One of the UN’s primary purposes is “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”, and member states pledge to undertake “joint and separate action” to protect these rights.
In 1948, the General Assembly adopted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by a committee headed by American diplomat and activist Eleanor Roosevelt, and including the French lawyer René Cassin. The document proclaims basic civil, political, and economic rights common to all human beings, though its effectiveness towards achieving these ends has been disputed since its drafting.
The Declaration serves as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” rather than a legally binding document, but it has become the basis of two binding treaties, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In practice, the UN is unable to take significant action against human rights abuses without a Security Council resolution, though it does substantial work in investigating and reporting abuses.
In 1979, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, followed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. With the end of the Cold War, the push for human rights action took on new impetus. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights was formed in 1993 to oversee human rights issues for the UN, following the recommendation of that year’s World Conference on Human Rights. Jacques Fomerand, a scholar of the UN, describes this organization’s mandate as “broad and vague”, with only “meagre” resources to carry it out.
In 2006, it was replaced by a Human Rights Council consisting of 47 nations. Also in 2006, the General Assembly passed a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and in 2011 it passed its first resolution recognizing the rights of LGBT people.
Other UN bodies responsible for women’s rights issues include United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, a commission of ECOSOC founded in 1946; the United Nations Development Fund for Women, created in 1976; and the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, founded in 1979 The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, one of three bodies with a mandate to oversee issues related to indigenous peoples, held its first session in 2002.