Whereas it was once the case that rights were almost always associated with the domestic legal and political systems, in the last half century a complex network of international law and practice has grown up around the idea that individuals possess rights simply by virtue of being human, of sharing a common humanity. The watershed for the development of a international human rights regime was the exercise undertaken by the international community following the unimaginable atrocities of the Second World War, particularly the Holocaust.
Out of the ashes of the League of Nations, the United Nations was born and became the first significant attempt by the international community to codify rules to protect human rights. The United Nations Charter, signed in 1945, signified that the rights of human beings were a matter of international concern, since a stated purpose of the United Nations was ‘to achieve international cooperation … in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’. Moreover, it required the United Nations to promote ‘universal respect for and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all …’ and provided that Member States should ‘pledge themselves to take joint and separate action’ to achieve these aims.
At first glance, the UN Charter seems to offer little by way of human rights. The Charter’s language is vague, as it fails to define ‘human rights and fundamental freedoms’. The scope of the words ‘promote’ (Article 55) and ‘pledge’ (Article 56) is unclear, and there has been disagreements as to whether these Articles impose legal obligations on States. Despite these defects, the UN Charter is significant because it recognises, formally, that human rights have an international dimension and are no longer solely a matter falling within the exclusive jurisdiction of a State. Furthermore, it granted the United Nations the legal authority to embark upon a codification of human rights which led to the drafting of what was the world’s first international human rights document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This document is the basic international pronouncement of the inalienable and inviolable rights of all members of the human family. The Declaration was proclaimed in a resolution of the General Assembly on 10 December 1948 as the “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” in respect for human rights. It lists numerous rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural – to which people everywhere are entitled. The Declaration contains, in addition to its preamble, thirty articles that outline people’s universal rights. Some of the rights championed by the Declaration are:
• The right to life, liberty and security of person
• the right to an education
• right to participate fully in cultural life
• freedom from torture or cruel, inhumane treatment or punishment
• freedom of thought, conscience and religion
The United Nations has taken a lead in developing a plethora of instruments which include:
• Universal Declaration of Human Rights
• Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crimes of Genocide
• International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
• International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
• Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
• Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment
• Convention on the Rights of the Child
History of Human Rights
Rights that belong to an individual as a consequence of being human.
The term came into wide use after World War II, replacing the earlier phrase “natural rights,” which had been associated with the Greco-Roman concept of natural law since the end of the Middle Ages. As understood today, human rights refer to a wide variety of values and capabilities reflecting the diversity of human circumstances and history. They are conceived of as universal, applying to all human beings everywhere, and as fundamental, referring to essential or basic human needs.
Human rights have been classified historically in terms of the notion of three “generations” of human rights. The first generation of civil and political rights, associated with the Enlightenment and the English, American, and French revolutions, includes the rights to life and liberty and the rights to freedom of speech and worship. The second generation of economic, social, and cultural rights, associated with revolts against the predations of unregulated capitalism from the mid-19th century, includes the right to work and the right to an education. Finally, the third generation of solidarity rights, associated with the political and economic aspirations of developing and newly decolonized countries after World War II, includes the collective rights to political self-determination and economic development.
Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, many treaties and agreements for the protection of human rights have been concluded through the auspices of the United Nations, and several regional systems of human rights law have been established. In the late 20th century ad hoc international criminal tribunals were convened to prosecute serious human rights violations and other crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The International Criminal Court, which came into existence in 2002, is empowered to prosecute crimes against humanity, crimes of genocide, and war crimes.
UN Human Rights Council.
The 47-nation UN Human Rights Council will replace the current 53-country UN Human Rights Commission. The existing body has been heavily criticised for having countries with poor human rights records as members.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan welcomed what he called an “historic resolution… that gives the United Nations a much-needed chance to make a new beginning in its work for human rights around the world”.
The resolution, which had been negotiated over many months by Assembly President Jan Eliasson, was approved by 170 members of the 191-nation assembly.
Three nations abstained. Israel, Marshall Islands and Palau joined the US in voting against the plan.
The new council will comprise members who are elected by secret ballot by an absolute majority of the General Assembly. There will be periodic reviews of membership, and any state accused of systematic human rights violations could be suspended.