Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States holding a Declaration of Human Rights

The United Nations human rights programme has grown considerably since its modest beginnings some 60 years ago. Organizationally, it started as a small division at United Nations Headquarters in the 1940s. The division later moved to Geneva and was upgraded to the Centre for Human Rights in the 1980s. At the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, the international community decided to establish a more robust human rights mandate with stronger institutional support. Accordingly, Member States of the United Nations created OHCHR by a General Assembly Resolution in 1993.

The growth in United Nations human rights activities has paralleled the increasing strength of the international human rights movement since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. Drafted as ‘a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations’, the Declaration for the first time in human history set out basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all human beings should enjoy. It has over time been widely accepted as the fundamental norms of human rights that all Governments should respect. December 10, the day of its adoption, is observed worldwide as International Human Rights Day. The Universal Declaration, together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, form the “International Bill of Human Rights.”

Alongside the development of international human rights law, a number of United Nations human rights bodies have been established to respond to changing human rights challenges. They rely on OHCHR for both substantive and secretariat support in discharging their duties. These bodies can be either Charter-based and political bodies consisting of State representatives with mandates established by the United Nations Charter, or they can be treaty-based committees with independent experts set up, with the exception of one, by international human rights treaties and mandated to monitor State parties’ compliance with their treaty obligations

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, established in 1946 and reporting to the Economic and Social Council, was the key United Nations intergovernmental body responsible for human rights until it was replaced by the Human Rights Council in 2006. In addition to assuming mandates and responsibilities previously entrusted to the Commission, the newly created Council, reporting directly to the General Assembly, has expanded mandates. These include making recommendations to the General Assembly for further developing international law in the field of human rights, and undertaking a Universal Periodic Review of the fulfillment of each State of its human rights obligations and commitments.