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Understanding human rights

Every individual has dignity. The principles of human rights were drawn up by human beings as a way of ensuring that the dignity of everyone is properly and equally respected, that is, to ensure that a human being will be able to fully develop and use human qualities such as intelligence, talent and conscience and satisfy his or her spiritual and other needs.

Dignity gives an individual a sense of value and worth. The existence of human rights demonstrates that human beings are aware of each other’s worth. Human dignity is not an individual, exclusive and isolated sense. It is a part of our common humanity.

Human rights enable us to respect each other and live with each other. In other words, they are not only rights to be requested or demanded but rights to be respected and be responsible for. The rights that apply to you also apply to others.

The denial of human rights and fundamental freedoms not only is an individual and personal tragedy, but also creates conditions of social and political unrest, sowing the seeds of violence and conflict within and between societies and nations.

Human rights are set out as principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A declaration is not legally binding. It lays out principles and objectives and carries moral weight.

However, a large number of laws and legal documents are based on the principles set forth by the Universal Declaration. 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.

A covenant, convention or treaty, unlike a declaration, has the force of law. Those who sign the document, called the signatories, have not only a moral obligation but a legal obligation to respect its terms. A covenant, convention or treaty is signed between states. Once it is signed, it must be ratified by the signatories. This means, that the treaty must be accepted by the country’s own parliament or equivalent legislative body. Then it becomes law.

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.

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.

There are six committees within the UN system that try and check to see whether countries comply with the human rights treaties they have signed. These are called ‘treaty monitoring bodies’. These are:
    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
The committees may call upon Governments to respond to allegations and may adopt decisions and publish them along with criticisms or recommendations.

Over the years, the United Nations has developed different methods to investigate human rights abuses and to press for remedial action.

Experts known as special rapporteurs or representatives gather facts, visit prisons, interview victims, and make recommendations on how to increase respect for human rights. They investigate situations in specific countries and conduct thematic studies on such issues as torture, religious intolerance, racism, the sale of children and violence against women. Each year they send thousands of urgent cables to Governments requesting the release of prisoners, the commutation of death sentences or other vital action.

Working groups have been established to investigate such issues as involuntary disappearances and arbitrary detention. Their reports highlighting human rights violations help to mobilize international attention.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights coordinates the UN human rights programme and promotes universal respect for human rights. Human rights activities in the United Nations are coordinated by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. The Office, services the UN Commission on Human Rights and most UN human rights treaty bodies. Every year, the Office receives about 400,000 complaints of human rights violations.

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adapted from United Nations Publication DPI/1967 98-03917 March 1998 25M
and ABC: Teaching Human Rights, United Nations Publications.

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