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Universal human rights

Respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights – an international concern

Flags in front of the UN-Building.

Up until the Second World War the protection of human rights was predominantly a national matter, and only few issues were dealt with at the in­ter­national level. However, it was during that war that the Allies declared they wanted to create an enabling en­vi­ron­ment in which all human beings could live in peace and without fear and want.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948. It serves as the foundation for numerous in­ter­national and national agreements, treaties and laws to protect basic rights.

Many aspects of the Millennium Declaration adopted in the year 2000 are also based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, fulfilling civil, political, economic, social and cultural human rights has been a fundamental goal of in­ter­national de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion. Germany has also pledged to help achieve that goal.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Proclaimed in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the basis for the in­ter­national protection of human rights. It formulates universal human rights which representatives of states around the world agreed on in 1947.

It is a declaration made by the General Assembly of the United Nations. As such it does not have the legally binding force of an agreement that can be ratified by individual states. Nevertheless, it does carry huge political and moral weight. Its provisions have been incorporated into many national constitutions, and it is now recognised that some of its provisions possess the status of binding customary in­ter­national law, and in some cases even peremptory in­ter­national law (jus cogens).

The human rights covenants: the ICCPR and ICESCR

A child in Vieng Phouka, Laos, fills water in a bottle. Copyright: Thomas Imo/photothek.netIn order to convert the human rights set out in the Universal Declaration into legally binding norms, in 1966 the United Nations adopted two human rights covenants: the In­ter­national Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the ICESC) and the In­ter­national Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the ICCPR).

The Covenants both entered into force in 1976 and, together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, constitute the In­ter­national Bill of Rights. Dedicated committees for the respective covenants monitor implementation of the rights they set out. States that have signed the two human rights covenants are obligated to regularly inform the committees of the measures they have initiated to implement them.

For the ICCPR an individual complaints procedure has been in place since 1976, which is recorded in its First Optional Protocol. In December 2008, the General Assembly of the United Nations also adopted an Optional Protocol to the ICESC establishing an individual complaints procedure. This Optional Protocol entered into force on 5 May 2013.

Other United Nations human rights treaties

Since 1948 the United Nations has drawn up numerous treaties designed to protect individual human rights, or introduce specific standards for women, children, persons with disabilities and other groups. Together with the aforementioned In­ter­national Bill of Human Rights they form a comprehensive regime. Compliance with the treaties is currently monitored by ten United Nations bodies.

Besides the two human rights covenants, the treaties include:

  • The In­ter­national Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
  • The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  • The Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • The In­ter­national Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families
  • The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  • The In­ter­national Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

All the treaties have a reporting system. The member states must report to the relevant committee on what steps they have taken to implement the rights laid down in the treaty in question.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was also ratified by the European Union in December 2010. This was a first in two respects. It was the first time that a regional organisation had accepted a human rights treaty as binding under in­ter­national law. Secondly, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was the first human rights treaty that specified the obligations of the States Parties in in­ter­national co­op­er­a­tion (see Article 32 thereof).

The Declaration on the Right to De­vel­op­ment

The Declaration on the Right to De­vel­op­ment, which was proclaimed and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1986, states that "The human person is the central subject of de­vel­op­ment and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to de­vel­op­ment."

All people and peoples have the right to participate as equals in economic, social, cultural and political de­vel­op­ment, in which all human rights are accorded. They have the right to shape this de­vel­op­ment themselves and benefit from it.

Through its systematic orientation toward human rights and related principles such as participation, transparency, accountability and non-discrimination, German de­vel­op­ment policy is able to foster self determined de­vel­op­ment in partner coun­tries.

Regional human rights treaties

The in­ter­national human rights framework of the United Nations is complemented by regional human rights treaties with appropriate implementation mechanisms. These include the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950, the American Convention on Human Rights of 1969, the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights of 1981 (the Banjul Charter), the Arab Charter on Human Rights of 2004 and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration of 2012.

All regional treaties refer expressly to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

The Yogyakarta Principles

On November 2006 a group of in­ter­national human rights experts meeting at a conference in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta for the first time identified principles that define human rights more precisely in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity. Both the ICCPR and the ICESCR prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The core concern of the Yogyakarta Principles is to fight violence and the criminalisation of homosexuality and transsexuality.

The Yogyakarta Principles are not legally binding in the strict sense. Nevertheless, since they include detailed interpretations of human rights treaties that are binding under in­ter­national law, they are politically and legally relevant. Today they are known around the world.

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