Part 2 in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy,a new online course offered to the public free of charge by Minority Rights Group International. The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.


Topic 2 in the course is titled Introduction to the UN human rights system. The first section lays out the purpose and structure of the United Nations human rights system. Given the course objectives, this section delves right into the most pertinent part of the UN Charter—Article 55, which reads:

With a view to the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, the United Nations shall promote:

a. higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development;

b. solutions of international economic, social, health, and related problems; and international cultural and educational co-operation; and

c. universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

Next, we learn that the main bodies of the UN are the General Assembly, the Secretariat, and the Security Council. Given the complex structure of the UN, this helpful diagram is included:

Here we see a differentiation between charter bodies and treaty bodies. The former are those which have been created using the authority of the UN Charter. “They are political bodies, meaning that either members of the body represent their governments or individuals are appointed to their role by governments. Charter-based bodies can address issues in any country, but it is important to keep in mind that their political nature also has an impact on their effectiveness.” In contrast, treaty-based bodies get their authority from UN human rights treaties (legal agreements between states). “Treaty bodies are considered more effective than Charter bodies, as they come from legal instruments. However, they can only address issues in states that have accepted the treaty.”

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also play a pivotal role in the UN human rights system by providing support and lobbying the UN and its member states. Roles of NGOs include:

  • Contributing to policymaking and legislative debates at the international, regional and national levels
  • Highlighting issues concerning violations and abuses when governments and international organizations tend to be ineffective or even silent
  • Bringing such issues to the attention of monitoring bodies operating under the auspices of international and regional organizations
  • Providing information available to the various monitoring bodies and procedures
  • Submitting cases on behalf of individuals where bodies or mechanisms permit
  • Identifying needs for technical assistance projects and contributing to their implementations
  • Putting political and public pressure on governments to live up to their obligations under the human rights instruments
  • Lobbying for more effective implementation of existing standards and mechanisms and for the creation of new ones

After considering some of the constraints NGOs experience within the UN, we move on to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (UNDM). Per MRG, “A declaration is a statement of the aims or ideals of states. Declarations apply to all states; however, they are not legally binding. . . . UNDM is not the only UN instrument protecting minority rights, but it is the first and only one addressing the rights of minorities in a separate document. The UNDM constitutes the main UN reference for minority rights.”

Article 1 protects the right to existence and identity and to expression of identity through culture, religious practice, and use of language. Article 2 protects the right to participation—both in public life and in decisions affecting the minority. The UNDM grants members of minorities the right to exercise their rights freely and in community with others in Article 3.

Under the UNDM Article 4, states must not discriminate against minorities and they should create the conditions necessary so minorities may develop their culture. States must take measures so that minorities can learn their mother tongue and encourage knowledge about minority cultures within the country. Minorities may not be excluded from economic development.

The UNDM also provides in Article 5 that when national and international programs are being designed, the interests of minorities should be taken into account. Article 8 reiterates that special measures taken to implement the UNDM by redressing historic marginalization of minorities are not discriminatory. Another provision of note is Article 9, which states, “UN Agencies should contribute to the realization of the rights in the UNDM.” MRG explains, “This is an important provision, because it means that all UN agencies, such as UNDP, UNICEF, ILO, etc., should be paying attention to minority rights within their areas of work.”