Human rights law provides certain rights to which everyone in the world is entitled. Some of these rights may be familiar to Americans from the Bill of Rights and other provisions of the Constitution, but others go beyond US constitutional principles. For example, human rights include:
Freedom of opinion, expression, thought, and religion
Freedom of movement, assembly, and association
The right to an adequate standard of living
The right to work in favorable conditions
The right to education
The right to participate in elections
The right to a fair trial and a presumption of innocence
Protections against arbitrary arrest and detention
Protections against slavery, torture, and cruel forms of punishment
The United Nations has played a key role in outlining and protecting human rights. Shortly after its founding, it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which continues to serve as the cornerstone of human rights law.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first document that explicitly outlined fundamental rights and freedoms that must be protected worldwide. Sovereign states formed since its adoption in 1948 often have incorporated its ideals into their constitutions. During the 1970s, moreover, the UN expanded protections for civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights through two international covenants and the optional protocols attached to them. In combination with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these sources of international human rights law are often known as the International Bill of Human Rights.
Additional Human Rights Conventions
Since its founding after the Second World War, the UN has adopted several other human rights instruments beyond the International Bill of Human Rights. These include conventions banning genocide, race discrimination, and gender discrimination, as well as conventions articulating the rights of children and the rights of people with disabilities.
The UN Human Rights Council
The General Assembly of the UN founded the Human Rights Council in 2006, replacing the Commission of Human Rights that had existed since the 1940s. Representatives of 47 UN member states participate in the Council, which issues recommendations regarding human rights violations and emergencies worldwide. At intervals of four years, the Human Rights Council conducts a Universal Periodic Review of human rights issues in each UN member state. A state has the opportunity to describe the steps that it is taking to protect human rights, as well as the obstacles that it faces in complying with international norms.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the secretariat for the Human Rights Council. Violations of human rights may trigger a response from the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is also authorized to take preventive actions. The Office of the High Commissioner also conducts field activities related to monitoring and enforcing human rights.
Certain committees oversee human rights treaties and assist with their implementation. These committees monitor the steps taken by each state that has ratified a treaty to establish protections conferred by the treaty within its borders. When a treaty is violated, a victim of the violation may be able to submit a complaint to the committee overseeing the treaty.
Regional Human Rights Protections
Beyond UN instruments and institutions, several regional human rights treaties provide separate protections. These include the American Convention on Human Rights, which is interpreted and enforced by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Its efforts are complemented by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This is an autonomous entity within the Organization of American States, which consists of 35 states in North and South America. The IACHR also reviews alleged human rights violations under the OAS Charter and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.
The European Convention on Human Rights provides certain fundamental freedoms to people in Europe. The Convention has been adopted by every member of the Council of Europe, which in turn includes every member of the European Union. (The EU also has adopted its own human rights instrument, known as the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.) The European Court of Human Rights reviews alleged violations of the Convention.
In Africa, meanwhile, 55 states have joined the African Union. This organization contains a quasi-judicial entity known as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The ACHPR interprets the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which was approved by a precursor of the African Union. The ACHPR has the authority to review complaints of violations of the Charter. It eventually will be replaced by the Court of Justice of the African Union, which has not yet been established.