United Nations



The United Nations (UN) is an international organization whose stated aims are to facilitate co-operation in international law, international security, economic development, and social equity. There are currently 192 United Nations member states. It is through the UN that the key international human rights treaties have been adopted. Click here to see the main ones applicable to women defending rights to land and the environment. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the most important UN agency for human rights defenders, although many other United Nations agencies and partners are also involved in the promotion and protection of human rights (see 'Other United Nations bodies'). 

The two main sources of support below for human rights defenders in cases of emergency are the special procedures and possibly UN field offices, with the procedures for human rights treaty bodies generally a longer-term process.


There are a range of UN special rapporteurs, working groups and other experts (known together as 'special procedures') focusing on different human rights themes. Their duties can include country visits, conducting studies, contributing to the development of international human rights standards and engaging in advocacy, as well as presenting reports to the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly.

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has responsibility for supporting implementation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders a key instrument for the protection of HRDs. See the full list of his duties here and UN Fact Sheet 29 - Human Rights Defenders: Protecting the Right to Defend Human Rights for more background on the Special Rapporteur and the Declaration.

The Special Rapporteur can take up, with the States concerned, individual cases of human rights violations committed against defenders. After receiving a complaint of a violation, provided it falls within his mandate, the Special Rapporteur will send a letter to the government concerned:

  • An urgent appeal – where a violation is allegedly ongoing or about to occur. The aim is to protect human rights defenders by ensuring that State authorities are informed of allegations as early as possible and that they have an opportunity to investigate them and to end or prevent any human rights violation.
  • Allegation letters - where violations are thought to have already occurred and for which the impact on the defender affected can no longer be changed.

In this way, the Special Rapporteur can bring pressure on the government to act.  The letters sent by the Special Rapporteur are published in his reports to the Human Rights Council, and thus serve to draw attention to the situation in the country concerned, although in some cases, states fail to respond to such letters.  

See the Submitting Complaints page of the OHCHR website for more information, including where to send the complaint and guidance on what information you should provide.

Other special procedures

There are a large number of other special procedures which may be relevant to you, including ones

  • focusing on particular groups you may belong to, such as women, indigenous peoples or people of African descent;
  • specific rights you may be defending, such as the rights to food or a clean environment, or
  • violations which you or others may have suffered, such as torture or arbitrary detention.

See the full list of special procedures here

Many, like the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, can receive complaints of violations of the rights covered by his or her mandate, and can send an urgent appeal or allegation letter to the state concerned. To find out whether a particular special procedure does send such letters, and if so, how you can send a complaint, go to the list of special procedures, click on the particular one you want (such as 'Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences'). If the special procedure does accept complaints, on the right-hand side of the web page there will be a link to the information you need, usually called 'individual complaints'. Remember that the information needed for a complaint will vary according to each special procedure, so it is important to look at the guidance that one each gives.  


These are committees of independent experts which monitor implementation of the nine core international human rights treaties (see the list of treaties and their monitoring bodies). The committees possibly most relevant to women defending rights to land and the environment are:-


Human rights defenders can bring individual communications (complaints) to these committees against states for alleged human rights violations. See guidance.

There are three basic conditions that must be fulfilled:

  • The state must be a party to the treaty related to the rights violated. (Although a state may have signed a treaty, it only becomes a party to the treaty when it has ratified it - that is, formally confirmed that it is willing to undertake the legal rights and obligations contained in the treaty)
  • The state must have formally accepted that the relevant committee can consider complaints against it.  Depending on the treaty, this will either be by becoming party to an Optional Protocol to the treaty or by making a declaration.
  • As with petitions to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the person must normally have exhausted domestic legal remedies – taken the case through the courts in their own country as far as it can go – before they can make a complaint to the relevant committee.  

To find out if a state has ratified a treaty and/or agreed that a committee may consider complaints against it, click on guidance, and look under Against whom can a complaint under a treaty be brought?”.  

It generally takes a couple of years before the committee reaches a decision on the complaint.

State reporting

The various treaties require state parties to submit a periodic report to the relevant monitoring committee explaining the measures they have taken to implement the treaty. The report is required at regular intervals, which vary according to the treaty, but it is generally every four or five years. Once the report has been reviewed, the state will appear at a face-to-face session with the committee. HRDs can contribute to the process by producing shadow or 'parallel' reports before the sessions, which set out their view of how the state has implemented the treaty concerned. As such the shadow reports, which are posted on the committee's website, can be useful tools for HRDs to draw attention to their human rights concerns. (Human rights organisations are encouraged to collaborate to produce one shadow report). The state reports are then examined in sessions of the relevant committee (held in Geneva or New York) which are open to the public, and in which HRDs can participate. The recommendations made by the monitoring committee at the end of this process can be an important means for HRDs to put pressure on the State to fulfil its obligations under the treaty in question.  

For more information on this process, click on the appropriate monitoring committee (treaty body).   

On the left-hand side, under 'Participation in the work of the Committee' there is a section which is 'Information for civil society organisations'. The webpage will also include information on previous states' reports and the programme of future meetings.

See the information note by the International Land Coalition How to use CEDAW as an advocacy tool for more information on this and the complaints process. Although it covers CEDAW, it can be applied to many of the other treaties.

The Front Line Defenders publication What Protection Can United Nations Field Presences Provide? (pages 23-26) gives more guidance on using the UN's international mechanisms. 


The Front Line Defenders guide What Protection Can United Nations Field Presences Provide? outlines what UN agencies can do locally to provide protection for human rights defenders. It aims to give practical and helpful suggestions to HRDs on how to engage constructively with the UN. It stresses that engagement with the UN may confer positive advantages, which can include providing recognition for the HRD's work, access to national officials, training and advice. On the other hand, for various reasons, there can be limits to what the UN agencies are able to offer. It is also important to weigh the risks of publicly associating with or seeking help from UN institutions. The 10 Rules of Thumb at the beginning summarises its guidance to HRDs. 

There are only a few OHCHR country offices in Latin America (see list). Where there is none, the Front Line Defenders guide suggests that HRDs establish a relationship with the UN Resident Coordinator who is responsible for coordinating the UN agencies operating in the country, and/or the Humanitarian Coordinator where one exists. Both of these are expected to  monitor the country's human rights situation. In addition, it advises identifying the UN agencies in your country and finding out which mandates match your concerns.

To find information on the UN agencies and staff present in each country, click here, then on the country and finally on 'UN country team' at the top of the page.

See 'Other United Nations bodies' for links to the various UN agencies, in addition to the OHCHR, which promote and protect human rights as part of their work.