University of Minnesota

Fellow: Kathryn Weber

Fellowship Site: The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) 

During the months of January through July 2002, I interned at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, Switzerland. “The mission of the OHCHR is to protect and promote all human rights for all.”1 It derives its mandate from Articles 1, 13 and 55 of the Charter of the United Nations, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and General Assembly resolution 48/141 of December 20, 1993. The functions of the organization include the following:

The High Commissioner for Human Rights is part of the Secretariat of the United Nations and is therefore accountable to the Secretary-General. He or she is responsible for the administration and activities of the OHCHR as well as functions specifically outlined in resolution 48/141 and subsequent resolutions. In addition, the High Commissioner supports and advises the Secretary-General on issues relating to human rights.

The OHCHR is divided into several offices and branches. The Executive Office assists and supports the High Commissioner who is also a part of the Executive Office. It supervises activities of the OHCHR, assists in formulating and implementing policies, maintains relations with Governments, NGOs and other organizations and maintains relations with Headquarters and carries out fundraising functions. The Administrative Section advises and assists the High Commissioner on budgetary, financial and personnel matters. The New York Office represents the High Commissioner at Headquarters, provides information and policy advice to the High Commissioner as well as the Secretary-General, provides information to outside agencies, Government, and organizations and supports the High Commissioner when on mission to New York. The Research and Right to Development Branch (RRDB) promotes and protects the right to development by supporting intergovernmental groups of experts, by assisting in the analysis of State reports, by carrying out research projects, by preparing advisory reports and educational materials and by supporting the High Commissioner in her pursuit of achieving the right to development. The Support Services Branch (SSB) is in charge of planning, preparing and servicing the Commission on Human Rights, the Sub commission on Human Rights, the treaty bodies (CAT, CESC, CRC, CERD, HRC) and the voluntary funds (for victims of torture, on contemporary forms of slavery and for indigenous populations). In addition, SSB processes communications submitted under resolution 1503 (gross and systematic violations of human rights). Finally, the Activities and Programs Branch (APB) develops, implements, monitors and evaluates technical assistance projects, manages the Voluntary Fund for Technical Cooperation, develops educational materials, provides support to fact-finding mechanisms and plans, supports and evaluates human rights field presences and missions. 

Working in the Executive Office

Although my primary supervisor was the Personal Assistant to the High Commissioner, Mr. Andrew Goledzinowski, I served as the intern for the entire Executive Office. The majority of my time was spent working with the Senior Advisors to the High Commissioner, particularly her Senior Speechwriter, Mr. Kevin Boyle and other Senior Advisor, Ms. Mona Rishmawi. In addition, I worked with a Desk Officer from the Asia-Pacific Team as well as the NGO (non-governmental organization) Liaison Coordinator from the Anti-Discrimination Unit. I was assigned various tasks including, conducting research and drafting language for speeches and lectures, preparing legal briefs and working on the NGO Liaison Team at the 58th Session of the Commission on Human Rights. A more detailed description of a cross-section of projects on which I worked is offered below.

CVT Visit to the OHCHR

Upon arrival at the OHCHR, I was placed in charge of organizing a visit of representatives from the Minneapolis-based NGO, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), an organization for which I had worked and volunteered since September 2002. My primary task was to serve as a communication liaison between the OHCHR and CVT. In addition, I contacted and invited OHCHR staff to a briefing conducted by the CVT representatives on a project entitled New Tactics in Human Rights, coordinated bi-lateral meetings between CVT and other relevant Geneva-based NGOs and ensured the logistics of meetings within the OHCHR. I was also responsible for briefing various OHCHR staff members on the New Tactics in Human Rights Project before the arrival of the CVT representatives. Once the visit took place, I attended all meetings occurring at the OHCHR and documented the content. This experience was a valuable way to meet various staff members in the OHCHR and to share my knowledge of an NGO-based project. 

