International Human Rights Law 101: The United Nations
The international arena is defined by norms that govern the manner in which both state and non-state actors perform. The seeming everyday ubiquity of such norms, though, can make them quite difficult to define. One of these concepts is international human rights, often touted yet rarely fully defined, which governs how politicians form policies, craft rhetoric, and engage in diplomacy with other states. This International Human Rights Law 101 series helps to provide the reader several useful historical and contemporary definitions to better understand the concept, along with several tools of analysis to examine modern case studies. Therefore, this 101 series is comprised of seven different articles which help to contextualize international human rights and the laws it governs, in both a historical and contemporary context.
The International Human Rights Law 101 series is therefore divided into seven parts:
1. International Human Rights Law 101: What is International Human Rights Law?
2. International Human Rights Law 101: What is International Humanitarian Law?
3. International Human Rights Law 101: The United Nations
4. International Human Rights Law 101: The International Court of Justice
5. International Human Rights Law 101: Human Rights in Bosnian War
6. International Human Rights Law 101: A Way Forward and Conclusions
Contemporary international relations are partly defined by the manner in which states enter and engage with intergovernmental organizations. Through treaties and certain membership criteria, nations worldwide are given the opportunity to interact with other nations and become part of a larger international community with the power for negotiation and debate. One of the most preeminent intergovernmental institutions is the United Nations, comprised of 193 member states (United Nations Member States, n.d.). This article of the ongoing International Human Rights Law 101 series analyzes the specific role that the United Nations has provided in both the historic and contemporary existence of international jurisprudence, covering topics such as the enactment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its subsequent consequences in other United Nations institutions such as the Human Rights Council. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Considered a watershed moment in the development of human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was first enacted by members of the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 in Paris (United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, n.d.). For the first time in recorded history, a common standard for respect for all persons was codified into law through its explanation of universal human rights common to man. Its consequences on contemporary international human rights law are monumental, due to its recognition of “having inspired, and paved the way for, the adoption of more than seventy human rights treaties” permanently applied at the global level (United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, n.d.). The harrowing experiences and collective trauma as a result of the Second World War marked a turning point in international relations. With the resolve and motto of “never again” would the world be subjected to the atrocities committed during the conflict, the United Nations was created. The creation of the United Nations Charter, its foundational treaty, was simultaneously complemented with the efforts to create a universal road map for international human rights. With the aim of creating a “preliminary draft International Bill of Human Rights”, a drafting committee with members from eight various states set to work (United Nations History of the Declaration, n.d.). At the head of the committee, and often considered as the “driving force for the Declaration’s adoption” was former First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt (United Nations History of the Declaration, n.d.).
Figure 1: Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the key players in the construction of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, welcomes the United Nations representative of the USSR, 1947.
Composed of a preamble and thirty articles, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides a wide scope of varying topics each dedicated to the promotion of certain inalienable rights. The following section provides a brief overview of some of the most widely known articles within the declaration. The idea that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights is established in Article 1. Other articles such Article 3 proclaim that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. While Article 7 establishes the concept of equal protection before the law, Articles 18 and 19 speak to the important of freedom of religion and expression, respectively (United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, n.d.).
These general principles would later prove to be vital for the construction of the United Nations Human Rights Council, an intergovernmental organization comprised of 47 member states dedicated to promoting international human rights (United Nations Human Rights Council, 2022). As such, these articles would serve as the basis for considering human rights violations in the future, formally shaping advisory opinions and guiding complaint procedures.
Figure 2: An interior view of the United Nations Human Rights Council. United Nations Human Rights Council
A relatively recent addition to the United Nations, the Human Rights Council was created on March 15, 2006 as a result of a United Nations General Assembly resolution. Monitoring human rights violations and providing formal recommendations, the Council is composed of the Universal Periodic Review mechanism, along with an Advisory Committee designed to provide expertise and the Complaint Procedure allowing individual complaints to be brought before the institution (About HRC, 2022).
Additionally, the Human Rights Council works closely with UN Special Procedures to “monitor, examine, advise, and publicly report on thematic issues or human rights situations in specific countries” (About HRC, 2022). In instances of severe international human rights law violations, investigative bodies such as the International Commission of Inquiry are deployed in the region (HRC Mandated Investigations, 2022). Current mandated investigations include deteriorating humanitarian crises in Ukraine, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Ethiopia (About HRC, 2022).
The Human Rights Council Complaint Procedure “addresses communications submitted by individuals, groups, or non-governmental organizations that claim to be victims of human rights violations” through a confidential and objective manner (Complaint Procedure, 2022). Working groups then examine the communications brought forward, screening for potential politically-motivated and false complaints, before then being submitted to the offending state in question. As such, the Complaint Procedure provides an avenue for individuals and organizations alike to formally submit communications to the Human Rights Council, with the express purpose of strict scrutiny on the state in question.
Figure 3: The UN General Assembly voting on a measure to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council due to its actions in Ukraine, 2022.
The gruesome aftermath of the Second World War created a radical paradigm shift in the international order. As a result, the United Nations was formed with the express intention of never allowing the unmitigated brutality of the war to repeat again. In order to codify such intentions into law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized certain unalienable rights inherent to every person to be recognized by member states. The Human Rights Council took one step further in enacting a formal United Nations institution with the purpose of examining human rights violations and providing legal recommendations to states. However, despite the vital work of the Council, it is not the sole arbiter of legal advice in the international arena. The following article in the International Human Rights Law 101 series analyzes the crucial role of the International Court of Justice in modern international human rights jurisprudence.
Bibliographical References About HRC. OHCHR. (2022). Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/hrc/about-council
Complaint procedure. OHCHR. (n.d.). Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/hrc/complaint-procedure/hrc-complaint-procedure-index
HRC Mandated Investigations. OHCHR. (2022, March 30). Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/hrc/co-is
United Nations Human Rights Council. OHCHR. (2022). Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/hrc/home
United Nations. (n.d.). History of the declaration. United Nations. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://www.un.org/en/about-us/udhr/history-of-the-declaration
United Nations. (n.d.). Member states. United Nations. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://www.un.org/en/about-us/member-states
United Nations. (n.d.). Universal declaration of human rights. United Nations. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights
Cover Image: UN Photo. A group of Japanese women look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights during a visit to the UN's interim headquarters in Lake Success in February 1950. [Photograph]. UN News. Retrieved from https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/09/1021172
Figure 1: UN Photo. Eleanor Roosevelt, US representative and Chairman of the Commission on Human Rights welcomes Professor Vladimir M. Koretsky, representative of the USSR, to the Commission's third session on 9 June 1947. [Photograph]. United Nations. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/about-us/udhr/history-of-the-declaration.
Figure 2: Okic, E. The Human Rights Council, Geneva. [Photograph]. UN News. Retrieved from https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/10/1049461.
Figure 3: Santiago, M. The results of the votes to expel Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council of members of the United Nations General Assembly is seen on a screen during a continuation of the Eleventh Emergency Special Session on the invasion of Ukraine on April 07, 2022. [Photograph]. US News. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2022-04-07/u-n-votes-to-suspend-russia-from-human-rights-council.