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Human rights and United Nations

The idea of human rights pre-dates the United Nations. Yet it was only with the
setting up of this body that it finally achieved formal, universal recognition.
The international community has grown and changed enormously in the course of
the twentieth century, but it was one eventthe Second World Warthat
prompted the victors to try to assemble a forum, firstly to deal with some of the
War's consequences, but foremost to help provide a way to prevent such appalling
events in the future. This forum was the United Nations.
1945 Human Rights for All
The founders of the United Nations responded to the horrors of the Second World
War by emphasizing human rights in the Organizations Charter. At the San
Francisco Conference, where the Charter was adopted, some 40 non-governmental
organizations successfully lobbied delegates for relatively strong language on
human rights.
The Charter of the United Nations was signed on 26 June 1945. It states that the
main objective of the new organization is to save succeeding generations from the
scourge of war and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights. Article 1 of the
Charter states that one of the aims of the United Nations is to achieve international
co-operation in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for
fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or
The Articles of the Charter have the force of positive international law because the
Charter is a treaty and therefore a legally binding document. All United Nations
Member States must fulfill in good faith the obligations they have assumed under

the Charter of the United Nations, including the obligations to promote and respect
for human rights, to promote observance of human rights, and to co-operate with
the United Nations and other nations to attain this aim. However the Charter does
not specify human rights and does not establish any specific way to ensure their
implementation in Member States.
1946 UN Commission on Human Rights
In 1946, the UN established the Commission on Human Rights the principal
policy-making body for human rights within the UN system.
Under the Chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt (USA), human rights activist and
widow of former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, the Commission took up the
job of defining basic rights and freedoms. Key contributors included Ren Cassin
(France), Charles Malik (Lebanon), Peng Chun Chang (China), Hernan Santa Cruz







Dukeston/Geoffrey Wilson (United Kingdom), William Hodgson (Australia) and

John Humphrey (Canada).
Originally composed of 18 members States, the Human Rights Commission now
has 53 members who meet annually in Geneva to review human rights issues,
develop and codify new international norms, and make recommendations to
Governments. Non-governmental organizations play an active role.
Adoption of The Universal Declaration of Human rights 1948
After thorough scrutiny and 1,400 rounds of voting on practically every word and
every clause, the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights on 10 December 1948 in Paris at the newly built Palais de Chaillot.

Spelling out individual rights and freedoms for everyone, the Declaration was
unprecedented. It remains the first pillar of twentieth-century human rights law and








The Universal Declaration is built on the fundamental principle that human rights
are based on the inherent dignity of every person. This dignity, and the rights to
freedom and equality which derive there from, are undeniable.
Although the Declaration does not have the binding force of a treaty, it has
acquired universal acceptability. Many countries have cited the Declaration or
included its provisions in their basic laws or constitutions. And many human rights
covenants, conventions and treaties concluded since 1948 have been built on its
1948-1966 International Bill of Rights
The United Nations strives to create a culture of human rights around the world.
The broadest legally binding human rights agreements negotiated under UN
auspices are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Both were adopted in 1966 and entered into force in 1976. They take the Universal
Declaration a step further by making provisions legally binding. A majority of the
worlds countries are parties to the two Conventions, thereby opening the door to
international monitoring of their human rights practices.
Along with the Universal Declaration, they comprise the International Bill of
The task of drawing up an International Bill of Human Rights defining human
rights and freedoms referred to in the Charter, was charged upon the Commission

on Human Rights, established in 1945. A major step in drafting the International

Bill of Human Rights was realized on 10 December 1948, when the General
Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common
standard of achievement for all people and nations.
Since the Universal Declaration became international law, many other conventions
have convened and many specialized agencies have been set up to monitor, and
enforce human rights standards that pertain to specific issues such as the rights of
refugees, the rights of working people, and the special rights of children. Much of
the work of the United Nations is built upon the basic principles of human rights
set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
One of the greatest achievements of the United Nations is the creation of a
comprehensive body of human rights legislation. For the first time in history, there
exists a universal code of human rights one to which all nations can subscribe and
to which all people can aspire.
Since 1948, some 60 human rights treaties and declarations have been negotiated at
the United Nations. Some examples are:

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or


Convention on the Rights of the Child.
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and
Members of their Families.

Human Rights Treaty Bodies

Within the UN system, there are six committees that monitor compliance of States
parties to specific treaties:
1. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
2. The Human Rights Committee.
3. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
4. The Committee against Torture.
5. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
6. The Committee on the Rights of the Child.
UN High Commisioner for Human Rights
On 20 December 1993, after nearly 50 years of alternate hope and disappointment,
the General Assembly voted unanimously to create the post of UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights. The High Commissioner coordinates the UN
human rights program and promotes universal respect for human rights. Appointed
by the UN Secretary-General and approved by the General Assembly, the first
High Commissioner was Jose Ayala-Lasso of Ecuador, who took up his duties on 5
April 1994. The current High Commissioner, Mary Robinson, former President of
Ireland, began her job on 12 September 1997.
Human Rights in the Field
During the 1990s, the United Nations witnessed a dramatic increase of human
rights activities in field operations. Depending on the needs of the situation, these
activities combine monitoring of human rights violations, education, training and
other advisory services.
Currently, such operations exist in Abkhazia/Georgia, Burundi, Cambodia,
Colombia, Gaza, Guatemala, Haiti, Malawi, Mongolia, the Democratic Republic of
the Congo, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
Global Gathering for Human Rights

Since 1945, non-governmental organizations have contributed immensely to the

work of the United Nations and human rightsas a source of information and a
force for meaningful change.
In 1968, the United Nations held the first International Conference on Human
Rights in Tehran, Iran. The Proclamation of the Conference emphasized the link
between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural right.
Twenty-five years later, in 1993, the United Nations convened the World
Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria. The Vienna Declaration and
Program of Action stress the universal nature of human rights and the need to fight
all forms of racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance. It also places
strong emphasis on the rights of women, children, minorities and indigenous
International Criminal Court
Hopes are high for a June 1998 conference in Rome to establish an international
criminal court, which would form a vital part of an emerging system of
international human rights protection.
For nearly half a century, the United Nations has recognized the need to establish
an international criminal court to prosecute and punish persons responsible for
crimes against humanity. In the absence of such a court, two ad-hoc criminal courts
have been set up to judge war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda.
Human Rights into the 21st Century
General Assembly Resolution 49/184 of 23 December 1994 proclaims the ten-year
period beginning on 1 January 1995 the United Nations Decade for Human Rights
Education. The resolution states that human rights education should involve more
than the provision of information and should constitute a comprehensive life-long
process by which people at all levels in development and in all strata of society

learn respect for the dignity of others and the means and methods of ensuring that
respect in all societies.
Growing international awareness, fostered by mass communications, has
heightened the sense of urgency for respect of human rights. Thousands of
individuals and citizens groups around the world are fighting for their rights and
freedoms. United Nations action for human rights continues. Yet millions of people
around the world suffer some serious violation or deprivation of their basic rights
and freedomseverything from torture, rape and corrupt judicial systems to
bonded labour, hunger and lack of access to health services, housing, sanitation and
water. Will there ever be a global culture of human rights?
The global quest for commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
involves everyone. The campaign relies heavily on thousands of dedicated
individuals and citizens groups who often risk their lives for the cause. Increased
involvement in the defense of human rights helps to build an environment where
freedom and dignity are expected and respected. It is up to each and every one of
usfrom Presidents and Prime Ministers to business executives, farmers and
studentsto work toward this dream.