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U.N. - Human Rights History 1948 - 1998


Human Rights for All

The founders of the United Nations responded to the atrocities of the Second World War by emphasizing human rights in the Organization's Charter.

At the San Francisco Conference in 1945, where the Charter was adopted, some 40 non-governmental organizations successfully lobbied delegates for relatively strong language on human rights.


UN Commission on Human Rights

In 1946, the UN established the Commission on Human Rights -- the principal policy-making body for human rights within the UN system.

Under the Chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt, human rights activist and widow of former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, the Commission took up the job of defining basic rights and freedoms. Key contributors included René Cassin (France), Charles Malik (Lebanon), Peng Chun Chang (China), Hernan Santa Cruz (Chile), Alexandre Bogomolov/Alexei Pavlov (Soviet Union), Lord Dukeston/Geoffrey Wilson (United Kingdom), William Hodgson (Australia) and John Humphrey (Canada).

Originally composed of 18 members, the Human Rights Commission now has 53 members who meet annually in Geneva to review human rights issues, develop and codify new international norms, and make recommendations to Governments. Non-governmental organizations play an active role.


Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

After thorough scrutiny and 1,400 rounds of voting on practically every word and every clause, the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948 in Paris at the newly built Palais de Chaillot.

Spelling out individual rights and freedoms for everyone, the Declaration was unprecedented. It remains the first pillar of twentieth-century human rights law and the cornerstone of the universal human rights movement.

The Declaration: A Magna Carta for All Humanity

The Universal Declaration is built on the fundamental principle that human rights are based on the "inherent dignity" of every person. This dignity, and the rights to freedom and equality which derive therefrom, are undeniable.

Although the Declaration does not have the binding force of a treaty, it has acquired universal acceptability. Many countries have cited the Declaration or included its provisions in their basic laws or constitutions. And many human rights covenants, conventions and treaties concluded since 1948 have been built on its principles.

1948 - 1966

International Bill of Rights

The United Nations strives to create a culture of human rights around the world.

The broadest legally binding human rights agreements negotiated under UN auspices are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Both were adopted in 1966 and entered into force in 1976. They take the Universal Declaration a step further by making provisions legally binding. A majority of the world's countries are parties to the two Conventions, thereby opening the door to international monitoring of their human rights practices.

Along with the Universal Declaration, they comprise the International Bill of Rights.

Expansion of Human Rights Law

One of the greatest achievements of the United Nations is the creation of a comprehensive body of human rights legislation. For the first time in history, there exists a universal code of human rights -- one to which all nations can subscribe and to which all people can aspire.

Since 1948, some 60 human rights treaties and declarations have been negotiated at the United Nations.

Some examples are:

  • Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948)
  • Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1961)
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965)
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979)
  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984)
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990)

Human Right Treaty Bodies

Within the UN system, there are six committees that monitor compliance of States parties to specific treaties:

  • The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  • The Human Rights Committee
  • The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • The Committee against Torture
  • The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
  • The Committee on the Rights of the Child

The committees may call upon Governments to respond to allegations and may adopt decisions and publish them along with criticisms or recommendations.

Protecting Human Rights

Over the years, the United Nations has developed different methods to investigate human rights abuses and to press for remedial action.

Experts known as special rapporteurs or representatives gather facts, visit prisons, interview victims, and make recommendations on how to increase respect for human rights.

They investigate situations in specific countries and conduct thematic studies on such issues as torture, religious intolerance, racism, the sale of children and violence against women.

Each year they send thousands of urgent cables to Governments requesting the release of prisoners, the commutation of death sentences or other vital action.

Working groups have been established to investigate such issues as involuntary disappearances and arbitrary detention.

Their reports highlighting human rights violations help to mobilize international attention.

Preventing Abuses through Technical Assistance

Human rights agreements depend on the cooperation of Governments and people.

