Learn more about Human Rights
Human rights are legally guaranteed in a set of binding treaties and conventions. They cover civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. All human rights are universal, interdependent, inter-related and indivisible. The first major international human rights document was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). This document laid out all of the basic rights and freedoms. However, this is a non-binding declaration. In other words, although it can be used to explain the foundation of human rights and human rights principles, the articles in the UDHR are not legally enforceable. Member states could not come to consensus on the document, so, rather than have the whole thing collapse, the international community decided to split the document into two halves to ensure that each would gather the necessary signatures to come into force.
The divide was simple – countries in the West wanted civil and political rights and were not as in favour of economic, social, and cultural rights, while countries in the East favoured economic, social, and cultural rights and would not sign legally binding treaties for civil and political rights. Hence two separate treaties were created in 1966: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Civil and political rights tend to be viewed as 'negative' rights), requiring governments to cease doing something (for example, repealing laws which allow for torture). Economic, social, and cultural rights tend to be seen as 'positive' rights, requiring governments to start doing something (for example, providing state subsidised schools). Since 1966, numerous treaties, declarations and other legal instruments have been adopted. These legally enforceable documents contain what we call 'human rights'.
These legally enforceable rights bind governments who have ratified the treaty or convention in question to the individuals or groups of individuals living within that State. Governments are thus obligated to respect, protect, and fulfil the rights guaranteed within. Although normally a violation occurs between an individual and their government, globalisation is pushing the international community to consider whether a foreign government can violate the rights of individuals or groups.
To read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in your language, click here. 379 languages available!
Monitoring human rights
Monitoring takes place in two primary ways: States reporting and the subsequent review, and, for some rights, individual complaints. Each major international human rights treaty provides for what is called a treaty monitoring body. These bodies meet regularly to review and comment on State reports. Some of the treaties (CCPR, CERD, CAT, and CEDAW) empower the treaty monitoring body to accept and review individual complaints. As part of the review of reports, the treaty monitoring bodies will give each State a set of written recommendations which must be followed up. Two treaty monitoring bodies may even initiate inquiries into a possible violation if the source is deemed credible. Treaty monitoring bodies also publish General Comments which help to clarify and interpret human rights articles and provisions.
The UN Human Rights system also uses a group of individual experts called 'Special Rapporteurs'. These experts are appointed for a set period of time and are tasked by the Human Rights Commission with researching and studying issues of concern, carrying out country visits, receiving and considering complaints from victims of human rights violations, and intervening with Governments on their behalf. In some cases, the experts also recommend programmes of technical cooperation.
International human rights law
There are eight core human rights instruments (and treaty bodies):
- The Human Rights Committee (CCPR) monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and its optional protocols;
- The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966);
- The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) monitors implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965);
- The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) and its optional protocol (1999);
- The Committee Against Torture (CAT) monitors implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (1984);
- The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) monitors implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and its optional protocols (2000); and
- The Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW) monitors implementation of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990).
- The Committee on the Right of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) monitors implementation of the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006).
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights publishes excellent resources to learn more.
Human rights principles and approaches
Human rights principles and approaches are not legally enforceable nor are they contained in binding international treaties or convention; rather, they are drawn from the foundations of human rights and illustrate the concepts that give rise to the legal rights. Principles and approaches are often used in the development of policies, laws, programmes, and projects. These include participation, non-discrimination, safeguarding dignity, paying particular attention to vulnerable groups, being transparent, and other similar concepts that all human rights have in common. We must be careful to differentiate between human rights principles and approaches and the legal meaning of human rights.
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