Magazine article UN Chronicle

Protection of Human Rights under Universal International Law

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Protection of Human Rights under Universal International Law

Article excerpt

The United Nations was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War primarily as a guardian of peace and security in the world. From the very outset, the founders were aware of the close connection between peace and human rights: only under conditions of peace can human beings achieve full enjoyment of their rights. Never again should people be haunted by atrocities; never again should they become the victims of such genocidal policies as had devastated societies throughout Europe.

Accordingly, the Charter of the United Nations, in its Preamble, sets out as one of the aims of the world organization "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small". Further provisos were included in the text of the Charter itself. Article 1(3) specifies that the United Nations shall be tasked with "promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion".

At the founding conference in San Francisco, it proved impossible, due to lack of time, to complement the Charter with a written catalogue of human rights. The decision was taken, however, to establish such a catalogue immediately after the Charter came into force, through the relevant specialized body, the Commission on Human Rights.

After only a few years of preparatory work in that Commission, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed, on 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) "as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations". The adoption was not achieved by unanimity. Eight nations--the then-existing socialist States along with Saudi Arabia and South Africa-abstained, but not a single negative vote was registered.

UDHR paved the way for the further development of the human rights idea. For the first time in human history, a list of basic human rights had been established that was to benefit everyone, based solely on his or her quality as a human being, without any distinction or discrimination. Earlier proclamations of human rights, including the French Declaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (1789) and the United States Bill of Rights (1789/1791), had been restricted in manifold ways. Women did not enjoy the same rights as men; slavery was legal; and in many countries, the criterion of personal wealth played a decisive role in determining who enjoyed the exercise of rights and privileges. Additionally, people in colonial countries lived in a structural state of discrimination. Thus, UDHR became the fundamental manifesto for a new concept of human rights in the world. As a General Assembly resolution, it has never attained the status of a binding set of rules, but it has served as a source of inspiration, fomenting not only the codification process within the United Nations but also functioning as a model for national constitutions all over the world.

The first achievement at the level of binding international law was the adoption of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1965. One year later, the General Assembly adopted by consensus the two comprehensive International Covenants, on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). To date, an overwhelming majority of United Nations Member States have adhered to these two Covenants--164 States parties in the case of ICESCR and 168 in the case of ICCPR. Together, the Universal Declaration and the two Covenants form what is known as the "International Bill of Human Rights". Another instrument designed to combat discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, was adopted by the Assembly in 1979.

At its inception, the Charter of the United Nations was characterized by a certain ambiguity. …

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