Jul 14 2010

The United Nations and its Role in the Rule of Law

Although the United Nations is not an international government, it is the governing authority on international law. One of the stated purposes of the organization is to “establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained.” In addition, Article 103 of the  U.N. Charter gives the Charter supremacy over both prior and subsequent international agreements by stating that “[i]n the event of a conflict between the obligations of the Members of the United Nations under the present Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement, their obligations under the present Charter shall prevail.” Paragraph 1 of Article 102 in the Charter requires that all treaties and international agreements entered into by the member states be registered with the Secretariat. The U.N. remains at the center for creating legal frameworks in carrying out its principles and purposes; over 500 conventions, treatises, and standards have been put into effect by the U.N., which once ratified by member states, are legally binding on them.

The U.N. incorporates the rule of law at national and international levels. At the national level, for example, the Security Council has the power to create domestic rule of law institutions to assist restoration and maintenance of the rule of law in developing nations such as the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and the U.N. Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI). At the international level, Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan summarized only several examples of the U.N.’s involvement in international law:

When ships sail freely across the seas and through international straits, they are protected by rules legitimized in United Nations conferences. Commercial airlines have the right to fly across borders, and to land in case of emergency, thanks to agreements negotiated by the International Civil Aviation Organization. Similarly, it is protocols of the Universal Postal Union which allow mail to move freely across boarders. Trademarks and patents are registered throughout the world by the World Intellectual Property Organization. The United Nations Statistical Commission helps to ensure that economic statistics, accounting standards, and commodity descriptions, wherever they are produced, mean the same thing to people reading them in other countries. The World Health Organization sets quality criteria for the pharmaceutical industry world-wide, and standardizes the names of drugs. The United Nations Conventions on Sales and Carriage of Goods by Sea help to establish rights and obligations for buyers and sellers in international commercial transactions. The International Telecommunications Union, by allotting frequencies, keeps the airwaves from becoming hopelessly clogged; and its technical standards enable transmitters and receivers on opposite sides of the world to connect with each other.

Another very important aspect of international law that the U.N. administers is human rights. Human rights are nondiscriminatory “rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. . . . .These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.” International human rights laws, thus, are legal obligations that require governments to act or refrain from acting in certain ways in order to protect our inalienable human rights. All member states have ratified at least one of the major human rights treatises, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. The Declaration sets out basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights and freedoms that are to be enjoyed by all human beings. Among some of these rights and freedoms are the rights to: work with equal pay for equal work and free choice of employment; “free and full development of his personality”; “protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production”; education, “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services”; political participation; freedom of thought and religion, and opinion and expression; and a right to due process.

Promoting and establishing the rule of law is at the center of the U.N.’s mission. It is the key to sustained economic and social development, protection of human rights, and the preservation of peace and security.

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