Human rights are universal: they are the birthright of every member of the human family. No one has to earn or deserve human rights. Unlike civil rights, which a monarch or government may grant to individuals by virtue of their citizenship or residence in a particular country, human rights are inherent and held as attributes of the human personality.
Human rights are inalienable: you cannot lose these rights any more than you can cease to be a human being. Human rights are indivisible: you cannot be denied a right because someone decides that it is “less important” or “non-essential.” Human rights are interdependent: all human rights are part of a complementary framework.
Human Rights History
Although human rights were principally defined and codified in the twentieth century, human rights values are rooted in the wisdom literature, traditional values, and religious teachings of almost every culture. For example, the Hindu Vedas, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, the Bible, the Quran (Koran), and the Analects of Confucius all address questions of peoples’ duties, rights, and responsibilities. It took the catalyst of World War II to propel human rights onto the global stage and into the global conscience.
Documents asserting individual rights, such the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (1791) are the written precursors to many of today’s human rights conventions. Yet many of these documents, when originally translated into policy, excluded women, people of color, and members of certain social, religious, economic, and political groups. Nevertheless, oppressed people throughout the world have drawn on the principles these documents express to support revolutions that assert the right to self-determination.
Contemporary international human rights law and the establishment of the United Nations (UN) have important historical antecedents. Efforts in the 19th century to prohibit the slave trade and to limit the horrors of war are prime examples. In 1919, countries established the International Labor Organization (ILO) to oversee treaties protecting workers with respect to their rights, including their health and safety. Concern over the protection of certain minority groups was raised by the League of Nations at the end of the First World War. The League floundered in part because the United States refused to join and because the League failed to prevent Japan’s invasion of China and Manchuria (1931) and Italy’s attack on Ethiopia (1935). It finally died with the onset of the Second World War (1939).
The Birth of the United Nations
The idea of human rights emerged stronger after World War II. The extermination by Nazi Germany of over six million Jews, Sinti and Romani (gypsies), homosexuals, and persons with disabilities horrified the world. Trials were held in Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II, and officials from the defeated countries were punished for committing war crimes, “crimes against peace,” and “crimes against humanity.” At the same time countries in Asia and Africa under colonial domination of European empires were struggling to obtain their independence and recognition as fully entitled citizens.
Following World War II governments committed themselves to establishing the United Nations, with the primary goal of bolstering international peace and preventing conflict. Calls came from across the globe for human rights standards by which nations could be held accountable for their treatment of those living within their borders. These voices played a critical role in the San Francisco meeting that drafted the United Nations Charter in 1945.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
In signing the Charter, member states of the United Nations pledged to promote respect for the human rights of all. To advance this goal, the UN established a Commission on Human Rights to create a document codifying the fundamental rights and freedoms proclaimed in the Charter. Guided by Eleanor Roosevelt, the Commission drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
The UDHR was adopted by the 56 members of the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, a date now celebrated as International Human Rights Day. The vote was unanimous, although eight nations chose to abstain. Its Preamble eloquently asserts that:
[R]ecognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.
The Human Rights Covenants
In international law a declaration is a non-binding statement of intent without enforcement provisions. Therefore, immediately after the adoption of the UDHR, the Commission on Human Rights took up the task of establishing a treaty that would make the principles enshrined in the UDHR legally binding on the UN member states that ratified it. However, the political climate had changed damatically since the founding of the UN, and former allies were now engaged in the Cold War, in a power struggle between the so-called West Bloc of capitalist countries and the East Bloc of the Soviet Union and its communist allies. After nearly twenty years of negotiations the Commission was unable to draft one unitary document acceptable to both sides of the ideological divide. Instead two separate treaties evolved and were adopted by the General Assembly in 1966: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
The ICCPR principally restrains governments from violating individual rights such as the right to life, freedom of speech, religion, and voting. The ICESCR focuses on such issues as food, education, health, and shelter and obligates governments to secure these rights for everyone. Both Covenants assert the extension of rights to all persons and prohibit discrimination. Today most UN Member States have ratified both Covenants. The United States, however, has ratified only the ICCPR, and even that with many reservations, or formal exceptions, to its full compliance.
In the nearly two decades between the adoption of the UDHR in 1948 and that of the Covenants in 1966, the UDHR gained great authority as the world’s primary human right document. The language of its thirty articles is easily understood and its principles universally aspired to. During this period the Universal Declaration achieved the status of customary international law because people everywhere regard it “as a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations.”
International and Regional Human Rights Documents
Building on the foundation of he Covenants and UDHR, the United Nations has adopted more than twenty principal treaties further elaborating human rights. Some conventions prevent and prohibit specific abuses like torture and genocide and others protect especially vulnerable populations, such as refugees (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951), women (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979), children (Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989), and people with disabilities (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006).
