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Human Rights


In the Preamble to the Charter, "the peoples of the United Nations" express their determination "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small." Article 1 of the Charter states that one of the purposes of the UN is to promote and encourage "respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion." In Article 56, "all Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the Organization for the achievement" of this purpose. The Charter vests responsibility for assisting in the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms in three of the principal organs: the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, and the Trusteeship Council. The Charter also provides for the establishment of commissions for the promotion of human rights as subsidiary bodies of the Economic and Social Council. As early as 1946, two such commissions were created: the Commission on Human Rights and the Commission on the Status of Women.


At the San Francisco Conference, a proposal to embody an international bill of rights in the Charter itself was put forward but was not pursued because it required more detailed consideration. The idea of establishing an international bill of rights, however, was regarded as inherent in the Charter. Even before the Charter was ratified and had entered into force and before the UN as an organization was established, steps were taken toward this goal. The Preparatory Commission of the UN and its Executive Committee, meeting in the fall of 1945, both recommended that the work of the Commission on Human Rights should be directed, in the first place, toward the formulation of an international bill of rights. The General Assembly agreed with these recommendations in January 1946. Accordingly, when the terms of reference of the Commission on Human Rights were laid down in February 1946, "an international bill of rights" was the first item on its work program.

When the Commission on Human Rights and its drafting committee started work on this ambitious project, it turned out that there was disagreement among the members about the form that the draft bill of rights should take. Some members thought the bill should be a "declaration" or "manifesto" that would be proclaimed by a resolution of the General Assembly. Others urged that it take the form of an international treaty, which, in addition to being approved by the General Assembly, would have to be opened for signature and for ratification or accession by governments and would be binding only on those governments that had ratified it or acceded to it. The relevant report of the draft ing committee records that it was agreed by those who favored the declaration form that the declaration should be accompanied or followed by one or more conventions. It was also agreed by those who favored the convention form that the General Assembly, in recommending a convention to member nations, might make a declaration wider in content or more general in expression. As a consequence, draft s of a "declaration" and of a "convention" were prepared, and studies were undertaken for the creation of international supervisory and enforcement machinery, called "measures of implementation."

Eventually, the decision emerged that the international bill of rights should not be produced by one single, comprehensive, and final act but should consist of two or more international instruments, namely, a declaration and a convention (or covenant), and measures of implementation. Later, it was decided that there should be not one but two covenantsone on civil and political rights and the other on economic, social, and cultural rightsand that the provisions on the measures of implementation should be embodied in the texts of the covenants. The latter decision was modified somewhat in 1966, when the provisions regulating one specific aspect of the implementation arrangements, the right of petition (communication), were included in a separate optional protocol.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was prepared by the Commission on Human Rights in 1947 and 1948 and adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly on 10 December 1948 by a vote of 48 in favor, none against, with 6 abstentions. Two representatives were absent. One of them stated later that, if he had been present, he would have voted in favor.

The Universal Declaration consists of a preamble and 30 articles. It proclaimsand in this regard it differs from the traditional catalog of the rights of man that are contained in various constitutions and fundamental laws of the 18th and 19th centuries and the first decades of the 20th centurynot only civil and political rights but also rights that were eventually regulated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The declaration proclaims, in Article 1, that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and, in Article 2, that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the declaration "without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status" and that "no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty."

In Articles 3 to 21, the declaration deals with the traditional civil and political rights, including the right to life, liberty, and security of person; freedom from slavery and servitude; freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; equality before the law and equal protection of the law; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty; the right to protection against arbitrary interference with one's privacy, family, home, or correspondence and to protection against attacks upon one's honor and reputation; freedom of movement and residence; the right to leave any country, including one's own; the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution; the right to a nationality and the right to change one's nationality; the right of men and women of full age to marry, without any limitation due to race, nationality, or religion; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; the right to own property and not to be arbitrarily deprived of it; freedom of opinion and expression; the right to peaceful assembly and association; the right to take part in the government of one's country; and the right to equal access to public service.

Economic, social, and cultural rights (Articles 23 to 27) are introduced by Article 22, which states generally that "everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security" and is entitled to the realization of "economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality." The article implies, however, that those economic, social, and cultural rights are not everywhere and immediately achievable. It states that the "realization" of these rights is to be brought about "through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each state."

The declaration affirms everyone's right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work, and to protection against unemployment. It affirms the right of everyone to equal pay for equal work; to "just and favorable remuneration"; to form and join trade unions; to "a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family"; and to "rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay." It also proclaims "the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond [one's] control." Everyone has the right to education, which "shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages" and compulsory on the elementary level. The declaration affirms everyone's right "freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits."

Article 28 asserts that "everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized." In the exercise of individual rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law. Such limitations, according to Article 29, shall be "solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order, and the general welfare in a democratic society." Article 30 states that nothing in the declaration may be interpreted as implying for any state, group, or person "any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms" set forth in the declaration.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, not in the form of an international convention that, when ratified, is legally binding on the states that are parties to it, but in the form of a resolution of the General Assembly, as "a common understanding" of the rights and freedoms that member states have pledged themselves to respect and observe and as "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations." In the view of most of those who were instrumental in its preparation and adoption, the declaration was not meant to be a "binding" instrument. However, as soon as the declaration was adopted, it began to be used as a code of conduct and as a yardstick to measure the compliance by governments with the international standards of human rights.

In countless allegations of human rights violations that it has been called upon to examine, the UN has had recourse to the declaration, whether it was dealing with allegations of forced labor, with discrimination in non-self-governing and trust territories, with customs and practices inconsistent with the dignity of women, or with other violations of human rights. The declaration also has played an important role in the activities of specialized agencies, such as the ILO, UNESCO, and ITU, and in regional organizations, such as the OAS, the Council of Europe, and the OAU.

The declaration has thus acquired a validity beyond that originally contemplated in 1948. The international community, both the states that had been instrumental in its creation and those that later achieved independence, used the declaration for the purpose of fulfilling an assignment greater and more far-reaching than that originally carved out for it. Today, the declaration has acquired the status of customary international law and is valid for all states that have ratified it.

The International Covenants on Human Rights

The Commission on Human Rights, the Economic and Social Council, and the General Assembly devoted 19 years (194766) to the preparation of the International Covenants on Human Rights. One problem that created a considerable amount of controversy, particularly in the early years, was whether the treaty that would give legal effect to the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should regulate only those rights that traditionally have been guaranteed in national constitutions or catalogs of rights and are known as "civil and political rights" or whether the treaty should also set forth "economic, social and cultural rights."

As already indicated, it was eventually decided that there should be two covenants dealing with the two sets of provisions, respectively. The principal reason for having two separate instruments regulating the two groups of rights was the fundamentally different character of the rights concerned, which led some even to question whether "economic, social and cultural rights" are, technically, rights at allin the sense of enforceable and justiciable rights. The different character of these rights made it necessary to provide for a difference in the type of international obligations to be undertaken by states that are parties to one or the other, or both, of the two covenants. Another reason for establishing two different covenants was thought to be the necessity to adjust the arrangements for international supervisionthe "measures of implementation"to the different character of the rights.

In the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, each state party undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in that covenant. In the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, each state party undertakes only to take steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in that covenant. Subject to certain exceptions and modifications, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights imposes upon states parties the obligation to maintain defined standards. The states parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights assume the obligation to promote an objectivethe achievement of human rights.

By and large, the two covenants between them cover the rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as they have been described above, but there are considerable differences between the Universal Declaration and the covenants.

The provisions of the Universal Declaration proclaiming that everyone has a right to own property and that everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution have no counterpart in the covenants. On the other hand, the covenants deal with a number of questions in regard to which the declaration contains no provision. An example is the provision of both covenants that all peoples have the right to self-determination "by virtue of which they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development."

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but not the declaration, protects aliens against expulsion, entitles everyone not to be compelled to testify against himself or herself or to confess guilt, provides for a right to compensation for miscarriage of justice, and also provides that no one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offense for which he or she has already been finally convicted or acquitted. The covenant prohibits any propaganda for war and any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred. It provides for the protection of ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities. The declaration does not contain corresponding provisions.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights contains provisions on the right to work and to enjoy just and favorable conditions of work; the right to form and join trade unions and, subject to the law of the land, the right to strike; the right to social security, including social insurance and the protection of the family; the right to an adequate standard of living and freedom from hunger; the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health; the right to education; and the right to take part in cultural life.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are legally binding human rights agreements. Both were adopted by the General Assembly in 1966 and entered into force ten years later, making many of the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights effectively binding. As of 19 April 2006, 153 states were party to the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; and 156 states were party to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Measures of Implementation

The states parties to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights undertake to submit to the Economic and Social Council reports on the measures that they have adopted and the progress made in achieving the observance of the rights recognized in that covenant. Until 1986, the Economic and Social Council entrusted the task of examining such reports to a working group. Since then, this task has been carried out by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, an eight-member group of experts elected by the council to serve in their personal capacity. The committee submits to the council a summary of its consideration of the reports of states parties and makes suggestions and recommendations of a general nature.

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a Human Rights Committee was established to consider reports submitted by states parties on measures taken to implement the covenant's provisions and also to consider communications alleging violations under the Optional Protocol, which provides for consideration of communications from individuals who claim to be victims of violations of any rights set forth in the covenant. However, only claims against states parties to the protocol can be considered. The Optional Protocol entered into force 23 March 1976, and as of 19 April 2006, 105 states were party to it. The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which aims to abolish the death penalty, was adopted by the General Assembly 15 December 1989 and entered into force roughly two years later, when 10 states had ratified it. As of August 2002, 47 states were party to it.

Apart from the right of individual complaint under the specific procedure of the Optional Protocol, thousands of letters and reports alleging human rights violations are received each year by the UN. Communications containing complaints of violations of human rights are summarized and sent confidentially to the members of the Commission on Human Rights and its Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities; copies of the complaint also are sent to the member states named. The identity of the writers is not disclosed unless they have consented to disclosure. Any replies from the government are forwarded to the commission and subcommission.

The subcommission, if it finds that the communications appear to reveal "a consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations" of human rights, may refer the situation to the commission, which, in turn, can decide to carry out a thorough study of the situation or to name an ad hoc committee to investigate it. All these procedures are confidential and are dealt with in private meetings until a report, if any, is made by the Commission on Human Rights to the Economic and Social Council.

The Commission on Human Rights and its subcommission also consider in public session each year the question of violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including racial discrimination and apartheid, in various countries and territories. For example, since 1967, an ad hoc working group of experts of the commission has reported regularly on allegations of ill-treatment of opponents of apartheid and other racist policies, and on the treatment of political prisoners and detainees, in South Africa and Namibia.

Since 1968, the commission has been considering the question of the violation of human rights in the territories occupied by Israel as a result of the 1967 hostilities in the Middle East, including violations of the 1949 Geneva Convention concerning the protection of civilian persons in time of war.

In 1975, the commission established a five-member working group to study the human rights situation in Chile. The group visited Chile in 1978 and submitted a report to the General Assembly and the commission. After the completion of the group's mandate, the commission appointed a special rapporteur in 1979 to continue to study the situation. The commission has also requested that studies or reports be prepared by special rapporteurs or by the Secretary-General on the human rights situation in Afghanistan, Bolivia, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Iran, and Poland.

In addition, the commission and its subcommission have studied specific phenomena of particularly serious violations of human rights. Thus, working groups have been establishedon southern Africa, on enforced or involuntary disappearances, on slavery, and on indigenous populationsand special rapporteurs have been appointed to examine the question of summary or arbitrary executions and questions concerning torture, religious intolerance, and the use of mercenaries.


The UN and two of the specialized agencies, the ILO and UNESCO, have prepared and put into force a number of conventions in the human rights field that, while not as comprehensive as the International Bill of Rights, deal with important specific rights. (Conventions on racial discrimination and on the status of women are discussed in separate sections below.)

Prevention and Punishment of Genocide

In 1948, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention entered into force in 1951. As of 19 April 2006, it had been acceded to or ratified by 138 states. Under the convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. One result of the convention is that the states parties place it beyond doubt that genocide (and conspiracy, incitement, and attempt to commit it and complicity in it), even if perpetrated by a government in its own territory against its own citizens, is not a matter essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of states but one of international concern. States parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law that they undertake to prevent and to punish. Any contracting party can call upon UN organs to intervene.

Freedom of Association

The Freedom of Association Convention of 1948 (in force since 1950) was the first major achievement of the joint efforts of the UN and the ILO in the field of international legislation on human rights problems. By this convention, states parties undertake to give effect to the right of workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, to establish and join organizations of their own choosing without previous authorization. In exercising the rights provided for in the convention, workers and employers and their respective organizations, like other persons or organized groups, shall respect the law of the land. However, the law of the land shall not be such as to impair, nor shall it be so applied as to impair, the guarantees provided in the convention.

Under the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention of 1949 (in force since 1951), workers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of antiunion discrimination in their employment, particularly in respect to acts calculated to make the employment of a worker subject to the condition that the worker shall not join a union or shall relinquish trade union membership.

Freedom of Information

Out of the very ambitious legislative program of the UN and the specialized agencies to guarantee through international instruments the right set forth in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any medium and regardless of frontiers, only the Convention on the International Right of Correction has been adopted. At a UN Conference on Freedom of Information held in 1948, two additional conventions in this field were draft eda general Convention on Freedom of Information and a Convention on the International Transmission of Newsbut these have not yet been opened for signature and ratification, although the General Assembly has approved the latter convention.

The idea underlying the Convention on the International Right of Correction, which was opened for signature in 1953 and has been in force since 1962, is the attempt to transfer to the international level an institution that has been part of national law in a great number of countries. In the convention, the contracting states agree that in cases where a contracting state contends that a news dispatch capable of injuring its relations with other states or its national prestige or dignity, transmitted from one country to another by correspondents or information agencies and published or disseminated abroad, is false or distorted, it may submit its version of the facts (called a communiqué) to the contracting states within whose territories such dispatch has been published or disseminated. The receiving state has the obligation to release the communiqué to the correspondents and information agencies operating in its territory through the channels customarily used for the release of news concerning international affairs for publication.

Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons

In the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 (in force since 1954, with a protocol of 1967) and the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons of 1954 (in force since 1969), far-reaching provisions for the protection of refugees and stateless persons were enacted. Two principles are the basis of both conventions: (1) there shall be as little discrimination as possible between nationals on the one hand and refugees or stateless persons on the other, and (2) there shall be no discrimination based on race, religion, or country of origin at all among refugees and stateless persons.

In 1961, a conference of plenipotentiaries adopted the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which entered into force in 1975.

Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Forced Labor

The fight against slavery has been an international concern since the beginning of the 19th century. In more recent times, under the auspices of the League of Nations, the Slavery Convention of 1926 was enacted, by which the contracting parties undertook to prevent and suppress the slave trade and to bring about "progressively and as soon as possible" the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms. Under UN auspices, the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery was adopted in 1956 and has been in force since 1957. Under the convention, states parties undertake to bring about, also "progressively and as soon as possible," the complete abolition or abandonment not only of slavery but also of other objectionable practices, such as debt bondage and serfdom.

By the Convention Concerning the Abolition of Forced Labor, adopted by the International Labor Conference in 1957 and in force since 1959, states parties undertake to suppress and not to make use of any form of forced or compulsory labor as a means of political coercion or education or as a punishment for holding or expressing political views or views ideologically opposed to the established political, social, or economic system; as a punishment for having participated in strikes; or as a means of racial, social, national, or religious discrimination.

Equality in Employment and Occupation

By the Convention on Discrimination in Employment and Occupation, adopted by the International Labor Conference in 1958 (in force since 1960), each state party undertakes to declare and pursue a national policy designed to promote, by methods appropriate to national conditions and practices, equality of opportunity and treatment with respect to employment and occupation, with a view to eliminating discrimination. The fulfillment of the obligations undertaken by this convention is subject to the supervisory arrangements that apply under the constitution of the ILO.

Equality in Education

In 1960, the General Conference of UNESCO adopted the Convention Against Discrimination in Education (in force since 1962). Like the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, the Convention Against Discrimination in Education prohibits any distinction, exclusion, limitation, or preference based on race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic condition, or birth that has the purpose or effect of impairing equality of treatment in education. The establishment or maintenance of separate educational systems or institutions for pupils of the two sexes is not prohibited, provided that these systems or institutions offer equivalent access to education and provide teaching staffs meeting the same standards of qualification. A special protocol adopted in 1962 institutes a Conciliation and Good Offices Commission to be responsible for seeking a settlement of any disputes that may arise between the states parties to the convention.

Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity

In 1968, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity. The convention, in force since 1970, provides that no statutory limitation shall apply to war crimes and crimes against humanity, irrespective of the date of their commission. It also revises and extends the concepts of war crimes and crimes against humanity as they were defined in 1945 in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal and were applied and interpreted by the tribunal. The states parties to the 1968 convention undertake to adopt all necessary domestic measures with a view to making possible the extradition of persons who have committed such crimes.


