Unit 3 (Defending rights)

Universal declaration of human rights and subsequent charters


On 10 December 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and “to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the cornerstone for modern day human rights, within the framework of the United Nations.

How historically important is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is probably the most famous human rights document and at the same time is the cornerstone of international human rights protection. Up until World War II, human rights and its protection were almost exclusively a matter for national constitutions and only very few questions were ruled on at an international level. The effects of the war and fear of communism however led to a turnaround. During the war, the Allies explained that they were willing to create conditions for all humans to live in freedom and free from any fear and shortage. Therefore the UN Charter of 1945 contains the clear order to the community of states to encourage the respect and realisation of human and basic rights. In December 1948, following two years of talks within the newly founded UN Human Rights Commission, where representatives of 18 states under the chairmanship of former American first lady Eleanor Roosevelt were in session, a breakthrough in human rights occurred. The general explanation of the concept of human rights for all was adopted by the UN General Assembly. 48 states voted in favour of the explanation and 8 abstained. In the process of emergence came in one part the western tradition of human rights explanations and in the other part new accentuations particularly in the field of social rights.

Content of the UDHR

The general explanation of human rights traditionally posit that civil, political and social rights belong to human beings in order to preserve one’s dignity. The thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees protection of the person, of procedural law (claim of effective legal remedy), classical freedom rights such as freedom of expression, as well as economical, social and cultural rights. These rights should apply to all people irrespective of their race, gender and nationality, as all people are born free and equal. The general explanation of human rights is not a legally binding document, however it has a political and moral importance and many of its guarantees have today become standard expectations. The UNDH was significantly important in terms of its content and a benchmark for the establishment of binding UN human rights Conventions since the 1950’s.

The official Declaration consists of 30 articles that affirm individual rights that, although not legally binding, have been incorporated into the constitutions of most of the more than 185 nations that now belong to the UN. The UDHR has also come to be reflected in international treaties, regional human rights instruments, and other measures. Moreover, the UDHR has played a major role in shifting how a government treats its citizens, from being a domestic concern to an international one. As its Preamble states: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”

Convention relating to the status of refugees, 1951

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (commonly known as the Refugee Convention) is the main international treaty concerning refugee protection. It was adopted in July 1951 and was initially drafted to meet the needs of European refugees in the aftermath of World War II. It applied only to people who had been displaced as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951. It was supplemented by the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (1967 Protocol), which removed the temporal and geographical limitations of the Refugee Convention, making it applicable to refugees all over the world. Countries that have ratified the Protocol agree to apply the provisions of the Convention as well. There are currently 148 States Parties to one or both of the Convention and the Protocol.

The 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol are international legal instruments that countries voluntarily agree to be bound by. Through an act of ratification or accession, countries become a party to a treaty. The treaty obligations do not necessarily become part of domestic law, though. The Refugee Convention imposes several obligations on countries relating to the treatment and protection of asylum seekers and refugees. The principle of non-refoulement is one of the most important principles in the Refugee Convention. It requires that countries do not send refugees to a place where they will be at risk of persecution, nor to another other country that might then send them to such a place.

Article 1A (2) of the Refugee Convention sets out the international legal definition of a refugee. It defines a refugee as a person who: has a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’; ‘is outside the country of their nationality’; and ‘is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country’.

Although the idea of ‘persecution’ is not defined in the Refugee Convention, but it has been understood as involving such things as threats to life or freedom, and other serious violations of human rights. It may also include social, political or economic discrimination, and can be the result of a single incident or cumulative incidents and conditions.

The 1951 Convention contains a number of rights and also highlights the obligations of refugees towards their host country. The cornerstone of the 1951 Convention is the principle of non-refoulement contained in Article 33. According to this principle, a refugee should not be returned to a country where he or she faces serious threats to his or her life or freedom. This protection may not be claimed by refugees who are reasonably regarded as a danger to the security of the country or, having been convicted of a particularly serious crime, are considered a danger to the community.

Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, 1979

U.N. member states adopted several treaties addressing aspects of women’s rights prior to adoption of CEDAW in 1979, including the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1952) and the Convention on the Consent to Marriage (1957).4 In 1967, after two years of negotiations, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, a nonbinding document that laid the groundwork for CEDAW. Subsequently, the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women drafted CEDAW, which the General Assembly adopted on December 18, 1979.5 The Convention entered into force on September 3, 1981, after receiving the required 20 ratifications.


CEDAW calls on States Parties to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all areas of life. This includes equality in legal status, political participation, employment, education, healthcare, and the family structure. Article 2 of the Convention specifies that States Parties should undertake to “embody the principle of equality of men and women in their national constitutions or other appropriate legislation … to ensure, through law and other appropriate means, the practical realization of this principle.” The Convention defines discrimination against women as any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil, or any other field.

It specifically calls for equal pay with men, more attention to the equality of rural women, the freedom to choose a marriage partner, and the suppression of trafficking in women and girls.

Convention of the rights of the child, 1989

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (commonly referred to as the CRC, CROC, or UNCRC) is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world. It is a human rights treaty built on different legal systems and cultural traditions which sets out the civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights of children. In doing so it declares a universally agreed set of non-negotiable standards and obligations.

The Convention was adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by the United Nations General Assembly through resolution 44/25 on November 20, 1989 and it came into force on September 2, 1990. As stated in Article 1, for the purposes of the Convention, a child is defined as any human being under the age of eighteen.

The Convention is made up of 54 articles and two Optional Protocols. The Optional Protocols are on the involvement of children in armed conflict and the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. On 19 December 2011, a third optional protocol on a Communications Procedure was approved by the UN General Assembly.

Use of the Convention

The Convention provides a guideline for the international communities as well as individual governments to develop permanent bodies or mechanisms to promote the coordination, monitoring and evaluation of activities throughout all sectors. Its implementation helps governments assure the visibility of children and their needs in policy development processes in particular through strategies such as child impact assessments and through analysis of government spending and the proportion of public funds spent on children. The Convention created a framework which has come to provide the inspiration for an increasing child centred focus in relevant fields including child well-being and human and social development.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. This selection of rights is founded on respect for the dignity and worth of each individual, regardless of race, colour, gender, language, religion, opinions, origins, wealth, birth status or ability and therefore applies to every human being in the world.

The Convention specifies the basic human rights that are held by children everywhere: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life.

Main principles:

Every right spelled out in the Convention is inherent to the human dignity and the holistic and harmonious development of every child. The four core principles of the Convention are:

  1. Non-discrimination (article 2): All children have rights, regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.
  2. Devotion to the best interests of the child (article 3): The child’s best interests must be a primary consideration in all decisions affecting her or him.
  3. The right to life, survival and development (article 6): All children have a right to life, and to survive and develop – physically, mentally, spiritually, morally, psychologically and socially – to their full potential.
  4. Respect for the views of the child (article 12): Children have the right to express themselves freely on matters that affect them, and to have their views taken seriously.

There have been various significant attempts to properly safeguard all aspects of human rights around the world. While this course does not capture all conventions and treaties relating to human rights, it however highlights some of the most important and significant efforts towards guaranteeing the protection of human rights globally. Some other very significant steps/attempts towards improved human rights are the charter of Human and People’s Rights (1981) of African States and the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990).

Please download and read through the content of the attached PDF(s)

(1. Universal declaration of human rights, source- ohchr.org | 2.  Convention on the rights of the child, source- ohchr.org)


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