The United Nations offers technical assistance to Governments in the following areas to promote human rights:

  • Reforming national laws
  • Supporting democratization and advising on electoral procedures
  • Assisting in the drafting of national laws and preparation of national reports
  • Strengthening national and regional institutions, such as courts and school systems
  • Training criminal justice personnel -- judges, lawyers, prosecutors and police

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

On 20 December 1993, after nearly 50 years of alternate hope and disappointment, the General Assembly voted unanimously to create the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The High Commissioner coordinates the UN human rights programme and promotes universal respect for human rights.

Appointed by the UN Secretary-General and approved by the General Assembly, the first High Commissioner was Jose Ayala-Lasso of Ecuador who took up his duties on 5 April 1994.

The current High Commissioner, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, began her job on 12 September 1997.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Human rights activities in the United Nations are coordinated by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. The Office, services the UN Commission on Human Rights and most UN human rights treaty bodies. Every year, the Office receives about 400,000 complaints of human rights violations.

People who feel their rights have been violated and are in need of urgent assistance can dial a 24-hour fax hot-line in Geneva: 41-22-917-0092.

The Office also maintains a human rights database to help it respond to unresolved and developing situations which may require follow-up and preventive action.

Human Rights in the Field

During the 1990s, the United Nations witnessed a dramatic increase of human rights activities in field operations. Depending on the needs of the situation, these activities combine monitoring of human rights violations, education, training and other advisory services.

Currently, such operations exist in Abkhazia/Georgia, Burundi, Cambodia, Colombia, Gaza, Guatemala, Haiti, Malawi, Mongolia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Human Rights Education

Information is a powerful deterrent to human rights abuses. The international image of Governments depends to a certain extent on their respect for human rights.

In 1988, the United Nations launched a world public information campaign to educate people about their rights -- and countries about their responsibilities.

The General Assembly has declared the years 1995-2004 the Decade for Human Rights Education.

If people know their rights, they are more likely to fight for them, and Governments are pressured to respect them.

So far, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been translated and distributed in over 200 languages.

The UN System's Human Rights Umbrella

The promotion and protection of human rights is a cornerstone of the work of the United Nations around the world.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) works to promote the rights of children.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) extends legal protection and humanitarian assistance to millions of refugees.

The UN Commission on the Status of Women focuses on elaborating the rights of women.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) protects workers' rights.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) promotes human rights in its field of work.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) strives to ensure economic and social development that respects individual human rights.

The World Health Organization (WHO) works to promote the right to health for all.

Citizens for Human Rights

The global quest for commitment to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights involves everyone.

The campaign relies heavily on thousands of dedicated individuals and citizens' groups who often risk their lives for the cause.

Increased involvement in the defense of human rights helps to build an environment where freedom and dignity are expected and respected.

Since 1945, non-governmental organizations have contributed immensely to the work of the United Nations and human rights -- as a source of information and a force for meaningful change.

Apartheid and Racial Discrimination

In 1952, when the General Assembly took up the issue of apartheid in South Africa, the United Nations placed itself at the forefront of international efforts to end this "crime against humanity".

Constant vigilance and pressure over the years resulted in the dismantling of the apartheid system in 1994.

The fight against racism continues around the world. The United Nations strives to raise awareness to combat this stain on society. The years 1993-2003 have been proclaimed the Third Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination.

The Rights of Indigenous People

Throughout history, the world's indigenous people -- an estimated 300 million in more than 70 countries -- have suffered at the hands of colonizers and others seeking territory and riches.

The United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which has been meeting since 1982, works to promote indigenous people's rights. Members have drafted a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which, if adopted, will represent a major step forward.

The General Assembly's proclamation of 1993 as the International Year of the World's Indigenous People and 1995-2004 as the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People is an effort to strengthen international cooperation for solving the problems faced by indigenous communities.

Women's Rights are Human Rights

Respect for human rights will not be universal until women's rights are recognized and protected.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the General Assembly in 1979 and has now been ratified by over 160 countries. Compliance is monitored by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

UNIFEM, the UN Development Fund for Women, has a special programme which works to promote and protect women's rights.

But around the world, cultural and traditional forces continue to subject women to secondary status. All too often violations remain hidden and silent.

