The General Assembly is the main deliberative body of the UN and has equal representation from all 193 Member States. Amongst many other things, the General Assembly oversees the budget, appoints members to the various different UN bodies and adopts recommendations in the form of General Assembly Resolutions. The General Assembly consists of various subsidiary bodies in the form of commissions, committees, councils and working groups. There are six General Assembly committees that are often simply referred to as the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth committees. The Second Committee, the Economic and Financial Committee, deals with issues ranging from sustainable development to poverty eradication, and occasionally touches on controversial life and family matters. The Third Committee is the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee and therefore has relevance for issues such as abortion. The Sixth Committee, known as the Legal Committee, also deals with such issues from time to time. Larger countries will have delegates assigned to each one of these committees, whereas there is significant overlap with smaller countries that have fewer mission staff.
Every autumn, the General Assembly produces resolutions on a variety of themes, most of which are updated versions of resolutions from previous years. The majority of resolutions are negotiated on alternate years, and some are negotiated annually. After the ceremonial portion of the General Assembly in September, negotiations on the resolutions begin in October and conclude in the end of November. Negotiations on a particular document occur several times a week. Of the several hundred resolutions that are negotiated, approximately 10 – 15 usually touch on life and the family. These resolutions are negotiated primarily by delegates of the Third Committee, and occasionally by the Second. Adoptions of the resolutions take place in late November and December. Most documents are adopted by consensus, and only highly controversial documents are voted upon when consensus cannot be achieved.
NGOs may participate by providing legal advocacy to UN Member State representatives. The goal is to closely monitor negotiations throughout October and November, and to ensure that detrimental language remains out of the texts. If problematic references cannot be removed, countries should be urged to call for a vote and to reject the document altogether.
The Life of a UN Outcome Document
1. Pre-Session Training and Support
Months before the start of a session, Member States should be contacted and offered training to delegates on pro-life and pro-family language with a focus on both international law and the UN body of language.
Training is much needed due to the fact that delegates remain in New York for a maximum of five years, and as a result, often lack the institutional memory that allows them to fully understand the subtleties of language negotiations.
2. Amending the Zero Draft
A “zero draft” of the document for a particular session is released prior to the start of the session. This initial draft is written by a select group of countries, usually with the guidance of a UN agency or the Secretariat.
Member States are invited to consult their national governments (commonly referred to as “capitals”) and submit amendments. At this point, language recommendations and justifications can be offered to delegates and capitals can be contacted in order to combat detrimental language.
The key task is to remove detrimental language and insert positive language. Successful language amendments will generally be sourced from previous UN “agreed language” and are both ambitious and pragmatic.
3. Following the Negotiation Process
As the negotiations progress, it is helpful to provide delegates with backup options should the more ambitious language fail; however, it is important to continue pushing for the removal of unacceptable language until the end.
Working with likeminded NGOs is critical to present a united front, and to avoid sending delegates conflicting amendments.
Throughout the session it is crucial to be present at the UN to follow how the language progresses and offer continual support and assistance to delegates.
4. Finalizing a UN Outcome Document
The possibility of a vote
o Only highly controversial documents will be brought to a vote. If a UN Commission document is being voted upon, it is important to consider that only countries that are on the committee for that Commission will be able to vote.
o Given the resources that go into the hosting of a UN session, failure to produce an outcome document is considered a negative outcome for all. As a result, Member States will often threaten to reject a document as a strategic tool with the understanding that most Member States are willing to compromise to achieve an outcome document.
o If a document contains highly detrimental language, it may be advantageous to encourage countries to reject the document.
Once the document is finalized and accepted, it becomes part of the body of UN “agreed language” and language from the document is likely to reappear in follow-up documents.
Member States have the opportunity to state their reservations, but it must be noted that for many documents the full text of these reservations are not recorded, and are very difficult to find. For this reason, Member States should be encouraged to avoid compromising on detrimental language, since they cannot rely on their reservations.
Language that initially appears in documents of lesser importance, such as a regional conference, can reappear later in documents with greater weight, such as a General Assembly resolution or outcome document from an international high-level conference.
Human Rights Council
Established in 2006, the Human Rights Council is a subsidiary body of the General Assembly, replacing the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights. It must therefore report all of its activities to the General Assembly. The Human Rights Council is housed in Geneva, Switzerland and is an inter-governmental body made up of 47 Member States elected by the General Assembly. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the secretariat for the Human Rights Council.
The Human Rights Council holds at least three sessions per year; however, if one-third of the Member States requests so, it may hold a special session to address emergency situations. The regular sessions take place in Geneva during March (four weeks), June (three weeks) and September (three weeks). During the sessions, the Human Rights Council may vote on and adopt resolutions on a variety of human rights issues after hearing communications from governments, NGOs and national human rights institutions (NHRIs).
