idea of human rights pre-dates the United Nations. Yet it was only
with the setting up of this body that it finally formal, universal recognition.
international community has grown and changed enormously in the
course of the twentieth century, but it was one event—the
Second World War—that 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.
founders of the United Nations responded to the horrors of the Second
World War by emphasizing human rights in the Organization’s
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.
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 religion.’
Articles of the Charter have the force of positive international
law because the Charter is a treaty and therefore a legally binding
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, 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 René Cassin (France), Charles Malik (Lebanon),
Peng Chun Chang (China), Hernan Santa Cruz (Chile), Alexandre Bogomolov/Alexei
Pavlov (Soviet Union), Lord Dukeston/Geoffrey Wilson (United Kingdom),
William Hodgson (Australia) and John Humphrey (Canada).
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.
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.
out individual rights and freedoms for everyone, the Declaration
was unprecedented. It remains the first pillar of twentieth-century
human rights law and the cornerstone of the universal human rights
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
therefrom, are undeniable.
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 principles.
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.
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 world’s countries are parties to
the two Conventions, thereby opening the door to international monitoring
of their human rights practices.
with the Universal Declaration, they comprise the International
Bill of Rights.
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’.
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.
1948, some 60 human rights treaties and declarations have been negotiated
at the United Nations. Some examples are:
1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime
1961 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading
Treatment or Punishment
1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child
1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of
All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families
Within the UN system, there are six committees that monitor compliance
of States parties to specific treaties:
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
The Human Rights Committee
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
The Committee against Torture
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women
The Committee on the Rights of the Child
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 programme 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.
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.
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.
1945, non-governmental organizations have contributed immensely
to the work of the United Nations and human rights—as a source
of information and a force for meaningful change.
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.
years later, in 1993, the United Nations convened the World Conference
on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria. The Vienna Declaration and Programme
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 people.
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.
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.
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.”
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 freedoms—everything
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?
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 us—from Presidents and Prime Ministers to business executives,
farmers and students—to work toward this dream.
Adapted from United Nations Publication DPI/1967 98-03917 March
© 2000 United Nations Publications