Working with the United Nations Human Rights Programme: A Handbook for Civil Society is addressed to the civil society actors who, every day in every part of the world, contribute to the promotion, protection and advancement of human rights.

Developed following a survey among users of the first edition of the Handbook—Working with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: A Handbook for NGOs (2006)—this comprehensively updated and revised second edition puts United Nations human rights bodies and mechanisms at its centre. Speaking to all civil society actors, including but not only non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Handbook explains how civil society can engage with various United Nations human rights bodies and mechanisms. It is the hope of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) that this Handbook will enable more people to enjoy and make claim to their human rights through these bodies and mechanisms.

Who are civil society actors?
For the purposes of this Handbook, civil society actors are individuals who voluntarily engage in forms of public participation and action around shared interests, purposes or values that are compatible with the goals of the United Nations. This Handbook addresses civil society actors concerned with the promotion and protection of universal human rights, for instance:

  •  Human rights defenders;
  •  Human rights organizations (NGOs, associations, victim groups);
  •  Related issue-based organizations;
  •  Coalitions and networks (women’s rights, children’s rights, environmental rights);
  •  Persons with disabilities and their representative organizations;
  •  Community-based groups (indigenous peoples, minorities);
  •  Faith-based groups (churches, religious groups);
  •  Unions (trade unions as well as professional associations such as journalist associations, bar associations, magistrate associations, student unions);
  •  Social movements (peace movements, student movements, pro-democracy movements);
  •  Professionals contributing directly to the enjoyment of human rights (humanitarian workers, lawyers, doctors and medical workers);
  •  Relatives of victims; and
  •  Public institutions that carry out activities aimed at promoting human rights (schools, universities, research bodies).

A strong and autonomous civil society, able to operate freely, and knowledgeable and skilled with regard to human rights, is a key element in securing sustainable human rights protection at the national level. Civil society actors are therefore essential partners in the United Nations human rights system.

While important contributors to human rights promotion and protection, national human rights institutions (NHRIs) are not addressed in this Handbook. Information and resources on NHRIs are available from the OHCHR website. Readers are also invited to contact the OHCHR National Institutions Unit at

Contents of the Handbook

The Handbook opens with an introduction to OHCHR (chapter I), its fellowship and training programmes (chapter II), and its publications and resource materials (chapter III). It then addresses the United Nations human rights bodies and mechanisms, and how they can be used. These are:

  •  The human rights treaty bodies (chapter IV);
  •  The Human Rights Council and its mechanisms, including the Advisory Committee, the Social Forum, the Forum on Minority Issues, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the open-ended Working Group on the Right to Development, and a number of mechanisms related to the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (chapter V);
  •  The special procedures (chapter VI);
  •  The universal periodic review (chapter VII); and
  •  The submission of complaints on alleged human rights violations (chapter VIII).

The final chapter provides information on funds and grants (chapter IX), some of which are administered by OHCHR. To make it easier for readers to access information, each chapter has been written in a way that allows it to stand independently from the rest of the Handbook. Individual chapters can be downloaded from the OHCHR website, along with the Handbook in its entirety. It is important to note that this Handbook is not a stand-alone or static guide. Where possible, references to the OHCHR website and other resources have been provided to ensure that readers have access to current information. Readers are encouraged to use these supplementary resources.


The chapters are generally divided into three sections:

  •  What the body/mechanism is;
  •  How it works; and
  •  How civil society actors can access and work with it.

Each chapter also lists key contacts at OHCHR and includes links to other resources.


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