In 1977, he was appointed director of the United Nations" Division for Human Rights. From 1986 to 1991, he was the United Nations"s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Reparation to Victims of Gross Violations of Human Rights and, from 2001 to 2004, Special Rapporteur on Torture. From February 1994 to December 1994, he was the first registrar of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
In 1985, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award and in 2004 he was awarded the Wateler Peace Prize.
On 16 December 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the resolution 60/147, titled "Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law". These principles are largely inspired from the work of Van Boven and Cherif Bassiouni and are known as the Van Boven/Bassiouni Principles.
In November 2009, he was given a doctorate honoris causa from the University of Buenos Aires.
He is also a member of the International Commission of Jurists.