By 1948, the United Nations’ new Human Rights Commission had captured the attention of the world. Under the dynamic chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt—President Franklin Roosevelt’s widow, a human rights champion in her own right and the United States delegate to the UN—the Commission set out to draft the document that became the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Roosevelt, credited with its inspiration, referred to the Declaration as the “international Magna Carta for all mankind.” It was adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948.

In its preamble and in Article 1, the Declaration unequivocally proclaims the inherent rights of all human beings: “Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people....All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

The Member States of the United Nations pledged to work together to promote the thirty Articles of human rights that, for the first time in history, had been assembled and codified into a single document. In consequence, many of these rights, in various forms, are today part of the constitutional laws of democratic nations.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an ideal standard held in common by nations around the world, but it bears no force of law. Thus, from 1948 to 1966, the UN Human Rights Commission’s main task was to create a body of international human rights law based on the Declaration and to establish the mechanisms needed to enforce its implementation and use.

The Human Rights Commission produced two major documents: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Both became international law in 1976. Together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these two covenants comprise what is known as the “International Bill of Human Rights.”

The ICCPR focuses on issues such as the right to life, freedom of speech, religion and voting. The ICESCR focuses on food, education, health and shelter. Both covenants proclaim these rights for all people and forbid discrimination.

Furthermore, Article 26 of the ICCPR established a Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. Composed of eighteen human rights experts, the Committee is responsible for ensuring that each signatory to the ICCPR complies with its terms. The Committee examines reports submitted by countries every five years (to ensure they are in compliance with the ICCPR), and issues findings based on a country’s performance.

Many countries that ratified the ICCPR also agreed that the Human Rights Committee may investigate allegations by individuals and organisations that the State has violated their rights. Before appealing to the Committee, the complainant must exhaust all legal recourse in the courts of that country. After investigation, the Committee publishes the results. These findings have great force. If the Committee upholds the allegations, the State must take measures to remedy the abuse.


In addition to the covenants in the International Bill of Human Rights, the United Nations has adopted more than twenty principal treaties further elaborating human rights. These include conventions to prevent and prohibit specific abuses such as torture and genocide and to protect specific vulnerable populations such as refugees (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951), women (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979), and children (Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989). Other conventions cover racial discrimination, prevention of genocide, political rights of women, the prohibition of slavery and torture.

Each of these treaties has established a committee of experts to monitor implementation of the treaty provisions by its State parties.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights served as the inspiration for the European Convention on Human Rights, one of the most significant agreements in the European Community. The Convention was adopted in 1953 by the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organisation established in 1949 and composed of forty-seven European Community Member States. This body was formed to strengthen human rights and promote democracy and the rule of law.

The Convention is enforced by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Any person claiming to be the victim of a violation in one of the forty-seven countries in the European Community which has signed and ratified the Convention may seek relief with the European Court. One must first have exhausted all recourse in the courts of their home country and have filed an application for relief with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.


In North and South America, Africa and Asia, regional documents for the protection and promotion of human rights extend the International Bill of Human Rights.

The American Convention on Human Rights pertains to the inter-American states—the Americas—and was entered into force in 1978.

African states have created their own Charter of Human and People’s Rights (1981), and Muslim states have created the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990).

The Asian Human Rights Charter (1986) was created by the Asian Human Rights Commission, founded that year by a group of jurists and human rights activists in Hong Kong. The Charter is described as a “people’s charter,” because no governmental charter has been issued to date.


  1. Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI) of 16 December 1966 entry into force 23 March 1976, in accordance with Article 9 Download >>

  2. Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 44/128 of 15 December 1989 Download >>

  3. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI) of 16 December 1966 entry into force 3 January 1976, in accordance with Article 27 Download >>

  4. Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms as amended by Protocol No. 11 with Protocol Nos. 1, 4, 6, 7, 12 and 13 Download >>

  5. African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (adopted 27 June 1981, OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/67/3 rev. 5, 21 I.L.M. 58 [1982], entered into force 21 October 1986) Download >>

  6. American Convention on Human Rights O.A.S.Treaty Series No. 36, 1144 U.N.T.S. 123, entered into force July 18, 1978, reprinted in Basic Documents Pertaining to Human Rights in the Inter-American System, OEA/Ser.L.V/II.82 doc.6 rev.1 at 25 (1992) Download >>