While the concept of human rights has existed for millennia, international human rights law wasn’t established until the 1940s. It was the first time the world recognized universal human rights and laid the groundwork for the protection of those rights. That groundwork comes from the International Bill of Rights, which consists of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, two international covenants, and two optional protocols. What’s included in these documents?
The first step: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wasn’t an easy process. The UN Commission on Human Rights – with Eleanor Roosevelt as the chair – argued over certain elements. South Africa, which still had apartheid, obviously didn’t like the idea of racial equality. The USSR wanted more focus on collective rights as opposed to individual rights. By the time the vote came around in 1948, 48 countries voted in favor of the 30-article document. Eight countries abstained, but none voted against it.
We won’t go through all the 30 articles, but the rights established include:
- All humans are born free and equal
- All humans have the right to freedom from discrimination, torture, and slavery
- All humans are equal before the law and our rights can’t be taken away
- All humans have the right to privacy, peaceful public assembly, freedom of thought, and freedom of religion
- All humans deserve equal pay for equal work in a safe environment
- All humans deserve access to food, water, shelter, and education
- Everyone – and especially governments – have a responsibility to protect human rights
Next steps: The International Covenants
The next parts of the International Bill of Rights didn’t come about until 1966 when the UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These covenants had a similar process to the UDHR. They’re separate documents because economic, social, and cultural rights are considered “positive rights,” meaning these rights involve the freedom to do something, which often requires State protections. The “negative” rights of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights represent freedom from State interference.
The ICESCR came into force in 1976. As of 2020, the Covenant (which is legally binding) has 171 parties. Four countries, including the United States, have signed but ratified the covenant. It includes rights such as:
- The right to self-determination
- Worker rights, such as the right to fair wages, safe and healthy working conditions, and equal promotion opportunities
- The right to strike and form trade unions
- The right to social security
- The right to free primary education and equally accessible higher education
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights covers rights like:
- Every human has the right to life
- No human should be subjected to torture, cruel treatment, or degrading punishment
- No one should be enslaved
- Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, religion, and conscience
- Everyone is equal before the law
The ICCPR entered into force in 1976. As of 2021, 173 countries have ratified the treaty. There are six countries (including China) that signed but haven’t ratified the document. The United States signed the ICCPR in 1977 and finally ratified it in 1992.
The Optional Protocols
Many human rights treaties have Optional Protocols, which are separate documents that countries who are party to the main treaty can sign, accede, or ratify. The ICCPR’s first Optional Protocol establishes a way to deal with complaints from individuals and groups claiming the rights in the treaty have been violated. It entered into force in 1976 with the main treaty. As of 2020, 116 countries are State parties and therefore legally bound to the treaty. The Second Optional Protocol focuses on the abolition of the death penalty. It entered into force in 1991. As of 2021, 89 countries have acceded to or ratified the second protocol, most recently Armenia, Angola, and the State of Palestine.
Why the International Bill of Human Rights matters
The treaties forming the International Bill of Human Rights have extensive reach in international human rights law. Lawyers and judges invoke the principles when making decisions and many constitutions are based on the Bill, as well. Why are all the treaties important if they repeat many of the same rights? The UDHR was groundbreaking, but it wasn’t legally binding. The Covenants and Optional Protocols are. Is the Bill succeeding in its mission? Critics are skeptical. Enforcement and accountability have always been challenging for the United Nations. Ratifying a treaty hasn’t transformed countries into utopias for human rights. There’s a gap between human rights on paper and human rights in practice. The International Bill of Human Rights still matters, but there’s a lot of work to be done to make its vision a reality.