UN Human Rights

Human rights as we understand them today have their origins in Enlightenment thought and stem from notions of natural rights which are rights that are granted to each individual by virtue of being born. You have probably heard them before: life, liberty, and property. They are most prominent in the work of English philosopher John Locke, who is also considered to be the father of liberalism

UN Human Rights UN Human Rights

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    As the world progressed into the 20th-century liberalism was one of the primary political ideologies on the world stage along with communism and fascism. In some aspects, World War 2 was a clash of these ideologies and at the end of the war it was Western liberalism that would guide the creation of the United Nations, this liberal influence on the global community can be clearly seen in the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

    The UN Charter of Human Rights

    The United Nations has its roots in the failed "League of Nations" which was established at the end of the First World War and had the primary goal of maintaining peace in an effort to avoid repeating the horror that was World War 1. At the end of World War 2, it was clear that the League of Nations was a largely ineffective body and the decision was made to create a new intergovernmental body with the aim of preventing wars and protecting human beings from the horrors of genocide such as what was perpetrated by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

    In 1945 representatives from 50 nations met in San Francisco for the United Nations Conference on International Organization (also known as the San Francisco Conference) to discuss the creation of such a body. They signed the Charter of the United Nations on June 26, 1945, to provide the framework for how the UN as an institution would work and establish global human rights.

    The UN Charter affirmed the organization's goals of avoiding future wars and reaffirmed "faith in fundamental human rights." It set out the United Nations's purpose of maintaining peace and security and promoting cooperation among all countries. As with liberalism's impact on the creation of a declaration of human rights, the United States' influence as the organizing state for the United Nations can be seen in the UN Charter's structure which resembles the United States Constitution. The charter contains a preamble, 19 chapters, and 111 articles; all of which describe how the UN will operate, its goals, and its purpose.

    Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights logo, UN Human Rights, StudySmarterOffice of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights logo, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, PD-US-no notice-UN Via Wikimedia Commons

    The UN Declaration of Human Rights

    After the creation of the UN Charter in 1945, the UN members states thought that the Charter did not adequately define the idea of "rights" that it referred to and it was decided to create a commission called the Commission on Human Rights in 1946 to prepare an International Bill of Rights. Out of that commission came the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Drafting Committee, chaired by former First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt, charged with drafting up the articles.

    World Politics UN Human Rights Eleanor Roosevelt Declaration of Human Rights StudySmarterEleanor Roosevelt holding a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949. Source: FDR Presidential Library & Museum, CC-BY-2.0

    While ideas about individual rights can be traced back to the Enlightenment period, up to this point in history, there was no standard understanding or assumptions internationally about what human rights meant. The commission working on the draft thus launched into debates about what should be included.

    Some of the major debates were about religion and socioeconomic rights. Some of the drafters with Christian backgrounds included references to religion, while others (in particular, P.C. Chang, the representative from China, who practiced Confucianism) argued that the Declaration should not reference religion. This way, it could be universal and apply to all people. Ultimately, the commission opted to remove religious language. Additionally, while some western countries initially opposed the idea of including socio-economic rights, they ultimately decided to include them.

    The Power of Words

    When the draft Declaration was submitted to the Commission on Human Rights in 1948, Charles Theodore Te Water of South Africa argued that they remove the reference to "human dignity," saying that it didn't count as a "right" and had no universal standard. At the time, South Africa was implementing the apartheid system of segregation and discrimination. Historians believe that Te Water was concerned that including "human dignity" would lead to UN criticism of apartheid. The commission kept "human dignity" and eventually did end up condemning apartheid.

    Another example is the phrase "all men are created equal," which was included in the original draft. While this phrase is used in famous documents like the Declaration of Independence, some members of the commission recommended it be changed to "all human beings are created equal" to ensure it applied to everyone.

    The Declaration was officially adopted by the UN General Assembly on the 10th of December 1948. Out of the 58 member countries, 48 voted in favor. Two failed to vote or abstain, and the other 8 abstained (Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, Byelorussian SSR, Ukrainian SSR, South Africa, and Yugoslavia). Some of them thought it didn't go far enough in condemning Nazism and Fascism, while others likely disagreed with the idea of the right to leave your country. Saudi Arabia objected to the idea of the right to change your religion.

    World Politics UN Human Rights Declaration of Human Rights Votes StudySmarterA map of the country votes on the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Source: Rodentologist, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

    The British delegation expressed frustration that the Declaration set lofty goals with no way of enforcing them but ultimately voted to adopt the Declaration. Today, it has been signed by 192 countries.

    Legal Effect

    Unlike a treaty or official agreement, the Declaration does not require anyone to follow it, nor does it have any power to punish members that violate it. However, it does has the power of influence, and has been used as the basis for many of the constitutions written after its adoption.

    The UN Basic Human Rights List

    There are thirty separate human rights listed in the Declaration of Human Rights. Article I starts out strong, asserting that all humans are free and equal in dignity and human rights.

    Below is a summary of the other rights included in the Declaration:

    • Right to life, liberty, and security of person
    • Freedom from slavery and servitude; prohibition of slavery
    • Freedom from torture or cruel punishment
    • Equality under the law and protection from discrimination
    • Freedom from arbitrary arrest
    • Right to fair and public hearing
    • Right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty
    • Protection of privacy
    • Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
    • Freedom of expression
    • Right to peaceful assembly
    • Right to work
    • Right to rest and leisure
    • Right to a standard of living
    • Right to education

    How are these rights protected by the UN?