The Human Rights Council submits reports by Special procedures mandate-holders (such as the special rapporteur on a particular issue area) to the Third Committee of the General Assembly at UNHQ in the fall. Action is taken to adopt or defer adoption of the text to allow for further consultations.
Since its founding, the Human Rights Council has been one of the main avenues used by homosexual activist organizations to promote language such as “sexual orientation” and “gender identity”. In June 2011 the Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 17/19 on “Human rights, sexual identity and gender identity”. The resolution called upon the High Commissioner for Human Rights to commission a study “documenting discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, in all regions of the world, and how international human rights law can be used to end violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
NGOs in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council ECOSOC can be accredited with the Human Rights Council to participate in the sessions as Observers. They may submit written statements to the Council, make oral statements and organize parallel events.
NGOs can also inform Member State representatives about problematic language in HRC reports to prevent the adoption of detrimental reports at the GA.
Human Rights Council Advisory Committee
The Advisory Committee operates as a think-tank and conducts studies and research on human rights topics of the Human Rights Council’s choosing. The Advisory Committee replaced the former Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and is composed of 18 experts acting in a personal capacity. The Committee meets for up to two sessions per year, for a maximum of 10 days.
NGOs may participate in the Advisory Committee sessions, providing that they are in consultative status with ECOSOC and that their accreditation with the Committee is approved by the Secretariat of the Advisory Committee. For example, NGOs can respond to consultations, provide written submissions and attend the sessions of the Committee.
Human Rights Council Mechanisms
The Human Rights Council has also set up several procedures and mechanisms with the aim of promoting and protecting human rights around the world.
Universal Periodic Review
Established in 2006, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism assesses the human rights situations in all UN Member States. The UPR is State-driven and provides the opportunity for each Member State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations. The reviews are carried out by the UPR Working Group which consists of the 47 members of the Human Rights Council. However any UN Member State can participate in the dialogue with the reviewed States. States are reviewed every four to five years, with 42 reviews taking place each year in three sessions of 14. The “follow-up” section of the UPR website documents how Member States have implemented the recommendations made to them.
As well as the reports that Member States submit on each other, reports can also be submitted by individuals and NGOs on any country that is under review. The UPR website has a helpful database that shows what States are recommending to each other, and whether or not these recommendations are accepted or rejected. The UPR website suggests that NGOs can undertake the following actions:
Before the Review:
Take part in national consultations; Submit a report on the human situation in the country; Lobby States through the embassies in your capital; Participate in UPR Info’s pre-sessions; Lobby Permanent missions in Geneva.
During the Review:
Attend the review; Hold a side event; Organize a screening of the webcast in your country; Hold a press conference.
Between the Review and the adoption of the Report at the Human Rights Council
Lobby the State under Review to accept recommendations.
Adoption of the Report at the Human Rights Council
Make an oral statement; Submit a written statement.
Between two Reviews
Make recommendations and pledges public; Monitor their implementation; Engage with the Government to participate in the implementation; Report to the Human Rights Council on the progress made.
The Human Rights Council complaints procedure was created in 2007 to address consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Two working groups – the Working Group on Communications and the Working Group on Situations – have been established to examine the communications and to bring the most serious complaints to the attention of the Human Rights Council. The Working Group on Communications consists of five independent experts and meets twice a year to assess the admissibility and the merits of a communication. All admissible communications are then transmitted to the Working Group on Situations. This group, also comprising five members with meetings twice a year, then presents the Human Rights Council with a report and makes recommendations on the course of action to take. Subsequently, the Human Rights Council will make a decision concerning each situation brought to its attention.
Compared to the UPR mechanism, the complaints procedure is less accessible to NGOs and less easy to follow. This is largely because the Member States of the Human Rights Council examine complaints brought to them by the Working Group on Situations in closed meetings. Therefore, the material provided by individuals and Governments, as well as the decisions taken at the various stages of the procedure is considered confidential and is not publicly available. After considering a complaint, the Human Rights Council can take the following actions: Discontinue considering the situation; Keep the situation under review and request the State concerned to provide further information; Keep the situation under review and appoint an independent expert to monitor the situation and report back to the Council; Discontinue reviewing the matter under the confidential complaint procedure in order to take up public consideration of the same; Recommend to OHCHR to provide technical cooperation, capacity-building assistance or advisory services to the State concerned.
According to its most recent report (January 2013) the Human Rights Committee has considered 14 complaints against Kyrgyzstan; Iran; Uzbekistan; Turkmenistan; Maldives; Democratic Republic of the Congo; Guinea; Tajikistan; Turkmenistan; Iraq; Eritrea.
