On 10 December 1948, the United General Assembly adopted the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights as "a common standard of achievement for
all peoples and all nations."
This Declaration was the starting point for the development of
modern international human rights law and procedures and the massive human
rights movement of today. The
50th anniversary of its adoption is, therefore, a time for celebration and
1998 has been proclaimed the Human Rights Year.
However, it is also a time for sober reflection and assessment of
what has not been achieved, and an opportunity to pick up again the
challenge of trying to put the Universal Declaration into practice in a
world where many serious and large-scale violations of human rights still
achievements include the adoption of the many human rights treaties at
both the international and regional levels, including the American and
European Human Rights Conventions, the African Charter on Human and
People's Rights, the International Covenants on Civil and Political and on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the
Conventions against Torture and on the elimination of Racial
Discrimination, on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and on
the Rights of the Child. States
who become parties to these treaties accept obligations to account for
their treatment of all who come within their jurisdiction to international
or regional bodies. The
success of the
standard-setting process has led to the point where there is general
agreement that the proliferation of procedures requires some reforms to
the system as a whole : a process which has been set in motion by the 1997
UN Commission on Human Rights.
parallel with the standard-setting, starting in 1980, the United Nations
established "special procedures"
to consider particularly
serious problems in any country whether or not it was a party to any human
rights treaty. Amongst these
are the Special Rapporteurs on Summary Executions, Religious Intolerance,
Torture, Sale of Children, Contemporary Forms of Racism, Independence of
the Judiciary, Freedom of Expression and Violence against Women, and other procedures on Disappearances, Arbitrary Detention and on
Internally Displaced Persons.
newest development, although the idea dates from 1947, is the creation of
the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, following the World Conference
on Human Rights, held in Vienna in June 1993. The creation of the High Commissioner not only raises the profile
of human rights, it provides the possibility for action on human rights
questions without specific instructions from one of the UN bodies.
the international level there will be a number of specific occasions or
events culminating at the UN General Assembly in New York on 10 December
1998. Important as such
high-level events may be, the real significance of human rights has to be
measured by the actual situation in individual countries.
The 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration should therefore
be viewed less as a celebration of a past event than as an opportunity to
make progress on, and to raise awareness about, human rights.
more information visit the website of the UN High Commissioner for Human
Rights/Centre for Human Rights (http://www.unhr.ch)