The pursuit of human rights was one of the central reasons for creating the United Nations. World War II atrocities and genocide led to a ready consensus that the new organization must work to prevent any similar tragedies in the future. An early objective was creating a legal framework for considering and acting on complaints about human rights violations.
The UN Charter obliges all member nations to promote "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights" and to take "joint and separate action" to that end. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though not legally binding, was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all. The General Assembly regularly takes up human rights issues. The UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), under ECOSOC, is the primary UN body charged with promoting human rights, primarily through investigations and offers of technical assistance. As discussed, the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the official principally responsible for all UN human rights activities (see, under "The UN Family," the section on "Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights").
The United Nations and its various agencies are central in upholding and implementing the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A case in point is support by the United Nations for countries in transition to democracy. Technical assistance in providing free and fair elections, improving judicial structures, drafting constitutions, training human rights officials, and transforming armed movements into political parties have contributed significantly to democratization worldwide.
The United Nations is also a forum in which to support the right of women to participate fully in the political, economic, and social life of their countries.
See also: United Nations Convention on the Abolition of Slavery
The member countries of the UN and its specialized agencies - the "stakeholders" of the system - give guidance and make decisions on substantive and administrative issues in regular meetings held throughout each year. Governing bodies made up of member states include not only the General Assembly, ECOSOC, and the Security Council, but also counterpart bodies dealing with the governance of all other UN system agencies. For example, the World Health Assembly and the Executive Board oversee the work of WHO. Each year, the United States Department of State accredits United States delegations to more than 600 meetings of governing bodies.
When an issue is considered particularly important, the General Assembly may convene an international conference to focus global attention and build a consensus for consolidated action. High-level United States delegations use these opportunities to promote United States policy viewpoints and develop international agreements on future activities. Recent examples include:
- The UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992, led to the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to advance the conclusions reached in Agenda 21, the final text of agreements negotiated by governments at UNCED;
- The World Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, Egypt, in September 1994, approved a program of action to address the critical challenges and interrelationships between population and sustainable development over the next 20 years;
- The World Summit on Trade Efficiency, held in October 1994 in Columbus, Ohio, cosponsored by UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the city of Columbus, and private-sector business, focused on the use of modern information technology to expand international trade;
- The World Summit for Social Development, held in March 1995 in Copenhagen, Denmark, underscored national responsibility for sustainable development and secured high-level commitment to plans that invest in basic education, health care, and economic opportunity for all, including women and girls;
- The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in September 1995, sought to accelerate implementation of the historic agreements reached at the Third World Conference on Women held in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1985; and
- The Second UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), convened in June 1996 in Istanbul, Turkey, considered the challenges of human settlement development and management in the 21st century.