Introduction

We are living in an era of dramatic change and transition, in a world that is being transformed by complex financial systems and revolutionary information technologies into a vast global marketplace. Globalization is creating new patterns of interaction among people and States, promising unprecedented opportunities for material progress in larger freedom, but also threatening to compound many existing challenges before the international community while deepening the economic marginalization of those most vulnerable. In this complex scenario, human rights, which were embedded formally at the United Nations as a great international priority 50 years ago -- by means of the December 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- have gained prominence as a universally recognized set of norms and standards that increasingly inform all aspects of our relations as individuals and as collective members of groups, within communities and among nations. There is now near-universal recognition that respect for human rights -- the rights of political choice and association, of opinion and expression, and of culture; the freedom from fear and from all forms of discrimination and prejudice; freedom from want and the right to employment and well-being and, collectively, to development -- is essential to the sustainable achievement of the three agreed global priorities of peace, development and democracy.

Since its creation in 1945, the United Nations has overseen the codification of human rights in a major effort to move them from the realm of ethical guidelines to that of binding law. (For a listing of United Nations landmark events in the area of human rights, click on the Chronology button on the sidebar.) With the standard-setting work in international human rights law nearly complete, the United Nations is now concentrating efforts and marshalling resources to implement legislation. The Organization seeks to ensure the compliance of Member States and to effectively promote a global culture of human rights through a number of practical strategies:

The United Nations continues to reorient its human rights programme to respond more effectively to today's challenges, whether they arise as massive human rights violations, systematic political oppression or persist in more complex and pervasive forms of discrimination -- affecting the right to development or the right to a healthy environment, for example. However, it is internationally recognized that the prime responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights remains with Member States. For this reason, in order to strengthen human rights at the national level, the United Nations has greatly expanded its human rights work in the field. Through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the focal point for all system-wide integration of human rights activities, the United Nations assists Governments and other national and international partners in their promotion and protection of human rights. Strengthening international human rights law and increasing accountability of individuals and Member States in the area of human rights are crucial steps towards an effective implementation of human rights standards. All these complementary approaches advance and enhance United Nations efforts to create a global culture of human rights.