Records of the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg) and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Tokyo) are in the UN Archives in New York. Also deposited there are the records of various national military tribunals that were submitted to the UN War Crimes Commission established in London by a meeting of Allied and Dominion representatives in October 1943, two years before the UN was created. The following 17 countries were members of the commission: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Greece, India, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, United Kingdom, United States, and Yugoslavia. The commission's primary task was to collect, investigate, and record evidence of war crimes and to report to the governments concerned those instances where the material available appeared to disclose a prima facie case. The commission took no part in the detention of persons listed or in the prosecution of the cases. It ended its work in March 1948 and deposited its records in the UN Archives with the stipulation that access to the records be limited to requests by governments for information on specific individuals. Following consultations among representatives of the former members of the commission in September/October 1987, its chairman recommended to the UN Secretary-General that the files be opened to governments for research into and investigation and prosecution of war crimes and to individuals, with the permission of the government of which they are nationals or permanent residents, for research into the history and work of the commission and into war crimes.

Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons

In 1973, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons, Including Diplomatic Agents. The convention, in force since 1977, aims at preventing the commission of acts of terrorism against heads of state, heads of government, ministers of foreign affairs, representatives of states, and officials of international organizations, as well as members of their families who accompany them or form part of their households. Each state party to the convention agrees to make murder, kidnapping, or other attacks upon the person or liberty of an internationally protected person or a violent attack upon his official premises, private accommodations, or means of transport a punishable crime. States agree to cooperate in the prevention of these crimes and in the prosecution and punishment of offenders.

Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

In 1975, the General Assembly proclaimed the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The declaration spells out in greater detail the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that no one may be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

The declaration was given binding legal form in 1984, when the General Assembly adopted the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In the convention, which came into force on 26 June 1987, torture is defined as any act by which severe physical or mental pain is intentionally inflicted by, at the instigation of, or with the acquiescence of someone acting in an official capacity, whether to obtain information or a confession; to punish, intimidate, or coerce; or for reasons based on discrimination. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to lawful sanctions. States parties undertake to prevent torture in their jurisdictions and ensure that it is legally punishable. No exceptional circumstances, such as war, the threat of war, internal political instability, or any other emergency, may be invoked to justify torture, nor can a torturer be excused by virtue of having acted under orders. The convention provides for extradition of persons believed to have committed acts of torture and for protection and compensation for torture victims. As of 19 April 2006, 141 states were party to this convention.

Convention on the Rights of the Child

In November 1989, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, based on the draft proposed by the Commission on Human Rights in March of that year. The convention, which came into force in September 1990, had 192 states party to it as of 19 April 2006 (the two states not party to the convention as of that date were the United States of America and Somalia). The convention recognizes and protects a wide range of civil rights and liberties. It acknowledges the importance of a secure and healthy family or alternative environment; provides for education, leisure, and cultural activities; and states that children in emergencies are entitled to special protection and that children who are in conflict with the law must be guaranteed basic rights. The convention also stipulates that children should be protected from any form of exploitation.

In accordance with article 43 of the Convention, a Committee on the Rights of the Child was established in February 1991. The committee meets twice a year to consider periodic reports submitted by states which give details of their effective implementation of the provisions of the convention. The committee submits to the General Assembly, through the Economic and Social Council, a report on its activities every two years.

International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families

In December 1990, the General Assembly adopted a convention that takes into account the importance and extent of the migration phenomenon, which involves millions of people and affects a large number of states in the international community. In particular, the convention stipulates that all migrant workers and members of their families have the same right to equality with nationals of the state where they are engaged in remunerated activity. The convention entered into force on 1 July 2003; as of April 2006, 34 states were party to it.


The work of the UN in the human rights field, for which the provisions of the Charter have been the point of departure, has also inspired important developments in the protection of human rights on the regional level by the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States, and the Organization of African Unity (now African Union).

The European Convention on Human Rights

Under the auspices of the Council of Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights was signed in 1950 and entered into force in 1953. The convention is based on an early draft of what is now the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It was concluded by the governments of European countries "to take the first steps for the collective enforcement of certain of the rights stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." It was subsequently supplemented by five additional protocols. As far as the substantive provisions are concerned, the European Convention and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights cover, more or less, the same ground, although there are a number of important differences between the two instruments.

The European Convention established two internal organs "to ensure the observance of the engagements undertaken by the High Contracting Parties in the present Convention"that is, the European Commission on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. Any party to the convention has the right to refer to the commission any alleged breach of the convention by another party. The commission may also receive petitions from any person, nongovernmental organization, or group of individuals claiming to be the victim of a violation, by one of the parties, of the rights set forth in the convention and in the relevant protocols. The exercise of this power by the commission is subject to the condition that the state against which the complaint is directed has recognized this competence of the commission.

If the commission does not succeed in securing a friendly settlement on the basis of respect for human rights as defined in the convention, it draws up a report on the facts and states its opinion as to whether the facts found disclose a breach by the state concerned of its obligations under the convention. The final decision is taken either by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, a political organ, or, if it has jurisdiction and the matter is referred to it, by the European Court of Human Rights.

The European Social Charter

The European Social Charter is the European counterpart to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The provisions of the European Social Charter, however, are more specific and detailed. It has established a reporting procedure. The reports are examined by a committee of independent experts, which submits its conclusions to a governmental social subcommittee. The Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe is consulted. In the final stage, the Committee of Ministers may make any recommendation that it considers necessary to any contracting party in the areas of economic, social, and cultural rights.

The American Convention on Human Rights

In 1948, several months before the adoption by the General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Ninth International Conference of American States, meeting in Bogotá, adopted the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. This declaration was followed in 1969 by the signing in San José, Costa Rica, of the American Convention on Human Rights. The convention, in force since 1978, is a very comprehensive instrument, similar to both the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The organs of implementation of the Pact of San José are the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (corresponding to the European Commission and to the Human Rights Committee under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. While the right of petition of individuals is optional under the European Convention and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in the inter-American system, every state party accepts the right of petition automatically.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights

In 1981, the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity (now African Union), meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, adopted the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. The charter, which came into force on 21 October 1986, provides for an African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, composed of 11 members elected by the assembly, to promote and protect the rights set forth in the charter. The provisions of the charter are similar to those of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but with special reference to African traditions of rights and freedoms, including the right to self-determination and the right of peoples to dispose of their wealth and natural resources.


The idea of the equality of races emerged as the one that, more than any other, has dominated the thoughts and actions of the postWorld War II period. The aim of racial equality has permeated the lawmaking and the standard-setting activities of the UN family of organizations and also the day-to-day work of many of its organs. The Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the two International Covenants on Human Rights prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race or color, as do the conventions against discrimination in employment and occupation and in education that have already been described.

The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

In 1963, the General Assembly proclaimed the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which affirms that discrimination between human beings on the grounds of race, color, or ethnic origin is an offense to human dignity, a denial of Charter principles, a violation of the rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and an obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations among peoples.

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

In 1965, the General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination which entered into force in January 1969. As of 19 April 2006, it had been acceded to or ratified by 170 states. Under the convention, states parties undertake not only to condemn racial discrimination and pursue a policy of eliminating it in all its forms but also to prohibit and bring to an end, by all appropriate means, including legislation as required by circumstances, racial discrimination by any individual, group, or organization. States parties undertake to declare it an offense punishable by law to disseminate ideas based on racial superiority or hatred or that are an incitement to racial discrimination. They also commit themselves to declare illegal and prohibit organizations that promote and incite racial discrimination and to recognize participation in such organizations as an offense punishable by law. The convention provides for the establishment of international supervisory machinery similar to that laid down in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but contains tighter provisions.

Under the convention, an 18-member Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was established, which, like the Human Rights Committee provided for in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has the function of considering reports by states and allegations by a state party that another state party is not giving effect to the provisions of the convention. States parties to the convention also may recognize the competence of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to receive and consider petitions (communications) from individuals or groups of individuals. In the last instance, the International Court of Justice can be apprised of disputes with respect to the interpretation and application of the convention.

The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid

In 1973, the General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid which entered into force in July 1976. By 19 April 2006, it had been acceded to or ratified by 106 states. The convention provides that international responsibility for the crime of apartheid shall apply to individuals, members of organizations and institutions, and representatives of a state, whether residing in the state in which the acts are perpetrated or elsewhere. Persons charged can be tried by any state party to the convention. A three-member group of the Commission on Human Rights meets each year to review progress in implementing the convention.

The International Declaration and the International Convention Against Apartheid in Sports

The International Declaration Against Apartheid in Sports, adopted by the General Assembly in 1977, calls on states to take all appropriate action to cease sporting contacts with any country practicing apartheid and to exclude or expel any such country from international and regional sports bodies.

The International Convention Against Apartheid in Sports, adopted by the General Assembly in 1985, gave the provisions of the declaration a binding legal form. It entered into force in April 1988. As of 19 April 2006, it had been acceded to or ratified by 59 states.

Other Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination

In 1972, the General Assembly decided to launch a Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, to begin on 10 December 1973, the 25th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in 1973, the General Assembly approved a comprehensive and ambitious program for the decade. Among its goals were the following: to promote human rights for all without distinction of any kind on grounds of race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin, especially by eradicating racial prejudice, racism, and racial discrimination; to arrest any expansion of racist policies; to identify, isolate, and dispel the fallacious and mythical beliefs, policies, and practices that contribute to racism and racial discrimination; and to put an end to racist regimes.

While there was not necessarily complete unanimity in the General Assembly on every phrase and formulation of the relevant decisions on the decade adopted in 1972, 1973, and 1974, there was a general consensus in support of its goals. However, at the 1975 session of the General Assembly, a resolution was adopted by which the General Assembly determined that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination." The resolution was adopted by 72 votes to 35, with 32 abstentions. Among those strongly opposed were the nine members of the European Economic Community, as well as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and other states of Western Europe, Latin America, and Africa. Many of these states declared that the resolution radically changed the concept of the decade and would therefore change their attitude toward it.

The midpoint of the decade was marked by a world conference held in Geneva in August 1978. The conference adopted recommendations for comprehensive mandatory sanctions against the racist regimes of southern Africa, elimination of all discriminatory laws and practices, adoption of laws to punish dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, and promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples and migrant workers. In 1979, the General Assembly adopted a program for the remaining four years of the decade, and in 1982, it decided that a second conference would be held in 1983.

The Second World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, held in Geneva in August 1983, was attended by representatives of 128 states, as well as of UN organs and specialized agencies and of intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations. The conference adopted a declaration and a program of action in which it noted that "in spite of the efforts of the international community during the Decade, at the national, regional and international levels, racism, racial discrimination and apartheid continue unabated and have shown no sign of diminishing." The program of action contained practical suggestions on matters such as action to combat apartheid; education, teaching, and training; dissemination of information and the role of the mass media in combating racism and racial discrimination; measures for the promotion and protection of the human rights of minority groups, indigenous peoples, and migrant workers who are subject to racial discrimination; recourse procedures for victims of racial discrimination; implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and other related international instruments; national legislation and institutions; seminars and studies; action by nongovernmental organizations; and international cooperation.

On the recommendation of the conference, the General Assembly proclaimed the Second Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, on 22 November 1983, and called for renewed and intensified efforts and for implementation of the program of action approved by the conference.

On 20 December 1993, the General Assembly proclaimed the Third Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination (19942003). Also in 1993, the Commission on Human Rights appointed a special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The special rapporteur reports on institutionalized and indirect forms of racism and racial discrimination against national, racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities and migrant workers. The rapporteur's mandate also emphasizes new manifestations of racism and xenophobia in developed countries. The Third Decade took a broad view of racism, noting that all societies in the world are afflicted by racial discrimination. The roots of racism were addressed, as were changes necessary to prevent eruption of conflicts caused by racial discrimination. Ethnic cleansing and genocide came under consideration, as well as the institutionalization of xenophobia.

In 1997, the General Assembly decided to convene the Third World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, which took place from 31 August to 8 September 2001 in South Africa. The UN slogan for the World Conference was "United to Combat Racism: Equality, Dignity, Justice." Five themes were identified for the conference:(1) the sources, causes, forms and contemporary manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; (2) victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; (3) measures of prevention, education and protection aimed at the eradication of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance at the national, regional, and international levels; (4) provision of effective remedies, recourses, redress and other measures, at the national, regional and international levels; and (5) strategies to achieve full and effective equality, including international co-operation and enhancement of the UN and other international mechanisms in combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.


The work of the UN relating to the status of women, aimed at achieving equal rights for men and women, is an important part of the UN's efforts to promote and to encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The organ given the main responsibility in this field is the Commission on the Status of Women, a functional commission of the Economic and Social Council, established in 1946. Almost all the achievements of the UN in this matter are due to the initiative and work of the commission.

The Convention on the Political Rights of Women

The Convention on the Political Rights of Women, adopted in 1952 and in force since 1954, represented the culmination of the endeavors of generations of fighters for women's rights. It provides that women shall be entitled to vote in all elections, that they shall be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies, and that they shall be entitled to hold public office and to exercise all public functions on equal terms with men and without any discrimination.

The Convention on the Nationality of Married Women

The Convention on the Nationality of Married Women, adopted in 1957 and in force since 1958, provides that neither the celebration nor the dissolution of marriage between a national and an alien, nor the change of nationality by the husband during marriage, shall automatically affect the nationality of the wife.

The Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage, and Registration of Marriages

The Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage, and Registration of Marriages, adopted in 1962 and in force since 1964, provides that no marriage shall be legally entered into without the full and free consent of both parties, such consent to be expressed by them in person after due publicity and in the presence of the authority competent to solemnize the marriage. States parties to the convention are committed to take legislative action to specify a minimum age for marriage. All marriages shall be registered in an official register by a competent authority.

In a recommendation on the same subjects as those of this convention, adopted in 1965, the General Assembly stated that the minimum age shall be not less than 15 years.

The Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

In 1967, the General Assembly solemnly proclaimed the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The declaration states that discrimination against women, denying or limiting as it does their equality of rights with men, is fundamentally unjust and constitutes an offense against human dignity. Work was started on a convention to put the principles of the declaration into binding legal form.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

On 18 December 1979, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The convention came into force in September 1981; as of 19 April 2006, 182 states had ratified the convention.

Under the convention, states parties undertake to adopt all appropriate measures to abolish existing laws, regulations, customs, and practices that are discriminatory against women and to establish legal protection of the rights of women on an equal basis with men. The convention contains detailed provisions concerning equal rights for women in voting and holding public office and in education, employment, and health care. It provides for equality before the law and for the elimination of discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations.

The convention established a Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women to periodically examine reports by states parties on measures that they have taken to implement the convention. The 23-member committee meets annually to consider the reports, which are due within one year of ratification or accession to the convention and every four years thereafter. The committee makes recommendations and observations to states parties on the basis of its consideration of the reports.

International Women's Year

In 1972, the General Assembly proclaimed the year 1975 as the International Women's Year. In 1974, the Economic and Social Council decided to convene an international conference to examine to what extent the organizations of the UN system had implemented the recommendations for the elimination of discrimination against women made by the Commission on the Status of Women since its establishment and to launch an international action program aimed at achieving the integration of women as full and equal partners with men in the total development effort, eliminating discrimination on grounds of sex, and achieving the widest possible involvement of women in strengthening international peace and eliminating racism and racial discrimination.

The World Conference of the International Women's Year took place in June/July 1975 in Mexico City. It was the most representative meeting on women's issues held to date, bringing together more than a thousand representatives, about 70% of them women, from more than 130 countries. The conference adopted the "Declaration of Mexico on the Equality of Women and Their Contribution to Development and Peace, 1975"; a world plan of action for implementation of the objectives of the International Women's Year; regional plans of action; and a great number of decisions on concrete problems. In the Declaration of Mexico, the conference affirmed its faith in the objectives of the International Women's Yearequality, development, and peace.

UN Decade for Women

Later in 1975, the General Assembly endorsed the proposals of the Mexico conference and proclaimed the period 197685 as the UN Decade for Women: Equality, Development, and Peace. The General Assembly called for the decade to be devoted to effective and sustained action to implement the world plan of action, and it decided to convene in 1980, at the midpoint of the decade, another world conference to review and evaluate the progress made.

The second world conference, held in Copenhagen in July 1980, adopted a program of action for the second half of the decade, 198085, to promote the three objectives of equality, development, and peace, with special emphasis on the subthemeemployment, health, and education. It called for specific action to ensure that the objectives of the world plan were met by the end of the decade.

The program of action was endorsed later in 1980 by the General Assembly, which decided to convene in 1985 a world conference to review and appraise the achievements of the decade.

1995 Fourth World Conference on Women

The Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing, from 415 September 1995, subtitled "Action for Equality, Development and Peace." At preparatory meetings in 1994, the Secretary-General said a turning point had been reached in the cause of women worldwide. The conference represented a vital continuation of the work on development issues begun during the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) in June 1992 and the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in June 1993, and tied in with the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo (513 September 1994) and the World Summit for Social Development, held in Copenhagen (1112 March 1995).

Besides receiving reports from virtually all UN organizations on their programs relating to the status of women, the conference addressed gender issues in the context of a new vision of the 21st century as one in which gender equality would be achieved. It also focused on the problems of rural women and the need to facilitate access to resources so that they can improve their lives and, in turn, the lives of their families and communities.

