Enforcing Human Rights: The UN Machinery

UN Chronicle, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Enforcing Human Rights: The UN Machinery


In spite of the many legal instruments and procedures for protecting human rights globally, violations are still widespread. To address this problem, the World Conference on Human Rights will review existing enforcement mechanisms so that the rights of peoples everywhere may be ensured.

On one hand, the United Nations can point to an active and often effective system of promotion and protection of rights. In 1990, for example, UN human rights monitors sent nearly 1,100 urgent-action cables to Governments, on behalf of individuals allegedly facing torture, arbitrary detention, or summary or arbitrary execution. At the same time, UN experts were assisting a record number of Governments in promoting human rights through new national constitutions, democratic elections and stronger institutions of justice.

But the upcoming review will inevitably highlight the system's shortcomings as well. It is woefully underfunded and understaffed. The main conventions remain unratified by scores of Member States. There is also growing concern that the existing system does not possess the necessary authority to ensure compliance or punish violators of human rights. Thus, the review may lead to concrete recommendations to strengthen the instruments and mechanisms protecting human rights.

Bodies set up under international treaties are involved in an ever-expanding range of human rights activities, monitoring compliance with conventions that ban racial discrimination and abuse of prisoners, establishing dialogues with Governments accused of violations, and providing advice and technical assistance to national human rights efforts.

The central international body promoting human rights is the Commission on Human Rights, established in 1946 under the Economic and Social Council. Its secretariat--the Geneva-based Centre for Human Rights--is also the secretariat for the World Conference.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by the Commission and adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, recognizes as basic human rights: the right to life, liberty and personal security; equality before the law and equal protection under it; freedom of movement and residence; freedom from torture and cruel or degrading punishment; the right to seek asylum from persecution; the right to a nationality; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to vote and participate in government; and the rights to an education, to work and join trade unions, and to an adequate living standard.

Many of these provisions, and some additional ones, have since been incorporated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which took effect in 1976 and has been ratified to date by 115 States parties) and several other multilateral agreements which are legally binding on Governments that ratified them. Under each treaty, there is a committee of independent experts which monitors compliance, examines complaints of violations, and engages in dialogues with Governments.

For example, the 18-member Human Rights Committee reviews Governments' reports on efforts to observe the International Covenant, as well as complaints against other States parties for non-compliance. It also considers complaints from individual citizens of States parties-67 so far--to the Covenant's first Optional Protocol; these have included cases of ill-treatment in detention, unfair trial and discrimination of various kinds. (A second Optional Protocol seeks to abolish capital punishment; it has only 12 States parties so far.)

Other key agreements include:

* The 1951 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (103 States parties) provides for prosecution of anyone charged with commissioning acts intended to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

* The 1969 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (I 3 2 States parties) prohibits discrimination and dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred. …

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