    By joining the UN, every member state agrees to uphold the principles the UN lays out. If a breach of human rights occurs within a member state that state must then make sure it is remedied. The UN has procedures to 'punish' the member states for not upholding human rights. The UN also assists the individual who filed the complaint against the member state.

    The UN Human Rights Council

    In 2006, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) replaced the Human Rights Commission. The update reflected an important shift from focusing on developing ideas on human rights to finding ways to enforce them.

    In the beginning, the UN practised strict observance of each country's sovereignty. However, in 1967, due in large part to issues with decolonization and apartheid, the UN voted to adopt an interventionist policy. While the Human Rights Commission attempted to implement stricter oversight of violators, they were often criticized for being ineffective. Plus, several of its members were well-known to be in violation of human rights principles.

    The ethnic cleansing of the Darfur people in Sudan led to one US ambassador walking out of a meeting when Sudan was elected to the Human Rights Commission in 2004.

    UN Human Rights Council Members

    According to the 7th paragraph of the General Assembly resolution, there must be forty-seven member states on the council. These member states will have their own representative, who will then sit on the council, but the elections must be run directly and individually by secret ballots. The members then sit on the council for three years and can serve for up to two consecutive terms.

    Membership is based on geographical distribution, and each region has a certain number of members based on its size and population. For example, Africa has 13 members whereas only 6 members can come from the Eastern European states. The table below shows the current member states and which geographical area they are from.

    African StatesAsia-Pacific StatesEastern European StatesLatin American & Caribbean StatesWestern European & Other States
    Angola (2020)Afghanistan (2020)Bulgaria (2021)Argentina (2021)Australia (2020)
    Burkina Faso (2021)Bahrain (2021)Czech Republic (2021)Bahamas (2021)Austria (2021)
    Cameroon (2021)Bangladesh (2021)Slovakia (2020)Chile (2020)Denmark (2021)
    Democratic Republic of the Congo (2020)Fiji (2021)Ukraine (2020)Mexico (2020)Italy (2021)
    Eritrea (2021)India (2021)Peru (2020)Spain (2020)
    Nigeria (2020)Nepal (2020)Uruguay (2021)
    Senegal (2020)Pakistan (2020)
    Somalia (2021)Philippines (2021)
    Togo (2021)Qatar (2020)

    The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR)

    Elected in 2018, Michelle Bachelet is the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. When she won her presidency in Chile she became the country's first female president. The role of the commissioner is to oversee all responsibilities of the council and keep every member in check.

    World Politics UN Human Rights Michelle Bachelet StudySmarterA portrait of Michelle Bachelet, the current High Commissioner for Human Rights. Source: Gobierno de Chile, CC-BY-3.0-CL, Wikimedia Commons

    Human Rights Resolution Adopted by the UN

    The UN Human Rights Council often meets together to pass resolutions. These resolutions help show the Council's position on various current events related to human rights. It can also call for action - for example, resolutions can call for investigations, research/reports, panel discussions, appoint experts, or create a subcommittee that focuses on a specific area. These resolutions are not legally binding (that is, they can't force any countries to do anything), but they have been effective at pressuring or influencing countries to maintain human rights standards.

    in March 2022 the Human Rights Council passed a series of resolutions to establish a group of human rights experts in Nicaragua. They also expanded the work of the Commission in South Sudan around religious rights and counter-terrorism.

    UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

    The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is an example of one of these resolutions. Passed in 2011, this resolution sets out a total of 31 principles to implement the UN's 'Protect, Respect and Remedy' in business matters for all UN members. The three main guiding principles (known as the 'three pillars') are: the state duty to protect human rights, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and access to remedy for victims of business-related abuse.

    UN Human Rights - Key takeaways

    • The United Nations was created in 1945 in response to the increasing globalization and atrocities that happened during World War II.
    • While the original charter talks about human rights, they created a Declaration of Human Rights the following year to further clarify and define human rights.
    • The Human Rights Commission has been criticized at times for espousing important ideas but not being able to enforce them or punish rulebreakers.
    • In 2006, the Human Rights Commission turned into the Human Rights Council, with a greater focus on enforcement.


    1. United Nations Charter, 1945
    Frequently Asked Questions about UN Human Rights

    How many countries signed the UN Declaration of Human Rights?

    When the document was first created in 1946, 48 out of the 58 members signed it. Today, it has been signed by 192 countries.

    What is the UN Declaration of Human Rights?

    The UN Declaration of Human Rights is a document created in 1946 that defines the human rights that the UN will protect.

    How does the UN protect human rights?

    The UN helps protect human rights by bringing the various countries together to work on human rights issues. While they don't have legal enforcement authority, they have been successful in using their influence to pressure countries into improving human rights.

    Who is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights?

    The current High Commissioner for Human Rights is Michelle Bachelet of Chile. 

    What can the UN do about human rights violations?

    While the UN has to respect each country's sovereignty and the Declaration of Human Rights doesn't have legal enforcement authority, they have been successful in using their influence to pressure countries into improving human rights. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What historical event led to the creation of the United Nations?

    What did the Charter of the United Nations do?

    When was the UN declaration of human rights completed?


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