International Human Rights Guide


Orange revolution in Ukraine © Radio Netherlands Wereldomroep

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights inspired a generation in shock from events of the first half of the twentieth century. Today the idealism lies in some disarray, the political liberation of the Arab Spring countered by a backlash against the application of human rights principles to sustainable development. As a result, the dignity of the world's poorest people plays second fiddle to a global economic model which drives inequality and ecological risk.

Universal Declaration
International Law
Law Enforcement
Political Rights - Progress
Economic Rights - Progress
Rights-based Development
Political Backlash

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights...

These are the opening words of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the embryonic United Nations General Assembly on 10th December 1948. In framing our rights, the text seeks to capture an essential truth of modern civilization - the importance of each and every individual.

The language echoes the 1776 American Declaration of Independence and resonates still in 21st century calls to action, such as Amnesty International’s 2009 Demand Dignity campaign.

Article 2 translates the poetry of freedom into the solid principle of non-discrimination that protects disadvantaged groups in all international human rights law:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion...

The 30 Articles are non-binding principles, intended to guide the detail of international human rights law by reference to universal values that transcend cultural and ideological divides.

The Articles were drafted at a time of painful reflection on the causes of the Second World War. Perhaps for this reason, they are dominated by civil and political rights; only Articles 22-27 refer to social and economic rights. Apart from the prohibition of torture, the Universal Declaration does not address issues relating to the conduct of war or crimes against humanity.

The Declaration recognises that, in return for their rights, individuals have responsibilities described as “duties to the community.”

The Human Rights Action Center presents the 30 articles of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights read aloud by artists, advocates and children.

International Human Rights Law

The original intention was to approve detailed international laws at the same time as the Universal Declaration. In the event, it took almost twenty years to reach agreement, such were the ideological divisions of the Cold War era.

The search for justice

The command and control regimes of the communist bloc had no wish to further the cause of civil and political rights. By contrast, the US perceived social and economic rights as undermining its frontier tradition of individuals taking responsibility for themselves.

The eventual solution was to create two legal instruments, separating the contentious areas. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC) were both adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and finally came into force in 1976. To this day, China has refused to ratify ICCPR whilst the US has likewise rejected ICESC.

There are now nine core international human rights treaties, including ICCPR and ICESC. The additions address racial discrimination, child rights, discrimination against women, torture, disabilities, migrant workers, and enforced disappearances.

As countries ratify these international treaties, they accept the obligation to protect their citizens through the introduction of national laws and institutions.

Important UN human rights instruments exist outside this core but may not carry the full weight of international law. For example, the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women delivers moral force rather than binding protection.

Strong claims made by special interest groups sometimes overlook the reality that categories of human rights vary in their legal status.

Law Enforcement

A national framework of human rights law administered by adequately resourced institutions is beyond the capacity of many developing countries. For example, whilst laws introduced in almost every country have advanced the cause of children's rights, weak enforcement allows the use of child labour to persist.

Richer countries also stumble over enforcement, typically when human rights laws prove inconvenient to domestic political culture. In recent years, such lapses have been most frequently associated with discrimination against women and racial minorities.

Where national laws fail to protect rights, grievances can be referred to higher regional authorities. For example, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg had over 150,000 applications pending at the end of 2011, of which more than half were received from citizens of Russia, Turkey, Romania and Italy.

Brick kiln labour in Pakistan © Kamila Hyat / IRIN News

Ultimate oversight lies with the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the 47-country body established in 2006. The HRC monitors the implementation of human rights through Universal Periodic Reviews. These are four-yearly self-assessments by every country on the fulfilment of its overall obligations.

Periodic national reports are also submitted for each core international human rights treaty. Together with information from other sources, these are scrutinised by committees of experts, known as Human Rights Treaty Bodies, whose findings are made public.

The HRC also engages independent experts, known as Special Rapporteurs or Special Representatives, to investigate specific topics or countries. Known as Special Procedures, there are currently 45 of these assignments in place.

Each of these UN enforcement mechanisms is supported administratively by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The High Commissioner, currently Navi Pillay of South Africa, is responsible for promoting the recognition of human rights, both internationally and within other UN agencies.

The HRC has no powers of enforcement, its influence lying more in disclosure of its forensic work. Global action against an individual country can be authorised only by the UN Security Council.

Bilateral and regional responses are more commonplace. For example, a European arms embargo on China has been in place since the killing of protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Civil and Political Rights - Progress

Diehard human rights campaigners have to pinch themselves to believe the events of 2011. Prior to Mohamed Bouazizi’s impulsive self-immolation in a small town in Tunisia, most activists would have expressed despair at the ineffectiveness of the international human rights apparatus.

Despite the Arab Spring, their reasoning is no less valid today. The protagonists of the old Cold War divisions remain at odds over the ideology of human rights. The insistence of China and Russia on non-interference in sovereign affairs vetoes almost any human rights sanction contemplated by the Security Council.

Whether or not this stance is a diversionary tactic, the sovereignty case is precisely what the 1948 founding fathers were trying to overcome. The 2012 response to the slaughter of civilians in Syria has been dictated by the sensitivities of Russia in particular, the drawn-out negotiations arguably costing many lives.

The capacity of the HRC to be an ineffective counterweight to the impotence of the Security Council is only as strong as the human rights credentials of its membership - which currently includes China and Russia.

Observance of individual human rights treaties has struggled to keep pace with the shifting cultural landscape of modern times. Changing values are especially problematic for Islamic States whose constitutions are founded on strict interpretation of the Koran, a text dating from the 7th century.

Many of these countries are burdened with a legacy of laws which contravene contemporary human rights, such as those relating to homosexuality and the rights of women. However, many Islamic scholars advocate reinterpretation of the Koran in the light of modern values.

