A Rough Guide to Human Rights

The goal of the Universal Rights Group (URG) is to contribute to the full realisation of the rights and freedoms contained in the universal human rights instruments by supporting better and more effective policy-making and improved implementation in the international human rights system. But what are universal human rights and what is the international human rights system? The evolution of universal human rights has been one of humankind’s greatest endeavours and most important achievements. The idea that all human beings are born with certain inalienable rights and liberties has existed, in various forms, throughout recorded human history and across many societies and civilisations. The historic development of human rights is often identified with the evolution of Western liberal political and philosophical thought, but a different reading can equally show important human rights-related principles such as respect for others and concern for their well-being as having a basis in Confucian, Hindu and Buddhist traditions, while religious texts like the Torah, Bible and Koran can be interpreted as conferring rights as well as duties. The standard Western account of the tradition of human rights focuses on the influence of philosophical works by men like John Locke (Second Treatise of Government, 1690), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (the Social Contract, 1762) and Thomas Paine (Rights of Man, 1791) which in-turn had a profound influence upon important moments in history including the adoption of the American Declaration of Independence (1776), the adoption of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), the abolition of slavery, and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Today’s international human rights system is heir to these seminal ideas and moments in time. That system was built in the aftermath of the Second World War as part of the new United Nations (UN) organisation. Participants in the first meetings of the Commission on Human Rights (the main UN body charged with promoting human rights, established under Article 68 of the UN Charter) envisioned a human rights system built upon two interrelated and interdependent pillars. Firstly, it established international human rights norms codified in an International Bill of Human Rights consisting of a declaration of principles and one or more treaties. After ratification by governments, these norms would become legally binding obligations. Secondly, to realise those norms, ‘measures of implementation’ were put in place such as international institutions, mechanisms and processes.

Human rights norms become the norm

The development of international human rights norms has been one of the great success stories of the UN. The first major achievement was the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly on 10 December 1948 – “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”. Building on this first step, the UN went on to adopt the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (both in 1966), and six other core conventions (so called because they take their inspiration from the provisions enshrined in the Universal Declaration). With adoption and widespread ratification by States of these legally binding covenants and conventions (known as ‘hard law’), and the elaboration of other human rights instruments such as declarations, resolutions, guiding principles and codes of conduct (known as ‘soft law’), the international community has moved to create a comprehensive global code of human rights norms governing practically every area of the relationship between the individual and the State. Crucially, this normative code enshrines the principle of universality – i.e. the notion that human rights are inherent to all people everywhere. This principle, first emphasised in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights with the words “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”, has been reiterated in numerous international human rights conventions, declarations and resolutions. The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, for example, underlined the consensus of the international community that “the universality of these rights and freedoms is beyond question”.

It’s the implementation, stupid

Establishing effective measures of implementation has proved far more difficult to conceptualise and achieve. Even though important steps have been taken, the quest to establish such measures remains, to this day, the key challenge facing the international human rights system. The problem of implementation in the international human rights system is, at heart, a problem of politics and political will. A persistent barrier to progress is ongoing disagreement over whether the system is able to protect human rights, or merely to promote human rights. This political question emerged at the time of the drafting of the UN Charter, and continues to this day, although States’ positions in the debate have altered. In the 1940s, as a result of national preoccupations concerning the human rights implications of colonialism (in the case of Great Britain and France) and issues of segregation and racial discrimination (in the case of the United States), the major Western powers took the position that the UN could only promote rather than actively protect human rights. So, it was that the UN Commission on Human Rights from its creation in 1945 until the early 1960s declined to address gross or systematic violations of human rights – despite receiving thousands of petitions from around the world. It focused instead on developing reporting procedures and establishing Treaty Bodies to promote the implementation of the norms set-out in the new conventions (i.e. the ‘promotion’ mandate). Things did not change until the mid-1960s when a new influx of recently independent countries began to press the UN to deal with allegations of gross violations of human rights in colonial and dependent territories and in Apartheid South Africa. Thus, in 1967 the Commission on Human Rights adopted a more proactive approach, deciding to hold an annual consideration on the question of human rights violations in any part of the world. This led to an annual debate on the item, the establishment of working groups and rapporteurs, and the adoption of condemnatory resolutions on matters of concern. Today, an array of ‘measures of implementation’ – institutions, mechanisms and processes – is in place to ensure that the principles laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights result in real on the ground improvements in the enjoyment of human rights. These measures or mechanisms are often divided into so-called Charter-based bodies (bodies established from provisions of the UN Charter) and treaty-based bodies (created under the international human rights treaties). Charter-based bodies consist of the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms: Special Procedures, Universal Periodic Review and the Human Rights Council Complaint Procedure. Treaty-based bodies – or ‘treaty bodies’ – are committees made up of independent experts mandated to monitor States parties’ compliance with their treaty obligations. In addition to these dedicated UN-based human rights mechanisms, a range of other UN bodies, international organisations and regional human rights system play an important role in implementing the standards set out in the International Bill of Rights.

URG Rough Guides

Explore our ‘rough guides’ for an introduction to the key components of the international human rights system… 

Screen Shot 2015-11-27 at 9.42.50 AM Screen Shot 2015-11-27 at 9.45.17 AMScreen Shot 2015-11-27 at 9.48.28 AM

Screen Shot 2015-11-27 at 9.44.22 AMScreen Shot 2015-11-27 at 9.44.53 AM