Complementing the UN human rights framework, governments joined to develop regional human rights treaties. For example:
- the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights (1981) of the African Union (AU)
- the United Nations American Convention on Human Rights (1969) of the Organization of American States (OAS)
- the European Convention on Human Rights, (1950) of the Council of Europe.
Steps in the Evolution of Human Rights Conventions
Before they become codified as binding law, human rights concepts must pass through a lengthy process that involves consensus building and practical politics at the international and national levels.
- Advocated by activists. The first steps almost always starts with concerned citizens who make themselves heard locally, nationally, and internationally, often acting through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Responding to their pressure, governments propose a new human rights documents to the General Assembly.
- Drafted by working groups. The General Assembly establishes a working group consisting of government representatives of UN member states, as well as representatives of NGOs and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
- Adopted by vote of the UN. General Assembly.
- Signed by member states. When member states sign a convention, they are indicating that they have begun the process required by their government for ratification. In signing, they also are agreeing to refrain from acts that would be contrary to the objectives of the convention.
- Ratified by member states. When a member state ratifies a convention, it signifies its intention to comply with the specific provisions and obligations of the document. It takes on the responsibility to see that its national laws are in agreement with the convention. It also agrees to report regularly on its progress in implementing the convention. There is a process by which states can ratify the convention, but indicate reservations about specific articles.In the United States, the process towards ratification begins when the President endorses the document by signing it. It is then submitted to the Senate, along with any recommendations. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee first considers it, conducting hearings to monitor public reaction. The Committee then may recommend the convention, sometimes with reservations or qualifications. Sometimes new legislation might have to be enacted in order to implement the convention. Next the full Senate considers the convention. If it approves the convention, the President finally submits a formal ratification notice to the UN.
- Entered into force. A convention goes into effect when a certain number of member states have ratified it. For example, the ICCPR and ICESCR were adopted in 1966; however, they did not enter into force until 1976 when the specified number of thirty-five member states had ratified each of them. The United States did not ratify the ICCPR until 1992.
Example: The Rights of the Child from Declaration to Convention
The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides an example of the evolution of a UN Convention. Many NGOs had long advocated for a treaty that specifically recognized the rights of children. In 1959, a working group drafted the Declaration on the Rights of the Child, which consisted of ten non-binding principles that set forth basic rights to which all children should be entitled.
The next step was to define and codify these principles in a legally binding convention. The drafting process lasted nine years, during which representatives of governments, intergovernmental organizations and specialized agencies (e.g., UNICEF, UNESCO, the International Committee of the Red Cross), and nongovernmental organizations (e.g., Save the Children, the Girl Scouts) worked together to create consensus on the language of the convention.
The draft Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the General Assembly in 1989 and was immediately signed by more nations in a shorter period of time than any other UN convention. It was ratified by sixty-one states and as a result entered into force in 1990. Since then the total number of member states that have ratified the CRC has surpassed that of all other conventions. As of Fall 2000, only two member states had not ratified it: Somalia and the United States.
The On-Going Evolution of Human Rights
Like all law, the human rights framework is a work-in-progress, continually being reinterpreted and amplified as circumstances change and understanding deepens. For example, when the UDHR was written in 1948, few people were aware of the dangers of environmental degradation, and consequentially this document makes no reference to the environment at all. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, activists and governments are working to draft a new treaty linking human rights to a safe environment.
Many recent developments in human rights go beyond the original concept of the individual rights to embrace collective rights, the rights of groups to protect their interests and identities. For example the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP, 2007) specifically addresses Indigenous Peoples’ collective right to their distinctive cultures, their traditional lands and natural resources, and their traditional knowledge.
Globally the advocates for both these new developments in human rights and the enforcement of existing law have most often been citizens rather than government officials. In particular nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have played a cardinal role in focusing the international community on human rights issues. Some of them are large international organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that deal with the whole scope of human rights; other are small, local, and focused on a single issue. Regardless of the their size or the scope of their work, nongovernmental organizations make the voices ordinary citizens heard in international decision making and can influence government laws and policies.
As he left the office of UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan observed that what the world needed was not more human rights but the realization of existing human rights in the lives of the people of the world. The same NGOs who play such an important role in creating new human rights documents are also their chief guardians, monitoring the actions of governments and pressuring them to act according to human rights principles
Human rights is an idea whose time has come. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a call to freedom and justice for people throughout the world. Every day governments that violate the rights of their citizens are challenged and called to account. Every day human beings worldwide mobilize and confront injustice and inhumanity. Like drops of water falling on a rock, they wear down the forces of oppression and move the world closer to achieving the principles expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
 For a more detailed discussion of the human rights framework, see Understanding Human Rights: Manual on Human Rights Education, p. 27.