The Evolving Role of the United Nations in Securing Human Rights

By Hussein, Zeid Ra'ad Al | UN Chronicle, February 2017 | Go to article overview

The Evolving Role of the United Nations in Securing Human Rights


Hussein, Zeid Ra'ad Al, UN Chronicle


From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it is sometimes easy to forget just how revolutionary the concept of human rights is. Few who witnessed the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 could have imagined its impact over the last seven decades. International law no longer governs only relations among States. Rather, the treatment of individuals by States is a matter of international law and concern. Today, people who have been abused or silenced at the national level regularly speak at the United Nations Human Rights Council, or bring complaints about violations of human rights treaties to Committees of experts. (1) The voices of the voiceless are now amplified at the international level.

But this is not enough. It is not enough that victims of abuse who have managed to gain the support of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) or the services of a dedicated human rights lawyer can state their case in a conference room in Geneva. How many more victims are unaware even of their right to invoke international law or approach its mechanisms? We must aim to prevent such abuses from occurring, and not merely to address after the event what is often irreparable damage. Indeed, it is not the expectation of financial compensation but the possibility of preventing others from experiencing the same harm that is often the greatest motivation of victims who bring cases against States that have violated their rights. In human rights law, true restitution includes guarantees of non-recurrence, which imply systemic change.

Human rights are universal, but writing human rights law does not happen in a vacuum. While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included all rights, the split into two legal International Covenants, on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1966, reflected political divisions among States. In the context of the cold war, the General Assembly explicitly instructed the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights to separate human rights into the two categories covered by the Covenants. Within the Commission, States in the so-called "Western European and Others Group" focused their comments on civil and political rights, while communist States concentrated on economic and social rights.

Obstructed and hamstrung by politicized discussion, the Commission on Human Rights was replaced by a new institution, the Human Rights Council, in 2006. This brought the international scrutiny of States' human rights records to a new height. The Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) has now completed two cycles, meaning that every State in the world has submitted to detailed review of its human rights status by its peers and accepted recommendations for improvement, which are often extremely precise. This is the only human rights mechanism to ever achieve truly universal participation--no small feat.

To watch a live webcast of a UPR session, with a high-level delegation responding to precise and comprehensive queries regarding the gender aspects of social protection systems, conditions in prisons, treatment of migrants, access to justice or the impact of business operations on human rights in a given country is to understand that the world has changed. But UPR recommendations emanate from States and are not a substitute for the legal rigour of the Covenants, or the independence of the experts who serve on the Committees that monitor implementation of the Covenants and other treaties.

This is perhaps best illustrated with examples. In 2011, in implementation of a decision of the Human Rights Committee, which monitors the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Argentina agreed to pay compensation and a monthly life pension, and provided a scholarship to an indigenous girl who was raped and subsequently discriminated against by authorities on the basis of gender and ethnicity. (2) Consistent with its obligations, the State also took action to ensure non-repetition, introducing compulsory training for judicial officials in the Province of Chaco to prevent gender discrimination and violence against women. …

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