UN and Human Rights

Heba Moses


Before talking about the current situation in international human rights system and the role of the UN in its development, it is necessary to briefly look at the modern history of its evolution. Human rights have been being exposed to changes and transformations for ages with the influence of global processes, political and social movements, ideologies, and other relevant factors. The development and international recognition of human rights through these time periods are also an inevitable fact. However, these changes have not passed the same way or advanced equally through the whole world.

The differences regarding the development of human rights and freedoms evolved through history. For example, during the last century in some political systems, economic, social and cultural rights were considered more crucial compared to political or civil ones and vice versa. Such different approaches were reflected in various legal documents adopted by the UN (the role of the UN and its agencies will be thoroughly examined below) in the second half of the 20th century, precisely, in 1966, when two different covenants on human rights were adopted in order to meet the interests of the Western and Socialist bloc countries.[1]

Besides this, the easiness of the enforcement of civil and political rights, without needing a greater amount of resources and infrastructure rather than economic and social rights, also sharpened the separation of the rights and emergence of the terms, like “first” or “second-generation human rights” (and then “third”- collective rights) in a later period.[2] As it is obvious from the aforementioned facts, the distinctions between the systems also caused various views and approaches on human rights and the ways for their protection.

However, after the end of the Cold War, the event of which caused the elimination of the barriers and “walls” between nations, the opinions on human rights started to change. During the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna, the relationship between development and the different kinds of rights was checked in a detailed way and the Vienna Declaration’s assertion that “all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated,” was seen as an important recognition of the universality of human rights.[3]

Having said that, the role of the UN is inevitable in the protection of human rights and it plays a very important role in the preparation of documents, development programs, and policies related to those rights. The world community has not achieved in the universal recognition of those rights before the UN. Looking at history, it is noteworthy mention that after the creation of the League of Nations, the international community limited its attention to human rights by monitoring cases, such as egregious violations of human rights, including human trafficking. It was a modest beginning, and then progressed to the humanitarian intervention in some cases, and the protection of minorities and some human rights in colonial territories.

This means that the attention of the League of Nations on the rights of these groups was partially limited in scope and effectiveness. In addition to the many flaws which followed the league since its inception, which led to the Second World War (1939-1945) as the League of Nations failed to prevent the war between the states and the settlement of disputes by peaceful means and international cooperation. What World War II left destruction, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes which were committed by several countries and the continuation of these violations has made the human rights a very important issue among members of the international community, because protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms is the way to achieve international peace and security.

This made the establishment of a new global organization, namely, the UN, crucial which was emerged in 1945.

In the preamble of the Charter of the United Nations it was written that “We the peoples of the united nations determined to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women.”[4]

Among the purpose and principles of the United Nations;

 Article 1 “To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” The same was stated in Article (55) of the Charter.

Whereas, according to Article (56), “All Members pledge themselves to take a joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article (55).”

In accordance with Article (13) of the Charter, “The General Assembly shall initiate studies and make recommendations for the purpose of achieving human rights and freedoms.” And according to Articles (62 & 68), “The Economic and Social Council shall set up commissions for the promotion of human rights, and respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.” And Article (76) of the International Trusteeship System included the same as stipulated in paragraph (b & c) “to promote the political, economic, social, and educational advancement of the inhabitants of the trust territories, and their progressive development towards self-government or independence and to encourage respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion” and we can see that the abovementioned provisions imposed a legal obligation on all States to respect human rights as stated in the Charter and that the United Nations established mechanisms and special organs in order to oversee and to ensure the international respect of these rights.

Accordingly, the human rights violations are no longer absolute jurisdictions of the state, and the seventh paragraph of Article (2) of the UN Charter, which states that “nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter…” does not apply on it; as human rights in this case is not a purely internal matter, and requires the intervention of the international community. Hence, the sovereignty becomes the cornerstone of human rights legislation starting from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states the relationship between sovereign governments and their own people, but the absolute sovereignty declined to the extent that the United Nations is the representative of the community of nations, as a whole, so that its authority is higher than the government’s authority.

 Among the most prominent interventions sanctioned by the United Nations, were:

  • The Kurdish Crisis in Iraq 1991 for protecting human rights.
  • The Operation Restore Hope in Somalia 1992.
  • Haiti in 1994.

It is clear from the foregoing that human rights issues are no longer exclusive to states, but has become a partnership between the state and the international community, and its international organizations, and have the right and duty of the United Nations bodies to interfere in the affairs of any country where human rights are being abused. This clearly shows in chapter one of the Charter, which determines the purposes and principles of the organization, as the protection of human rights is the main objectives of the United Nations.

The United Nations has achieved a major revolution in both areas, regulation and international law and thus has made great strides in the field of human rights protection, and opened the door to new steps in the field of protection of the individual rights and fundamental freedoms, through various means, including the United Nations bodies that concerned with Human Rights and the exercise of political pressure on states, and condemn serious violations of human rights, and the development of international mechanisms for the protection of these rights and freedoms, such as the establishment of international criminal tribunals to punish the perpetrators of these violations.

In order to achieve the effective protection and monitoring of the rights and freedoms special bodies have been established under the UN. These bodies can be differentiated as charter-based and treaty-based ones. The human rights treaty bodies are considered as the committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the main international human rights treaties. Each State Party to a treaty has a duty to take necessary measures to guarantee that everyone in that State can enjoy the rights enshrined in the treaty.