2000 Beijing + 5 Conference

The twenty-third special session of the General Assembly on "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the 21st century" took place at UN Headquarters in New York from 59 June 2000. Also referred to as "Beijing + 5," it was a special session to review progress made since the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) held in Beijing in 1995. The Beijing + 5 session adopted a document and political declaration that would take further actions and initiatives to implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action emerging from the FWCW. The special session was addressed by representatives of 148 member states, including two prime ministers, four vice-presidents, ministers and vice-ministers. Certain areas received focused attention. These included; education; social services and health, including sexual and reproductive health; the HIV/AIDS pandemic; violence against women and girls; the burden of poverty on women; vulnerability of migrant women including exploitation and trafficking; natural disaster and environmental management; the development of strong, effective and accessible national machineries for the advancement of women; and the formulation of strategies to enable women and men to reconcile and share equally work and family responsibilities.

The Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies

The World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the UN Decade for Women was held in Nairobi, Kenya, in July 1985, attended by representatives of 157 states, as well as observers from specialized agencies and other organizations. The major achievement of the conference was the adoption, by consensus, of the Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women to the Year 2000. Measures recommended included technical cooperation, training and advisory services, institutional coordination, research and policy analysis, participation of women in activities at the international and regional levels, and dissemination of information on goals and objectives for the advancement of women.

The Declaration on the Participation of Women in Promoting International Peace and Cooperation

The Declaration on the Participation of Women in Promoting International Peace and Cooperation was adopted by the General Assembly in 1982. It states that women and men have an equal and vital interest in contributing to international peace and cooperation and that, to this end, women must be enabled to exercise their right to participate in the economic, social, cultural, civil, and political affairs of society on an equal footing with men.


The Declaration of the Rights of the Child

In 1959, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which proclaims that every child, without distinction or discrimination on account of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status, whether of the child or of the child's family, shall enjoy special protection and be given opportunities and facilities to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. Every child shall be entitled from birth to a name and nationality and shall enjoy the benefits of social security. The child who is physically, mentally, or socially handicapped shall be given the special treatment, education, and care required by his or her particular condition. Every child is entitled to receive education that shall be free and compulsory, at least in the elementary stages. Every child shall be protected against all forms of neglect, cruelty, and exploitation and from practices that may foster racial, religious, or any other form of discrimination.

The Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples

The Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly in 1960, declares that the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination, and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter, and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and cooperation. The declaration proclaims that all peoples have the right to self-determination.

In 1961, the General Assembly established a Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration. (See also the chapter on Independence of Colonial Peoples.)

The Declaration on Territorial Asylum

The Declaration on Territorial Asylum, adopted by the General Assembly in 1967, supplements Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and provides that asylum granted by a state, in the exercise of its sovereignty, to persons entitled to invoke Article 14 of the Universal Declaration, including persons struggling against colonization, shall be respected by all other states. It rests with the state granting asylum to evaluate the grounds for asylum. Where a state finds difficulty in granting or continuing to grant asylum, states individually or jointly or through the UN shall consider, in the spirit of international solidarity, appropriate measures to lighten the burden on that state. No person entitled to invoke Article 14 of the Universal Declaration shall be subjected to measures such as retention at the frontier or, if he has already entered the territory in which he seeks asylum, expulsion or compulsory return to any state where he may be subjected to persecution.

The Declaration on Social Progress and Development

In 1969, the General Assembly solemnly proclaimed the Declaration on Social Progress and Development, which sets forth the principles, objectives, means, and methods to eliminate obstacles to social progress, particularly inequality, exploitation, war, colonialism, and racism. The declaration shows the close connections between social development policies and endeavors to promote respect for human rights. Article 1 provides that all peoples and all human beings, without distinction as to race, color, sex, language, religion, nationality, ethnic origin, family or social status, or political or other conviction, shall have the right to live in dignity and freedom and to enjoy the fruits of social progress and should, on their part, contribute to it.

The Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States

On 24 October 1970, the 25th anniversary of the entry into force of the Charter, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. One of the principles thus proclaimed is that states "shall cooperate in the promotion of universal respect for, and observance of, human rights, and fundamental freedoms for all, and in the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination and all forms of religious intolerance."

The Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons

The Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons, adopted in 1971, proclaims that the mentally retarded person has, to the maximum degree of feasibility, the same rights as other human beings: the right to proper medical care and physical therapy, education, training, rehabilitation, and guidance; the right to economic security and to perform productive work; and the right, when necessary, to a qualified guardian and to protection from exploitation, abuse, and degrading treatment. Whenever mentally retarded persons are unable to exercise all their rights in a meaningful way or if it should become necessary to restrict or deny them, the procedure used must contain proper safeguards against abuse.

The Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflicts

In 1974, the General Assembly proclaimed the Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflicts. The declaration states that attacks on civilians, "especially on women and children, who are the most vulnerable members of the population," shall be prohibited and condemned and that states involved in armed conflicts shall make all efforts "to spare women and children from the ravages of war."

The Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons

The Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons was confirmed and expanded by the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, adopted in 1975. The term "disabled person" means any person unable to ensure by himself or herself wholly or partly the necessities of a normal individual and/or social life, as a result of a deficiency in his or her physical or mental capacities. While the formulation of some of the rights set forth in the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons occasionally differs from that contained in the earlier instrument, there are no differences as regards the principles and purposes, except that the later declaration applies also to persons who are physically, not mentally, handicapped.

The Declaration on the Use of Scientific and Technological Progress in the Interests of Peace

In 1975, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Use of Scientific and Technological Progress in the Interests of Peace and for the Benefit of Mankind. The declaration provides that all states shall promote international cooperation to ensure that the results of scientific and technological developments are used in the interests of strengthening international peace and security, freedom, and independence and that they are also used for economic and social development and the realization of human rights and freedoms. The declaration calls on all states to help prevent the use of scientific and technological developments to limit or interfere with the enjoyment of the human rights of the individual.

The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance

The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief, prepared by the Commission on Human Rights and adopted by the General Assembly in 1981, states that everyone shall have the right of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and that no one shall be subject to discrimination on the grounds of religion or other beliefs.

The Declaration on the Human Rights of Individuals Who Are Not Nationals of the Country in Which They Live

In 1985, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Human Rights of Individuals Who Are Not Nationals of the Country in Which They Live. The declaration defines the term "alien" as any individual who is not a national of the state in which he or she is present. It declares that all aliens shall enjoy a wide range of civil rights, as well as the right to safe and healthy working conditions, fair wages, and equal remuneration for work of equal value; the right to join trade unions and other associations; and the right to health protection, medical care, social security, education, rest, and leisure. No alien shall be deprived of his or her lawfully acquired assets, and aliens shall be free at any time to communicate with the consulate or diplomatic mission of the state of which they are nationals.

The Declaration on the Right to Development

The Declaration on the Right to Development was adopted by the General Assembly in 1986. In the declaration, the right to development is proclaimed as an inalienable human right by virtue of which every person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural, and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized. The right to development also implies the full realization of the right of peoples to self-determination, including their inalienable right to exercise full sovereignty over all their natural wealth and resources.

Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities

In December 1992, the General Assembly reaffirmed that one of the basic aims of the United Nations was to promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion. The Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities invites states to protect the identity of minorities within their respective territories, in particular through appropriate legislation.

Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance

In December 1992, the General Assembly also adopted the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which urges states to contribute by all means to the prevention and eradication of this gross offense to human dignity and flagrant violation of human rights. Acts of enforced disappearance should be considered offenses under criminal law punishable by appropriate penalties that take into account their extreme seriousness. The victims of acts of enforced disappearance, and their families, have the right to obtain redress and adequate compensation, including complete rehabilitation.

Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

In December 1998, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which acknowledged the role of individuals, groups, and associations in contributing to the elimination of violations of human rights. The declaration is designed to protect the rights of human rights defenders from summary executions, forced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detentions, and to support the rights of those who have exercised legitimately and peacefully their freedom of opinion and expression.

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Human Rights

Human Rights

T. Christopher Jespersen

Since its inception as an independent nation, the United States has claimed a special relationship with the issue of human rights. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he capturedas well as spoke tothe yearnings of the colonists along the eastern seaboard of North America to break free from tyrannical rule across the Atlantic Ocean. Theirs was a collective action, of a people striving to achieve the right to determine their own form of government, but Jefferson's rhetoric struck a balance between those collective aspirations and the rights of individuals. It is worth noting that his most famous words on the subject of individual rights"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness"are preceded by the collective right of "one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another." Since 1776, Jefferson's sentiments as both an expression of collective as well as individual human rights have continued to draw the attention of peoples around the globe. Although Jefferson was primarily concerned with focusing on the specific grievances and complaints the colonists had against the British king George III, his language gave expression to larger sentiments, coming partly from the Enlightenment philosophy that had recently swept the Western world. As a result, his words seemed transcendent in thought, though they were not necessarily so in their application.

Indeed, there was one major problem with what Jefferson wrote. The nature of his insistence on the collective right of peoples to determine their own form of government, not to mention the right to pursue happiness as individuals, when juxtaposed with his ownership of slaves and his subsequent refusal to disavow the practice by releasing them, draws attention to the danger of assessing the United States' stand on human rights by national rhetoric alone. Or as David D. Newsom expressed it more recently, "United States diplomacy in the human rights field suffers inevitably from the contradictions between promise and fulfillment." Ever since 1776, America's diplomatic policymakers have spoken to the issue of human rights in both the collective and individual manifestations, and no one more eloquently than Thomas Jefferson. But as Newsom warned, the actual implementation of policies designed to address those concerns have not always lived up to their high-sounding intentions.

A major surprise occurred 225 years after Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, when the United States failed to retain its seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Coming in fourth in the voting in May 2001, behind France, Austria, and Sweden, the United States missed out because only three spots were available. Representatives from forty-three countries had pledged to Secretary of State Colin Powell prior to the vote that they would cast their ballots for the United States, more than enough for the United States to keep its place. But when the results were tabulated, it became clear that fourteen of them had not done as promised, leaving the United States off the commission for the first time since its creation in 1947.

At first glance, the removal of the United States, while Sudan, Libya, and China kept their seats because of the geographical division of placings, seemed almost Orwellian. That the land of Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and James Earl Carter, to name only four of the nation's most ardent and eloquent proponents of human rights, was excluded from the panel, while on it sat clear violators of their own people's rights like Sudan, where slavery still exists and where religious persecution and civil war have raged for decades, Libya, where dictator Muammar Qaddafi has ruled for decades through brutality against his own people and whose support of terrorism has been documented on a number of occasions, and China, where the government massacred protestors at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and where the persecution of groups like Falun Gong continued a decade later despite international pressure, appeared to make a mockery of the whole notion of a commission dedicated to monitoring and improving human rights conditions around the world.

In the aftermath of the vote that removed the United States, columnists and political pundits in Washington called the act outrageous, and cartoonists had a field day with images of Libya, Sudan, and China setting the human rights agenda. The consensus seemed to be that the United States had been wronged and that the nation's absence from the commission ridiculed the entire notion of promoting human rights. But the long history of America's relationship with human rights displays a series of domestic and international contradictions between the policies pursued and the rhetoric espoused by administration after administration. Considered in total, these contradictions raise serious questions about the nation's commitment to the very idea of human rights. In short, Newsom is right: the gap between ideal and practice has been substantial, and upon closer scrutiny, the American record on human rights has been far more ambiguous, less consistent, and marked by more blemishes than jingoistic boosters of national honor would like to admit.


For the first century of its existence the United States, despite the language of the Declaration of Independence, did not advocate policies to effect human rights changes in other countries. Until 1865 the country faced a serious problem: no matter how eloquent Jefferson's pronunciation that all men are created equal, slavery remained a contentious domestic matter, indicating quite clearly that some men were not as equal as others. Slaves were considered property, not individuals, and the Supreme Court endorsed this idea with the Dred Scott decision in 1857. A resolution came only through a bloody, four-year civil war. Notwithstanding a northern victory and aggressive efforts by Radical Republicans in Congress to reform the South in the late 1860s and 1870s, the states of the South moved shortly after those years to impose a system of economic and political control over African Americans through sharecropping and Jim Crow segregation. The pattern of the southern states' actions received national ratification when the Supreme Court yet again provided its imprimatur for racist practices. This time the Court's Plessy v. Ferguson ruling in 1896 allowed for separate and decidedly unequal (despite pretenses) facilities for blacks and whites.

Meanwhile, Asian immigrants trying to enter the United States on the West Coast received a vastly different reception than the Europeans entering the nation through Ellis Island over three thousand miles to the east. Conditions on San Francisco Bay's Angel Island, where they were held pending review of their status, were deplorable, and more and more Chinese were barred from entering the United States after 1882. Finally, in the West, Indian tribes were forced off their lands to accommodate an onrush of white settlers to the region.

In short, human rights did not constitute a force in American diplomacy prior to 1913. The nation's struggle with slavery, the mistreatment of Asian immigrants, the efforts to relocate, if not eradicate, Indians, and the national proscription on women participating in the political process meant that the nation had far too many serious problems of its own to address. In addition, the nation had not reached the level of international prominence it would later achieve. The entrance of Woodrow Wilson into the White House, coupled with the outbreak of World War I, changed all that.


When the European nations went to war in August 1914, President Wilson saw the conflict as a sign that the old international system created by the Europeans had failed. Now was the time for new leadership. Wilson sought to create mechanisms for ensuring peace and stability, and one of his concerns was for the peoples of other nations. Wilson wanted to reconfigure the old diplomacy and replace it with an open system, one based on cooperation and communication. An ardent and eloquent advocate for liberalism, Wilson believed that democracy should prevail as the system of political governance around the world. In speaking to this issue time and again, he advocated the collective human rights of peoples to determine their own fates. More specifically, he pledged himself to the rights of eastern European peoples to choose their own form of government as the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed at the end of the war.

Wilson's call to liberalism came at a moment in world history when the United States rose from a regional power to a global one. American economic prowess provided the equipment and munitions France and Great Britain needed to fight the Central Powers from 1914 until the American entrance into the war in 1917. When they could no longer pay cash for the goods, the United States provided loans. In short, Woodrow Wilson possessed the economic and military clout to back up his calls for recognizing the collective rights of certain peoples.

The president's international commitment in this area, however, was not matched by any personal dedication to ensure that African Americans be allowed to participate in the domestic political process, nor did his push for self-determination extend to the victims of European colonialism in Africa, India, or East Asia. Like his predecessor from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, Wilson was both eloquent and passionate on the theoretical rights of peoples, and he had problems reconciling his rhetoric with his practices. In addition to offering a hearty endorsement of D. W. Griffith's virulently racist film Birth of a Nation (1915), for example, Wilson pursued a domestic program shortly after coming into office that segregated the federal service, one of the few places where African Americans could enjoy some semblance of equal employment opportunities.

Regionally, Wilson acted with what had become customary American arrogance when he dispatched marines to Haiti in 1915, denying Haitians the right to determine their own political system. Indeed, Wilson intervened with military force more times in Central America and the Caribbean than any other president. He also spurned the inclusion of a racial equality clause at the Versailles Conference in 1919 when the matter was raised by the Japanese delegation. Better for the Japanese to be given territory in China against Chinese wishes than have any language referring to racial equality make its way into the final text.

Despite his actions toward nonwhites inside and outside the United States, Wilson managed to articulate the notion of peoples freely determining their own government, an idea that continues to draw the attention of repressed peoples around the world. Unfortunately, Wilson was thinking solely of those peoples in eastern Europe who had lived under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In part, he was worried about how to contain the spread of communism coming out of the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and one way he hoped to achieve that goal was through the creation of a series of small states in the region, a sanitary cordon to thwart the movement of communism westward.

Wilson's rhetorical proclamations notwithstanding, the United States found it difficult to implement diplomatic policies that adhered to his commitments regarding democracy and collective rights. If anything, starting in the 1920s the United States began a consistent policy of supporting right-wing dictatorships around the world. As the historian David F. Schmitz has astutely noted in his study of U.S. support for these types of leaders, "promoting human rights and democracy demands a toleration of instability and change in regions considered crucial to American business or defense, often leaving no clear choice between conscience and self-interest and making strong, stable right-wing dictators attractive to policymakers." Thus, the ability of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to bring stability and order to his nation during the 1920s meant more to American policymakers than his fascist inclinations. All three Republican presidents during the decade agreed that "order and stability had to be the primary considerations," stated Schmitz.


When President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the Atlantic Charter in August 1941 in conjunction with British prime minister Winston Churchill, the two leaders followed in Wilson's footsteps by renouncing any intentions for territorial acquisition and by proclaiming the right of all peoples to determine their own form of government. This did not mean that the British prime minister had suddenly experienced a change of heart and was now prepared to recognize the independence of all His Majesty's colonies. Churchill understood the provisions differently from Roosevelt, and the president did not have a problem with that, although he did ultimately wish to see an end to European colonial holdings. The context to this announcement, of course, was World War II, which had begun in September 1939, and which was not going well from the Allied perspective at the time of the Atlantic Charter. Germany had defeated France, invaded the Balkans, and was aggressively pushing back Soviet troops along the Eastern front. Great Britain stood alone in the West, since the United States had yet to enter the war. Roosevelt and Churchill wanted to cast the struggle in moral terms, with the one side committed to freedom and collective rights in clear contrast to the despotism of the fascist nations.

Domestically, Roosevelt acquiesced to political pressure by issuing the executive order that allowed Japanese Americans along the West Coast to be rounded up and placed into camps in the interior. In all, 110,000 Japanese Americans were moved and the Supreme Court, which ruled the infringement on their civil rights to be perfectly legal in Hirabayashi (1943) and Korematsu (1944), once again acquiesced in the denial of individual liberties.

