International Human Rights Day
The Inalienable Rights Which Everyone Is Inherently Entitled to as Human Beings
International Human Rights Day is observed every year on December 10, the date on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, 74 years ago in 1948. According to its Preamble, the Declaration, which contains 30 articles, was to constitute a “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”
On the 70th anniversary of the Declaration, the UN described it as “a milestone document that proclaimed the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being — regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status,” and one that “establishes the equal dignity and worth of every person.” One of the most translated documents in the world, it is available in more than 500 languages.
The Declaration has the character of a non-binding pronouncement. It is up to UN member states that accede to it to bring their domestic law into compliance with its principles for them to assume any legal weight.
When it was adopted, the Declaration was accompanied by a General Assembly resolution that called its adoption “a historic act destined to consolidate world peace through the contribution of the United Nations towards the liberation of individuals from the unjustified oppression and constraint to which they are too often subjected.”
The resolution called for the Declaration’s dissemination “among all peoples around the world” and for governments to use every means within their power to solemnly publicize it and cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories; for the Secretary General to have it widely disseminated and to that end published and distributed not only in official languages but using every means at his disposal in all languages possible; and for specialized agencies and NGOs to do their utmost to bring this declaration to the attention of their members.
Finally a resolution was also attached calling for the Economic and Social Council of the General Assembly to ask the Commission on Human Rights to continue to give priority in its work for the preparation of a draft covenant on Human Rights and measures for its implementation — next steps in the creation of the International Bill of Human Rights to be comprised of the Declaration as well as a binding covenant and measures for its implementation.
Work on Covenants to Accompany the Declaration
In the course of this work which ended up stretching out over no less than 18 years, with negotiations taking place when the Cold War was in full swing, and during the upsurge of anti-colonial wars and struggles for national liberation, including in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and many countries in Africa, there remained sharp differences over most of the same issues on which agreement could not be reached during the drafting of the Declaration. This eventually led to the decision to draft two separate covenants — one dealing with civil and political rights, the other with economic, social and cultural rights which were to contain as many similar provisions as possible for implementation, and be opened for signature simultaneously.
It was eventually agreed as well that each covenant would contain an article on the right of all peoples to self-determination which was not included in the 1948 Declaration despite the best efforts of Yugoslavia, which had proposed an article to that effect, and other countries which fought for it. The proposed article read:
The States Parties to the present Covenant, including those having responsibility for the administration of Non-Self-Governing and Trust Territories, shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations.
Drafts of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights were presented to the General Assembly for discussion in 1954 but were only adopted twelve years later in 1966. Article 1 of each Covenant states that the right to self-determination is universal and calls upon States to promote the realization of that right and to respect it. The article provides that all peoples have the right of self-determination and adds that “By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” It took almost another ten years for enough UN member states (35) to sign on to them for the covenants to finally enter into force.
As of December 2022, 171 countries have acceded to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. A further four countries have signed but not ratified the Covenant.
Together, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two Covenants are said to be the foundational texts in the contemporary international system of human rights with the rights contained in the Declaration and the two Covenants further elaborated in such legal documents as the International Convention against Torture; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which declares dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred as being punishable by law; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, covering measures to be taken for eliminating discrimination against women in political and public life, education, employment, health, marriage and family; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which lays down guarantees in terms of children’s human rights.
1. Today there are seven major UN human rights treaties:
1. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
2. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
3. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
4. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
5. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
6. Convention on the Rights of the Child
7. International Convention on Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families