Human Rights

The modern idea of human rights evolved in the wake of the Second World War. Up until that time, the way in which a state treated its inhabitants had been viewed as an internal matter (Westphalian sovereignty). It was not considered to be a legitimate concern for the outside world.

Outrage at the atrocities committed by the Nazis against their own population and foreign nations led to calls for international standards to be agreed:

  • To protect the ‘inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’
  • To restrict the ways in which states dealt with their citizens.

The United Nations and human rights

When the Allies met in San Francisco in 1945 to agree a charter for the United Nations (UN), human rights concerns were high on their agenda. A proposal to include a comprehensive international bill of rights in the UN Charter was rejected as too ambitious. However, the final document refers to human rights five times and Article 68 orders the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to set up a commission “for the promotion of human rights”.

Soon after its establishment, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR) began to create a set of human rights standards which would reflect, as far as possible, the shared values of all the world’s nations and cultures. The people drafting the document faced one major problem: the legal nature of the document itself.

  • Some countries favoured a legally binding treaty, to be ratified by all the UN’s members
  • Others preferred a morally persuasive declaration without the force of law.

In the end, pragmatism prevailed: it was decided to do both, starting with the morally persuasive declaration. The initial result was the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR).

The International Bill of Human Rights

The UN General Assembly adopted the UDHR without a single opposing vote in 1948. Two treaties were subsequently drawn up, based on the UDHR, and adopted in 1966:

  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

By 1 October 2010, these treaties had been ratified by 166 and 160 states respectively. Collectively, the UDHR, ICCPR and ICESCR are often called the ‘International Bill of Human Rights’.

The values enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights are not new: its purpose was, after all, to create an agreed standard of conduct for governments which would reflect the common values of all the world’s nations and cultures. The importance of the Bill lies in its legal nature. It sets out, in concrete terms, a state’s obligations to every person within its jurisdiction. It also establishes the principle that any violation of these obligations is not an internal affair but the legitimate concern of the international community. 

The UDHR remains the flagship statement of international human rights. It has not only inspired the ICCPR and ICESCR, but also:

  • Numerous other international and regional human rights treaties
  • Parts of many domestic constitutions.