How the Global South shaped the international human rights system

by Steven L. B. Jensen, Researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights and the URG team Blog, By invitation, By invitation, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes

steven jensen photo2016 is a landmark year for the UN human rights system. Looking back, the UN is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the two International Human Rights Covenants, and the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Human Rights Council. Looking forward, the international community is beginning to wrestle with future challenges such as how to promote and protect the enjoyment of human rights as a key contribution to the realisation of the new Sustainable Development Goals, and how the Human Rights Council and the wider human rights pillar fit within the overall UN architecture (a review of this question is due to take place in 2021).

In fact, these two perceptions – one backwards, one forwards – are of course linked. The international community cannot successfully confront future challenges without a clear sense of where it has come from.

This raises the importance of history. It is important, I believe, to use the various commemorations and reflections that are taking place this year to also remind ourselves about the history of the UN human rights system and, in particular, to use that history lessons to smash a few damaging misconceptions about the genesis of that system.

The standard narrative about the genesis and early evolution of the UN human rights system typically presents human rights as a Western project promoted by Western States. Yet this presumption belies the truth.

The idea that the system was conceived of and pushed by the West, often against the will of the Global South, is probably based on an historical over-emphasis on the 1940s and the 1970s – when Western States indeed played key roles, and a concurrent amnesia regarding the pivotal decades in between.

The result of that collective amnesia or selective memory is to downplay. or delete entirely, an important truth: that much of the international human rights system we see today – from the conventions to the declarations, and from the institutions to the mechanisms, was built by, or at least shaped by, States of the Global South.

Especially during the 1960s, these States combined a strong commitment to universal human rights with a remarkable level of multilateral diplomatic skill and ambition, (often in the face of opposition from the West and the Soviet Bloc) to drive important legal and political change.

The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) was a remarkable normative and intellectual achievement, but it was also a document with its ‘wings clipped.’ There were strong political forces at the time determined to ensure that it would have little real-world impact. Those forces included not just countries of the Soviet Bloc or apartheid South Africa, but also major Western powers.

For example, during the first United Nations organisational review in 1950 and 1951, the UK wanted to close down the UN Commission on Human Rights and – alongside the US – the (soon to be important) Sub-Commission on Prevention on Discrimination. Such repressive steps would have set the UN and the international human rights system on a very different political trajectory to the one it has subsequently taken. Indeed, they may have called into question the very existence of that system. Which were the States that successfully blocked the Transatlantic powers? It was developing countries including the Philippines, Chile, Egypt, Mexico and Haiti.

More decisively, in the 1960s, countries such as Jamaica, Liberia, Ghana, the Philippines and Costa Rica fundamentally reoriented the international human rights system and secured important breakthroughs in international human rights law. For example, they brokered agreement on international implementation measures, a key component of the International Bill of Rights – measures that would transcend the barriers of sovereignty that had hitherto proven a formidable barrier to the universal promotion of human rights.

A picture from the session of the First World Conference on Human Rights held in 1968 organised upon a Jamaican initiative. 

Session of the First World Conference on Human Rights, held in 1968, organised upon a Jamaican initiative. © United Nations Photos.

The adoption of the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was a key moment in this story, as were the 1966 adoptions of the Human Rights Covenants. These achievements was part of a wave of a forceful multilateral human rights diplomacy driven forward by States of the Global South.

These countries redefined and elevated the UN’s human rights work, with a renewed focus on racial discrimination and the elimination of religious intolerance. They also pushed the boundaries of what was possible in terms of engaging with NGOs and regional human rights mechanisms, thereby opening up UN forums and debates to wider participation. They were also in the vanguard of a comprehensive UN debate, which lasted from 1963 to 1968, on the construction of a global human rights system that would operate, simultaneously, at international, regional and national levels. These were not small issues.

At first sight, it might appear that the countries of the Global South were not overly successful in their efforts. They faced formidable obstacles, including from a sceptical Western Group. (The widely-held misconcption that it was the West which drove the development of the universal system has taken hold in-part because the fruits of th 1960s initiaitves of developing countries only took hold and bore fruit in the 1970s, by which time the Western position had indeed shifted.) The real story of the UN human rights system, seen from a 1960s and a Global South perspective, is one where progress was driven by developing countries and, in essence, that progress was then ‘left on the doorstep’ of the 1970s to be taken up by the West.

Put bluntly, the human rights movement has for too long claimed that human rights are universal, but has then proceeded to present a narrow and biased version of this universality narrative. This is problematic, because when it comes to debating the universality of human rights, the historic evolution of the UN human rights system is not a thing of the past – it is rather a history of the present, with echoes still heard and felt today in 2016. It is time to embrace these forgotten histories. 2016 should not only be a year of commemoration, it should be a year of remembering and using that knowledge to inform the next great leaps for the international human rights system.


Steven L. B. Jensen is the author of The Making of International Human Rights. The 1960, Decolonization and the Reconstruction of Global Values recently published by Cambridge University Press. He is the winner of the 2015 Rene Cassin Thesis Prize and works as researcher at The Danish Institute for Human Rights.


Featured image:  The Ad Hoc Working Group of Experts – body created by the Commission on Human Rights in 1967 – investigating violations in Southern Africa. 1970. © United Nations Photos.

The feature image can be found in Steven L. B. Jensen’s new book, The Making of International Human Rights. The 1960, Decolonization and the Reconstruction of Global Values,” launched at the UNOG library at 4pm on 16th March 2016.

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