The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

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 religion.’

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.

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 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).

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.

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 cornerstone of the universal human rights movement.

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 therefrom, 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 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.

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 world’s 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 Rights.

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:

1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide
1961 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
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

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 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.

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.

Since 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.

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 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.

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.
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 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?

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 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 1998 25M

Copyright © 2000 United Nations Publications

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