The global women's movement, a new cultural force, is working to break the silence and demand that rights for women everywhere be respected and upheld.

The Rights of the Child

Respect for human rights begins with the way society treats its children.

On 20 November 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the historic Convention on the Rights of the Child. To date it has been ratified by 191 countries.

This landmark treaty is the most complete statement of children's rights ever and is the first to give these rights the force of international law.

Migrant Workers

Never before have so many people crossed borders in search of better lives.

And experts predict that the number of migrant workers -- estimated at nearly 100 million -- will only rise with increased globalization.

But where they seek improved living standards, many migrant workers find instead discrimination and abuse.

In 1990, following 10 years of negotiations, the General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

However, the treaty has not yet entered into force because it needs ratification by 20 Governments and as of September 1997 had only been ratified by nine: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cape Verde, Colombia, Egypt, Morocco, Philippines, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, and Uganda.

Disabled Persons

Often marginalized in society, disabled persons constitute ten percent of the world's population.

They are frequently denied the most basic educational opportunities. Physical restrictions bar them from public buildings and transport. Social attitudes exclude them from cultural life and normal relationships. Prejudice and ignorance often lead to unnecessary institutionalization.

In striving for a consensus on the protection of the rights of disabled persons, the General Assembly adopted the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities in 1993.

The rules offer an instrument for policy-making in the quest for a "society for all" which recognizes the development of the human potential of each person.

Human Rights, Development and Democracy

Full human dignity means not only freedom from torture, but also freedom from hunger. It means freedom to vote and the right to education. It means freedom of expression and the right to health. It means the right to enjoy all rights without discrimination.

In 1986, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Right to Development, which states that:

"The human person is the central subject of development and should be the participant and beneficiary of the right to development."

However, despite international efforts, over one billion people today live in absolute poverty on less than $1 a day.

Good governance, democracy and popular participation are increasingly viewed as key agents in the quest for economic and social development, as are equitable trade terms and debt relief.

Human Rights and Humanitarian Assistance

Around the world, human rights are an integral part of situations in which humanitarian assistance is required. Victims might be refugees, displaced people or other civilians caught up in internal conflicts. Still, their plight is the same. Their human rights are likely to have been violated and they need protection and assistance.

"Human rights violations are a major cause of refugee flows", says Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Refugees also suffer a range of abuses once they leave their homes, from piracy and rape to arrest, detention, torture and discrimination in the country to which they have escaped.

The international community is increasingly focusing on preventive action to address problems before they become humanitarian emergencies.

Global Gatherings for Human Rights

In 1968, the United Nations held the first International Conference on Human Rights in Tehran, Iran.

The Proclamation of the Conference emphasized the link between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.

Twenty-five years later, in 1993, the United Nations convened the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria.

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action stress the universal nature of human rights and the need to fight all forms of racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance. It also places strong emphasis on the rights of women, children, minorities and indigenous people.

International Criminal Court

High hopes have been raised by the June 1998 conference in Rome to establish an international criminal court, which would form a vital part of an emerging system of international human rights protection.

For nearly half a century, the United Nations has recognized the need to establish an international criminal court to prosecute and punish persons responsible for crimes against humanity.

In the absence of such a court, two ad-hoc criminal courts have been set up to judge war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Human Rights into the 21st Century

Growing international awareness, fostered by mass communications, has heightened the sense of urgency for respect of human rights.

Thousands of individuals and citizens groups around the world are fighting for their rights and freedoms.

United Nations action for human rights continues.

Yet millions of people around the world suffer some serious violation or deprivation of their basic rights and freedoms -- everything from torture, rape and corrupt judicial systems to bonded labour, hunger and lack of access to health services, housing, sanitation and water.

Will there ever be a global culture of human rights?

It is up to each and every one of us -- from Presidents and Prime Ministers to business executives, farmers and students -- to work toward this dream.

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information -- DPI/1967-June 1998
Prepared for Internet by the Information Technology Section
Department of Public Information
© United Nations 1998