The High Commissioner’s Lecture on the Millennium Goals

As stated above, much of my time at the OHCHR was spent researching and drafting communications for the Senior Advisor and Speechwriter to the High Commissioner. On one occasion, I was assigned to a team to prepare a lecture on Kofi Annan’s Millennium Goals to be presented by the High Commissioner at Brown University. This was a unique experience to work with several staff members specializing in economic, social and cultural rights. Particularly, my team included desk officers working on the mandates of poverty eradication, HIV/AIDS and education. My role in the team was to research the Millennium Goals, identify their relationship to the Millennium Declaration and Road Map and draft the opening section to the lecture. As a team, we outlined the role of the OHCHR in protecting and promoting the Millennium Goals, which serve as universal targets for economic, social and cultural development. This assignment allowed me to conduct in-depth research into fundamental UN policies for development.  

Legal Brief on the Rights of Migrants Rescued at Sea

Being a law student, I was asked by the High Commissioner’s Senior Advisor to prepare a legal brief on the existing rights in international law of migrants who are rescued at sea. The brief was to be used to determine the OHCHR’s potential involvement in an inter-agency task force organized by the International Maritime Organisation. The mission of the task force would be to identify areas in international law that needed to be strengthened to ensure the protection of migrants. I initially met with the Desk Officer on the Protection of Migrants to learn about the status of the Convention for the Protection of Migrant Workers as well as to understand the work of the OHCHR regarding migrants. In addition, I researched relevant sources of international law, including the Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers. Based on my research, I completed a brief that was subsequently used by the Senior Advisor in discussions with organizers of the IMO task force. Unfortunately, I do not have information regarding the status of the task force or of OHCHR’s involvement.

Legal Analysis of the Constitution of East Timor

In addition to working with the Executive Office, I had the opportunity to work with one of the desk officers on the Asia-Pacific Team on a project in conjunction with the Senior Advisor for National Human Rights Institutions. Following the recent status of East Timor as a State and the creation of the Constitution of East Timor, I was assigned the task of examining the relevant language in the Constitution regarding the establishment of a national human rights institution or human rights commission. In addition to verifying the accuracy of the translation from Portuguese to English, I was to analyze compliance of the language establishing a national human rights institution with the UN Guidelines on National Institutions (the Paris Principles). I was also assigned to compare the Constitution of East Timor with the Constitution of Portugal to identify similarities and “lifting” of language.

Working with one of my Brazilian colleagues, we discovered several errors in the translation from Portuguese to English of the three provisions relating to the establishment of a national human rights institution. As such, the English translation did not convey the same meaning as the original Portuguese version. In addition, we identified several similarities in language between the Constitution of East Timor and the Constitution of Portugal insinuating that the provisions were copied from the Constitution of Portugal. In the end, I wrote a report outlining our findings and identifying which provisions of the Constitution of East Timor could be strengthened to properly adhere to the guidelines outlined in the Paris Principles. The Senior Advisor of National Human Rights Institutions used this report in his negotiations with Government officials in East Timor. 

NGO Liaison Team at the 58th Session of the Commission on Human Rights

I was very fortunate to be working at the OHCHR during the annual six-week session of the Commission on Human Rights. During this time, I served on the NGO Liaison Team. My responsibilities included attending parallel meetings organized and facilitated by NGOs and Special Rapporteurs, taking notes and submitting reports to the NGO Liaison Coordinator based on the meetings. This was a very educational experience for me since I had the opportunity to observe discussions, lead by experts in the field, surrounding pressing human rights topics. It was particularly interesting to hear the reactions of NGO representatives and Special Rapporteurs on the proceedings of the plenary session of the Commission. Fortunately, I was allowed a substantial amount of time to attend and observe the plenary session as well as to meet other observers of the Commission. The six weeks that I spent working at the Palais des Nations for the 58th session of the Commission on Human Rights were the most interesting and educational of my internship.  

