A North Central College class learning about human rights.

How to Become a Human Rights Officer

Felicia Diaz

Oct 07, 2022

How to become a human rights officer

Do you imagine yourself in a rewarding career that provides opportunities to invest in your community and improve the quality of life for those around you? Or maybe you want to champion causes close to your heart, like gender identity, sexual exploitation, discrimination, and other pressing human rights issues. If so, pursuing a career as a human rights officer could be an exciting option for you! 

Human rights are universal and inherent to everyone, meaning that everyone is entitled to them regardless of individual differences such as religion, gender, race, political ideology, and sexual orientation. There isn’t a single definition for human rights, but we can think of them as the guidelines for creating fair and just societies that are safe and prosperous. Some of our most fundamental rights include the right to life, the right to freedom of speech, the right to education, the right to privacy, freedom of religion, and freedom of thought. Human rights protect us from harm and give us the power to be active participants in creating the society we want to live in, such as voicing our opinions to people in positions of power, voting, and protesting. 

All human rights — including political, civil, social, and economic — need to be protected for individuals to live a life of dignity, but who is responsible for protecting them? Read on to learn more about what a human rights officer does, career paths and salary ranges, skills needed, and how to become one. By the end of this article, you’ll have all the information you need to launch into an exciting career as a human rights officer. 

What does a human rights officer do?

Human rights officers are at the forefront of protecting human rights all over the world and are responsible for identifying, investigating, and resolving human rights violations and abuses.  Violations may include instances of domestic abuse, sexual exploitation, discrimination, religious intolerance, and arbitrary arrest. 

Although the duties of human rights officers may vary depending on the place of employment and job and experience, some general tasks and responsibilities include, but are not limited to: 

  • Responding to human rights issues (or possibly also civil rights) complaints
  • Drafting human rights situation reports
  • Visiting and interviewing victims and perpetrators of human rights violations
  • Attending and observing trials and elections
  • Preparing and analyzing human rights data

Through their work with individuals, local communities, and global partnerships, human rights officers work to ensure that every individual can live a life of dignity that recognizes their worth as human beings. They embody principles of fairness, equality, and respect for all individuals, especially those who face hardship like discrimination, neglect, or abuse. Without these officers, human rights violations would continue to occur without repercussions. 

Human rights officer career paths

Most human rights officers work within the United Nations (UN), supporting its mission of “maintaining peace, advancing human rights and promoting justice, equality and development.” Within the UN, jobs are categorized into seven professional levels based on years of experience. Typically, human rights officer positions are found in the P-3 and P-4 levels, with senior positions at the P-5 level. Each level has specific requirements and responsibilities in addition to the ones outlined above.  

A P-3 level human rights officer is required to have a minimum of five years of work experience. Duties at this level include: 

  • Monitoring and researching human rights trends and cases
  • Preparing reports and briefings 
  • Ensuring that human rights considerations are integrated into political, humanitarian, and economic programs and systems 

Seven years of experience qualifies you for a P-4 level role, which has an emphasis on leadership. Duties include all responsibilities of a P-3 level employee as well as:

  • Serving as a team leader 
  • Training and supervising lower-ranking staff 
  • Coordinating with local and national government and other human rights organizations

Finally, after 10 years of on-the-job experience, you may feel motivated to become a senior human rights officer. Level P-5 requires providing strategic policy and programming direction to address regional and global human rights issues. Among other responsibilities, officers at this level also coordinate and oversee human rights research initiatives.

According to Global Peace Careers, the UN employs more than 900 human rights officers and support staff across the globe, but it’s not the only place to find meaningful work in this career. Opportunities are available across many industries, such as in healthcare, education, businesses, other human rights organizations, and in the public sector working for your state government.

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Salary range and benefits

The typical human rights officer salary range is $54,429 to $76,876, with an average base salary of $65,536 as of July 2022, according to Salary.com. Earnings can vary depending on factors like location, education, certifications, additional skills, and years of experience in the profession. There are numerous ways to boost your salary, such as getting an advanced degree like a Ph.D. changing employers, or attaining a managerial position. 

P-1 to P-3 level officers at the UN can earn $37,000-$80,000, while mid-level P-4 and P-5 officers have the potential to make $67,000-$106,000 per year. Director salaries range from $95,000 to $123,000. International human rights officers at the UN may also be entitled to travel and shipping expenses as well as rental subsidies.

Skills needed to be a human rights officer

Beyond having a firm understanding of the basic principles of human rights, current social issues, and international law, you’ll need to be able to effectively address sensitive and complex issues in a way that is professional and respects the inherent dignity of the person or people you’re working with. You’ll communicate with individuals from all walks of life, so having excellent interpersonal skills and a curious and empathetic attitude will go a long way. Careers in the UN or other international human rights organizations may require foreign language proficiency in English, Spanish, French or other languages. Other important skills include: 

  • Effective written and verbal communication 
  • Ability to evaluate analytically and to use impartial judgment
  • Willingness to learn from others
  • Research and investigative skills
  • Teamwork skills 
  • Strong skills in planning and organizing

How to become a human rights officer

Most positions in the human rights field require a master’s degree in law, human rights, public administration, peacekeeping management, or a related field. You will find flexibility, however, in choosing an undergraduate degree that will prepare you for your master’s program. Studying human rights, ethics, or even sociology as an undergrad can provide vital knowledge about human rights and deepen your understanding of humanity by exploring questions like “What is ethics?” and “Why do people violate human rights?” Charles S. Cowin, assistant professor of sociology at North Central College, suggests that “Sociology is beneficial because it teaches students about broader social issues and contexts and develops empathy and understanding towards various social groups.”

Gaining experience through an internship in policy, research, or advocacy while you pursue your master’s degree will build your confidence, hone your skills, and allow you to start at a higher-level job post-graduation. The UN has an internship program through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) that is available to graduate students to prepare them for a successful career in human rights. 

Take the next step

If you’re serious about becoming a human rights officer, consider starting your education at a school like North Central College, which provides ample opportunities to gain real-world experience beyond the classroom. Their Leadership, Ethics, and Values Program is a pathway to top ethics degree jobs, such as preparing you on how to become a paralegal. When asked about how their curriculum ushers students into successful human rights careers, Visiting Assistant Professor of Ethical Leadership Julie Nagashima said, “Students will develop important knowledge, skills, and dispositions for becoming an ethical leader essential for a human rights officer. Some of these include how to lead with accountability and responsibility, engage in ethical reasoning and decision making, work collaboratively and effectively in groups, discern and avoid destructive and corrupt behaviors, develop interpersonal skills, and cultivate one’s moral character.” 

Set yourself up for success and explore North Central’s Leadership, Ethics, and Values Program today.

Felicia Diaz is a communications and systems specialist in the North Central Office of Admission. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Philosophy from Elmhurst University and has eight years of professional experience in writing and communications.