbour as High Commissioner for Human Rights. The United States reportedly resisted her appointment at first, because of her views on abortion and other issues, but eventually dropped its opposition. At a special meeting on 28 July 2008, the UN General Assembly confirmed the nomination by consensus. Her four-year term began on 1 September 2008. Pillay says the High Commissioner is "the voice of the victim everywhere".

See also



  • Bertrand G. Ramcharan, The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights - The Challenges of International Protection (Kluwer Publishers, INTERNATIONAL STUDIES IN HUMAN RIGHTS Volume 71, 2004)
  • A.J. Hobbins, “Humphrey and the High Commissioner: the Genesis of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.” Journal of the History of International Law. III (2001), pp. 38-74.
  • Alfred de Zayas, "Human Rights, United Nations High Commissioner for" in Helmut Volger, Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, Kluwer 2002, pp. 217-223.
  • Alfred de Zayas, "United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights" in Rudolf Bernhardt (ed.) Encyclopaedia of Public International Law, Elsevier, Amsterdam 2000, Vol. IV pp. 1129-1132.

External links

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