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Contents:
  1. Advanced Introduction to International Human Rights Law
  2. Introduction to International Human Rights Law
  3. Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  4. International Human Rights Law: An Introduction

Advanced Introduction to International Human Rights Law

Today, all United Nations member States have ratified at least one of the nine core international human rights treaties, and 80 percent have ratified four or more, giving concrete expression to the universality of the UDHR and international human rights. International human rights law lays down obligations which States are bound to respect. By becoming parties to international treaties, States assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights.

The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses. The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights. Through ratification of international human rights treaties, Governments undertake to put into place domestic measures and legislation compatible with their treaty obligations and duties. The domestic legal system, therefore, provides the principal legal protection of human rights guaranteed under international law.

Where domestic legal proceedings fail to address human rights abuses, mechanisms and procedures for individual and group complaints are available at the regional and international levels to help ensure that international human rights standards are indeed respected, implemented, and enforced at the local level. Welcome to the United Nations.

Toggle navigation Language:. Foundation for Our Common Future Over the years, the commitment has been translated into law, whether in the forms of treaties, customary international law, general principles, regional agreements and domestic law, through which human rights are expressed and guaranteed. Universal Values The core principles of human rights first set out in the UDHR, such as universality, interdependence and indivisibility, equality and non-discrimination, and that human rights simultaneously entail both rights and obligations from duty bearers and rights owners, have been reiterated in numerous international human rights conventions, declarations, and resolutions.

HROs may notice that multilateral treaties are often given different names, e. All are treaties among nations which carry legally binding obligations according to their language. Except for the UN Charter, which under its Article should prevail in the case of conflict with another treaty, all other treaties are of the same legal effect.

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Introduction to International Human Rights Law

The term "protocol" is used for a multilateral treaty which would expand or modify the effect of the convention, covenant, or other treaty with which it is associated. Other internationally agreed texts are referred to as declaration, body of principles, guidelines, etc. The principal difference between treaties and this second type of documents is that treaties may be formally accepted by governments by ratification or accession and are thus considered to be legally binding agreements among nations.


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Documents such as declarations, guidelines, minimum rules, bodies of principles , vary as to their binding effect depending upon the degree to which, for example, they authoritatively interpret treaty obligations, reflect customary international law or general principles of law, reflect customary international law in the process of formation, or are considered to reflect best practices without having more binding legal effect.

The term " instrument " is often used as a generic term to denote either a treaty or another standard-setting document, such as a declaration, body of principles, guidelines, etc. HROs need to be aware of international human rights standards because those norms define their mandate, provide an international identity to the UN operation, establish legal obligations for the Government, and therefore provide the basis to require respect for human rights from the Government and other actors.

International human rights standards are the principal normative point of reference for HROs operating under the auspices of the United Nations. These cannot be replaced or superceded by the national standards or experience of the country of origin of the HRO, however familiar the Officer may be with them. Whether monitoring Government compliance, reporting violations, intervening with local authorities, or offering advice, the legitimate basis for any action HROs is the international norms and standards contained in the full body of UN and regional human rights instruments.

Whatever the precise mandate of the field operation in a particular situation, it will ultimately be based upon the authority of the United Nations under the UN Charter. The UN Charter is both the most prominent treaty among nations and contains fundamental human rights provisions.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

See UN Charter Arts. By ratifying the UN Charter, Member States in Article 56 "pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the Organization for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article Treaties , including the Charter, constitute the primary sources of international law , including international human rights law.


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Hence, if the mandate indicates that the human rights operation should monitor and promote the protection of human rights, " human rights " will be defined by the terms of the UN Charter as well as the other treaties and relevant instruments promulgated by the international community. If the mandate is more precise e. The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights establishes an international minimum standard of conduct for all States parties to it, ensuring the rights of self-determination; legal redress; equality; life; liberty; freedom of movement; fair, public, and speedy trial of criminal charges; privacy; freedom of expression, thought, conscience, and religion; peaceful assembly; freedom of association including trade union rights and political parties ; family; and participation in public affairs; but forbidding torture; "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment"; slavery; arbitrary arrest; double jeopardy; and imprisonment for debt.

The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights establishes international minimum standards for States which have ratified this text to take steps to respect, protect and fulfil economic, social and cultural rights. This Covenant requires States parties to devote the maximum of their available resources to the most efficient and rapid manner in order to ensure the full, and in some cases progressive, realization of the rights it recognizes. The rights ensure in the Covenant include: the right to gain a living by work; to have safe and healthy working conditions; to enjoy trade union rights; to receive social security; to have protection for the family; to possess adequate housing and clothing; to be free from hunger; to receive health care; to obtain free public education; and to participate in cultural life, creative activity, and scientific research.

The Covenant also strictly prohibits discrimination with respect to economic, social and cultural rights and ensures the equal rights of men and women to the enjoyment of these rights. The UN has further codified and more specifically defined international human rights law in a number of treaties relating to various subjects initially identified by the International Bill of Human Rights. Treaties create legal obligations for those nations that are party to them, but are generally not binding on the international community as a whole. Treaties may, however, create general international law - that is binding on all states - when such agreements are intended for adherence by states generally, are in fact widely accepted, and restate general principles of law.

Aside from the UN Charter and the International Bill of Human Rights, the most significant UN treaties that have received enough ratifications or accessions to enter into force include in order of their date of entry into force :. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees Refugee Convention ;.

Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees Refugee Protocol ;. Convention on the Rights of the Child Children's Convention ; and. In order for a treaty to apply to a particular country, the State i. Hence, it is important for the HRO to check whether the State where the UN field operation is established has ratified the treaty.