Although he did not take up the interventionist approach in Latin America with the same degree of alacrity as Wilson, neither did President Roosevelt press on the issue of human rights. He ignored the actions of the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. He reached agreements with fascist leaders in Spain (General Francisco Franco), Vichy North Africa (Admiral Jean Darlan), and Italy (Pietro Badoglio from 1943) in an effort to win the war. Human rights were not expressly a part of the fight against fascism in Asia and Europe, but they were very much a part of the basic differentiation between the two sides.

Their different ideas about fundamental human rights became glaringly obvious at the end of the war as Allied troops made their way into the concentration camps set up by Germany to oversee the extermination of the entire Jewish population in Europe. Scenes of mass graves, crematoriums, and emaciated survivors testified to the Nazi determination to commit genocide.


With the defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan, the United States stood militarily triumphant and economically prosperous in 1945. Whereas the rest of the world's powers had suffered from the fighting, the United States possessed a combination of military, economic, and political power that, when combined with strong moral leadership, meant that its pronouncements on human rights could, if provided with sufficient backing, carry real weight.

In the place of Wilson's failed League of Nations came the United Nations, and prominent amongst its considerations was the issue of human rights. In 1948 the United Nations issued its Declaration of Human Rights, which listed, among others, the right to life, liberty, security of person, nationality, recognition before the law as a person, and freedom of movement, including leaving one's country of residence. People had the right to marry, own property, think freely in conscience and religious beliefs, have an opinion and express it freely, assemble peacefully, and take part in the functioning of governmentthirty articles in all. It stated that people shall have the right to a free education, at least at the elementary level; people shall have the right to work; they shall have the right to "rest and leisure," and the right to "a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being" of the individual and family, "including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services." Playing a crucial role in the adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights was Eleanor Roosevelt.

President Harry S. Truman offered his strong support for the UN's human rights work. At the same time that he spoke out in favor of protecting human rights worldwide, the president experienced political disappointment domestically. He failed in his effort to secure passage of a federal antilynching law. In many parts of the South, white citizens took matters into their own hands when it came to offering justice to African Americans who had either committed crimes or were simply thought to have committed them. Many times a mob hunted down the alleged perpetrator and executed a swift form of punishment, which usually involved hanging without the benefit of the legal proceedings. That this practice still existed in postwar America, and that certain senators refused to allow the passage of federal legislation outlawing it, spoke all too chillingly to the failure of the United States to practice what it espoused in the field of human rights.

Truman pressed ahead just the same. At a ceremony for laying the United Nations building's cornerstone on 24 October 1949, he spoke of the link between individual human rights and security: "The member nations have learned from bitter experience that regard for human rights is indispensable to political, economic, and social progress. They have learned that disregard of human rights is the beginning of tyranny and, too often, the beginning of war." Truman indicated that the success of the UN would be "measured by the extent to which the rights of individual human beings [were] realized," and he also included "economic and social progress" in the equation for determining success in realizing those goals.

The next year at Gonzaga University, Truman brought his message of individual human rights into the domestic sphere, speaking of the need to prevent "discrimination in our country because of religion, color, or national origin," all three of which were basic tenets of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Truman then indicated that "the same moral principles that underlie our national life govern our relations with all other nations and peoples in the world." Domestically, the president backed up his talk with action. He appointed a presidential Committee on Civil Rights to investigate the domestic situation; asked Congress in February 1948 to pass legislation to address the recommendations made by the committee; barred discrimination in federal employment that July; and moved to end discrimination in the armed forces, though the last of those would not be accomplished until the Korean War.

Much of what Truman did in the area of civil rights was politically motivated, to be sure, but Truman also worried about the ability of the Soviet Union to exploit America's racial problems internationally. His administration decided to support, through a legal brief, the effort to overturn the Supreme Courtsanctioned discrimination against African Americans as set forth in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The president and many of his staff recognized the problems created internationally by the country's hypocritical position: publicly advocating human rights for peoples worldwide, while systematically denying those very same rights at home to some of the nation's citizens because of their skin color.


Unlike Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower possessed, at most, a tepid commitment to human rights, and his noticeable lack of enthusiasm evidenced itself in a number of telling ways. First, Eisenhower supported the involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency in overthrowing or attempting to overthrow governments in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Cuba (1960, though it was President Kennedy who ultimately authorized the ill-fated Bay of Pigs mission in April 1961). Indeed, in the case of Guatemala, the CIA abetted the overthrow of the democratically elected leader, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, ostensibly because his government was riddled with communists and constituted a threat to regional stability, although questions of land reform and their impact on U.S. business interests clearly played a role.

Eisenhower occasionally echoed Wilson's commitment to see peoples around the world determine their own form of government, but he did so primarily as part of a broader anticommunist effort. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was particularly strident in his anticommunism, but his rhetorical calls for Eastern European freedom ran into problems in 1956 when Hungarians sought to control their own destiny and withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Union, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, found such actions unacceptable. In November, Soviet troops arrived in Budapest to quash the revolution. Shortly after the brutal outcome to the episode was apparent, President Eisenhower used the occasion of Human Rights Day on 10 December 1956 to express the nation's "deepest sympathy" for "the courageous, liberty-loving people of Hungary." But that was all; nothing more was done.

The real problem for the administration came in the form of the civil rights movement domestically and the growing attention it received outside the United States. The Supreme Court reversed Plessy in its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in May 1954, a ruling followed in 1955 by the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, and then by the refusal of Arkansas governor Orville Faubus to allow the integration of Little Rock's Central High School in the fall of 1957. A clearly distressed Eisenhower was compelled to call in the National Guard to enforce the court's decision and to protect from mob violence the African American students who were scheduled to attend the high school.

The embarrassment over strident domestic opposition to integration and to the equal participation by African Americans in the nation's social and political systems hurt the nation's image abroad. At the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, as Michael L. Krenn has insightfully noted, the Eisenhower administration ran into trouble with the American exhibit. One State Department memo observed that continuing racial discrimination, along the lines of what had happened in Little Rock the previous year, "clearly result[ed] to some extent in the weakening of our moral position as the champion of freedom and democracy." Wanting to assert the nation's moral superiority vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, but having to concede that there were continuing domestic problems over integration, the State Department sent an exhibit to Brussels, "Unfinished Business," that acknowledged some of the problems still faced by African Americans. Although popular with audiences that visited the American pavilion, "Unfinished Business" closed for "renovations," which was a euphemism for deleting the sections that dealt with segregation and thus raised the ire of southern politicians back home. Senator Herman Talmadge, for example, a Democrat from Georgia, declared that segregation "was an issue for the individual states of America and 'cannot by any stretch of the imagination be said to be one of legitimate concern to the citizens of other countries.'" Of course, that has traditionally been the argument of all governments accused of violating their citizens' human rights, whether it be the United States in the 1950s; the apartheid government in South Africa in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s; China after Tiananmen Square; or the Taliban government in Afghanistan early in the twenty-first century.


David P. Forsythe has argued that not much with respect to human rights happened during the 1960s, largely because the Kennedy administration was cut short by assassination and the Johnson administration became preoccupied with Vietnam. Yet however brief his time in the White House, President John F. Kennedy recognized the problem created by opposition to civil rights at home for the nation's international standing. Speaking before the United Nations in 1963, nearly fifteen years after the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Kennedy remarked, "The United States of America is opposed to discrimination and persecution on grounds of race and religion anywhere in the world, including our own nation. We are working to right the wrongs." Indeed, Kennedy, who argued that the competition with the Soviet Union was moving from Europe to the countries of the Third World, where mostly darker-skinned peoples lived, understood the need to address prejudice at home in order to appeal effectively to those peoples abroad. For his part, Lyndon B. Johnson ushered through two of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in American history: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson brought the power of the federal government to bear so as to ensure that the states could not continue discriminating against African Americans. The United States was finally beginning to act in the domestic sphere in accordance with its proclamations internationally.

Human rights lost ground as a matter of importance in the nation's diplomacy under President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser (and, later, secretary of state), Henry Kissinger. The two emphasized geographical, political, and strategic considerations. Human rights, whether individual or collective, were of little concern to them. In his rush to embrace Communist China in a geostrategic partnership against the Soviet Union, for example, Kissinger basically cast aside the collective rights of the Taiwanese, who had been America's ally in the Pacific against communist aggression since 1949. Kissinger's disdain for human rights came through clearly at other times, too. From the administration's support for the military overthrow of the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 to the secret bombing of Cambodia from 1969 to 1973, the Nixon White House valued anticommunism, the exercise of power, and promoting stability over human rights.

Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 and his successor, Gerald Ford, did not exhibit any greater concern for human rights. Later, Ford would claim credit for supporting human rights by virtue of his signing the Helsinki Accord, also known as the final text from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was signed by thirty-three nations in Helsinki, Finland, in 1975. At the time, however, the Ford administration thought of the agreement as more of a strategic pact than as one that brought a new human rights emphasis to U.S. diplomacy. It was the western European nations that insisted on the insertion of Breadbasket Three, which asserted that "the participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion." Since the Soviet Union also signed the agreement, this language later became useful in criticizing Soviet practices in Eastern Europe.


A backlash arose from the lies about the Vietnam War told to Congress by Presidents Johnson and Nixon, and from Nixon's blatant usurpations of power, leading to the rise of what became known as the imperial presidency. In the 1970s representatives and senators took matters into their own hands and asserted themselves more aggressively into the nation's diplomatic processes, including the area of human rights. One of the most prominent in this respect was a Democratic representative from Minnesota, Donald Fraser. Beginning with hearings in 1973 before his subcommittee of International Relations Committee, Fraser repeatedly raised the issue of human rights and made it a matter of legitimate diplomatic discussion. Human rights would no longer be an afterthought.

More than simply discussing the issue, moreover, Congress decided to act. In 1974, it strengthened law relating to trade and human rights when it passed the Trade Assistance Act; section 504 specifically dealt with human rights, indicating that aid should be linked to human rights considerations. In 1978 that language was changed to make mandatory the link between assistance and human rights considerations. Also in 1974, Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act. Named after Democratic Senator Henry Jackson from Washington and Democratic Representative Charles Vanik from Ohio, the amendment insisted that for other nations to receive most-favored-nation status for trade purposes, they had to be certified as allowing their citizens the right to emigrate. The amendment targeted the Soviet Union for its refusal to allow Jews to leave for Israel. In 1976 Congress created the position of coordinator of human rights in the Department of State. As a result, the State Department reports on human rights conditions in countries receiving U.S. aid, totaling eighty-two in 1977. Twenty-three years later, and no longer focusing solely on aid recipients, the State Department published reports on 195 countries through its Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. In short, congressional action during the 1970s brought human rights into the nation's diplomatic considerations to an unprecedented degree.


In this human-rights-friendly environment, Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976. Carter has justly received much attention for emphasizing human rights as part of his administration's diplomacy; he did not, however, invent the issue. Gaddis Smith has, along with other writers, shown that, in Smith's words, "Carter joined the crusade and made it his own." The principle impetus came from Congress, to the point that even such a strong supporter of human rights as Carter found himself arguing that Congress took human rights considerations too far. Still, Carter was more committed to promoting human rights than any other president into the early twenty-first century, in both words and action. As he wrote in his memoirs, "Our country has been strongest and most effective when morality and a commitment to freedom and democracy have been most clearly emphasized in our foreign policy."

Having grown up in the rural segregated South, Carter linked the issue of civil rights for African Americans with the promotion of human rights abroad and cited President Truman, of all the recent presidents, as "the strongest and most effective advocate of human rights on an international scale." He acknowledged problems with the nation's past conduct, admitting that "much of the time we failed to exhibit as an American characteristic the idealism of Jefferson or Wilson," but he rejected the accepted wisdom that the nation had to choose between realism and morality: "To me, the demonstration of American idealism was a practical and realistic approach to foreign affairs, and moral principles were the best foundation for the exertion of American power and influence." His secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, concurred fully in the need to promote human rights; even National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, himself more in tune with the geopolitical and strategic mind-set of Henry Kissinger than were Carter or Vance, conceded in his memoirs that "a major emphasis on human rights as a component of U.S. foreign policy would advance America's global interests by demonstrating to the emerging nations of the Third World the reality of our democratic system, in sharp contrast to the political system and practices of our adversaries."

Carter understood the inconsistency in the nation's past talk about human rights when considered alongside its efforts to deny rights to some of its own citizens. In his memoirs, he acknowledged that "I know perhaps as well as anyone that our own ideals in the area of human rights have not always been attained in the United States, but the American people have an abiding commitment to the full realization of these ideals." The problem for Carter was that despite his efforts to ensure that the nation's commitment to human rights was total and unconditional, he like his predecessors (and successors) had to deal with the international situation as it was, not as he wanted it to be. Thus, while he criticized certain governments, including the Soviet Union and the military regime in Argentina, for violating their people's basic human rights, he laid himself open to charges of inconsistency, if not hypocrisy, by ignoring violations in strategically vital allies like Iran, the Philippines, and South Korea.

Still, Carter made human rights a public commitment for his administration, in contrast to many of his predecessors. Speaking before the United Nations on 17 March 1977, he told the delegates, "The basic thrust of human affairs points toward a more universal demand for fundamental human rights. The United States has a historical birthright to be associated with this process." Secretary of State Vance spoke on 30 April 1977 at the University of Georgia School of Law on the integrity of the person, the fulfillment of basic needs, and classical civil and political liberties that required protection. Vance raised certain questions that needed to be asked when investigating human rights in other nations: What were the specifics of the human rights situation under examination? What were the prospects for effective action to bring about change? What were the historical and other perspectives needed to evaluate the situation reasonably? He also offered a slightly tempered sense of what could be expected: "We must always keep in mind the limits of our power and of our wisdom. A sure formula for defeat of our goals would be a rigid, hubristic attempt to impose our values on others."

President Carter followed on 22 May 1977 with a commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, where he outlined his administration's premises for the nation's diplomacy. The first item that he mentioned was human rights: "We have reaffirmed America's commitment to human rights as a fundamental tenet of our foreign policy," he stated.

Carter followed these words with deeds. First, on 1 June 1977 he signed the American Convention on Human Rights, an agreement that was reached between the United States and the other nations of the Western Hemisphere seven and one-half years before on 22 November 1969 but not officially endorsed by either Presidents Nixon or Ford. Second, although it was Congress that mandated so many of the changes that led to greater attention being paid to human rights during the 1970s, it was Jimmy Carter who appointed an assistant secretary of state for human rights effective August 1977. His choice for the post was Patricia M. Derian, an aggressive advocate for civil rights albeit lacking diplomatic experience. That, however, did not cause her to back down from confrontations with seasoned diplomats, She repeatedly clashed with more traditionally minded State Department personnel, like Assistant Secretary Richard Holbrooke on East Asian issues or Ambassador Terence Todman on Latin American matters. Derian did not shape every position the administration took, but she gave concrete evidence of a newfound commitment to human rights, however short lived it ultimately turned out to be.

As international events unfolded in 1978 and 1979, Carter began to focus his energies on more traditional considerations in the nation's diplomacy. First came the war between Somalia and Ethiopia in the horn of Africa, which National Security Adviser Brzezinski viewed as a Soviet proxy war for control over yet another vital region. Further difficulties arose with the collapse of traditional right-wing allies in Nicaragua (Anastasio Somoza in 1979) and Iran (Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979). Andrew Young's resignation as ambassador to the United Nations in August 1979 effectively ended Carter's push on human rights in that international organization. And things only got worse. In Iran, students stormed the American embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and took Americans hostage. A month later the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Concern over human rights quickly fell into the background, and nowhere did that become clearer than in South Korea. When President Park Chung Hee was assassinated in October 1979 and succeeded by a military regime led by Chun Doo Hwan in December, and when that government decided to suppress brutally an uprising in the southern city of Kwangju in the spring of 1980, Carter said nothing, despite his earlier criticisms of Park's record on human rights. Administration officials feared that South Korea could become another Iran. In short, even a president as rhetorically committed to promoting human rights as Jimmy Carter found himself overwhelmed by strategic considerations that weighed in on the side of protecting stability.


Congress and President Jimmy Carter made enough of human rights as a central tenet of American diplomacy so that subsequent chief executives could not ignore the issue entirely, regardless of how little attention they really wanted to give the matter. The Reagan administration, for example, took Kissinger's emphasis on geographical, strategic, and political considerations, combined that with its own brand of politically conservative, fervent anticommunism, and added the requisite dose of human rights rhetoric in castigating the Soviet Union, all the while supporting right-wing dictators throughout the world. The spokesperson for the administration on this topic was the ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick. In a 1979 article she had criticized the Carter administration for failing to discern the difference between authoritarian (good) and totalitarian (bad) regimes around the world. The former were to be embraced as friends and allies, because of their ability eventually to change and their present inflexibility when it came to communism. The latter regimes not only would not change, they were communist. Matters of human rights abuses by authoritarian leaders were far less important in her schematic than their willingness to tow the anti-communist line. This was the theoretical framework the administration wanted to employ in its support of right-wing dictators.

