Frequently Asked Questions

1) What are human rights?

UN Photo/Eskinder DebebeHuman rights are fundamental rights and freedoms inherent to all human beings, without distinction as to race, colour, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or any other status. All human rights, whether they are civil and political rights - such as the rights to life, equality before the law and freedom of expression; economic, social and cultural rights - such as the rights to work, social security and education; or collective rights, such as the rights to development and self-determination are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. The improvement of one right facilitates advancement of the others.

Universal human rights are expressed and guaranteed by law, in the forms of treaties, customary international law, general principles and other sources of international law. International human rights law lays down obligations of Governments to take positive action in certain ways or to refrain from particular acts in others, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups. More…

2) What does the United Nations do to promote and protect human rights?

Promoting and protecting human rights is one of the United Nation’s fundamental goals. It works actively to define, help implement, and monitor international human rights standards. The General Assembly, for example, has adopted some 80 human rights conventions and declarations since 1948.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) has the lead responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights, and for mainstreaming human rights within the UN. It has been given a unique mandate to do so by the international community, through the General Assembly.

The UN has established a number of human rights mechanisms to monitor the implementation of human rights standards worldwide. These bodies are all distinct from UN Human Rights and include the:

  • Human Rights Council, an intergovernmental body of 47 member states elected the UN General Assembly
  • Ten human rights treaty bodies, which are committees of independent experts who monitor the implementation of the 10 core human rights treaties by the countries who've ratified them
  • Independent thematic and country experts, known as the special procedures, who are appointed by the Human Rights Council to report and advise on human rights  

Judicial organs in the UN family, such as the International Criminal Court, and specialized criminal tribunals established by the Security Council, work to ensure justice in cases of gross human rights violations.

3) How does UN Human Rights work?

UN Human Rights assists national authorities in upholding the human rights commitments they have made. Headed by Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, and with over 1400 staff members who work in some 85 countries, UN Human Rights offers assistance to Governments and civil society movements, based on the global human rights monitoring we conduct.

We provide legal expertise and practical training to Governments, members of the judiciary, the police and prison officials so they uphold human rights. We also help build national human rights institutions and civil society groups and maintain strong connections with them.

UN Human Rights also supports the work of Committees that monitor compliance with the core international human rights treaties; the Human Rights Council and the independent thematic and country experts known as 'special procedures' appointed by the Human Rights Council.

We also work to prioritise human rights in the operations of all UN agencies. Find out more.

4) What is the Human Rights Council? Is it different from UN Human Rights?

The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body that reports directly to the UN General Assembly. It is a distinct entity from UN Human Rights, which is part of the UN Secretariat answering to the Secretary-General. UN Human Rights provides technical, substantive and secretariat support to the Council.

The Human Rights Council was established on 15 March 2006 by the General Assembly to replace the 60-year-old UN Commission on Human Rights as the key UN intergovernmental body responsible for human rights. The Council, consisting of 47 State representatives, is a primarily political body with a comprehensive human rights mandate, and a forum empowered to prevent abuses, inequity and discrimination, protect the most vulnerable, and expose perpetrators.

5) How can UN Human Rights help promote and protect my human rights?

UN Human Rights represents the world's commitment to universal ideals of human dignity and has been given a unique mandate by the international community to promote and protect human rights.

Through the voice of its High Commissioner, UN Human Rights speaks out objectively on human rights violations. Through its unique access, UN Human Rights works with Governments to ensure that all human rights are fully promoted and respected. With over 1400 staff members who work in 85 countries, we also assist other entities in fulfilling their rights obligations, and help individuals to realize their human rights.

We support the work of international human rights institutions and monitoring bodies, such as the treaty bodies, that can consider individual complaints. We help build networks and alliances to extend human rights promotion and protection, and we promote awareness and human rights education.

6) What resources are available to OHCHR?

Every year, UN Human Rights depends on contributions from a wide variety of donors – even individuals – to carry out its programmes. These voluntary contributions represent a full 60% of the Office's budget. The rest of UN Human Rights' funding comes from the UN regular budget. In 2019, UN Human Rights received USD 179 million in voluntary contributions and USD 105.6 million from the UN regular budget. More…

7) How does international law protect my human rights?

International human rights law lays down obligations which States are bound to respect. By becoming parties to international treaties, States assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses. The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights.

Through the ratification of international human rights treaties, Governments undertake to put into place domestic measures and legislation compatible with their treaty obligations and duties. The domestic legal system, therefore, provides the principal legal protection of your human rights guaranteed under international law. Where domestic legal proceedings fail to address human rights abuses, mechanisms and procedures for individual complaints or communications are available at the regional and international levels to help protect your human rights. Regional human rights protection systems also have a crucial role in enforcing international law. More…

8) How do I know if my country has ratified a specific human rights treaty?

You can find up-to-date information on whether your country is bound by any or all of the major international human rights treaties and conventions in our Treaty Body Database, under "Ratifications and Reservations". You can find out if your Government has signed or ratified a treaty, and whether it has not agreed to be bound by specific provisions of the treaty. You may also contact your national human rights institution, such as a human rights commission, and local human rights NGOs for information.

9) How do I find out if my country is fulfilling its obligations under international human rights law, and how can I help monitor its compliance?

National human rights institutions, local human rights NGOs, the press and civil society groups, for example, monitor your Government's human rights performance and inform the general public on areas for improvement. At the regional and international levels, there are mechanisms to monitor States' implementation of their human rights legal obligations.

The Human Rights Council, through its Universal Periodic Review examines, on a periodic basis, the fulfilment by each of the 193 United Nations Member States of their human rights obligations and commitments. The UPR process provides for the participation of all relevant stakeholders, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), national human rights institutions (NHRIs) and regional mechanisms.

Within the UN human rights machinery, there are 10 treaty bodies that monitor State parties' compliance with the core international human rights treaties and conventions. You may choose to provide additional information to these treaty bodies when they are scheduled to examine your country's record on the implementation of its treaty obligations. You can find your country's reports and treaty bodies' recommendations in the Treaty Body Database on our website, as well as in statements, press releases and reports posted on our website.

You can also submit information to the Human Rights Council's special procedures mandate holders regarding allegations of human rights violation. The decision to intervene is at the discretion of mandate-holders who may choose to intervene directly with Governments, inter-governmental institutions or non-State actors.

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