There are ten human rights bodies, or in other words, committees, monitoring the compliance of nine human rights treaties. Out of those ten bodies, the Human Rights Committee (ICCPR treaty body), is characterized as a well-established and respected, and most prestigious body, which self-consciously consider itself a primus inter pares and claim over a leading role in the UN human rights system.

Human rights bodies within the United Nations

  • The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

OHCHR is specialized in the protection and promotion of human rights that are embodied in the main human rights documents – Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

  • The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)

UNHRC, being an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system is comprised of 47 States which are responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the world.

In addition, there are many international organizations whose work relate to human rights. Some consider them specialized bodies of the United Nations, although they were established on t

he basis of separate agreements, and have independent boards of management:

–           ILO

–           UNESCO

–           WHO

–           FAO

There are also international financial organizations and specialized bodies which their work has a significant impact on human rights:

–           IMF

–           WTO

There were many humanitarian interventions of regional organizations such as:

  • Liberia 1991, when the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), sent Monitoring Group in order to defend the government against the assaults of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia.
  • ECOWAS Military Intervention in Sierra Leone in 1997.
  • NATO intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 to stop the massacres by Serbs against Muslim Bosnian and Croats.
  • NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1998 in the largest military operation after World War II, to put a stop to human rights abuses.

As for Syria, the principle of national sovereignty and Article (2) of the United Nations Charter, which prohibits interference in the internal affairs of the State, is no longer a barrier to the right of the Security Council of international intervention. Though the international balances of interests and contradictory prevent it yet. But nothing prevents this future intervention by the Security Council if the circumstances change. And because human rights issues are often subject to the politicization of the international community, the commitment of all parties to the political process of the plan of the international envoy, and to engage in a national dialogue and to stop the killing, destruction and terrorism by all parties, and to respect the rules of the principles of human rights and freedoms, particularly freedom of opinion and expression; as well as the international and humanitarian laws and conventions, may be the only remaining hope.

However, “according to some of the world’s largest NGOs, The United Nations Security Council has “failed” the Syrian people. A “report card” compiled by more than 20 aid organizations working in and around Syria – including Oxfam, Save the Children and World Vision – gives the Security Council and the wider world a fail grade for attempts to stop the killing and to get aid to those most in need.”[5]

Also, “The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, has admitted that the UN security council is failing Syria because of big power divisions which have prevented action to end a conflict that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and driven the biggest refugee exodus in a generation.”[6]

 “The Security Council attempted to evoke chapter VII sanctions from the United Nations Charter to intervene and prevent genocide in Syria. But the vetoes by China and Russia halted any international intervention.” [7]

“Unfortunately, the United Nations Security Council has become an instrument for the five superpowers to further their political will in the arena of international politics and alter the political equations according to their interests. They put forward a draft resolution whenever their interests are jeopardized and pressure the rest of members to vote for it, and veto the resolutions in which the interests of their allies are endangered.”[8]

Some also argue that the UN has failed the Palestinian people as well, as the United Nations did not take any firm action towards Israel despite the daily violation of human rights.

Apart from the Security Council the criticisms towards the United Nations Human Rights Council are escalating, it was accused of weak performance and low credibility. the fundamental flaws of the Council can be summarized in the followings:

  • Membership

The Council membership includes some of the worst governments in the world regarding the respect for human rights at the domestic level. Those states trying to get the membership of the Council in order to enjoy the right to vote and to be protected from criticism. “As UN Watch, a Geneva-based human rights group, put it: “This is a recipe for disaster. By electing massive abusers of human rights to the very body charged with protecting them, the UN is about to drop more rotten ingredients into the soup. We should not be surprised by the results. The new members should be in the dock of the accused, not sitting on high as prosecutor and judge.”[9]

  • Politicization and double standards

Political considerations dominate the Council’s deliberations and decisions without regard to the human rights or the priority of the protection of the victims of human rights abuses. It has become customary that the council fail for consecutive years in providing or pass resolutions regarding the human rights.

In conclusion, based on the abovementioned there is a great effort that has been made both at the global and regional level, so that the human rights reached the level we have now, but there is still much work to do to overcome the shortcomings, especially, in overcoming the economic and social disparities in our World, whether between the States or within the State itself; as “2.7 billion people struggle to survive on less than two dollars per day.”[10] and “it has been estimated that more than 35,000 children die needlessly every day from starvation, malnutrition, and diseases that could easily be controlled.”[11] Here the most sacred right of human nature which is the right to life is lost.

list of sources 

[1] Christian Tomuschat, “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”, United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law, 2008 available at http://legal.un.org/avl/ha/iccpr/iccpr.html

[2]   “Three generations of human rights” available at http://www.globalization101.org/three-generations-of-rights/

[3] “Interdependence and indivisibility of Economic and Political Rights” available at http://humanrightshistory.umich.edu/problems/indivisibility/

[4] Charter of the United Nations available at www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/preamble

[5] UN has failed Syria: NGOs http://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2015/03/12/un-has-failed-syria-ngos

[6] The guardian www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/07/un-security-council-is-failing-syria-ban-ki-moon

[7] Top 10 Failures of the United Nations, Andrew Fitzgerald, listverse.com, 28 January 2013.

[8] Kourosh Ziabari – Global Research, January 20, 2011, Web.

[9] UN Watch “List of Shame”: World’s Worst Abusers Running for UN Human Rights Council Seats. http://secure.unwatch.org/site/

[10] UN Millennium Project Fast Facts: The Faces of Poverty http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/resources/fastfacts_e.htm

[11] Human Rights Challenges of 21st Century by V.N. Viswanathan, page 45.


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