Human rights are those rights that belong to every individual—man or women, girl or boy, infant or elder—simply because she or he is a human being. They embody the basic standards without which people cannot realize their inherent human dignity.

Human rights are universal: they are the birthright of every member of the human family. No one has to earn or deserve human rights.

Human rights are inalienable: you cannot lose these rights any more than you can cease to be a human being. Human rights are indivisible: you cannot be denied a right because someone decides that it is "less important" or "non-essential." Human rights are interdependent: all human rights are part of a complementary framework

Because human rights are not granted by any human authority such as a monarch, government, or secular or religious authority, they are not the same as civil rights, such as those in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. Constitutional rights are granted to individuals by virtue of their citizen ship or residence in a particular country whereas human rights are inherent and held as attributes of the human personality.

Human rights are both abstract and practical. They hold up the inspiring vision of a free, just, and peaceful world and set minimum standards for how both individuals and institutions should treat people. They also empower people to take action to demand and defend their rights and the rights of others.

Although human rights were principally defined and codified in the twentieth century, human rights values are rooted in the wisdom literature, traditional values, and religious teachings of almost every culture. For example, the Hindu Vedas, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, the Bible, the Quran (Koran), and the Analects of Confucius all address questions of peoples' duties, rights, and responsibilities. Native American sources include the Inca and Aztec codes of conduct and justice and the Iroquois Constitution.

International Human Rights Law

The foundation documents of human rights law are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966) and its Optional Protocol, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1966). Known collectively as the International Bill of Human Rights, these four documents were followed by more than twenty human rights conventions—treaties that become binding law in those countries that ratify them. When a UN member state ratifies a convention, it agrees to abide by its provisions, to change the laws of the country to conform to the convention, and to report on its progress in doing so.

Some conventions define and ban abhorrent, inhuman acts (e.g., The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment); others address populations in need of particular protection and provision (e.g., The Convention on the Rights of the Child; The Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and the Members of Their Families) or groups who experience particular discrimination (e.g., the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women).



• Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labor, ILO No. 29, 1932

• Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1949*

• Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, 1949

• Four Geneva Conventions on the Protection of Victims of Armed Conflict, 1949*

• Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951*

• Slavery Convention of 1926, Amended by Protocol, 1953*

• European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and its Eight Protocols, 1950

• Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, 1961

• International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1966*

• Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, 1968

• Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1976

• Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979

• Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1984*

• African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, 1986

• Charter for the Organization of American States, 1988*

• Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989

• Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and the Members of their Families, 1990

• Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1991

• Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Adopted 1998

• Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Adopted 2000

Note: Date refers to the year of adoption by the UN General Assembly or particular regional body. * Conventions ratified by the United States.


Steps in the Evolution of Human Rights Covenants and Conventions

Before they become codified as binding law, human rights concepts must pass through a lengthy process that involves consensus building and practical politics at the international and national levels.

1. Drafted by working groups. Working groups consist of government representatives of UN member states, as well as representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

2. Adopted by vote of the UN. General Assembly.

3. Signed by member states. When member states sign the convention, they are indicating that they have begun the process required by their government for ratification. In signing, they also are agreeing to refrain from acts that would be contrary to the objectives of the convention.

4. Ratified by member states. When a member state ratifies a covenant, it signifies its intention to comply with the specific provisions and obligations of the document. It takes on the responsibility to see that its national laws are in agreement with the Covenant. There is a process by which states can ratify the covenant, but indicate their reservations about specific articles.

In the United States, the process towards ratification begins when the President endorses the document by signing it. It is then submitted to the Senate, along with any recommendations. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee first considers it, conducting hearings to monitor public reaction. The Committee then may recommend the convention, sometimes with reservations or qualifications. Sometimes certain legislation might have to be enacted in order to implement the convention. Next the full Senate considers the convention. If it approves the convention, the President finally submits a formal ratification notice to the UN.

5. Entered into force. A convention goes into effect when a certain number of member states have ratified it. For example, the ICCPR and ICESCR were adopted in 1966; however they did not enter into force until 1976 when the specified number of 35 member states had ratified them. The United States did not ratify the ICCPR until 1992.

Example: The Rights of the Child from Declaration to Convention

The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides an example of the evolution of a UN Convention. In 1959, a working group drafted the Declaration on the Rights of the Child, which consisted of ten principles that set forth basic rights to which all children should be entitled. However, a declaration is not legally binding law; these principles needed to be codified in a legally-binding convention. The drafting process lasted nine years, during which representatives of governments, intergovernmental, and specialized agencies like UNICEF, UNESCO, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and nongovernmental organizations, such as Save the Children, worked together to create consensus on the language of the convention.

The resulting Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) contains over fifty articles that can be divided into three general categories: 1) protection, covering specific issues such as abuse, neglect, and exploitation; 2) provision, addressing a child's particular needs such as education and healthcare; and 3) participation, acknowledging a child's growing capacity to make decisions and play a part in society.

The Children's Convention was adopted by the General Assembly in 1989 and was immediately signed by more nations in a shorter period of time than any other UN convention. It was ratified by 61 states and as a result entered into force in 1990. Furthermore, the total number of member states that have ratified the CRC has surpassed that of all other conventions. As of Fall 2000, only two member states had not ratified it: Somalia and the United States.

A Work-in-progress

Like all law, this body of human rights law is a work-in-progress, continually being reinterpreted and amplified in response to circumstance and understanding. For example, when the UDHR was written in 1948, few people were aware of the dangers of environmental degradation, and consequentially this document makes no reference to the environment at all. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, activists and governments are working to draft a new treaty linking human rights to a safe environment. Similarly, in early documents women and men were referred to collectively as "man" with no consideration of the special needs of women, other than recognizing that their reproductive role as mothers required "special care and assistance" (UDHR Article 25.2). Even the 1989 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) failed to mention violence against women. Only in response to advocates for women's human rights was violence against women, whether in the home or by the state, officially recognized as a human rights violation in the Vienna Declaration of the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993.

The Role of NGOs

Although such evolution in human rights emerge at the UN level as changes in international law, they are increasingly initiated at the grass roots level by people struggling for justice and equality in their own communities. Since the founding of the United Nations, the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has grown steadily; it is NGOs, both large and small, local and international, that carry the voices and concerns of ordinary people to the United Nations. Although international treaties are adopted by the General Assembly, which is composed of representative of governments, and are ratified by governments, nongovernmental organizations influence governments and UN bodies at every level. For example, efforts to establish a treaty banning the use of landmines were led by NGOs working with communities devastated by these "left-overs" of modern warfare. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its leader Jody Williams were honored with the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, which resulted in the 1997 UN Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Antipersonnel Mines. This dynamic role of NGOs has led to a significant shift in the field of human rights, broadening it from the exclusive arena of diplomats and lawyers to include citizens and activists. These developments have intensified the need for human rights education and extended the definition of human rights education.