The Reagan administration, therefore, offered its full support for repressive governments in places like El Salvador and Guatemala. In both countries the administration lied and covered up numerous atrocities and human rights abuses by the military, all in the name of supporting anticommunism. But from President Reagan's perspective, his predecessor's policies had fared no better. In a 1981 interview with Walter Cronkite, Reagan said with respect to the Carter administration's contradictory behavior on human rights, "We took countries that were pro-Western, that were maybe authoritarian in government, but not totalitarian [that] did not meet all of our principles of what constitutes human rights, and we punished them at the same time that we were claiming detente with countries where there are no human rights." Secretary of State George P. Shultz assessed the situation similarly. He pointed to the differences between the East and West on moral principles, principles from which their basic policies arose. He argued that human rights could not be used to spurn other nations. That was a cop-out, he insisted, stating that although it made certain Americans feel better about themselves in their righteous indignation, it did not promote the kind of real change that improved human rights. On the contrary, according to Kirkpatrick and Shultz, U.S. pressure on Iran, Nicaragua, and South Vietnam in the 1970s to conform to certain human rights practices brought about these regimes' downfalls, which decidedly worsened the day-to-day circumstances faced by the millions of peoples in those countries.

The practical test for the Reagan administration position came in South Africa, where the administration took to the idea of working with the apartheid regime in the hope of bringing about affirmative changes in race relations there. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Chester Crocker coined the term "constructive engagement" when discussing the administration's policy toward the white minority government. The idea was to reassure the South African leaders of American support in their time of transition to democracy. That was the option preferred by the administration; the other was to isolate South Africa through sanctions in an effort to force the situation. Congress, as it had during the 1970s, took a more activist position and in 1986 passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which imposed economic sanctions on South Africa until significant changes were made, in direct opposition to the Reagan administration's constructive engagement policy.

Elsewhere, the Reagan administration appeared to have better luck, though not because of its dedication to constructive engagement or democratic principles. In the Philippines, longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos stepped aside and allowed the election of Corazon Aquino in 1986, but the principal impetus for change came from the Filipinos. Reagan hesitated at key moments until the matter was all but decided.

The Bush administration made much the same argument on constructive engagement with respect to China in 1989, even after the government had cracked down on the Tiananmen Square protestors, using the People's Liberation Army to crush them on 3 June. Bush secretly sent two high-ranking advisersNational Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburgerto Beijing on 30 June to assure the Chinese leadership that his administration still intended to promote Sino-American relations once the furor over Tiananmen died down. The president sent the two to China again in December, the same month that the administration announced the release of $300 million in business contracts between American corporations and the Chinese government that had been suspended in the wake of Tiananmen. The administration was intent on downplaying human rights violations.

On 20 December 1989 the United States invaded Panama. The official reasons floated for the invasion ranged from harassment by Panamanian Defense Forces of American military officials (and their wives), to Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega's involvement with drug trafficking, to human rights violations. The drug connection was well-known in the early 1980s, but Noriega then cleaned up his act to the point where he received a letter from the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1986 that thanked him for his cooperation in stopping the drug trade. The last of the reasons given was a sheer fabrication, since the Bush administration was more than willing to ignore much more serious human rights violations in China and Iraq or, closer to home, in El Salvador and Guatemala.


Since 1989 the United States has faced a number of humanitarian crises, including ones involving the gross violation, either individually or collectively, of human rights. In 1994, for example, some in the Hutu majority in Rwanda orchestrated massive killings of Tutsis beginning in April. The brutal massacres clearly violated the UN's Declaration of Human Rights, but governments around the world refused to intervene to stop the killing. The administration of William Jefferson Clinton purposely avoided using the word genocide because to have uttered it publicly might have obligated the United States to take action under the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, approved in December 1948 but not signed by the United States until 4 November 1988. Instead, the administration used phrases like "acts of genocide." When questioned as to the difference between genocide and acts of genocide, Christine Shelley, a State Department spokesperson, responded that "clearly not all of the killings that have taken place in Rwanda are killings to which you might apply that label." When pressed as to how many "acts of genocide" were needed to constitute "genocide," Shelly answered, "That's just not a question that I'm in a position to answer." In other words, better to avoid the issue through linguistic parsing than acknowledge what was truly happening and doing something about it. President Clinton apologized for America's inaction while visiting Rwanda in 1998, but that was years after 800,000 people had been massacred.

The proliferation of independence movements in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse apparently arose in partial response to Woodrow Wilson's call at the end of the First World War to support such efforts. To their surprise, however, those groups seeking U.S. assistance in their attempts to form independent governments ran into traditional American worries about instability possibly ensuing. In 1999, to cite one example, the leaders of Kosovo traveled to Rambouillet, France, to discuss its status within Yugoslavia. Meeting with American secretary of state Madeleine Albright, they found the United States much less keen than they had hoped regarding their desire to separate from Serbia and what remained of the Yugoslav republic. From the American perspective, supporting independence for Kosovo would set a dangerous precedent: What of the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, the Tibetans in western China, and the Taiwanese? If those peoples also publicly asserted their desire for independent states, the consequences could possibly involve the United States in a major war, especially in the case of Taiwan. Hence, the Clinton administration remained exceedingly cautious about supporting the collective human rights of the Kosovars, despite their obvious suffering at the hands of the Serbian authorities led by Slobodan Milosevic.


In 2001, Francis Fukuyama wrote about the debate between "rights" and "interests" and what difference it makes to speak of "human rights" as opposed to "human interests." More specifically, he delved into why certain groups assert claims to rights when what they are really discussing are interests. In a sense, this is merely a broadening of what Jefferson began when he wrote of the "right" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The United Nations declaration is about "universal human rights," not human interests, and after incisively noting the distinction between the two, Fukuyama concluded that the reason for the proliferating assertions of "rights" in the half century after the UN's declaration had to do with how "rights trump interests because they are invested with greater moral significance." The problem with injecting human rights issues into the nation's diplomacy, he insisted, was that they set up a basic premise for the nation's diplomacy that could never really be fulfilled: "A country that makes human rights a significant element of its foreign policy tends toward ineffectual moralizing at best, and unconstrained violence in pursuit of moral aims at worst." Jimmy Carter seemed to have discovered that the hard way.

On another level, Americans still fail to understand how arrogant some of their national pronouncements on human rights seem to peoples in other countries. While condemning human rights infractions elsewhere, Americans blithely go about ignoring or rationalizing their own society's violations. To cite one example, polls generally show that a vast majority of Americans consider the death penalty a domestic matter, and popular support for allowing states to execute prisoners convicted of certain crimes remains high, although revelations in the late 1990s and early 2000s demonstrated the inconsistent, indeed arbitrary, way in which the death penalty is frequently applied, not to mention the fact that a good number of death-row inmates had recently been proven innocent through DNA testing. The governor of Illinois went so far as to suspend all executions pending a review of the state's legal system regarding capital cases. Nongovernmental organizations that monitor human rights abuses around the world, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, regularly cite the use of the death penalty as a violation of human rights, and the United States receives special mention since some of its states also allow for individuals under the age of eighteen to receive the death penalty for certain crimes. That puts the United States in the same league as Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, nations not normally listed as standing at the forefront of the world's human rights protectors. And it gets even worse. In 2001, 52 percent of all death-row inmates were African American or Latino, far in excess of their percentage of the general population, which in 2000 stood at 24.8 percent, suggesting a disparity based on racial and ethnic prejudice. Yet the Supreme Court has ruled that statistical findings of uneven sentencing across racial lines regarding capital cases do not constitute sufficient evidence of racial bias. An intent to discriminate must be proven in each case, the court ruled, a nearly impossible burden for defendants appealing their convictions. The United States signed the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but by 2001 had not ratified it, largely because of objections to the covenant's prohibition against using the death penalty on individuals under the age of eighteen.


That the United States failed to retain its seat on the UN Commission on Human Rights, on second thought, begins to look less and less outrageous when the long history of the nation's own violations is considered. Compounding those problems is resentment at the fact that the United States is the only truly global power. The administration of George W. Bush has not done much to allay concerns or ease tensions. Its unilateral decision to reject the Kyoto Agreement on curbing global warming, its resolve to withdraw from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty with Russia in order to pursue a National Missile Defense plan, and the refusal to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to the UN Council on Racism in Durban, South Africa (and then the withdrawal of the delegation) all seemed to mark even more examples of American arrogance.

The Bush administration argued that it sent only a low-level delegation to Durban to protest the language already proposed by Arab delegates calling Israeli's treatment of Palestinians as racist; the president also objected to discussing reparations for past acts of slavery. Whatever the reasons, the Bush administration should have weighed the importance of the nation's past leadership in the field of human rights against its displeasure over particular language in draft texts prior to the start of the conference. David D. Newsom was right to call attention to the disparity between the ideals articulated by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, or Eleanor Roosevelt and the reality of the actions pursued or not by the United States. But Jimmy Carter was right when he argued that the nation could not shirk its duty to promote human rights just because of its own imperfections.


Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 19771981. New York, 1983.

Carter, Jimmy. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. New York, 1982. The most vocal president on human rights in the nation's history discusses his reasons for making it so important to his administration's diplomacy.

Chomsky, Noam. Deterring Democracy. New York, 1991. Essential for understanding the duplicitous language employed by policy-makers to rationalize actions.

Forsythe, David P. Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy: Congress Reconsidered. Gainesville, Fla., 1988. A very good discussion of Congress's assertiveness after 1973.

. "Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy: Retrospect and Prospect." Political Science Quarterly 105 (autumn 1990): 435454. One of his many excellent writings on the topic, this one being especially useful as a summary.

Fukuyama, Francis. "Natural Rights and Human History." The National Interest 64 (summer 2001): 1930.

Kirkpatrick, Jeane. "Dictatorships and Double Standards." Commentary 68 (November 1979): 3445. The classic criticism of the Carter administration's policies.

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York, 1977.

Krenn, Michael L. "'Unfinished Business': Segregation and U.S. Diplomacy at the 1958 World's Fair." Diplomatic History 20 (fall 1996): 591612.

Lapham, Lewis. "The American Rome: On the Theory of Virtuous Empire." Harper's Magazine (August 2001). A biting analysis of the hypocrisy in American diplomacy and human rights.

Mower, A. Glenn, Jr. The United States, the United Nations, and Human Rights: The Eleanor Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter Eras. Westport, Conn., 1979.

. Human Rights and American Foreign Policy: The Carter and Reagan Experiences. New York, 1987.

Newsom, David D., ed. The Diplomacy of Human Rights. Lanham, Md., 1986. Good collection of articles that covers a wide range of topics relating to the subject.

Schmitz, David F. Thank God They're on Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 19211965. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999. A chilling reminder of how stability has usually trumped human rights in, among other things, considering what governments to support.

Smith, Gaddis. Morality, Reason, and Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years. New York, 1986. A helpful and succinct overview of the Carter administration, including its emphasis on human rights.

Smith, Tony. America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J., 1994. A ringing and eloquent endorsement of the benefits provided by America's efforts to promote democracy, but best if read in conjunction with Schmitz.

Vance, Cyrus R. Hard Choices: Critical Years in America's Foreign Policy. New York, 1983.

Vincent, R. J., ed. Foreign Policy and Human Rights: Issues and Responses. Cambridge, 1986.

See also Foreign Aid; Humanitarian Intervention and Relief; Most-Favored-Nation Principle; Recognition .


On 16 October 1998 Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzón issued an extradition order for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was in Great Britain for medical treatment at the time. Although the British government eventually permitted Pinochet to return to Chile in March 2000 because of his supposed poor health, Britain's highest court, the Law Lords, had ruled on 24 March 1999 that the charges against Pinochet were so seriousincluding the murder and torture of Chileansthat they overrode defense counsel's argument that Pinochet was immune from prosecution under Britain's State Immunity Act of 1978. In short, Pinochet could be held legally accountable for his actions while head of state.

In 1999, Henry Kissinger published the third volume of his memoirs, in which he explained the reasons why the Nixon and Ford administrations supported Salvador Allende's overthrow in 1973 and then endorsed the regime under General Pinochet that followed. First, he asserted that the dangers posed by communist expansion in the Western Hemisphere were real, citing Fidel Castro in Cuba and leftist guerrilla activities elsewhere. Second, Kissinger argued that Allende was determined to destroy the democratic institutions in Chile and replace them with a communist dictatorship. Kissinger's defense thus turned on denying involvement in Allende's overthrow and recalling the Cold War context to justify supporting Pinochet.

The Pinochet ruling in Britain gave some officials reason for pause: the United States has held other nations and their leaders accountable for violating human rights, but eventually American leaders may be placed under the same microscope. There is something very chilling, and quite healthy and appropriate, about the prospect of some deliberative body being able to sit in judgment of actions taken by the United States. The notion that American leaders will be held accountable for violating human rights is certainly dim, but such accountability would bring equity to the way in which human rights violations are handled around the world.

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Human Rights

Human Rights

Origins and basic concepts

Human rights and international law

The United Nations and human rights

Human rights in developing countries


The subject of this article is the international concern with human rights. The article cannot, however, concentrate exclusively on the activities of international organizations and on conferences which purport to promote respect for human rights. The instruments, institutions, and operations of the international organizations of our day have roots in the philosophical, constitutional, and legal developments of many nations spread over many centuries. The work on the international plane has in its turn had considerable influence on constitutional, legal, and political developments within nation-states, not least on the written law of many of the states of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean which have recently acceded to independence.

Origins and basic concepts

The expression “human rights,” as a term of art, is of recent origin. Even in its French-inspired form “rights of man” (droits de I’homme), it goes back only to the last decades of the eighteenth century. The idea, however, of the law, or the lawgiver, defining and protecting the legal rights of men— mainly the mutual rights of the members of the community—is very old indeed. It would, perhaps, be somewhat farfetched to look for elements of the protection of human rights in the Code of the Babylonian king Hammurabi (about 2130 to 2088 B.C.), the most ancient code of law at present known. The sanctions which it provides in trying to protect worthy human-rights objectives (such as the administration of justice, marriage, and the family) are so disproportionately cruel that it is preferable to disregard this legislator in our context. However, as Rudolph von Jhering pointed out a century ago, the law of ancient republican Rome guaranteed to the Roman citizen (not to the foreigner or to the slave) the right to take part in the government of his country by participating in the exercise of the power of legislation, in the administration of criminal justice, in electing public officials, and even in having a share in the police power (Jhering 1852-1878).

An eminent American scholar has said (Yntema 1958) that the concepts of the Roman civil law, which were formulated by the Roman juridical genius in order to render justice in the mutual relations of individual men, are in essence a practical definition of the rights of man and a reasonable and authoritative criterion to which those who seek justice and protection of the inherent dignity of the human person can appeal. This holds true, in Yntema’s view, of the Roman law as it was applied on the continent of Europe and of the common law of the Anglo-Saxon countries. The common law and the civil law, so different in their institutions and techniques and, at the same time, so similar in their criteria of what is fair, offer an objective yardstick for judging conduct in terms of individual rights and freedoms. These systems have, of course, also tolerated institutions and practices which are inconsistent with the modern conception of a public order protecting human dignity. Nevertheless, through many centuries communities have existed where at least part of what are now considered to be fundamental human rights were well protected by elaborate and refined bodies of law.

In England of the seventeenth century battles were fought against the nonobservance of the ancient rights of Englishmen. Out of these struggles there came two great documents: the Petition of Right of 1628 and the Bill of Rights of 1689. These did not purport to define the basic human rights of all mankind. They were intended to give relief for specific grievances by limiting the power of the king and by strengthening the power of Parliament and of the courts. Their ideas and even their texts are, however, reflected in the work of the American and French revolutionaries of the eighteenth century: in the immortal passages of the American Declaration of Independence, in the Virginia bill of rights of 1776, in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and in the American bill of rights.

In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the example set by the United States and France of adopting bills of rights or otherwise embodying such rights in their constitutions, was followed on the entire continent of Europe, and the movement spread to the Americas, Asia, and Africa, but until very recently Britain and the British dominions and possessions remained aloof from this movement.

The Russian Revolution of 1917, while following the American-French precedent in the form of its pronouncements, gave it a fundamentally different substance. The difference lies not in the emphasis on economic and social rights in addition to the traditional political and civil rights. Such provisions are also found in other constitutions, for example, in the Mexican constitution of 1917, in the Weimar constitution of Germany of 1919, and in the constitution of the Republic of Spain of 1931. The difference between the Soviet pronouncements and their Western predecessors lies in the complete transformation of the meaning of political and civil rights.

This basic difference in concepts becomes clear when one compares the provisions of the American bill of rights with the corresponding provisions of the first Soviet constitution. The first amendment to the American constitution provides, among other things, that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; the Russian constitution of 1918 “for the purpose of securing freedom of expression to the toiling masses,” abolishes all dependence of the press upon capital, and turns over to the working people and the poorest peasantry “all technical and material means for the publication of newspapers, pamphlets, books,” etc. The American constitution prohibits abridgment of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, while the Lenin constitution, in order to ensure complete freedom of assembly to the working class and to the poorest peasantry, offers “all premises convenient for public gatherings together with lighting, heating, and furniture.”

The Soviet constitution of 1936, while changing the wording, has, by and large, maintained this general approach. The Western constitutional ideas were designed to prevent interference with fundamental rights mainly, though not exclusively, by the public authorities. The Soviet concept does not treat of this aspect at all. It promises to make available technical facilities; it does not promise freedom in the choice of the purposes for which they will be used. In trying to draw conclusions from the existence in so many legal systems of catalogues of rights, one must keep in mind these differences in the basic concepts.

