UN Secretariat

UN sec gen


Headed by the Secretary-General, the Secretariat provides studies, information and facilities needed for the daily operation of the UN. Among the powers of the Secretariat are mediating international disputes, administering peacekeeping operations, organizing international conferences and consulting with Member State governments regarding the various initiatives of the UN. Nothing happens at the UN without the Secretariat’s involvement. As the glue that holds the whole UN structure together, the Secretariat links the agencies and programmes to the bodies, prepares reports and data for UN resolutions and organizes the UN’s global conferences

United Nations Secretary General

The Secretary-General of the United Nations is the head of the UN Secretariat, and acts as the spokesperson and leader of the United Nations. Traditionally, the Secretary-General has focused primarily on issues of international concern such as security and global health. Kofi Annan’s term, from 1997 – 2006, centered on the crises in Iraq, Iran, and Sudan, in addition to HIV/AIDS. Although the current Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, continues to act on matters of international peace and security, he increasingly has become involved in social activism.

NGOs cannot influence Secretary-General Reports; however, it is important to inform UN Member State representatives about the language in the reports, and to prevent reports with problematic language from being referenced in other UN documents.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) is the Secretariat body that focuses on the UN’s development pillar. DESA produces a variety of research publications each year on economic, social, and environmental issues, and is the primary “author” department of the UN Secretariat. DESA supports the work of both the General Assembly and ECOSOC’s subsidiary bodies, in addition to facilitating major UN conferences, working on capacity-building in countries, and encouraging civil society engagement at the UN. DESA is composed of the following divisions: 1) ECOSOC Support and Coordination, 2) Social Development, 3) Sustainable Development, 4) Statistics, 4) Population, 5) Development Policies and Analysis, 6) Public Administration, 7) Financing for Development, 8) Capacity Development, 9) Communications and IT, and 10) the Executive Office.

DESA representatives are part of the secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Commission for Social Development and the Commission on Population and Development. Within its Social Development Division, DESA focuses on a set of “social development issues,” which include ageing, civil society, cooperatives, disability, employment, family, indigenous peoples, poverty, social integration, social protection, and youth. The Focal Point on Family is tasked with realizing the objectives of the International Year of the Family, supporting family research, and liaising with governments on family issues, among other goals.[1] This is an important part of DESA to work with as they generally advance a favourable view of the family, and are the primary way to promote the family at the UN through events such as the International Year of the Family and the annual Commission for Social Development.

NGOs can work directly with the Focal Point on Family to influence family policy and events at the UN. Representatives of the Focal Point attend the NGO Committee on the Family meetings, and are open to NGO inputs.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

The High Commissioner for Human Rights is the principal human rights official of the UN and heads the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). OHCHR is a part of the United Nations Secretariat with its headquarters in Geneva and is a separate entity from the Human Rights Council. It therefore answers to the Secretary-General rather than the General Assembly. Nevertheless, OHCHR provides substantive support for the meetings of the UNHRC, as well as support to the other human rights treaty monitoring bodies. OHCHR has around 1,000 employees and an annual budget of approximately $400 million, mostly made up of voluntary contributions by UN Member States.

Under the leadership of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, the OHCHR has become a primary UN entity for homosexual activism. In 2008, Navi Pillay delivered a speech to the UN General Assembly in which she stated that “there is now a considerable body of decisions affirming that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is contrary to international human rights law”. In actual fact, however, not a single UN treaty even mentions the term, “sexual orientation.” She further stated that laws criminalizing homosexual behaviour were “anachronistic” and “inconsistent with international law” and spoke of the need to overturn “decades of prejudice and intolerance”.[2] In 2011, the OHCHR published the first UN report on “sexual orientation and gender identity” and submitted it to the General Assembly.[3] In 2013, the OHCHR launched an “unprecedented United Nations global public education campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality.”[4]

As with other areas of the UN, the OHCHR has also turned its focus to the issue of abortion. In 2012, it produced a document entitled,“Technical guidance on the application of a human rights based approach to the implementation of policies and programmes to reduce preventable maternal morbidity and mortality”. The document frequently refers to the undefined phrase, “sexual and reproductive health rights,” as well as abortion. It recommends the use of abortifacient drugs and suggests the removal of laws protecting conscientious objection for health care professionals.[5]

OHCHR’s Civil Society Unit facilitates NGOs’ contact with the OHCHR on matters relating to the promotion and protection of human rights. The Civil Society Unit provides regular opportunities for NGOs and individuals to respond to consultations on human rights issues.

The OHCHR’s website has a page with a wealth of useful information for civil society. On that page, NGOs can subscribe to email updates from the Civil Society Section. Once a profile has been created, there are different options available to manage what information is received from the OHCHR.[xi]


[1] Social Policy and Development Division, UN Programme on Family

[2] High Commissioner’s Statement, ARC International (Dec. 18, 2008)

[3] Discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/19/41

[4] “Free & Equal” is a “United Nations global public education campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality”. The Communication fails, however, to explain who has given the UN the mandate to “educate” people in that sense.

[5]General Assembly, Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/21/2 (July 2, 2012)

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