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United Nations Global Issues

Human Rights

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. 

Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.  Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

International human rights law lays down the obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.

Since its establishment in 1945, one of the fundamental goals of the United Nations has been promoting and encouraging respect for human rights for all, as stipulated in the United Nations Charter

“Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom… Now, therefore the General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations…”

- Preamble, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 by General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected. Since its adoption in 1948, the UDHR has been translated into more than 360 languages – the most translated document in the world - and has inspired the constitutions of many newly independent States and many new democracies. The UDHR, together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols (on the complaints procedure and on the death penalty) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and its Optional Protocol, form the so-called International Bill of Human Rights.

A series of international human rights treaties and other instruments adopted since 1945 have expanded the body of international human rights law.  They include the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006), among others. 

The United Nations works actively to define, monitor and assist Member States with the implementation of international human rights standards.  The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has lead responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights, and for implementing the human rights programme within the UN. 

The UN Security Council, which has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, also deals with grave human rights violations, such as the use of child soldiers (Resolution 1612, 2005) and the use of rape as a weapon of war (Resolution 1820, 2008).

The General Assembly has since 1948 adopted some 80 human rights treaties and declarations, such as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998) and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).

Each year the General Assembly’s Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee examines a range of issues, including human rights questions.  The Committee hears reports by human rights experts.  It also discusses the advancement of women, the protection of children, indigenous issues, the treatment of refugees, the promotion of fundamental freedoms through the elimination of racism and racial discrimination and the promotion of the right to self- determination. 

Human rights mechanisms established by the UN monitor the implementation of human rights standards worldwide.  They include the Human Rights Council, the “Special Procedures” with thematic or country-specific mandates and the core human rights treaty bodies.

The Human Rights Council, established on 15 March 2006 by the General Assembly and reporting directly to it, replaced the 60-year-old UN Commission on Human Rights as the key UN intergovernmental body responsible for human rights.  The Council is made up of 47 State representatives and is tasked with strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe by addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them, including responding to human rights emergencies. Through its Universal Periodic Review mechanism, the Council assesses the human rights situation in all 192 UN Member States.  It also continues to work closely with the UN Special Procedures established by the former Commission on Human Rights. 

Special Procedures” are either an individual – a special rapporteur or representative -- or a working group. They are prominent, independent experts working on a voluntary basis, appointed by the Human Rights Council. They examine, monitor, advise and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries or territories, or on major human rights violations worldwide, such as arbitrary detention, extrajudicial executions, torture, child prostitution, or denial of rights such as the rights to food, adequate housing, safe water, freedom of expression, education and others.

Most of the core human rights treaties have an oversight body which is responsible for reviewing the implementation of that treaty by the countries that have ratified it.  These bodies – such as the Committee on the Rights of the Child (which oversees the Convention on the Rights of the Child) and the Committee Against Torture (for the Convention Against Torture) meet several times a year in Geneva or New York. Individuals, whose rights have been violated can currently file complaints directly to Committees overseeing four human rights treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Judicial organs in the United Nations family, including the International Criminal Court, and specialized criminal tribunals, such as the ones for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, established by the Security Council, work to ensure justice and individual accountability in cases of gross human rights violations.