Happy Human Rights Day!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then there’s a good chance that you already know that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted 63 years ago today.

In honor of the UDHR’s birthday, I’ve decided to make a little public service announcement.

See, over the past year and a half of teaching college students, I’ve noticed that approximately once a semester, when it comes time to discuss the UN’s human rights regime, I find myself mumbling something along the lines of “and then the Human Rights Commission / Council / Committee / whatever that thing is called now…” And I figure, maybe I’m not the only having trouble keeping it straight. So here is my Human Rights Day 2011 gift to you, a short guide to the major human rights bodies of the United Nations system:

The United Nations Human Rights Council (“UNHRC” or “the Council”) is a 47-seat subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly that is tasked with promoting human rights and addressing violations. States are elected by the General Assembly to serve three year terms on the the Council.

The Council replaced the United Nations Commission for Human Rights (“UNCHR” or “the Commission”) – see why it’s confusing? – in 2006, following long-standing criticism of that body’s softness on states with poor human rights records (many of whom managed to get themselves elected to serve on the Commission). As part of the effort to give the Council more teeth than its predecessor organization, the General Assembly agreed that the Council would undertake a Universal Periodic Review of the human rights practices of all 192 UN Member States. So this assessment, along with responding to issues raised by individuals or organizations through the revamped Complaints Procedure, make up the bulk of the Council’s work.

The Council is assisted in its work by a think tank of independent experts called the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, which is distinct from… The Human Rights Committee, a longstanding (since the 1970s) group of experts that monitors implementation and compliance with the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights.

All of the above are overseen, coordinated, and/or assisted in their work by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (“OHCHR”), which was established pursuant to the 1993 Vienna Declaration in order to improve the promotion and protection of human rights in the international system. (And, just in case having a UNHRC, UNCHR, and OHCHR wasn’t bad enough, there’s also the UNHCR – the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.)

You’re welcome.

Kate Cronin-Furman


  1. And I had trouble explaining to my parents that "No, the human rights act does not come from the EU…"

  2. Oh if only it was that simple. I recently uploaded this nice diagram that the UN uses to explain the system. All together now… The committee on economic, social and cultural rights reports to… the economic and social council!!… The economic and social council is a subsidiary body of the… General Assembly!! ( to the tune of "the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone")


  3. And can you give us the cliff notes version of which, if any, of these groups is doing a good job and/or not comprised of states like Syria, Zimbabwe, etc. Enquiring minds want to know! (But don't want to have to do their own homework.)

  4. The UNCHR was not just dismantled for being "soft" on states with poor HR records — it was dismantled for often being composed of states with poor HR records (thereby enabling them to jointly turn-the-other-way), as well as for being very biased (I believe something to the tune of 40%+ of their resolutions focused on Israel & the Occupied Territories).

    Jus' sayin' …

    Other than that – keep up the good work !

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