The International human rights movement is of relatively recent origin. However, in a short time it has blossomed into a developed body of International human rights law and necessary institutions for its implementation and enforcement have been established. As the movement is rooted in the world community’s response to the excesses inflicted upon humanity by the Nazi and Fascist regimes during the Second World War, the founders of the United Nations ensured that the Charter would reflect the close relationship between International peace and security and International human rights. Thus, the first two goals embodied in the Preamble of the U.N. Charter are 'to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, the dignity and worth of the human person, [and] in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small. ' Article 1 of the Charter lists among the purposes of the U.N. which is to achieve International co-operation in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction in terms of race, sex, language, or religion.
Article 55 mandates that the United Nations promote 'universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedom for all without distinction in terms of race, sex, language, or religion. ' This is followed by a pledge by all U.N. Member States to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization for the achievement of the purpose stated above. Although there was no provision in the U.N. Charter on protection of human rights in 1946, soon after it was formed, the United Nations created the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Also, the U.N. began work on drafting an instrument enumerating basic human rights whose culmination was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration adopted by the General Assembly as a resolution in 1948, specifies civil and political, as well as economic, social, and cultural rights. The next step was to codify these rights in a treaty form because as a resolution of the General Assembly the Universal Declaration was not binding on States.
The framers understood this as Eleanor Roosevelt, the U.S. Representative on the U.N. Commission and its Chair, called the Declaration 'a statement of principles setting up a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all Nations. ' She further stated that the Declaration was “not a treaty or International agreement… impos[ing] legal obligations.” The process was protracted because of the ensuing Cold War and the resulting ideological conflict between the then-super powers the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Eventually however in 1966 negotiators agreed on two separate conventions, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which came into force in 1976. The Universal Declaration, together with the two covenants, is popularly known as the International Bill of Rights.
The period since 1976 has witnessed great strides in the development of International human rights law as an impressive body of norms, institutions, and procedures which has transformed the subject. Regional human rights machinery exists in Europe, America, Africa and is in the formative stage in Southeast Asia, complementing the U.N. machinery created to promote and protect human rights and to provide effective remedies. Customary International law has also played a significant role in this process.
It would have been inconceivable sixty years ago to envisage the development and progress of International human rights law we see today. To illustrate, numerous International agreements have created a wide range of International human rights norms, treaty bodies have been established to monitor implementation by member states of their treaty obligations and an ever-growing body of soft law—emerging International human rights guidelines, principles, and norms—has developed.
In the U.N. system, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a part of the United Nations Secretariat acts as the principal focal point of human rights research, education, public information, and human rights advocacy activities. It offers leadership in educating and empowering individuals and assisting states in upholding human rights and supports the work of the U.N. human rights mechanisms such as the Human Rights Council and the treaty bodies. Equally important is that it promotes both the universal ratification and the implementation of the major human rights treaties and respect for the rule of law and ensures the enforcement of universally recognized human rights norms.
The U.N. Human Rights Council was established on March 15, 2006, to replace the U.N. Human Rights Commission. During the first two decades of its existence, the Commission was without authorization to provide any redress to those who communicated that their human rights had been violated. This changed in 1967 when ECOSOC authorized it to examine relevant information pertaining to gross violations of human rights and to conduct studies of situations which revealed a consistent pattern of violations. But as the communications and complaints remained confidential the Commission could not refer to their substance nor did it have any guidelines to consider or analyze those communications. Consequently, three years later, in 1970, ECOSOC did provide procedures for considering and analyzing such communications. Under this complaints mechanism, which remained confidential, submissions were authorized by individuals, groups, or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The Commission could consider allegations of widespread patterns of gross violations of human rights in any country.
In addition, thematic procedures were also instituted to address broader human rights issues, ranging from disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention, and extrajudicial executions, to the right to health, education, and the welfare of internally displaced persons and minorities. The country-specific procedures and thematic procedures are together called “special procedures,” and they establish mechanisms to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are undertaken by either an individual, who is called a special rapporteur, special representative of the Secretary-General or an independent expert, or a working group, usually composed of five members (one from each region)
According to the U.N. Watch, 30 percent of the Commission’s resolutions between 1946 and 2006 condemning human rights violations by specific states were against Israel and that percentage had risen to almost 50 in the few years preceding the establishment of the Human Rights Council. In 2005, the Commission adopted eight resolutions under country procedures, four against Israel and the combined total of four against all other states in the world, one each against Belarus, Cuba, Myanmar, and North Korea.
The Commission’s credibility had been undermined by such selective condemnation. To illustrate, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted in his March 2005 report to the General Assembly that: the Commission’s capacity to perform its tasks has been increasingly undermined by its declining credibility and professionalism. In particular, States have sought membership of the Commission not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others…. As a result, a credibility deficit has developed, which casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole Similarly, a task force of the American Bar Association’s Section on International Law, on which I served, stated in its August 2005 report: “The standing of the Commission was severely compromised by the selection of Libya as chair, the re-election of Sudan as a member in the midst of the genocide in Darfur, and the shameful failure of the Commission last year to adopt a resolution clearly condemning that genocide.” Several reform proposals addressing the Council’s size, functions, composition, criteria for membership and members’ responsibilities, election.