Human rights and international law

Attempts to seek a foundation for the rights of the individual in the law of nations go back to an early stage in the history of international law. The work of the Spanish theologian-lawyer Francisco de Vitoria—born 1480, died 1546—is perhaps the first attempt to use legal reasoning, moral principle, and political courage in support of a cause which we might consider as involving human rights as well as international law. He lectured about “the Indians recently discovered” and pleaded for their rights vis-a-vis the Spanish conquerors. The greatest figures in the literature of international law in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries exercised a powerful influence on the growth of the concept of the inalienable rights of man. In 1950 Sir Hersch Lauterpacht characterized the close connection between human rights and international law by saying that “the law of nations, in itself conceivable only as being above the legal order of sovereign States, is not only a law governing their mutual relations but is also, upon final analysis, the universal law of humanity in which the individual human being as the ultimate unit of all law rises sovereign over the limited province of the State” (p. 120).

In the field of action, as distinct from scholarship, the international concern with human rights has manifested itself in two different ways: by so-called “humanitarian intervention” and by the adoption of international treaties.

In traditional international law it was assumed that a state had the authority to treat its own nationals as it saw fit. When, however, the ill-treatment by a state of its own population was of such an intensity that it shocked the conscience of mankind, other states, usually the great powers of the period, took it upon themselves to threaten, or even to use, force in order to come to the rescue of the oppressed population. While resort to this type of action was not infrequent, the doctrine underlying it has never become a generally recognized part of international law because of the abuse inherent in the concept of “humanitarian intervention.”

The protection of oppressed or endangered groups by international treaty started in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in matters of religious liberty. In the course of the nineteenth century the international treaty was used also to protect ethnic and racial groups and to combat the slave trade and slavery; in the twentieth century it has been used to improve labor conditions, to arrange for the supervision of the administration of mandated territories, and to provide under the supervision of the League of Nations for certain rights of racial, religious, or linguistic minorities in a number of states, mainly in central and eastern Europe.

The United Nations and human rights

Not until the world had passed through the tragic events of World War II and had witnessed the barbarous acts committed by the totalitarian regimes of that period was the universal organization of the international community, the United Nations, charged with some responsibilities in the matter of human rights, and its members pledged themselves to take action for the achievement of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.

The San Francisco Charter of 1945 through which the peoples of the United Nations reaffirmed their faith in “fundamental human rights” did not define these rights. The charter has made it abundantly clear, however, that one particular activity at least is repugnant to it: discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, language, or religion.

Nor has the charter established specific international machinery for the enforcement of its human-rights provisions, except for arrangements under the trusteeship system. But it has created organs of general and wide competence—the general Assembly, the Security Council, and the Economic and Social Council—and it has laid the foundations for the establishment of an unlimited number of subsidiary bodies, including commissions in the field of human rights.

The General Assembly, and to some extent also the Economic and Social Council, have not hesitated to use their general powers of investigation and recommendation to take action of varying character and intensity in such situations as violations of religious or political freedom in eastern Europe, race conflict in South Africa, forced labor in various parts of the world, infringement of trade union freedom, practices violating the human dignity of women in less developed communities, the status of Buddhists in South Vietnam, and many others. The fight against colonialism has been one of the characteristics of the international scene in the post-World War II world. Rightly or wrongly, the majority of governments have, to a large extent, identified the struggle against colonial domination with the struggle for human rights.

International bill of rights

Since the United Nations Charter had not defined human rights and had not created special international institutions for their enforcement, it was widely assumed in 1945 that this would soon be done in an “International bill of rights.” In 1947-1948 it was decided that this “bill” would consist of two or more documents: a declaration, a covenant, and “measures of implementation.” In 1948 the General Assembly proclaimed in a resolution the first part of this bill of rights as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The drafting of the other parts of the bill has not yet been completed; according to later decisions, they are to consist of two covenants, one on civil and political rights, the other on economic, social, and cultural rights, with provision for international supervision of their implementation. (By the end of 1963 all the general and substantive provisions of the two covenants had been approved on the General Assembly level, while—as of 1965 —the international procedural arrangements have still to be agreed upon.)

The declaration of 1948 is the only world-wide official document where the human rights of which the charter speaks are set forth. Its range is very wide. It proclaims not only the traditional political and civil rights and freedoms of its national predecessors but also “economic, social and cultural rights.” The declaration has, to some extent, filled the gap created by the delay in completing the covenants and acquired a status different from and more important than the one which was originally intended for it. It has been used by the United Nations, by other international organizations and conferences, and by governments as a yardstick to measure the compliance by governments with the obligations deriving from the charter in matters of human rights. It has penetrated into international conventions, national constitutions, and legislation, and even, in isolated cases, into court proceedings.

The technique of developing international standards by proclaiming instruments of the declaration type has been frequently used, the most potent post-1948 example being the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, of 1960. Additional human-rights declarations were also adopted: the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, in 1959, and the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, in 1963. In other fields examples are the declarations on Permanent Sovereignty Over Natural Resources, 1962, and on Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, 1963. Many more are in various stages of drafting and preparation.

Conventions on specific human-rights subjects

While the work of drafting the comprehensive covenants on human rights has been going on, the United Nations and its specialized agencies have produced a considerable body of treaty law on the subject of human rights by adopting and putting into force conventions on more limited subjects. Important examples are the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948; the Genocide Convention, 1948; the Convention on the Political Rights of Women, 1952; the Conventions on the Status of Refugees, 1951, and of Stateless Persons, 1954; the Conventions on the Reduction of Statelessness, 1961, and on the Nationality of Married Women, 1957; the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, 1956, and the Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labor, 1957; the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958, and the Convention against Discrimination in Education, I960; the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, 1962; and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1965.

Regional arrangements

In the years during which the United Nations has been slowly working its way toward the completion of the world-wide covenants, much more rapid progress was achieved in western Europe. Under the auspices of the Council of Europe, the European Convention of Human Rights of 1950 came into being, supplemented by protocols of 1952 and 1963 and by the European Social Charter of 1961. By the convention, the 15 European states which are parties to it have undertaken to secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights which it defines—most of the traditional political and civil rights. The convention established two new organs to ensure the observance of the engagements undertaken by the parties: the European Commission on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights.

The existence of the court is significant primarily as a symbol. Its jurisdiction is very narrowly circumscribed. It was established in 1959, and by the beginning of 1965 only two cases had gone before it. The commission, however, has played an important and effective part. Ten of the European states (not including the United Kingdom and France, the latter not being a party to the convention at all) have accepted the right of individuals to petition the commission and to claim to be the victims of a violation of the convention by one of the parties. It has been the commission’s examination of petitions, and especially the examination of their admissibility, which offered the commission the opportunity to build up an impressive body of case law. And although in the over whelming majority of cases the commission has had to reject the petition, its work has transformed the abstract idea of the international protection of human rights into a concrete, tangible, day-to-day task. This operation has laid bare the formidable problems and pitfalls inherent in so novel an experiment.

For many years, the Organization of American States has tried to establish inter-American institutions for the promotion of respect for human rights. In 1948 the “American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man” was proclaimed at Bogota; conventions on political and civil rights of women and on territorial and diplomatic asylum were signed in 1948 and 1954 respectively. An Inter-American Convention on Human Rights providing for the establishment of a commission and a court of human rights, on the European model, was drafted by the Inter-American Council of Jurists in 1959. At the beginning of 1965 final action on the draft had not yet been taken by the political organs.

Program of practical action

The effectiveness and desirability of the international treaty as an instrument for the promotion of human rights was challenged early in the history of the United Nations. The most weighty challenge came in 1953 when U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles stated that the new Eisenhower administration did not believe in “treaty coercion” and did not favor “formal undertakings” as the proper and most effective way to achieve throughout the world the goals of human liberty. As a consequence the United States declared its intention not to become a party to any covenant on human rights or to sign human-rights conventions of a more limited scope. As we have seen, the majority of governments has continued to hold that multilateral conventions have their place among the endeavors to give effect to the human-rights provisions of the charter. Those governments consented, however, to a new program proposed by the United States, provided it was adopted in addition to treaties and not instead of them.

Thus, in 1955-1956 the United Nations started a series of new activities: (1) periodic (triennial) reporting by states on developments; (2) studies of specific rights or groups of rights; and (3) advisory services in the field of human rights. A great number of governments have participated in the reporting procedure in the first three triennial cycles; the Commission on Human Rights has, however, not yet arrived at a final policy about the use to be made of the reports. The first of the studies was a world-wide inquiry and investigation into the status of the right to be free from arbitrary arrest, detention, and exile. The most fruitful branch of the program of advisory services has been the convening of mostly regional conferences (called seminars) to exchange views and experiences on important and topical problems, such as the protection of human rights in criminal law and procedure, the role of the police in the protection of human rights, or the status of women in family law. It was a series of seminars on judicial and other remedies against the illegal exercise or abuse of administrative authority which made the institution of the “ombudsman” known outside the Scandinavian countries and led to its acceptance in at least two other countries (England and New Zealand) and to its consideration elsewhere (Canada and some United States jurisdictions). One such regional conference, held in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1964, was devoted to “human rights in developing countries,” a basic problem which deserves more detailed discussion (Seminar …1964).

Human rights in developing countries

Observance of human rights poses problems everywhere, and no country’s record, be it highly industrialized or economically underdeveloped, is faultless. In most of the countries which have acceded to independence only recently the problems are aggravated. Many of these countries have implacable enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease, and inertia. Western commentators have tended to underestimate the importance of illiteracy and ignorance, particularly in unsophisticated rural societies (De Smith 1964, p. 237). At the Kabul conference it was agreed that there could be no meaningful exercise of many human rights in a country where economic resources were scarce and the bulk of the population lived on the margin of subsistence. It was argued that in such matters as the development of the whole economy and the improvement of health, education, and housing, the state needed the necessary powers to implement its plans even though, meanwhile, the rights of individuals or groups might be temporarily curtailed. Some speakers wondered, however, whether the governments of some developing countries did not show an excessive concern for the internal and external security of the state and apply unnecessary restrictions on human rights.

Developing countries experience difficulties not only in regard to economic and social rights, the enjoyment of which clearly presupposes a certain economic standard, but also in regard to the “classical” civil and political rights. A basic prerequisite of the right to a fair trial is the existence of an adequate number of well-trained lawyers, and “crash programs” for their training were recommended at the Kabul conference. The scarcity of competent and efficient public officials is also an obstacle to progress in the human-rights field. An other specific problem of the underdeveloped world arises in the very sensitive area of “labor mobili zation.” In some countries, it was alleged at the conference, it is not yet possible to rely exclusively upon systems of voluntary labor to satisfy the basic needs of the nation. Recourse has sometimes to be had to certain forms of labor mobilization involving the compulsory removal of people to areas other than those of their residences. It was claimed, however, that such national labor services should be distinguished from the practices of forced labor which were forbidden by international conventions (see also Cowen 1964).

Neither the human-rights provisions of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights nor the other treaties and declarations mentioned above have brought about the millennium. It is therefore not the purpose of this article to convey the idea that the rights set forth in these instruments are, in fact, respected and observed throughout the world. In 1952, in 1957, and, again, in 1962 the General Assembly of the United Nations reiterated that notwithstanding the obligations arising from the charter and notwith standing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, violations of human rights continue to occur in various parts of the world, and that notwith standing some progress the situation in many parts of the world was unsatisfactory.

The task of making the protection of human rights general, permanent, and effective still lies ahead. This should not lead us, however, to belittle the progress that has been achieved on the international and national levels since World War II. Whatever the technical position might be in particular instances, and however difficult it might often be to achieve redress through international or national remedies, the traditional concept, that the way a state treats those subject to its power and jurisdiction is within its unfettered discretion, is a thing of the past. A vast but asymmetrical structure of international obligations has been built, some vague, some precise; and injunctions and exhortations have been issued, some authoritative, others less so. The fate of the individual may still in fact be at the mercy of his state, but it is also a matter of continuing and increasing international concern.

Egon Schwelb

[See alsoInternational Crimes. Other relevant material may be found inConstitutional Law, articles onCivil LibertiesandCivil Rights; International Law; International Organization.]


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Human Rights

Human Rights







The core conception underlying human rights rests on the following premises: (1) all humans have equal rights that derive from the dignity and inherent worth of every person; (2) all humans have rights to freedom and development; (3) the advance of human rights is inherent in the pursuit of world peace, social justice, democracy, and the rule of law; (4) vulnerable groups need special protections; (5) cultural diversity and pluralism affirm persons identities; and (6) human rights must be linked with the promotion of sustainable communities and environments. This conception has formally evolved within the international framework of the United Nations, as well as the United Nations specialized agenciesthe International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Still, the roots of this conception are everywhere evident, in communities, in peoples movements, and increasingly in state constitutions (for summaries see Howard 1995; An-Naim 2002; Orend 2002; Felice 2003).


The international response to the Holocaust at the end of World War II (19391945) was swift and decisive, specifically, the founding of the United Nations in 1945, which in turn paved the way for the formal elaboration of human rights in terms of two distinct but related frameworks (Moore and Pubantz 2006). One framework deals with the most egregious violations, namely, humanitarian law, embodied in the 1949 Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and subsequently in various treaties and statutes, including the 1998 statute that established the International Criminal Court (ICC), which tries individuals who commit crimes against humanity (Robertson 1999).

The second framework deals with fundamental human rights, initially enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This document is extraordinary for many reasons, not the least of which is that it has been affirmed by all of the nearly two hundred member states of the United Nations. (The UDHR does not have treaty status, and therefore is not enforceable.) The philosophical premise, as stated in Article 1, is that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. The UDHR encompasses three main sorts of rights: (1) political and civil rights that historically evolved in Great Britain, Europe, and the United States; (2) socioeconomic rights and security rights, specifically those rights people have by virtue of being human, such as the right to a job, community and family, food, security, housing, and education; and (3) the rights of vulnerable persons and minority populations.

Subsequently, international treaties have been enacted that are designed to assist nation-states in advancing human rights. These treaties are:

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families

Convention on the Rights of the Child

Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Additionally, the United Nations has promulgated other declarations and charters (without treaty status) dealing with human rights, some of which concern specific groups, such as indigenous peoples, the mentally disabled, and many others. The ILO and UNESCO also have standards for human rights in areas in which they have expertise and authority.


Human rights take on new significance in an increasingly interconnected world in which the gaps in human welfare are widening and all humans are at increased risk owing to the proliferation of weapons, terrorism, and the deterioration of natural habitats (Singer 2004). Just as multinationals acquired the capacities in the 1980s to move their operations everywhere around the globe to find the cheapest labor (Amin 1997), the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund put the populations of many poor countries at risk (UNDP 2004). Aggravating these material inequalities, the worlds haves are largely white, whereas the worlds have-nots are largely non-white.

Another aspect of global interconnectedness is that declines in some national economies have spurred high rates of migration, while affluent countries have increasingly barred migrants entry. Furthermore, the rate of decline of the planets environment, climate, and biodiversity has accelerated. A sustainable habitat is also a basic human right, but environmental degradation, climate change, hazardous wastes, pesticides, and toxic products all threaten sustainability. On the positive side, the advance of communications has expanded peoples own connectedness, which has fostered remarkable cooperation around shared objectives, such as poverty reduction.


As already implied, human rights are more than formal agreements. They rest on a set of ideals and values. All religious traditions, from the ancient Hindu Upanishads to contemporary religions, have emphasized the importance of duties and obligations, and continue to play an ongoing role in human rights, as do currents in philosophy and ethics (Lauren 2003). The U.S. civil rights movement and other social movements, such as those for gender equality, have played key roles in shaping peoples conscience about equality of rights. Liberation struggles against colonial oppressors have also reshaped conscience. The Martinican-born political theorist Frantz Fanon (19251961) powerfully captures this in The Wretched of the Earth : Independence is an indispensable condition for the existence of men and women who are truly liberated, in other words who are truly masters of all the material means which make possible the radical transformation of society (1963, p. 310).


The advance of human rights is a vision that is increasingly shared by advocates for justice as well as by development specialists, and this is possible because people at the grassroots, community level have been increasingly successful in generating the infrastructures for local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that, in turn, form coalitions with international NGOs. In important ways, these relationships have fundamentally transformed development projects, from a top-down approach to complex, collaborative approaches. These coalitions are able to leverage governmental reforms, and sometimes can gain major concessions from local private-sector firms. For example, the French NGO, Dignity International, collaborates with the Nairobi Hakijamii Centre for Economic and Social Rights to reduce poverty in Kenya, and this partnership also has developed models for development that it uses in international education.

Many NGOs already have consultative status with the United Nations, and such relationships are growing and intensifying as the United Nations has embarked on a new and expansive agenda to partner with these organizations, as well as local and state governments and private-sector organizations. The objective is to create layers of engagement, including grassroots engagement, to promote development, human rights, and peace and to stem the causes of human and environmental degradation (Annan 2005). A few examples of NGOs are: Global Rights; the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR); Choike-Latin America; Third World Network; and Amnesty International. Very often these NGOs function more as the conduits of expansive networks rather than as single-site organizations. The NGOs that work with the United Nations are also involved in the global World Social Forum, which is an amalgam of a peoples social movement, an NGO, and a network of NGOs.

Recent interest centers on the importance of direct, participatory democracy as both a vehicle for governance and an expression of human rights (Beetham 1999; Green 1999). New electronic technologies make it possible for members of a community to participate in democratic self-governance, and the initial pilot projects have been remarkably successful (MacLean 2004). Another approach is based on the idea that credit is a human right. Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus established the nonprofit Grameen Bank in 1976 to give microloans to the very poor in third world countries (Chowdhury 2001). By 2005 Grameen Bank had given out $4,896 million in loans, primarily to women, to start their own businesses. The repayment rate was a remarkable 98 percent. Microloans are not structural solutions for solving poverty, but nevertheless they help to transform the lives of poor women and indirectly benefit their communities.