To submit a complaint, an individual or NGO must fill out the Complaint Procedure and send it by post, fax or email to the Complaint Procedure Unit.
The Human Rights Council Special Procedures mechanism addresses either specific country situations or thematic issues. Currently there are 37 thematic and 12 country mandates. Special procedures are either an individual (called “Special Rapporteur” or “Independent Expert”) or a working group usually composed of five members (one from each UN region). There are Special Rapporteurs on areas such as freedom of religion or belief and the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights provides the special procedure mechanisms with the support needed for the discharge of their mandates.
The roles of the Special Procedures are defined in the resolutions creating or extending their mandates. Special Procedures report each year to the Human Rights Council and the majority of the mandates also report to the UN General Assembly.
The Special Procedures conduct a number of different activities as they seek to elaborate and develop international human rights standards. For example, the mandate holder may conduct country visits to investigate the human rights record of a particular country. After the visit, the mandate holder will issue a report containing its findings and recommendations to the State. Mandate holders can also act on individual cases and wider concerns in a particular country by sending communications to Member States. In 2012, mandate holders sent 603 communications to 126 countries. The communications and responses were then reported to the Human Rights Council.
Mandate holders also conduct thematic studies and convene expert consultations on particular issues of concern. For example, in 2012, the Special Rapporteur on the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief, Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt produced a report on “The right to conversion as part of freedom of religion or belief” and the Special Rapporteur on the right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression has covered such issues as “hate speech,” and defamation of religion.
Depending on the issue and the Special Procedure established to address it, there are different ways NGOs can report instances of human rights violations. For example, NGOs may submit a complaint against human rights abuses to the relevant mandate holder, who may in turn intervene directly with the government of the offending State. After consulting the requirements established by each mandate, information can be submitted to Special Rapporteurs by post, fax and email.
The Security Council is made up of 15 Members. The five Permanent Members are China, France, the Russian Federation, the United States and the United Kingdom. The other 10 members are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Security Council Resolutions are adopted if nine or more of the 15 members vote to adopt the resolution and if one of the Permanent Representatives does not veto it. The main purpose of the Security Council is to maintain international peace and security. The Council has the power to authorize military action, issue sanctions and deploy UN peacekeeping forces to an area of conflict or potential conflict.
The Security Council hardly ever addresses social policy issues. In 2013, however, it adopted Resolution 2122 (2013), noted that women in conflict situations need “access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, including regarding pregnancies resulting from rape, without discrimination”. Many pro-abortion groups saw this as an endorsement of their positions by the Security Council.
International Court of Justice
Located in The Hague, the Netherlands, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) settles legal disputes submitted by Member States of the UN and provides advisory opinions. There is no right of petition for individuals or legal persons. The ICJ is not to be confused with the International Criminal Court (ICC) which is also located in The Hague.
 For example, much of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development was negotiated by Second Committee delegates. Cf. the Rio outcome document, entitled “The Future We Want”.
 See International convention against the reproductive cloning of human beings, Report of the Sixth Committee, 24 February 2005, A/59/516/Add.1.
 For example, there was no outcome document at the 56th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women due to highly controversial sexual and reproductive rights language in the context of rural women.
 Human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, 14 July 2011, A/HRC/RES/17/19, at ¶ 1.
 United Nations Human Rights, NGO Participlation in Human Rights Council,
 United Nations Human Rights, Human Rights Advisory Committee
 United Nations Human Rights, Basic Facts about the UPR
 UPR.info, The Follow-up Programme
 UPR.info, The Role of NGOs at the UPR
 United Nations Human Rights, Human Rights Council Complaint Procedure
 United Nations Human Rights, Closed Meetings of the Human Rights Council
 United Nations Human Rights, List of Situations Referred to the Human Rights Council Under the Complaint Procedure Since 2006
 United Nations Human Rights, supra note 10. (The address is Complaint Procedure Unit, Human Rights Council Branch, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Office at Geneva, CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland. It can also be sent by fax to +41 22 917 90 11 or by E-mail CP@ohchr.org.)
 United Nations Human Rights, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief
 United Nations Human Rights, Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council
 United Nations Human Rights, Issues in Focus – Freedom of Religion and Belief
 United Nations Human Rights, Issues in focus – Freedom of Opinion and Expression
 United Nations Human Rights, Communications
 The address is OHCHR-UNOG, 8-14 Avenue de la Paix 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland. Information can also be sent by fax to +41 22 917 90 06 or by E-mail to email@example.com.
 Security Council, United Nations (Oct. 18, 2013), http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2013/sc11149.doc.htm
 Center For Reproductive Rights (Oct. 25, 2013), United Nations: Women Living in War-Torn Countries Need Comprehensive Reproduction Health Service,
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