Governance and law

Law and human rights

Guide to the Universal Declaration and the major UN Human Rights conventions

  1. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  2. The International Covenants
  3. Convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  4. International convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination
  5. Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women
  6. Convention on the rights of the child

1. Copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (known collectively as the International Bill of Human Rights) can be obtained from Human Rights Policy Department. The United Kingdom supported the adoption of the Universal Declaration, and is a Party to all the legal instruments described below

(i) The Universal declaration of Human Rights

2. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first definition by the members of the UN of the rights and freedoms which they had pledged themselves to promote in the UN Charter. It was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.

3. It consists of a preamble and thirty articles. The principle of non-discrimination in entitlement to the rights and freedoms set forth in the Declaration is set out in Article 2. The civil and political rights recognised in Articles 3 to 21 include the right to life, liberty and security of person; freedom from slavery and servitude; freedom from torture and cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law; the right to an effective judicial remedy; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; the right to a fair trial and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal; the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty; freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence; freedom of movement; ;the right of asylum; the right to a nationality; the right to marry and to found a family; the right to own property; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; the right of association and of assembly; the right to take part in government; and the right of equal access to public service.

4. The economic, social and cultural rights recognised in Articles 22 to 27 include the right to social security; the right to work; the right to leisure and rest; the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well being; the right to education; the right to participate in the cultural life of the community; the right to a social and international order in which these freedoms can be realised.

5. Nearly five decades after its proclamation the Declaration has lost little of its relevance, and is widely accepted as a gauge by which Governments can measure their progress in the protection of human rights. Although it is not in itself legally binding, much of its content can now be said to form part of customary international law. It is quoted in many international legal instruments, including the Council of Europe's Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and fundamental Freedoms and the Constitution of the OAU. It is also referred to in the Helsinki Final Act of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and it has inspired many national constitutions.

(ii) The International Covenants

6. The two International Covenants were adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 1996 and came into force in 1976. By December 1995 there were 132 States Parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and 133 to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Covenants put into legally binding treaty form most of the rights recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the right to property, for example, is absent) plus some additional ones (for example, the right of self-determination).

Limitations

7. Most of the rights and freedoms in the Covenants are not absolute but may be subject to certain specified limitations. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in particular defines admissible limitations or restrictions to various rights. In general the only acceptable restrictions are those which are provided by law and are necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.

8. On ratification of the Covenants (and other Conventions) many States have entered reservations relating to specific articles. A reservation is a unilateral statement made by a State when ratifying a treaty whereby it purports to exclude or to modify the legal effect of certain provisions of the treaty in their application to that State.

9. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also permits States Parties to take measures derogating from their obligations under the Covenant in time of an officially proclaimed public emergency which threatens the life of a nation, to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation and provided these measures do not involve discrimination. No derogation is permitted from certain articles (eg those providing for the right to life, the prohibitions on torture and slavery and the right to freedom of though, conscience or religion).

(a) The international convenant on civil and political rights

10. The civil and political rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are elaborated in more detail in Articles 6 to 27 of this Covenant. There are also some additional rights (eg measures for the protection of members of ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities). Under Article 2, all States Parties undertake to respect and to ensure to all individuals subject to their jurisdiction the rights recognised in the Covenant.

11. The Covenant provides for the establishment of a Human Rights Committee to monitor implementation of the Covenant's provisions by States Parties. Its tasks are:

(a) the examination in public session of reports by States Parties on the measures they have adopted to give effect to the rights in the Covenant and on progress made in the enjoyment of these rights. The Committee also receives information from other sources, such as local NGOs. This is not an optional obligation for States Parties. They are required to submit reports within one year of entry into force of the Covenant for the State Party concerned and thereafter at five year intervals;

(b) the consideration of claims by one State Party that another State Party is not fulfilling its obligations under the Covenant. This is an optional provision and the Committee has competence only where both of the States involved have made declarations recognising its competence;

(c) the receipt and consideration, under the First Optional Protocol (providing for individual petition) of communications from individuals claiming to be victims of violations of any of the rights in the covenant. Individuals who are subject to the jurisdiction of a State Party which has ratified the Optional Protocol are entitled to submit written communications to the Committee once they have exhausted all available domestic remedies. Such communications as are determined to be admissible b the Committee are brought to the attention of the State Party concerned. It then forwards its views to the Sate Party and to the individual. A summary of its activities is included in its report which is submitted annually to the General Assembly.

12. The Human Rights Committee consists of eighteen independent and expert members, elected by States Parties for four year terms with due consideration for the need for equitable geographical distribution. It meets three times a year in New York or Geneva for three week sessions.

13. The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was adopted by the General Assembly in November 1989. States Parties which ratify this Protocol take on an international obligation binding themselves to abolition of the death penalty.

14. The United Kingdom has not ratified either of the Optional Protocols.

(b) The international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights

15. The economic, social and cultural rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are elaborated in more detail in Articles 6 to 15 of this Covenant. Article 2 provides that each State Party undertakes to take steps to the maximum of its available resources 'with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of the rights recognised in the present Covenant'. Article 1 promotes the right of self-determination to allow for a freely determined political status and freedom to pursue economic, social and cultural development.

16. States Parties are obliged to submit reports on the measures they have adopted and progress made in achieving the observance of the rights in the Covenant. States Parties are required to submit an initial report within one year of the Covenant coming into force for the State Party concerned and thereafter at five year intervals.

17. The Covenant originally provided for these reports to be submitted to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). In 1987, ECOSOC established a Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to examine the reports in public session. the Committee is composed of eighteen independent and expert members elected by ECOSOC for four year terms from a list of people nominated by States Parties to the Covenant. The Committee meets once a year for three weeks. It submits to ECOSOC a report on its activities, including a summary of its consideration of the reports submitted by States Parties.

Forward to Convention against torture.


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