In spite of the great progress that has been made since the initial formalization of the principles of human rights in 1948, there are serious obstacles. A major one has to do with worldwide inequalities of resources, which can be traced to the long-term effects of colonialism, ongoing exploitation by multinationals, and authoritarian governments. Some states are too poor to implement human rights programs, and, besides, many poor states have not yet attained the kind of stable government structures that give people a voice to make demands for their rights. Yet, paradoxically, the worlds most powerful and richest nation, the United States, has been one of the worlds worst partners in the international human rights community.

The United States has remained on the margins of the worlds human rights community. For example, it rejects the idea that socioeconomic security and cultural identity are human rights. In part, this grows out of ideological conflicts during the cold war; but it is also pragmatic, consistent with U.S. geopolitical ambitions (Tabb 2002). Another explanation is that human rights are not in synch with American values that stress competitive individualism (Blau and Moncada 2005). Indeed, the U.S. Constitution is one of the few in the world today that does not include provisions for socioeconomic rights (Blau and Moncada 2006). In addition, the worlds richest nation does not support various treaties to slow the rate of environmental degradation and climate change (Low 1999; Kaul et al. 2003). The United States is one of only a few countries not party to the ICC and during the Iraq War violated the terms of the Geneva Convention, which it has ratified (Hooks and Mosher 2005).

Still, worldwide, the momentum of the human rights revolution has accelerated, possibly because of developments in communications and because of the increasingly grave conditions threatening humans and their habitats. The goal, as often stressed by UNESCO, is to build peace in the minds of people, which resonates with the motto of the World Social Forum: A Better World Is Possible.

Leading international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have been on the front lines defending peoples rights against brutal oppressors and inhuman acts of violence. The very complex and challenging tasks involving securing positive rights, such as the right to a decent job, housing, food, health care, and the rights to a culture and to identity require social movements, the engagement of activists, and immense efforts by people in their work-places and communities. People of color in the United States and elsewhere have played leading roles in such challenging tasks, including roles in the Civil Rights Movement, South Africas anti-Apartheid struggle, the Zapatista Movement, the Brazilian Landless Movement, and the Malawian shaming campaign against neoliberal policies and foreign investors. In the United States it is significant that an African American, Gay McDougall, executive director of a leading human rights organization, Global Rights, was appointed to serve as UN independent expert on minority issues.

SEE ALSO Civil Rights; Genocide; Natural Rights; Needs, Basic; United Nations


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Beetham, David. 1999. Democracy and Human Rights. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.

Blau, Judith, and Alberto Moncada. 2005. Human Rights: Beyond the Liberal Vision. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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Robertson, Geoffrey. 1999. Crimes against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice. London: Allen Lane.

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Judith Blau

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Human Rights


HUMAN RIGHTS. The concept of human rights has evolved over time, and various countries have emphasized different aspects of human rights principles and policy. Some nations have emphasized traditional civil and political rights (both individual and collective), whereas others—particularly communist and socialist regimes—have emphasized the concept of economic and social rights. Some governments have embraced both sets of principles.

In the United States, the concept of certain individual and collective rights—in particular, civil and political rights—as "natural" or "unalienable" can be traced back to colonial times, reflecting the influence of John Locke and other political theorists. This concept was clearly set forth in the Declaration of Independence and was codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The United States has long regarded international human rights standards as universal. It has rejected the arguments of nations such as China, which claim that such standards can be discounted as mere "Western" concepts and argue that human rights should be viewed through the prism of each nation's history and culture. Unlike many governments, the United States acknowledges that some human rights problems persist within its territory despite its generally good record and accepts that universal human rights standards involve study and criticism of such matters.

Initiatives since World War II

World War II (1939–1945) gave impetus to the modern development of basic principles of human rights and to the general acceptance of the idea that the human rights practices of individual countries toward their own citizens are legitimate matters of international concern. The 1945 United Nations Charter included a general commitment to respect for human rights, but it was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948) that provided the basic statement of what have become widely accepted international human rights standards. The former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt played a key role in the formulation of the Universal Declaration.

Human rights principles, policy, and practices became an increased focus of popular and public attention in the United States during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Several influential nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were formed during this period to monitor and report on human rights matters. For example, both Human Rights Watch and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights were formed in 1978, and Physicians for Human Rights was formed in 1986. In addition, both the legislative and the executive branches of the U.S. government took significant steps during this period to make the promotion of human rights a government priority.

The new emphasis on human rights led to a congressional requirement for the annual submission by the Department of State of "a full and complete report" on the status of human rights practices around the world. The first of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices was submitted in 1977 (covering 1976). It surveyed the situation in eighty-two countries in less than 300 pages. By 2000, 194 individual reports were included, covering virtually every country in the world, and the overall report was more than 5,000 pages. The Country Reports evolved and expanded over the years, covering many of the rights included in the Universal Declaration and multilateral accords to which the United States is a party, as well as some rights in internationally accepted covenants to which the United States is not a party. Over time, the Country Reports added coverage of specific problems that became matters of public concern. For example, in the 1990s, Congress mandated coverage of children, indigenous people, refugees, and worker rights, and the State Department itself expanded coverage of women's rights, people with disabilities, and religious, national, racial, and ethnic minorities. Problems noted in the Country Reports can lead to the denial of aid and trade preferences. The Country Reports were initially subject to criticism as biased in some cases by policy concerns, and for many years the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights published an annual critique. However, by the late 1990s, the Country Reports were widely acknowledged to be a comprehensive and credible account of global human rights practices, and the Lawyers Committee had ceased publishing its critique.

In 1976, Congress established within the State Department a coordinator for human rights and humanitarian affairs; in 1977, under the Carter administration, which established human rights as a foreign policy priority, this position was upgraded to assistant secretary. In 1994, the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs was reorganized and renamed the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, to reflect both a broader scope and a more focused approach to the inter-locking issues of democracy, human rights, and worker rights.

Broadening Human Rights Concerns

American efforts to encourage respect for human rights increased significantly during the 1990s. The United States ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1992 (however, by the early twenty-first century it had not yet ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, or a number of other key international conventions). While the Universal Declaration did not entail any legal obligations, the ICCPR bound nations to respect its provisions and report on their observance; the United States submitted its first report under the ICCPR in 1994.

Also in 1994, Congress created the position of senior adviser for women's rights in the State Department, and women's rights became a major focus of U.S. activity. In 1995, First Lady Hillary Clinton played a leading role in equating women's rights and human rights at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. In 2000, the focus on women's rights was reflected in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which required a State Department report to Congress; the first report was submitted in 2001. Trafficking in persons—particularly women and children—is a significant transnational human rights problem, which became the focus of increased international attention in the late 1990s.

In the mid-1990s, growing public and congressional concern about religious persecution abroad led to calls for increased government action and reporting about such abuses. In 1996, Secretary of State Warren Christopher established the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad to advise the secretary and the president on integrating the protection and promotion of religious freedom into U.S. foreign policy. In 1998, Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which provided for an ambassador-at-large, a bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an annual State Department report, and possible sanctions against nations that restricted religious freedom.

During the 1990s, the United States placed increasing emphasis on encouraging democratization, promoting justice and accountability, and assisting the development of civil society. Through both direct assistance and the work of the National Endowment for Democracy, the United States promoted the development of key institutions and processes that provide the foundation for democratic governance, including support for free elections, free media, and free trade unions, training in the rule of law and the administration of justice, the empowerment of women, and the creation of NGOs and other institutions of civil society.

The United States also worked extensively with NGOs and international organizations to promote and protect human rights. The development of transnational human rights networks and a global human rights community, particularly after the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and the Beijing Women's Conference, facilitated international debate over issues of democratization and justice. The 1998 arrest of General Au-gusto Pinochet in London at the request of a Spanish judge who wanted to try Pinochet in Spain for torture and political killings during his seventeen-year rule in Chile marked a watershed development. Although the British government ultimately allowed Pinochet to return home, his sixteen-month detention was a precedent for the globalization of efforts to assure justice and accountability. His near extradition helped generate a worldwide movement to hold heads of state accountable for human rights abuses committed while they were in power.

The U.S. government has played an active role in multilateral forums such as the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, pressing for resolutions critical of human rights abuses in countries such as China and Cuba. The United States has supported the efforts of regional bodies such as the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and has worked to build multilateral coalitions for human rights sanctions, monitoring, and relief efforts.

The United States also has worked to build new institutions to advance the protection of human rights. It supported the creation of the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights in 1993. Abuses and atrocities in Europe and Africa in the 1990s, including genocide in Rwanda and "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, led to sustained efforts to further accountability and justice. In response to these crises, the United States played a key role in the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The United States also supported the establishment and efforts of national or international "truth commissions," where internal conflicts and the transition from authoritarian rule made them an essential part of the peace process. Such truth commissions can provide a forum for victims to detail atrocities committed and discredit the perpetrators, particularly if prosecution is impractical or impossible, as in South Africa.

However, at times, the United States has not fully supported some international institutions. Although in late 2000 it signed the treaty to establish an International Criminal Court, concern in Congress in particular that the court might be able to prosecute U.S. service personnel abroad has prevented ratification. In 2001, the U.S. government renounced the accord. Also in 2001, concern that some nations would seek to use the World Conference against Racism for political purposes led the United States to limit its participation.

The United States played a major role in developing the Convention against Torture, which it signed in 1992 and ratified in 1994. Subsequently, the executive branch established regulations to ensure that those who were likely to be tortured if returned to their country of origin could not be extradited or deported. The National Institute of Mental Health has provided significant funding for research into the problems of survivors of torture, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services has provided funding to organizations in major cities to identify torture survivors among refugee communities. The U.S. Agency for International Development has supported programs around the world to assist torture victims, and the United States has been the largest single donor to the UN Voluntary Fund on Torture. Since 1980, the United States has supported civil claims by torture victims. In 1992, the president and Congress worked together to enact the Torture Victims Protection Act and, in 1998, the Torture Victims Relief Act to support the efforts of torture victims who sought refuge in the United States to seek justice and compensation for their suffering.

The United States has focused increasingly on issues of worker rights and, particularly in the late 1990s, on problems such as forced labor (including forced child labor) and sweatshop labor. As part of its anti-sweatshop initiative, the U.S. government has awarded millions of dollars in grants to organizations that promote justice in the workplace. During the 1990s, the United States increasingly sought to promote corporate social responsibility in the global struggle for human rights. This concept entailed recognition that profits could not be considered apart from human costs, in terms of human rights, labor standards, and environmental issues, and that these factors should be integrated into business practices. The United States has worked closely with the International Labor Organization on worker rights problems around the world. The Department of State's Advisory Committee on Labor Diplomacy was established in 1999, as was the position of special representative for international labor affairs. In 2000, the United States played a leading role in the development and adoption of a business code of conduct aimed at preventing abuses by governments in developing nations where international corporations operate. A group of major energy and mining companies joined with human rights organizations in adopting this voluntary statement of principles.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the cause of democracy and respect for human rights continued to progress. In its 2000–2001 survey, Freedom in the World, Freedom House reported that there were 86 free countries, 58 partly free countries, and 48 countries rated not free (in which basic political rights and civil liberties were denied). This represented an improvement compared with the figures of 65, 50, and 50, respectively, in its 1990–1991 survey. Nonetheless, violations of basic human rights, severe persecution, and egregious abuses, still forma systematic pattern in much of the world.


Andreopoulos, George J., and Richard Pierre Claude, eds. Human Rights Education for the Twenty-First Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Brown, Peter G., and Douglas MacLean, eds. Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy: Principles and Applications. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1979.

Claude, Richard Pierre, and Burns H. Weston, eds. Human Rights in the World Community: Issues and Action. 2d ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Dunne, Tim, and Nicholas J. Wheeler, eds. Human Rights in Global Politics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Hannum, Hurst, ed. Guide to International Human Rights Practice. 3d ed. Ardsley, N.Y.: Transnational, 1999.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999.

Koh, Harold Hongju, and Ronald C. Slye, eds. Deliberative Democracy and Human Rights. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

Meron, Theodore, ed. Human Rights in International Law: Legal and Policy Issues. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Marc J.Susser

See alsoBill of Rights in U.S. Constitution ; United Nations ; andvol. 9:Human Rights Not Founded on Sex, October 2, 1837 .

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Human Rights


Basic rights that fundamentally and inherently belong to each individual.

Human rights are freedoms established by custom or international agreement that impose standards of conduct on all nations. Human rights are distinct from civil liberties, which are freedoms established by the law of a particular state and applied by that state in its own jurisdiction.

Specific human rights include the right to personal liberty and due process of law; to freedom of thought, expression, religion, organization, and movement; to freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, age, language, and sex; to basic education; to employment; and to property. Human rights laws have been defined by international conventions, by treaties, and by organizations, particularly the united nations. These laws prohibit practices such as torture, slavery, summary execution without trial, and arbitrary detention or exile.


Modern human rights law developed out of customs and theories that established the rights of the individual in relation to the state. These rights were expressed in legal terms in documents such as the English Bill of Rights of 1688, the U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776, the U.S. Bill of Rights added to the U.S. Constitution in 1789, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen added to the French Constitution in 1791.

Human rights law also grew out of earlier systems of international law. These systems, developed largely during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were predicated on the doctrine of national sovereignty, according to which each nation retains sole power over its internal affairs without interference from other nations. As a result, early international law involved only relations between nation-states and was not concerned with the ways in which states treated their own citizens.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the notion of national sovereignty came under increasing challenge, and reformers began to press for international humanitarian standards. In special conferences such as the Hague Conference of 1899 and 1907, nations created laws governing the conduct of wars and handling of prisoners.

Not until after world war ii (1939–45) did the international community create international treaties establishing human rights standards. The United Nations, created in 1945, took the lead in this effort. In its charter, or founding document, the United Nations developed objectives for worldwide human rights standards. It called for equal rights and self-determination for all peoples, as well as "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion" (art. 55). The universal declaration of human rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, also became an important human rights document.

To develop the U.N. Charter into an international code of human rights law, the international community created a number of multilateral human rights treaties. The two most significant of these are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, both put into effect in 1976. These treaties forbid discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. The two covenants, along with the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and an accord called the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), constitute a body of law that has been called the International Bill of Human Rights.

The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights includes protections for the right to life, except after conviction for serious crime (art. 6); freedom from torture and other cruel and inhumane punishment (art. 7); freedom from slavery and prohibition from slave trade (art. 8); freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention (art. 9); humane treatment of prisoners (art. 10); freedom of movement and choice of residence (art. 12); legal standards, including equality before the law, fair hearings before an impartial tribunal, presumption of innocence, a prompt and fair trial, the right to counsel, and the right to review by a higher court; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (art. 18); and freedom of association, including association in trade unions (art. 22).

The Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights protects additional rights, many of which have yet to be realized in poorer countries. These include the right to work (art. 6); to just wages and safe working conditions (art. 7); to social security and social insurance (art. 9); to a decent standard of living and freedom from hunger (art. 11); to universal basic education (art. 13); and to an enjoyment of the cultural life and scientific progress of the country.

The international community has also adopted many other human rights treaties. These include the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948); the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1953); the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery (revised 1953); the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment (1987); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990); and the Convention on Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers (2003).

In addition to worldwide human rights agreements, countries have also established regional conventions. These include the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

The United States and Human Rights

Although the United States was an active participant in the formation and implementation of international human rights organizations and treaties following World War II, and although it ratified selected treaties such as the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery in 1967 and the Convention on the Political Rights of Women in 1976, it did not ratify any of the major rights treaties until 1988, when it approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Four years later it ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The U.S. Senate, which has authority to ratify all treaties, has been slow to review and approve human rights provisions, for a number of reasons. Senators have expressed concern about the effect of international treaties on U.S. domestic law. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution provides, "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land." Treaties therefore stand as federal law, though they are not considered to be law if they conflict with the Constitution (Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1, 77 S. Ct. 1222, 1 L. Ed. 2d 1148 [1957]).

Conservative senators blocked early ratification of human rights treaties largely out of concern that the treaties would invalidate racial segregation laws that existed in the United States until the 1960s. Many human rights advocates claimed that these laws violated existing international treaties. Some senators argued that human rights should fall under domestic authority only and should not be subject to international negotiations. Others contended that ratification of human rights treaties would federalize areas of law better left to the states.

Since the late 1960s, such objections in the Senate have been overcome by attaching to treaties modifying terms called reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs). RUDs modify the treaties so that their effect on U.S. law will be acceptable to the two-thirds majority required for treaty ratification in the Senate. A reservation, for example, may state that the United States will not accept any element of a treaty found to be in conflict with the U.S. Constitution or existing laws, or that ratification will not federalize areas of law currently controlled by the states.

The U.S. Congress has also enacted its own human rights legislation. Under the leadership of Representative Donald M. Fraser (D-Minn.) during the 1970s, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs added language to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1973 (22 U.S.C.A. § 2151 et seq.) that required the president to cancel military and economic assistance to any government that "engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights," including torture and arbitrary detention without charges (§§ 2151n, 2304). This new legislation authorized the state department to collect and analyze data on human rights violations. Congress has also passed laws that require cutting off or limiting aid to countries with significant human rights violations.

