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International Legal Research: U.N. Human Rights System

This Guide covers essential print and electronic resources for researching international and foreign law.

U.N. Human Rights System

The U.N. human rights system remains the central framework for human rights protection throughout the world. As explained in the U.N. Documentation Guide on Human Rights, there are many organs within the U.N. that are charged with human rights related duties.

These organs can be divided into charter based and treaty based bodies. The Charter based bodies include all U.N. bodies which derive their constitutional basis from the Charter of the United Nations including the principal U.N. bodies (i.e. General Assembly, Security Council and ECOSOC). Charter based bodies include

  • Human Rights Council
  • Universal Periodic Review (UPR); the UPR is a cooperative process whereby the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States are reviewed once every four years under the auspices of the Human Rights Council. The UPR provides all States with the opportunity to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situation in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations. Created in 2006 together with the Human Rights Council itself, the UPR is designed to ensure equal treatment for every country when their human rights situations are assessed.
  • Commission on Human Rights (replaced by the Human Rights Council)
  • Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council; Special Procedures are the mechanisms to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They include the appointment of special rapporteurs, special representatives, independent experts, and working groups, which investigate and report on specific human rights issues under a country mandate or thematic mandate. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights provides these mechanisms with personnel, policy, research and logistical support for the discharge of their mandates.

In addition, there are eight human rights treaty bodies that monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties. These bodies and the abbreviations of the treaties under which they were established, are listed below:

Per the U.N. Documentation Research Guide, Charter based bodies have a broad human rights mandate and address an unlimited audience. Action is taken based on majority voting. In contrast, Treaty based bodies have a narrow mandate, as defined by the treaties under which which they were created, and speak to a limited audience. Decision making is based on consensus.

Office of High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR)

Coordinating all of these entities is the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR). The General Assembly created the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1994. The High Commissioner has rank of Under Secretary General of the U.N. Appointed by the Secretary General for a four year term, the Commissioner is charged with providing advisory services, technical and financial assistance to States in the field of human rights and with coordinating U.N.’s promotional and protection activities. The OHCHR also administers the communications (complaints) procedures available under the various human rights bodies. In short, the Commissioner is the human rights “Czar”.  Buergenthal, Shelton & Stewart, International Human Rights in a Nutshell at 122 K3240.4 .B84 2009.

The OHCHR provides secretariat support for all U.N. human rights bodies. In addition, the OHCHR website supports the following research tools and databases:

  • Charter based body document search;
  • Treaty body database document search;
  • Universal Human Rights Index; and
  • Universal Periodic Review

Thus, the OHCHR website should be among the first places to begin research for U.N.  human rights documents and information.

Human Rights Committee

The Human Rights Committee (HRC) is one of the most important U.N. treaty bodies as it was established under one of the most important U.N. human rights treaties, the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). To date, 166 nations are parties to the ICCPR, including the United States albeit with significant reservations, declarations and understandings (RDUs). The HRC has jurisdiction to receive inter-state communications (complaints by one state against another) if state parties have made declarations recognizing the HRC’s jurisdiction pursuant to Article 41(2) of the ICCPR.

The First Optional Protocol also gives the HRC jurisdiction to receive individual communications against state parties which have ratified the Protocol. The U.S. has made a declaration accepting jurisidiction of the HRC with respect to interstate communications but it has not ratified either of the Optional Protocols. However, 113 other countries have ratified the First Optional Protocol.

The inter-state complaint system available under ICCPR, Art. 41(2) is essentially formal conciliation. It does not provide for adjudication or quasi-adjudication and is relatively weak. Alternatively, state parties could resort to the International Court of Justice if they have accepted the ICJ's jurisdiction. See discussion of Court Decisions. In contrast, the individual petition system resembles a quasi-judicial proceeding. Victims may file a complaint with the HRC, provided that they have exhausted all available domestic remedies. As a result of its adjudication of these communications, the HRC has developed a significant body of case law interpreting the ICCPR and First Optional Protocol. This case law is considered an important part of modern human rights law. See Buergenthal, Shelton & Stewart, International Human Rights in a Nutshell at p. 61-7.

The principal function of the HRC is its administration of the reporting requirements under the ICCPR, Article 40(1). This reporting function is the central mechanism by which the HRC fulfills its mandate to monitor compliance with ICCPR treaty obligations. The HRC does have the express power to verify state reports by undertaking its own investigations. However, it can draw upon its member's own expertise and on information provided by other U.N. bodies and even NGOs. Id at 54

The HRC has developed comprehensive reporting guidelines and procedures over the years. When a country report is submitted, a country rapporteur and Country Report Task Force study it. The rapporteur drafts a list of issues for discussion with the Task Force. The Task Force generates questions based on this lists. The reporting state has time to review the questions and answer them. The HRC examines the report and answers in public session. Following the oral presentation of State representatives, members may ask additional questions and comment.

After this public hearing, the HRC adopts its Concluding Observations in private session. The HRC's Concluding Observations interpret the state parties' obligations under the ICCPR and thus constitute another form of HRC jurisprudence. The primary weakness in the HRC reporting system are the delays by some States in reporting. If a State party fails to report, the HRC may hold its public session, whether or not a representative of the State appears, and adopt provisional Concluding Observations. Id. at p. 57.

Another quasi-judicial source of human rights law are the HRC's General Comments, which are addressed to the state parties as a whole and are designed to provide guidance to them in complying with their obligations under the ICCPR. These General Comments spell out the HRC's interpretation of ICCPR provisions. Id at 59.

Researching U.N. Human Rights Treaties and Documentation

As mentioned earlier, international human rights law is treaty based. Locating the necessary instruments is usually the first place to start research. A good strategy is to begin with the IGO that promulgated the instrument. The websites of the organs described above are useful starting points for U.N. human rights treaty research.

In addition, the research tool Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary General (MTDSG) (discussed earlier under Treaties) conveniently groups such treaties in Chapter IV. By clicking on the links provided, one can retrieve status and other treaty information.


The Universal Human Rights Index is a relatively new research tool designed to facilitate access to the documentation of all human rights bodies within the U.N. system. Unlike other U.N. document research tools such as United Nations Digital Library and ODS discussed earlier under U.N. Resources and Research Tools, this tool is limited to U.N. human rights documentation.

The Index provides access to the observations and recommendations of the eight human rights treaty bodies, which monitor the implementation of the core international human rights treaties and their protocols listed above. In addition, the Index covers reports made through the Universal Periodic Review process and reports of the Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts under the Council's Special Procedures. 

The comments by governments on the Concluding Observations of the treaty bodies can also be found in the database. It is possible to search by country, type of right or topic involved (i.e. right to education) or specific human rights body (special rapporteur on the right to education). The list of abbreviations provided is indispensable.