Intern Initiated Projects

Another positive aspect of my internship was having the opportunity to work with other interns from various different countries and cultures. As a way to unite and to maintain an active presence in the OHCHR, we designed several projects aimed at assisting new interns to the Office. These projects included redrafting the orientation manual for interns, identifying options for housing in Geneva and proposing a reduced fee lunch plan for interns. In addition, the High Commissioner offered the interns a sum of money that she received from a speaking honorarium to purchase or fund a resource or project that would benefit present and future interns. As a group, several of the interns decided that what the OHCHR needed was a scholarship to fund interns from developing sources that may not have access to outside funding sources. This need was apparent by observing the relatively few interns from developing countries working at the OHCHR. During the six months of my internship, I worked on a team of other interested interns to design a proposal for a scholarship fund. We explored several options, including a joint program with a local NGO in Geneva, a joint program with a local university and a project that would be funded and supervised by OHCHR’s technical cooperation fund. We encountered several difficulties in organizing the scholarship, including restrictive UN policies and limited support from other staff, and unfortunately the January-June OHCHR interns did not complete a finished proposal. We hope that the current and future interns will take our ideas and be successful in implementing this scholarship.  

Educational Opportunities

As mentioned above, during the Commission on Human Rights, I had the opportunity to attend several of the plenary sessions of the Commission. This opportunity to attend high-level meetings extended to the majority of my time at the OHCHR. Since most of the treaty body sessions (CRC, CAT, CESC, CERD) take place at the Palais Wilson (home of the OHCHR), I was invited to observe these sessions when my work allowed. In addition, I was invited to attend various symposiums, NGO meetings and receptions that were held in the Palais Wilson and elsewhere in Geneva. I was very fortunate to be located in a city with a great deal of human rights activity. In addition, I took advantage of the UN language courses offered to staff and interns and completed six-months of intensive Spanish courses. 


Having now completed my internship at the OHCHR, my desire and commitment to working in the field of human rights has been solidified. This internship was very important to gaining a first hand knowledge of the functioning of the United Nations in the field of human rights. Not only did I learn a great deal about the system but I also had the opportunity to meet extraordinary and extremely devoted people that have either just started their careers in human rights or have been working for many years. I am very grateful to the organizations that helped me to fund my stay in Geneva and I hope to continue to share my experiences with the Minneapolis community and beyond.

1 The mission of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is to protect and promote all human rights for all. OHCHR is guided in its work by the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent human rights instruments, and the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. The promotion of universal ratification and implementation of human rights treaties is at the forefront of OHCHR activities.

OHCHR aims to ensure the practical implementation of universally recognized human rights norms. It is committed to strengthening the United Nations human rights programme and providing the United Nations treaty monitoring bodies and special mechanisms established by the Commission on Human Rights with the highest quality support.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights is the official with principal responsibility for United Nations human rights activities.  OHCHR is committed to working with other parts of the United Nations to integrate human rights standards throughout the work of the Organization.

OHCHR bases itself on the principle that human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated.  All rights civil, cultural, economic, political and social - should be given equal emphasis, and promoted and protected without any discrimination. The realization and enjoyment of all rights for women and men must be ensured on a basis of equality.

OHCHR is committed to promoting the realization of the right to development and to strengthening a rights-based approach to development.

OHCHR engages in dialogue with governments on human rights issues with a view to enhancing national capacities in the field of human rights and towards improved respect for human rights; it provides advisory services and technical assistance when requested, and encourages governments to pursue the development of effective national institutions and procedures for the protection for human rights.

A number of OHCHR field presences have been established with a view to ensuring that international human rights standards are progressively implemented and realized at country level, both in law and practice. This is to be accomplished through the setting up or strengthening of national human rights capacities and national human rights institutions; the follow up to the recommendations of human rights treaty bodies and the mechanisms of the Commission on Human Rights and the creation of a culture of human rights.

An essential condition for the success of field presences is that governments, national institutions, non-governmental organizations, as well as the United Nations country teams, are increasingly empowered to take on human rights related activities on their own, within the context of regional or sub-regional strategies.

OHCHR seeks to play an active role in removing obstacles and meeting challenges to the full realization of all human rights and in preventing the occurrence or continuation of human rights abuses throughout the world. To achieve this OHCHR will work closely with governments, United Nations bodies, regional organizations, international and non-governmental organizations and civil society.

2 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights web site, available at

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