Welcome to the United Nations. It's your world.

Resources for Speakers on Global Issues

Human Rights for All

Making Progress

The Development of the Human Rights Framework

The history of human rights has been shaped by all major world events and by the struggle for dignity, freedom and equality everywhere. Yet it was only with the establishment of the United Nations that human rights finally achieved formal, universal recognition.

The turmoil and atrocities of the Second World War and the growing s truggle of colonial nations for independence prompted the countries of the world to create a forum to deal with some of the war’s consequences and, in particular, to prevent the recurrence of such appalling events. This forum was the United Nations. When the United Nations was founded in 1945, it reaffirmed the faith in human rights of all the peoples taking part. Human rights were cited in the founding Charter as central to their concerns and have remained so ever since.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Photo Robert Few.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Photo: Robert Few.

One of the first major achievements of the newly formed United Nations was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. This powerful instrument continues to exert an enormous impact on people’s lives all over the world. It was the first time in history that a document considered to have universal value was adopted by an international organization. It was also the first time that human rights and fundamental freedoms were set forth in such detail.

There was broad-based international support for the Declaration when it was adopted. Although the fifty-eight Member States that constituted the United Nations at that time varied in terms of their ideology, political system, religious and cultural background, and patterns of socio-economic development, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights represented a common statement of shared goals and aspirations – a vision of the world as the international community would like it to be.

The Declaration recognizes that the “inherent dignity … of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” and is linked to the recognition of the fundamental rights to which every human being aspires, namely the right to life, liberty and security of person; the right to an adequate standard of living; the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution; the right to own property; the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right to education; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and the right to freedom from torture and degrading treatment, among others. These are inherent rights to be enjoyed by all inhabitants of the global village (women, men, children and all groups in society, whether disadvantaged or not) and not “gifts” to be withdrawn, withheld or granted at someone’s whim or will.

Promoting human rights

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights have become central to the work of the United Nations. Within the system, human rights are furthered by a myriad of different mechanisms and procedures: by working groups and committees; by reports, studies and statements; by conferences, plans and programmes; by decades for action; by research and training; by voluntary and trust funds; by assistance of many kinds at the global, regional and local levels; by specific measures taken; by investigations conducted; and by the many procedures devised to promote and protect human rights.

Moratoriums on the use of the death penalty

Developments on the question of the death penalty suggest a sustained trend towards abolition. A number of States are engaging in national and regional debates on whether to lift existing moratoriums or to abolish the death penalty altogether, while others have gradually restricted its use. More than two-thirds of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty.

UN Secretary-General’s report on
the question of the death penalty (A/HRC/15/19)

Action to build a culture of human rights is also supported by United Nations specialized agencies, programmes and funds such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) and by relevant departments of the United Nations Secretariat such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Other international, regional and national bodies, both governmental and non-governmental, are also working to promote human rights.

At the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna, Austria, in 1993, 171 countries reiterated the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights, and reaffirmed their commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They adopted the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, which provides the new “framework of planning, dialogue and cooperation” to facilitate the adoption of a holistic approach to promoting human rights and to involve actors at the local, national and international levels.

History of the UN Human Rights Programme

The UN human rights programme has grown considerably since its modest beginnings some 60 years ago. Organizationally, it started with a small division in the UN Secretariat in New York in the 1940s. The division later moved to Geneva and was upgraded to the Centre for Human Rights in the 1980s. At the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, Member States decided to establish a more robust human rights institution, and later that year the General Assembly passed a resolution establishing the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This resolution transformed the Centre for Human Rights into the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), with a wide-ranging mandate and primary responsibility in the United Nations system for human rights. Twelve years later, at the 2005 UN World Summit, Heads of State from around the world committed themselves to an historic expansion of the UN human rights programme that recognized the central role and importance of ensuring a human rights approach in all aspects of the work of the United Nations system as a whole; this also linked the three pillars of the organization’s role—peace and security, development and human rights.

The growth in UN human rights activities reflects the increasing strength of the international human rights movement since the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. The Declaration, together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two optional protocols, along with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, form the “International Bill of Human Rights.”

As international human rights law developed, a number of UN human rights bodies were established to respond to evolving human rights challenges. These bodies, which rely on the High Commissioner’s Office for substantive and secretariat support, can be either Charter-based (political bodies composed of states’ representatives, with mandates established by the UN Charter) or treaty-based (committees composed of independent experts, established by international human rights treaties and mandated to monitor States Parties’ compliance with their treaty obligations). The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which was established in 1946 and reported to the Economic and Social Council, was the key United Nations inter-governmental body responsible for human rights until it was replaced by the Human Rights Council in 2006. In addition to assuming the mandates and responsibilities previously entrusted to the Commission, the Council reports and recommends to the General Assembly ways of further developing international human rights law. Two years after its first session the Council operationalized the newest international human rights mechanism, the Universal Periodic Review.