LAW121 - International Human Rights

Some States attach reservations or other limitations on their ratification. It should be noted that even if a reservation has been asserted, the reservation may be invalid if it violates the object and purpose of the treaty. Pursuant to six of the principal human rights treaties , committees have been established to oversee their implementation. The six treaty bodies regularly review reports by States parties as to their compliance with the respective treaties. Most of these bodies issue general comments and recommendations that reflect their experience in reviewing the States reports.

In this way, they can provide authoritative interpretations of the treaty provisions. In addition, in periodically examining the extent to which the treaties have been implemented by States parties, through the analysis of the State reports, the treaty bodies issue concluding observations which describe and address particular areas where States parties should change legislation, policy and practice in order to promote compliance with the treaty in question. Concluding observations are often a valuable source of information of human rights workers.

Further, three of the treaty bodies -- the Human Rights Committee, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Committee Against Torture -- may under certain conditions receive individual communications complaining about violations of those treaties and thus issue adjudicative decisions interpreting and applying treaty provisions. While the other treaty bodies cannot yet receive formal complaints in the form of individual communications, they do issue pronouncements interpreting and applying treaty provision, as well as indicating - albeit often in an ad hoc manner - that State parties should alter behaviour in order to secure compliance with their treaty obligations.

In addition to treaties , the United Nations has overseen the development and adoption of dozens of declarations , codes, rules, guidelines, principles, resolutions, and other instruments that serve to interpret and expand on the general human rights obligations of Member States under Articles 55 and 56 of the UN Charter and may reflect customary international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most prominent of those human rights instruments, which not only provides an authoritative, comprehensive, and nearly contemporaneous interpretation of the human rights obligations under the UN Charter, but also has provisions which have been recognized as reflective of customary international law binding on all States irrespective of whether they are party to the treaties which also contains those provisions.

Among the other prominent instruments which are not treaties but which are of great importance in the field of human rights in order of their date of adoption are:. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners;. Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons;. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials;. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women;. The United Nations is not the only global organization which has issued or facilitated the issuance of worldwide human rights standards.

As one of the oldest existing intergovernmental organizations, ILO has promulgated recommendations and conventions, including several treaties relating to human rights. The International Committee of the Red Cross has, since the midth century, convened governmental conferences to draft treaties protecting soldiers and sailors wounded in armed conflict, prisoners of war, and civilians in times of war. These treaties constitute the core of international humanitarian law which is designed to ensure respect for general principles of humanity during periods of international and non-international armed conflict.

In the context of armed conflicts, international humanitarian law provides a stronger and far more detailed basis for the protection of human rights than the International Bill of Human Rights and other UN human rights instruments. The principal multilateral treaties that legislate international humanitarian law -- the four Geneva Conventions of -- have been ratified by more governments than other human rights treaties, aside from the UN Charter and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The two Additional Protocols of extend and make more specific the protections of the Geneva Conventions to international and non-international armed conflicts.

The Conventions and Protocols are as follows:. Many provisions of the four Geneva Conventions, the two Protocols, and the Hague Conventions of and are broadly accepted as restating customary international humanitarian law applicable to all countries. Humanitarian law applies specifically to armed conflict situations , which would ordinarily qualify as "public emergencies".

International Human Rights Law: An Introduction

Under certain specific conditions set forth in the relevant international human rights treaties, limitations can be imposed by States on the exercise of some human rights. It should be clear, however, that limitations on rights should be seen as the exception, rather than the rule. Limitations on rights, where they are permitted, are specified in the texts of the various human rights treaties. In general, such limitations and restrictions must be those which are determined by law and necessary in a democratic society to:. Limitations on rights imposed outside or beyond the above-mentioned conditions are not tolerated by international human rights law.

Under the specific and strict conditions indicated in Article 4 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, international human rights law allows States to derogate from that is, temporarily suspend rights during periods of "public emergency". In time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed , the States Parties to the present Covenant may take measures derogating from their obligations under the present Covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation , provided that such measures are not inconsistent with their other obligations under international law and do not involve discrimination solely on the ground of race, colour, sex, language, religion or social origin.

There is, however, a group of rights which can never be restricted nor derogated - including in the situation described in Article 4 of ICCPR. These non-derogable rights include: the rights to be free from arbitrary deprivation of life; torture and other ill-treatment; slavery; imprisonment for debt; retroactive penalty; non-recognition of the law; and infringement of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion Article 4 2.

ICCPR provisions underline the exceptional nature of derogations from rights guaranteed in the Covenant. The substantive and procedural conditions under which derogations from rights are permitted by international law should be carefully noted:. Article 4 3 further requires that States introducing derogations from rights should immediately inform, through the UN Secretary-General, the other States Parties to ICCPR of the provisions from which they have derogated and of the reasons for the derogations. As explained above and in Chapter I, international humanitarian law is that body of international law which applies to situations of armed conflict - both international and non-international.

It establishes protections for individuals and limits on methods and means of warfare by belligerent States. In times of conflict, human rights law continues to apply. However, since armed conflict situations would typically qualify as "public emergencies" as defined by Article 4 of ICCPR, it is possible and likely that in such situations restrictions and derogations to human rights may be introduced by States under the conditions mentioned above. It is therefore likely that the highest level of protection to individuals in situations of armed conflict be provided by international humanitarian law provisions.

The following table highlights the applicability of international human rights and humanitarian law in various situations, corresponding to different levels of conflict:. Applicability of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law 1. International Armed Conflict. Including wars between States, and against colonial domination, alien occupation, racist regimes, in exercise of right to self-determination.

Four Geneva Conventions of Additional Protocol I of