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UN declarations and conventions


An important part of the analysis of world problems made by those who constructed the UN was that disrespect for human rights, as well as being an evil in itself, had contributed to the breakdown of world society twice in the 20th century. Consequently, respect for human rights was built into the UN Charter itself: ‘to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights …’ comes second only to the commitment ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war …’ The UN’s Economic and Social Council rapidly moved to set up the UN Commission on Human Rights, there is a Division of Human Rights in the UN Secretariat, and other UN bodies, notably the Commission on the Status of Women and the International Labour Organization (ILO), have major human rights concerns. These bodies not only carry out general propaganda and monitoring and research on human rights issues, but have prepared a series of detailed legal instruments with varying degrees of justiciability on many human rights areas. Nevertheless, the Commission on Human Rights has never satisfied many that it can act on real complaints. The most it can do is to carry out fact-finding exercises and publish reports, and even then it dismisses most allegations and complaints, at least partly because it is not institutionalized as a full-time and well-staffed body. Over 50,000 applications for examination of complaints arrive each year, but the Commission and subcommissions only meet for a total of a few weeks in each year. At the same time, political constraints based on the complex and shifting coalitions of UN membership make it pointless for the Commission to get very heavily involved in affairs within most countries.


The prime human rights document of the UN itself is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the full General Assembly. This document, and its following more legally-binding versions, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, have broad general coverage. There is a plethora of other conventions and declarations on more specialized topics, including: the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948); the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture

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