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Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Background

The destruction caused by World War II was unlike anything the world had ever seen. Determined to prevent such devastation from occurring ever again, 51 countries signed the Charter of the United Nations (UN) in 1945.

The organization’s objective was to prevent conflicts through collective security (the theory whereby nations band together as a group to repel an attacker). The underlying value behind this goal was the belief that all countries are sovereign (free to govern themselves) and equal and that a little country has the same rights as a big one. For example, Germany cannot invade Belgium simply because it is larger. On a smaller scale, this belief extends to the individual: all people are equal.

The Charter of the United Nations

The writers of the Charter of the United Nations included these beliefs in the preamble of the document by stating that the United Nations “is determined to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”

As countries recovered from the war, it became clear that there had been untold atrocities committed against people around the world, including the death and displacement of millions of Jews at the hands of the Nazis.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Members of the United Nations saw a need to articulate what was meant by the human rights laid out in the Charter of the United Nations. A commission headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was appointed to write the document. John Humphrey, a Canadian lawyer, was also appointed to the commission and wrote the first draft of the document. The proclamation drafted by the commission was passed during a meeting of the General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a statement of goals was not legally binding and did not form part of international law. However, the document’s existence applied moral pressure on governments that would violate its principles. In addition, the International Covenant on Civil, and Political Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICCPR), two legally-binding United Nations human rights covenants passed in 1966, were based on principles laid down by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Today, due to the continued importance of the document and the fact that it is often referred to during General Assembly and Security Council meetings and resolutions means that, in practice, the Declaration is becoming accepted as law.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself is prefaced by a preamble which includes the statement: “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.” The document's being named the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a direct reflection that its application to all people is a central one.

The document’s body is thirty articles long. Each article details freedoms that people are guaranteed simply because they are human. They include:

  • all people are born free and equal (Article 1);
  • all people are entitled to the rights and freedoms in the Declaration; they cannot be discriminated against on the basis of skin colour, gender, status, place of birth, or religion, among others (Article 2);
  • all people are entitled to the right to life, liberty, and security (Article 3);
  • slavery, in any form, is illegal (Article 4);
  • all people are free from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or punishment (Article 5);
  • all people are equal before the law (Article 7);
  • all people are free from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile (Article 9);
  • all people are entitled to a fair trial (Article 10);
  • all people have the right to be presumed innocent (Article 11);
  • all people are free from violations of privacy and reputation (Article 12);
  • all people have the right to move within their country, to leave their country, and to return to it (Article 13);
  • all people have a right to seek asylum when fleeing persecution (Article 14);
  • all people are entitled to a nationality (Article 15);
  • all people are free from forced marriage and both men and women have equal rights to and in marriage (Article 16);
  • all people have the right to own property (Article 17);
  • all people have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (Article 18);
  • all people have the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association (Article 20);
  • all people have a right to participate directly or indirectly in government, equal access to public services, and democratic governments elected by free, periodic elections (Article 21);
  • all people are entitled to social security (Article 22);
  • all people have the right to work and receive equal pay for equal work (Article 23);
  • all people have the right to rest and leisure (Article 24);
  • all people have the right to an adequate standard of living (Article 25); and
  • all people have the right to an education (Article 26).
(Universal Rights)

The UN Declaration of Human Rights can be seen as the first of many international agreements outlining and defining human rights. The first two, the ICESCR and the ICCPR, have already been mentioned. Other agreements include:

  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), which has as its goal the elimination of racial discrimination, particularly in regards to employment and education
  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), which states that women are not be discriminated against, including being allowed to vote and hold public office
  • The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984), which defines torture and denounces it as breaking the principles of the UN Charter

The more recent treaty is the Convention on the Rights of the Child which was passed in 1989. It is the most widely adopted human rights treaty around the world, with only two countries not having ratifying it (Somalia and the United States). In addition to the rights established by the Universal Declaration, the Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out rights to be enjoyed specifically by children (defined as persons under the age of eighteen). These rights include:

  • freedom from violence, abuse, and abduction, dangerous employment conditions, exploitation, or sale;
  • protection during war and that no child under fifteen should fight in an army
  • freedom from disease and famine
  • free primary education
  • adequate health care
  • play

These treaties are legal documents. Countries first agree to the document and have a representative (a diplomat or government leader) sign it and then must have their legislative bodies ratify the treaty. When a set number (different for every treaty) of countries have ratified the treaty, it becomes law. As law, those countries that ratify the document then must abide by the rules it lays out. For example, countries that are party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child agree that juveniles under the age of eighteen will not face the death penalty for crimes they have committed. A committee then oversees the implementation of the treaty, including having ratifying countries submit a report outlining what steps they are taking to adhere to the treaty’s guidelines. In addition, these committees require countries to submit follow-up reports at set intervals, such as every five years.

While Canada has ratified and is party to all the listed treaties not all countries are. Most countries have ratified some, but not all, the Covenants. Canada, along with other member states, exerts moral pressure on countries to ratify and become party to the Covenants. As years pass since the treaties were passed, more and more countries have signed on and become members. Canada used moral suasion and the help of a group of like-minded states to help create the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998. The ICC is not a treaty but, rather, a place where those who commit human rights violations on a large scale can be tried. The idea behind the court is to prevent dictators, despots, and military leaders who commit human rights atrocities such as genocide from escaping justice. Although countries had signed the treaties there was not a sufficient mechanism to hold accountable those who broke them. It is hoped the new court will solve this problem. As of November 2005, one hundred states were members of the court, which is based in The Hague, Netherlands.

By becoming party to the different international treaties and the ICC, Canada agrees to be bound by the guidelines these covenants establish. One way in which this occurs is that existing Canadian law must be altered to conform to the international law (if it is in conflict with it) and all new laws that are passed must also conform. For example, Canada could not pass a law that prevented women from voting. In exchange for placing limits on the kinds of laws it can pass, Canada gets assurances from other countries that they too will abide by the guidelines of the treaties.

Sources

United Nations, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Charter of the United Nations

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an article by Peter Bailey

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Questions and Answers About the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations Association of Canada

BBC: I Have the Right To… Helps You Understand Your Rights

International Criminal Court: Assembly of States Parties

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