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Research Guides

UN Documentation: Human Rights

Introduction

The Organization's work in human rights is carried out by a number of bodies. When researching human rights issues, a distinction must be made between Charter-based and treaty-based human rights bodies.

Charter-based bodies

  • Derive their establishment from provisions contained in the Charter of the United Nations
  • Hold broad human rights mandates
  • Address an unlimited audience
  • Take action based on majority voting

The Human Rights Council and its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, are called "Charter-based" as they were established by resolutions of principal organs of the UN whose authority flows from the UN Charter.

The current Charter-based bodies are the Human Rights Council and its subsidiaries, including the Universal Periodic Review Working Group and the Advisory Committee.

Previously, the Charter-based bodies were the Commission on Human Rights and its subsidiaries, including the Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

The Special Procedures, such as Special Rapporteurs, have carried on their work since 1947, reporting first to the Commission, then to the Council.

During its 60th session, the General Assembly adopted the World Summit Outcome, resolution 60/1 of September 2005, which called, inter alia, for strengthening of the UN's human rights mechanisms. This led to the establishment, later in the session, of the Human Rights Council.

Human Rights Council (2006- )

The Human Rights Council is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them.

  • Human Rights Council (HRC) website
  • Established by General Assembly resolution 60/251 of 15 March 2006
  • Meets in Geneva, in regular session three times annually and in special session as needed
  • Reports to the General Assembly
  • Working document series symbol
  • Meeting records
  • Sessional reports 
    • Supplement 53 to the General Assembly Official Records (GAOR)
    • A/session/53 and A/session/53/Add.1
    • example: A/70/53 + Add.1
    • These reports cover all regular sessions and any special sessions held since the previous reporting period;
  • Press releases
  • Human Rights Council resolution 5/1 of 18 June 2007, "Institution-building of the United Nations Human Rights Council", sets out the main mechanisms and subsidiary bodies of the Council; General Assembly resolution 62/219 of 22 December 2007, inter alia, endorses the decision of the Human Rights Council to adopt resolution 5/1. The text of Human Rights Council resolution 5/1 is found in its report to the General Assembly for its 5th session (A/62/53).
  • Human Rights Council resolutions have been issued as separate documents since 2010. Resolutions and decisions may be retrieved through the Charter-based bodies database.

Subsidiary Bodies of the Human Rights Council

Universal Periodic Review Working Group (2007- )

General Assembly resolution 60/251 of 15 March 2006, which established the Human Rights Council, mandates a universal periodic review of each state's fulfilment of its human rights obligations and commitments. Human Rights Council resolution 5/1 of 18 June 2007, “Institution-building of the United Nations Human Rights Council,” sets out the main elements of the universal periodic review.

  • Universal Periodic Review Working Group carries out the review
  • Meets in three sessions per year
  • At each session, sixteen countries are reviewed
  • A four year-cycle to complete review of all 193 Member States of the UN
  • Working documents series symbol
  • Reports:
    • The Working Group does not issue sessional reports that cover all the activities of the Working Group during the course of one session
    • A report of the Working Group is issued for each country that summarizes the meetings held and includes conclusions or recommendations
    • Symbol pattern:
  • The OHCHR has developed a special database for the documentation related to the universal periodic review.

Human Rights Council Advisory Committee (2007- )

The Human Rights Council Advisory Committee is an expert body that functions as a think-tank for the Council.

  • Advisory Committee website
  • Established by Human Rights Council resolution 5/1 of 18 June 2007 (in A/62/53)
  • Composed of 18 experts serving in their personal capacity
  • Advisory Committee supercedes the Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights
  • Working document series symbol:
  • Reports to HRC on specific topics:
    • Symbol pattern: A/HRC/session/-
    • example: A/HRC/21/66;
  • Sessional reports submitted to HRC:
    • Symbol pattern: A/HRC/session/-
    • example: A/HRC/21/56

Special Procedures (1947- )

The Human Rights Council has responsibility for the special procedures, including those originally established by the Commission on Human Rights.

Special procedure mechanisms include:

  • special rapporteurs
  • special representatives
  • independent experts
  • working groups

Special procedures investigate, discuss, and report on specific human rights issues under a country mandate or thematic mandate.

  • Reports of the special procedures are issued under a variety of document symbols
    • They may report on their topic to a principal organ, the Human Rights Council, or to a subsidiary body
    • Documents take the symbol of the body to which the report is submitted
  • Since 2006, documents generally issued under the series symbol:
  • Prior to 2006, documents were usually issued under the series symbols:
  • The OHCHR special procedures website provides the most current information
  • UNIQUE provides information about reports of both past and current special procedures (e.g. Special Rapporteur's reports on slavery in 1967, 1980s, and 2008-2014).
  • Since 1994, the special procedures have met annually as a group. Report of this meeting is transmitted by a note of the High Commissioner.

Commission on Human Rights (1946-2006)

The Commission on Human Rights was a subsidiary of the Economic and Social Council; it concluded its 62nd and final session on 27 March 2006; its work is continued by the Human Rights Council.

Subsidiaries of the Commission on Human Rights

Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (1947-2006)

The Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights was the key subsidiary of the Commission on Human Rights.

  • Established by the Commission on Human Rights under the authority of Economic and Social Council resolution 9 (II) of 21 June 1946
  • Name changed from Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities by ECOSOC decision 1999/256 of 27 July 1999 (see E/1999/99, p.127)
  • Met in annual sessions from 1947-2006
  • Prior to 19 June 2006, the Subcommission reported to the Commission on Human Rights; its final report was submitted to the Human Rights Council
  • Working document series symbol
    • E/CN.4/Sub.2/year/-
    • example: E/CN.4/Sub.2/2003/1
    • Working documents of the final session were issued under the series symbol A/HRC/Sub.1/-
  • Summary records series symbol
    • Some meetings were closed and the summary records are Restricted documents (not available online);
    • E/CN.4/Sub.2/year/SR.-
    • example: E/CN.4/Sub.2/2004/SR.15
    • The summary records of the meetings of the final session were issued under the series symbol A/HRC/Sub.1/session/SR.-
  • Sessional reports (list of symbols)
    • Dual symbol: E/CN.4/- and E/CN.4/Sub.2/-
    • example: E/CN.4/641 - E/CN.4/Sub.2/140
    • Provide summaries of the work concluded and contain the text of resolutions and decisions adopted by the Subcommission.
  • Resolutions and decisions were not released as separate documents in paper format but some may be retrieved as individual items through the Charter-based bodies database
  • Work continued by the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee.

Working Groups

Over the years, various ad hoc working groups reported to the Commission and to the Subcommission. 

Special Procedures (1947- )

Many reports were presented to the Commission and the Subcommission by special procedures, such as working groups and special rapporteurs.  These carry on reporting to the Human Rights Council and its subsidiaries. See above for more detail.