The Development of United Nations Mechanisms for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights

By Stamatopoulou, Elsa | Washington and Lee Law Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

The Development of United Nations Mechanisms for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights


Stamatopoulou, Elsa, Washington and Lee Law Review


I. Introduction

The development of human rights protection mechanisms at the United Nations has been inextricably linked with the organization's efforts to promote human rights. The two approaches have been mutually reinforcing and have created strong human rights constituencies. In fact, this process itself has been gradually depoliticizing the international mechanisms in the area of human rights.

The concept of human rights has always been dynamic, as has the entire discipline of international law. Human rights concepts and mechanisms have developed historically along with interventions by civil society and by states. The right to self-determination is one of the most eloquent examples. The development of international human rights mechanisms over the past five decades since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been linked as much with the rise of pro-democracy and pro-human rights movements around the world as with the end of the Cold War and the growing interdependence of states, markets, and peoples.

I therefore discuss the development of United Nations human rights protection mechanisms from this broader angle and try to explain the "whys" and "why nots" accordingly. For the purposes ofthis discussion, I concentrate on the human rights mechanisms ofthe United Nations proper without including the mechanisms ofthe United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

I first discuss the treaty-based human rights mechanisms and their significance in the protection and promotion of human rights. I then refer to the extra-conventional system of protection of human rights. Third, I discuss the contribution of the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 to the protection and promotion of human rights. Fourth, I discuss the United Nations human rights field presences and their contribution. Fifth, I examine recent efforts to mainstream human rights in the areas of peace and security, humanitarian issues, and development. Finally, I outline some ofthe main challenges ahead in protecting and promoting human rights.

II. A Treaty-Based System of Protection and Promotion of Human Rights

After the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Universal Declaration),' the United Nations faced the challenge of preparing binding international human rights instruments. One day before the adoption of the Universal Declaration on December 9, 1948, however, the General Assembly had already adopted the first United Nations human rights treaty, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.2 Initially, the ascending Cold War ideological rift between civil and political rights on the one hand and economic, social, and cultural rights on the other was bridged by the inclusion of both families of rights in one unified document, the Universal Declaration. This was due in part to the overwhelming momentum after the tragedies of World War II and in part to the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt and her peers. Yet, this rift reemerged during the subsequent two decades when it became obvious that the polarized world around the table was not ready to allow the same fusion when preparing binding legal instruments. Thus in 1966, the United Nations separately adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights3 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights4 and its (First) Optional Protocol.5 The year before, the United Nations had adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.6

These three treaties corrected an omission of the earlier antigenocide convention by establishing the first three human rights monitoring mechanisms in the form of "treaty bodies," as this type of mechanism is now called.' The first treaty bodies were later joined by three others under the following subsequent human rights treaties: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,8 the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,9 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. …

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