In 1977, Congress gave human rights greater priority within the executive branch by creating a new State Department office, the Bureau on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, headed by an assistant secretary of state (Pub. L. No. 95-105, 91 Stat. 846). In 1994, the administration of President bill clinton renamed the office the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The bureau is charged with administering programs and policies to promote democratic institutions and respect for human rights and workers' rights around the world. It also presents to Congress an annual report on the status of human rights all over the globe.

Nongovernment Organizations

amnesty international, the center for constitutional rights, human rights watch, the International Commission of Jurists, and other international human rights organizations closely monitor states' compliance with human rights standards. These groups also publicize rights violations and coordinate world public opinion against offending states. In many cases they induce governments to modify their policies to meet rights standards.

Domestic human rights organizations such as the Vicaria de Solidaridad, in Chile, and the Free Legal Assistance Group of the Philippines also play a significant role as human rights watchdogs, often at great personal risk to their members.

further readings

Amnesty International Website. Available online at <> (accessed September 25, 2003).

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Website. Available online at <> (accessed September 25, 2003).

Curry, Lynne. 2002. The Human Body on Trial: A Handbook with Cases, Laws, and Documents. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO.

Golove, David. 2002. "Human Rights Treaties and the U.S. Constitution." DePaul Law Review 52 (winter): 579–625.

Kennedy, David. 2002. "The International Human Rights Movement: Part of the Problem?" Harvard Human Rights Journal 15 (spring): 101–25.


Civil Rights; Genocide; Nuremberg Trials; Tokyo Trial.

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Human Rights


Middle East states and international human rights conventions.

The term human rights refers herein to the human rights norms established in the international system in and following from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (UDHR). The poor (indeed, often critical) state of the protection of these rights is one of the major features of the human rights debate in the region, which continues to challenge the regional human rights movement, despite recent progress toward reform in certain states; the contestation of the universality of certain of these rights is another feature.

All states in the region are party to two or more of the United Nations human rights treaties. A number are not yet parties (as of 2004) to either the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights which, together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), make up the International Bill of Human Rights; these include Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). All are parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), but Iran, Iraq, Oman, Syria, and the U.A.E. have yet to sign the Convention Against Torture. A similar number of states (Iran, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, and the U.A.E.) have not yet become parties to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Many Middle Eastern states that have signed CEDAW, along with many states elsewhere in the world, have attached reservations to their ratification of this treaty. Certain of these reservations have attracted attention because of their broad nature; they purport to subject compliance with the Convention to the principles of Islamic shariʿa;. Arguments continue at the UN over the compatibility of such reservations with the intentions of CEDAW, and arguments continue in the region as to the universality of the norms provided in this particular treaty. There have been a few ratifications of the Optional Protocols to the ICCPR, CEDAW, and the CRC, enabling the appropriate monitoring committee to hear complaints from individual citizens against the state party.

Domestically, it is rare that individuals realize human rights protections through directly invoking international human rights instruments in the national courts, even though there may be constitutional provision for the incorporation in national legislation of international instruments to which the state is party. Furthermore, in many states in the region, weak and unempowered national judiciaries are unable to assert their independent will against the executive to secure effective judicial protection of human rights, even though the rights enshrined in the international instruments are also guaranteed in the texts of most of the constitutions of the region.

A number of states in the region are also party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, and Turkey has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. There is also the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which was adopted in 1994 by the members of the League of Arab States. The original text has been criticized by the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists as "a fatally flawed instrument, containing significant gaps and elements which run contrary to fundamental human rights principles." In the years following its adoption, no member state ratified the charter, and in 2003 a process of review for the "modernization" of its contents was initiated.

Another set of standards proclaimed by all states in the region (except for Israel) is contained in the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam. The declaration was adopted in 1990 by member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to serve "as a general guidance for member states in the field of human rights." The rights elucidated in the declaration differ in certain significant respects from those set out in the international human rights treaties to which many of the states in the region are parties, and resolutions from OIC summits have consistently asserted the significance of cultural relativity in response to the demands of the international human rights norm of universality. Thus, a 2003 resolution from the OIC foreign ministers recognizes "the obligations and endeavours of the member states to promote and protect the internationally recognized human rights while taking into account the significance of their religious, national, and regional specificities and various historical and cultural backgrounds, and with due regard to the 'Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam.'" The arguments over universality versus cultural relativity of human rights norms revolve particularly around the rights of women and minorities, and freedom of religion.

Concern is articulated by many states and citizens in the region over the exploitation of the international human rights discourse for political ends. There are evocations of a larger context of colonial and neocolonial agendas, cultural imperialism, and hostility to Islam. Although these states have political interests in seeking to divert and undermine criticism of their human rights records in international forums (as, in a different discourse, does Israel), among civil society these evocations have a popular resonance, and there is widespread criticism of selectivity in the application of human rights discourse and principles by powerful Western states. This criticism has traditionally centered on the question of Palestine in light of the absence of enforcement action against Israel for its violations of the human rights of Palestinians. It has expanded to include a perception of a lack of attention to the human rights of all Muslims by the major Western powers. These issues have been heightened in the aftermath of the attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001.

These real political issues have immediate impact on the work of nongovernmental domestic, regional, and diasporic human rights organizations (NGOs) established since the late 1970s to challenge widespread, egregious, and systemic human rights violations. These organizations have had critical influence in establishing and maintaining the human rights debate and discourse in the region. Regional networking has increased significantly over the last ten years, with a number of formal regional programs and less formal networks established. The NGO human rights movement in the region is also critical of selectivity in the approach of powerful Western states (and in some cases, international human rights organizations), and of Western influence over the agenda of the international human rights movement. Activists may find themselves caught between hostility at home and indifference to regional concerns in the international arena. Regionally, there is general consensus on the need to increase the popular resonance of universal human rights norms and discourse, as well as focusing on national and international state law and policy in order to increase the prospects for implementation of international human rights.

See also organization of the islamic conference.


An-Naʿim, Abdullahi. "Human Rights in the Arab World: A Regional Perspective." Human Rights Quarterly 23 (2001): 701732.

Azzam, Fateh. Arab Constitutional Guarantees of Civil and Political Rights. Cairo, Egypt: Centre for International Human Rights Studies, 1996.

Bowen, Steven. Human Rights, Self-Determination, and Political Change in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1997.

Cotran, Eugene, and Yamani, Mai, eds. The Rule of Law in the Middle East and the Islamic World: Human Rights and the Judicial Process. London: I. B. Tauris, 2000.

Dwyer, Kevin. Arab Voices: The Human Rights Debate in the Middle East. London: Routledge, 1991.

Rishmawi, Mona. "The Arab Charter on Human Rights: A Comment." INTERIGHTS Bulletin 10 (1996): 810.

paul martin
updated by lynn welchman

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Human Rights


Human rights are the rights individuals are said to have as human beings. They are claims on societyits members and government (Henkin, 1996). They are spelled out in international law, drawing on the norms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (Steiner and Alston, 2000). Russia has a long history of authoritarian rule and human rights abuses. Nikolai Berdyayev went so far as to connect the depth and longevity of Russian communism, a system inimical to human rights, to this persistent culture of despotism (1960). In the vivid phrasing of Alexander Radishchev, an eighteenth-century dissident, in his Journey from Saint Petersburg to Moscow (which landed him in Siberia), the rigid censorship under Catherine the Great resembled a restrictive nursemaid who stunts children's growth toward self-reliant maturity.

Human rights improved somewhat thanks to the liberating effects of Russia's rapid industrialization after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and the judicial and local government reforms in 1864. In Tsarist Russia by 1914, a liberal and democratic socialist professional class of educators, lawyers, judges, social workers, women's rights advocates, and rapidly growing and mainly non-Bolshevik political parties increasingly demanded the protection of individual rights and a lawgoverned state. That meant broadening the selective westernization, launched two hundred years earlier by Peter the Great and aimed at strengthening Russia, to include the rights and freedoms he and his successors generally sought to exclude.

Following the abdication of Nicholas II in March 1917, the Provisional Government of MarchNovember 1917 produced what the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin himself called the freest country in Europe, before he and his minority party of Bolsheviks forcibly ended that freedom by sharply curbing human rights.

The Bolsheviks socially cleansed Russia's reformed courts, democratic professionals, and growing autonomous civil society. They held Russia to the constitutional principles that rights must serve the cause of socialism as interpreted by the Communist Party. Vladimir Lenin's death in 1924 opened the way to the consolidation of total power by Josef Stalin, his forced collectivization of the peasants, his five-year plans for heavy industrialization, and his purges of alleged enemies of the people.

The cultural thaw after Stalin's death in March 1953 ended with the ousting of Party leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. Ensuing trials of social satirists and critics sparked a courageous dissident movement in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Its members, who were promptly imprisoned or exiled, included Andrei Sakharov, proponent of East-West convergence; Yuri Orlov and the Moscow Helsinki Group; and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, chronicler of Soviet labor camps.

Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader from March 1985 to December 1991, introduced glasnost openness or free expressionand soon after, perestroika attempts at economic and political reform. Gorbachev freed political prisoners and exiles between 1986 and 1989. His UN speech of December 7, 1988, praised the once spurned Universal Declaration of Human Rights and revised the 1977 Constitution accordingly. But he reformed too little too late. Four months after his near-overthrow in the August 1991 coup by his own reactionary appointees, the Soviet Union split into three onceagain independent Baltic republics and twelve newly independent states, including the Russian Federation.

Boris Yeltsin, Russian president from 1991 until his resignation in 1999, forced on Russia the 1993 Constitution increasing presidential power but also containing Article 2: "The individual and his rights and freedom are the highest value. The recognition, observance and defense of the human rights and freedoms of the individual and the citizen are the obligation of the state." The Constitution proclaims a broad range of civil, political, social, and economic rights. Contrasting realities under overbearing and corrupt state administrations infringed on freedom of expression, religion, fair and humane justice, freedom of movement, and freedom from racial, ethnic, and homophobic bigotry, and hate crimes. Moreover, during the wars to retain Chechnya just about every human right was violated. Inequality, poverty, and homelessness haunted the land while the new rich lived high. Women experienced inequality and exploitation in employment, widespread divorce, abandonment, and domestic violence, and trafficking into prostitution. Life expectancy fell to third-world levels, especially among men, owing to stress, accidents, alcoholism, and the pervasive inadequacy of health care (Juviler, 2000; Human Rights Watch).

Such political and social human rights violations prompted the formation of numerous free but under-funded human rights advocacy groupsnongovernmental organizations. They ranged from Russian Soldiers' Mothers, who were against the wide abuses of military recruits, to the anti-Stalinist and pro-rights Memorial Society, to Muslim cultural and aid societies.

Seventy years of Communist social and legal cleansing are not overcome in a decade or two. In Ken Jowitt's words, "We must think of a 'long march' rather than a simple transition to democracy" (Jowitt, 1992, 189), with all sorts of human rights to redeem.

See also: dissident movement; gulag; sakharov, andrei dmitrievich; solzhenitsyn, alexander isayevich


Berdiaev, Nicolas. (1960). The Origin of Russian Communism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Henkin, Louis. (1996). The Age of Rights, 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Human Rights Watch World Report. (2003). <>.

Jowitt, Ken. (1992). New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Juviler, Peter. (1998). Freedoms Ordeal: The Struggle for Human Rights and Democracy in Post-Soviet States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Juviler, Peter. (2000). "Political Community and Human Rights in Post-Communist Russia." In Human Rights: New Perspectives, New Realities, ed. Adamantia Pollis and Peter Schwab. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner.

Steiner, Henry, and Alston, Philip. (2000). International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Peter Juviler

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human rights

human rights pl. n. a legal framework adopted and promoted by the United Nations after World War II in an attempt to prevent state-sponsored violence against individuals. In the UK the Human Rights Act 1998 enacts the provisions of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, which are designed to guarantee the individual's rights to life and liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and equality before the law. The introduction to the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) describes it as “an Act to give greater effect to rights and freedoms guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights” (also known as the Convention).

As health-care professionals, nurses have a duty to protect the human rights of their patients. Not only is this enshrined within the NMC Code of Professional Conduct (2004) but the Human Rights Act 1998, which came into force in October 2000, clearly identifies a range of issues that relate to nursing practice. The rights set out in the Convention and its protocols that are incorporated into British law by the HRA are those in Articles 2 to 12 and Article 14 of the Convention, plus those in the first and sixth protocols. Under the Act, NHS trusts and all health authorities will be classed as“public authorities”: as such, they are obliged to act in accordance with the Convention and could be liable for breaches of the HRA. The following articles cover rights that are relevant to nursing practice and the provision of nursing care.

Article 2

enshrines the right to life and imposes a duty on public authorities to protect someone whose life is at risk. This protection could be extended to a patient needing treatment that would save his or her life.

Article 3

prohibits torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Many forms of conduct have been found to be capable of breaching Article 3, including serious assaults, prison conditions, rape, and corporal punishment, and degrading treatment could include subjection of a patient to multiple examinations for training purposes.

Article 5

recognizes the right to liberty and freedom from arbitrary detention. For detention to be lawful, it must be only for one of the specified purposes set out in the article; these can include the detention and treatment of patients with mental healthproblems. Article 5 limits the circumstances under which someone can be detained, the terms of detention being regularly reviewed on an individual basis. In such reviews the onus is on the public authority to justify continued detention rather than on the detainee to show why he or she should be released.

Article 6

guarantees the right to a fair trial in civil and criminal proceedings and sets standards for the way that proceedings are run. It may be relevant if there are accusations of bias in a Mental Health Review Tribunal or a Child ProtectionConference.

Article 8

refers to the right to privacy and family life. Many rights are safeguarded under this article, including bodily integrity (which affords protection against forced treatment or physical restraint), sexuality, personal autonomy, the right to die with dignity, access of family members, privacy of correspondence and phone calls, and environmental protection (including freedom from excessive noise).

Article 9

guarantees freedom of thought and the opportunity to hold any religious belief. Individuals cannot be forced to follow a particular religion and cannot be prevented from changing their religion. It also protects the right to practise one's religion or beliefs provided that these are part of a sufficiently coherent philosophical scheme; veganism and pacifism, for example, are protected. Possible areas of relevance for nursing practice include the provision of facilities for worship, provision of culturally appropriate food, and sensitivity over the use of mixed wards for those to whom they are not acceptable for religious reasons.

Article 10

guarantees the right to hold and express opinions and ideas. It also guarantees the right to pass information to other people and to receive information from others; however, it is essential to consider the reputation or rights of others and the issues that relate to the disclosure of information received in confidence.

Article 14

guarantees the prohibition of discrimination and clearly states that the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms covered in the other articles will be available without discrimination on any ground, such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, or other status.

This review of the HRA is not exhaustive and merely identifies elements that may have an impact on nursing practice. Further details of the Act are available on the website Details of human rights from the United Nations website

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human rights

human rights, universal rights held to belong to individuals by virtue of their being human, encompassing civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights and freedoms, and based on the notion of personal human dignity and worth. Conceptually derived from the theory of natural law and originating in Greco-Roman doctrines, the idea of human rights appears in some early Christian writers' works and is reflected in the Magna Carta (1215). The concept winds as a philosophical thread through 17th- and 18th-century European and American thought, including the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789). The United Nation's Commission on Human Rights, with Eleanor Roosevelt as chair, created the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which reasserted the concept of human rights after the horrors of World War II. Human rights have since become a universally espoused yet widely disregarded concept.

Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch promote human rights and denounce human-rights abuses. In addition, such abuses around the world are monitored and documented by independent investigators ( "special rapporteurs" ) appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, which, in turn, rebukes cited nations for their human-rights failures. (The council replaced the UN Human Rights Commission, which had been accused of protecting human-rights violators, in mid-2006; similar accusations have been leveled at the new council.) In Europe, the supranational European Court of Human Rights, established under the Council of Europe, is intended to protect individual human rights from government abuse.

The charging in 1998 by a Spanish court of former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet with human-rights violations and the 1999 British ruling that he could be extradited to Spain, as well as the indictment and arrest (2000) in Senegal of former Chadian president Hissène Habré for human-rights violations during his presidency (although charges were later dropped, he was subsequently rearrested on a Belgian warrant), were regarded as small steps forward in the international protection of human rights.

See also civil rights; feminism; gay-rights movement; war crimes.

See M. A. Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2001); A. Fagan, The Atlas of Human Rights (2010); S. Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010); A. Neier, The International Human Rights Movement (2012).

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human rights

human rights Entitlements that an individual may arguably possess by virtue of being human and in accordance with what is natural. The concept of the inalienable rights of the human being has traditionally been linked to the idea of natural law, on which commentaries were written by several Greek and Roman writers. John Locke helped to shape ideas of fundamental human rights and liberal democracy in Two Treatises on Government (1690). The concept of human rights has been most notably formulated in a number of historic declarations, such as the US Declaration of Independence (1776), the US Constitution (1789) and particularly its first amendments in the Bill of Rights (1791), and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789). These documents owed much to the English Petition of Right (1628) and Bill of Rights (1689), which extended the concept of individual freedom proclaimed earlier in the Magna Carta (1215). The Charter of the United Nations (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) proclaims the responsibility of the international community for the protection of human rights. See also civil rights;

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Human Rights


This entry includes two subentries:

Women's Rights

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human rights

human rights See RIGHTS.

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