Creation of UN Commission on Human Rights

views updated

Creation of UN Commission on Human Rights


By: United Nations

Date: June 21, 1946

Source: United Nations Economic and Social Council. "Creation of UN Commission on Human Rights." (June 21, 1946).

About the Author: The phrase "United Nations" was used during World War II (1939–1945) to describe the dozens of nations allied together to fight Germany and Japan, most notably including China, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States of America. These allies decided to develop a new organization to facilitate international cooperation and help prevent future wars. It would replace the League of Nations, which had failed to prevent World War II. They called it the United Nations (UN). The UN Charter was ratified on October 24, 1945. In the years since the UN has served as a forum for international negotiation and cooperation on many issues, including international security, human rights, trade and economics, and the environment.


The mass genocide of the Jewish people, Roma people, homosexuals, communists, and other targeted groups during World War II (1938–1945) under the orders of Adolph Hitler, led to a call for greater international oversight and monitoring of human rights issues. By the end of World War II, leaders from countries worldwide called for an international body with greater powers than the League of Nations, which had formed in 1919 but had failed in its primary mission to control aggression, as evidenced by the Axis Powers' invasions leading to World War II. In 1945, more than fifty countries joined the newly created United Nations, which inherited many of the functions and agencies from the League of Nations, but which also included the membership of the United States and a broader coalition of countries.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) was created less than one year after the formation of the United Nations. The UNCHR is an independent commission under the umbrella of the UN Economic and Social Council and was established as part of the UN charter at its founding in 1945. The topic of human rights was paramount as calls for war crime trials increased in the late 1940s; German and Japanese military officers faced charges ranging from genocide to torture to institutionalized rape of Japanese "comfort women," to the murder of children and unarmed non-combatants.

The primary function of the UNCHR is to monitor human rights abuses, policies, procedures, and law in member countries. The Commission originally included eighteen member states; as the number of UN members increased, the UNCHR membership increased proportionately as well. In 2005, there were fifty-three member states comprising the commission, elected for three-year terms.

At its creation, the UNCHR's first function was to compile all existing laws, treaties, and policies concerning human rights in member countries. Over time, that mission has expanded to include the consistent monitoring of human rights topics including freedom of expression, access to healthcare, proper nutrition, education, and freedom from violence in member countries, and to create annual reports describing and detailing current human rights circumstances in each country.


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


The UNCHR met every March and April, convening for six weeks, with a rotating chair system; different countries from varying continents served as the Commission's chair each year. As of 1993, the UNCHR began to report to the newly created position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. As an Under Secretary within the UN system, the High Commissioner's mandate includes the promotion of human rights in international treaties, the protection of human rights, education on human rights issues, and the management of all human rights issues related to the UN.

Since 1993, UN High Commissioners for Human Rights have come from Latin America, Western Europe, Africa, and North America; as of 2004, the position was held by Louise Arbour of Canada. In 2001, the UNCHR, for the first time since 1947, did not include the United States as a commission member. Many member states in Europe were not pleased with the United States' objections to the creation of an International Criminal Court. By 2003, the United States had been reinstated to the UNCHR. In 2004, Sudan was voted onto the commission, prompting outcries from international human rights groups, as Sudan is accused of sanctioning the ongoing extermination of non-Muslims in its Darfur region. The UNCHR has come under sharp criticism as well for including such member nations as China, Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Zimbabwe on the commission; the human rights abuse records in these countries have led critics to charge that the UNCHR lacks credibility and has become a political pawn in international politics.

On March 15, 2006, the United Nations General Assembly voted to create a new body, the UN Human Rights Council, to replace UNCHR. International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch strongly endorsed the new Human Rights Council and expressed opposition to the United States' refusal to vote for the new council. One hundred seventy member nations voted for the change, while Israel and the United States voted against it. The United States claimed the change did not go far enough in tightening human rights oversight. The new UNHRC includes forty-seven member nations, uses secret ballot procedures in the General Assembly to elect members, and creates a system for suspending members for human rights abuses. The final Commission on Human Rights meeting—its sixty-second—ended on March 27, 2006. The first meeting of the Human Rights Council was held in April 2006.



Donnelly, Jack. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Ishay, Micheline. The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era. University of California Press, 2004.

Steiner, Henry and Philip Alston. International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals. Oxford University Press, U.S.A., 2000.

Web sites

United Nations. "Human Rights." 〈〉 (accessed May 7, 2006).

About this article

Creation of UN Commission on Human Rights

Updated About content Print Article