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The paramount United Nations body with responsibility for human rights is the Commission on Human Rights, established in 1947 by the Economic and Social Council. The commission, which meets for a six week session each year in Geneva, comprises fifty-three U.N. member states serving three-year terms. The commission was responsible for drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the covenants on civil and political rights and economic and social rights. The commission also discusses human rights violations in particular countries, adopting resolutions of concern and naming rapporteurs to carry out investigations. In addition, the Commission has set up thematic procedures to monitor violations of particular rights. These include the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the Special Rapporteur on Summary or Arbitrary Executions, and the Special Rapporteur on Torture.

The U.N. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities is the main subsidiary body of the commission. Its twenty-six independent experts, elected by the commission for four year terms, meet every year in August, in Geneva, acting as a "think tank" examining human rights situations around the world, bringing serious violations to the attention of the UN system, and proposing draft standards and principles to the commission.

Compliance with each of the international human rights covenants or treaties is monitored by a separate committee of experts, known as the treaty body, elected by the states parties, who review the periodic reports required of each state party. Thus the Human Rights Committee reviews the implementation of the ICCPR, the Committee Against Torture (CAT) reviews compliance with the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) reviews implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR, elected by the U.N. Economic and Social Council) reviews compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) reviews the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) reviews the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The entire UN human rights machinery is coordinated by the Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, was appointed high commissioner in 1997 by the U.N. secretary general.

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