Guantanamo Bay detention © Amnesty International USA

Progressive western traditions have themselves been far from immune to recent events. Controversial counter-terrorism laws have undermined the moral high ground once occupied by the US and its closest allies. The tipping point was the Bush administration’s defence of torture and indefinite detention at the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison camps.

Sympathy for the terrible dilemmas faced by political leaders in balancing rights and security has been tempered by the widespread exploitation of these laws to suppress the activities of political opponents.

The moral high ground was in any event of dubious quality. The shockwave of the Arab Spring has rocked the western powers whose longstanding support for repressive regimes has been embarrassingly exposed.

Undaunted, the Obama administration continues to set aside China’s record on human rights in deference to economic interests. The Chinese government was unimpeded in its blatant bullying of governments to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for the political prisoner, Liu Xiaobo.

Three short film portraits of the Martin Ennals Award nominees for 2012 – examples of fearless human rights campaigning in Cambodia, Iran and Bahrain.

Social and Economic Rights - Progress

There has been no Arab Spring for global poverty. Over one billion people remain below the international poverty line and over 900 million below the hunger threshold. On the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration in 2008, Amnesty International suggested that "world leaders owe an apology for failing to deliver on the promise of justice and equality."

The Universal Declaration itself bears some responsibility for the shortcomings of human rights as the driver for social progress. It acknowledged that social and economic rights are dependent on the "resources of each State," implying that these rights in poorer countries might be achieved only by “progressive realisation” over time.

The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights attempted to consign progressive realisation to history. Its Vienna Declaration asserted that “the lack of development may not be invoked to justify the abridgement of internationally recognized human rights.”

Nevertheless, the concession to the rigour of absolute rights found its way into the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the core strategic tool for global poverty reduction in the 21st century. For example, the first MDG aims merely to halve, rather than eradicate, the rate of poverty by 2015. The rights of half of the world’s poor appear to have been put on hold.

The right to water in Chennai © Peter Armstrong

As with political rights, changing circumstances have challenged the framework for economic rights. In 2010 the UN General Assembly approved a Resolution recognising that access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a human right but in other areas the response has been slow.

International negotiations on climate change have not yet framed their agreements by reference to the rights implications of global warming. The failure of industrialised countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the extent recommended by scientists represents a potential breach of the rights of citizens of poorer countries which bear the brunt of the impact.

The extremes of wealth and inequality of the modern world have highlighted the subjectivity of the Article which asserts that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.” Difficult questions have also been raised about the rights implications of recent economic shocks which disproportionately affect the poor.


Rights-based Development

Human rights campaigners believe that the dysfunctional global economy would be less disruptive if the needs of the poor were more closely aligned with their rights. UN bodies and international aid agencies have always been encouraged to express their roles as fulfilling entitlements of the poor rather than a utilitarian response to compassion.

2008 food price riots in Burkina Faso © Brahima Ouedraogo / IRIN News

For example, when food prices spiralled out of control during 2008, the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, urged the UN to respond to the food crisis as a human rights emergency.

A rights-based approach also draws greater attention to the responsibility of governments for honouring their international legal commitments to social and economic rights. This comes into focus especially when “development” projects - mining, energy, agriculture and urbanisation - are conducted without due regard for the land and livelihood rights of local communities.

Focused government accountability inspires ordinary households to learn that poverty reduction and respect for livelihoods are enforceable rights, not favours, an important step towards political consciousness and participation in policymaking.

Political Backlash

Raising political consciousness may be a crucial element of rights-based development but it is often less than welcome to unscrupulous governments.

Rwandan school: development priority over freedoms © Aimable Twahirwa / IRIN News

Some developing countries argue that civil and political rights are not integral to development and should be allowed more time to evolve. They point to development success stories such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Rwanda, countries where autocratic governments have enforced limits on political freedoms.

Events of 2011 have heightened the tension in this debate. “From Zimbabwe to Iran, Sudan to Uzbekistan, Cuba to Russia, Ethiopia to Vietnam, autocrats live in fear of the kind of popular power demonstrated by the Arab Spring,” wrote the executive director of Human Rights Watch in the World Report 2012.

A resurgence of human rights violations appears to be the consequence of this phobia. Traditional tools of the trade include the banning and violent dispersal of public demonstrations, as in Uzbekistan and Iran. Persecution of individual defenders of human rights and political opponents is prevalent throughout the world, most notably in China.

Two less familiar strategies of repression have emerged, attacking activist groups and their communications technologies. Russia has blazed a trail of harassment of organised civil society groups, especially those in receipt of foreign funding. Regulations for NGO registration, governance or administration are amended in such a way that forces organisations to close.

This approach has been replicated, not just in countries of the former Soviet Union, but as far afield as Ethiopia and Cambodia.

The internet and mobile phones have opened up formidable capacity for political activism, through knowledge dissemination, networking and mobilisation. Many governments are greatly exercised in countering this threat; nowhere more so than in China where the “great firewall” is policed by an army of surveillance officials, blocking dissident content and "inappropriate" global influences such as YouTube.

Emerging largely amongst middle income countries, this backlash against human rights is forging an unlikely alliance with some of the world’s most advanced economies. Led by Canada, US and Australia, these governments and their donor agencies are engaged in a strategy to dilute references to human rights in multilateral environment and development agreements.

These governments would not attempt to deny their obligations under international human rights laws. But they feel threatened that the association of rights with sustainable development may undermine the ease with which it has been possible to walk away from promises of aid and other support for poor countries.

This controversial relationship between rights and development will come to a head at the June UN Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20. The UN human rights establishment has launched a concerted fightback, appealing to governments to respect the universality of their obligations to human rights in the drafting of the agreement.

State of the World’s Human Rights 2011, a review of political repression from Amnesty International.