Key Human Rights documents

Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1975)

The Declaration, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1975, contained 12 articles. Its importance lies in that it set a standard by which torture was defined, as well as criminalising its commission. Although the Nuremberg trials which followed the Second World War had charged individuals with torture, this 1975 Declaration was the first international document which very clearly illustrated a widespread condemnation of the practice. The Declaration was subsequently superseded by the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

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Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984)

The sequel to the 1975 Declaration, this Convention is legally-binding upon its signatories (unlike its predecessor, which was a declaration of intent). To date, 140 states have ratified the Convention. More complex than the 1975 Declaration, it contains 33 articles.

The Preamble – or introduction – lists some of the principles upon which the Convention is based:

  • Human rights are inalienable and universal, and are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace
  • Human rights grow out of the dignity of each individual person
  • States are obliged to promote the universal respect of human rights

The Convention summarised

The Convention defines torture as any act by which severe pain or suffering – physical or mental – is intentionally inflicted on a person for reasons of:

  1. Obtaining information
  2. Punishment
  3. Intimidation
  4. Discrimination

It calls on all states to:

  1. Take effective measures to prevent torture
  2. Refrain from extraditing a person to a state where it is believed they may be tortured
  3. Criminalise torture within domestic legislation
  4. Promptly and impartially investigate allegations that acts of torture have been committed within their territory
  5. Ensure that victims of torture obtain redress and fair, adequate compensation
  6. Disregard any statements obtained through torture as evidence during court proceedings

The Convention also calls for the establishment of a Committee Against Torture. This Committee will:

  1. Investigate allegations of systematic torture within a state party
  2. Receive complaints from a state party about torture being committed by another state party
  3. Submit a report on each of its investigations
  4. Receive petitions from individuals who claim to be victims of torture. The individual must however be a national of a state party to the Convention, as must the state alleged to have committed the torture. Furthermore, the individual must have exhausted all available domestic remedies prior to bringing the matter to the Committee’s attention.
  5. Submit an annual report on its activities to the UN General Assembly

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Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons (1975)

This Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly in 1975. It contains 13 articles. Negotiations for a legally-binding Convention to supersede the Declaration got underway in 2001, and are to date still ongoing.

The Preamble – or introduction – lists some of the principles upon which the Declaration is based:

  • The importance of promoting a higher standard of living, employment and development
  • The fundamental dignity and worth of the human person
  • The necessity of preventing disability, of assisting the disabled in developing their abilities and integration into everyday life

The Declaration describes a disabled person as a person who, as a result of a physical or mental deficiency, is unable to lead, in whole or in part, a normal individual and social life. Disabled persons are to enjoy their rights without any form of discrimination whatsoever. The Declaration also states that disabled persons:

  • Enjoy the exact same rights as their non-disabled counterparts. They have the same civil and political rights as any other citizen.
  • Have the right to medical and psychological treatment which will help them develop their skills and capabilities. They are also entitled to prosthetic and orthetic appliances which will hasten their process of social reintegration.
  • Have the right to economic and social security, as well as a decent standard of living. They can join trade unions.
  • Have the right to live at home, with their families or foster parents. If the nature of the disability requires living within a specialised establishment, the environment and living conditions must be as close as possible to those of a normal life of someone of the same age.
  • Shall be protected against any form of abuse, discrimination or exploitation
  • Are entitled to avail themselves of legal aid when it is required to protect their rights

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Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981)

A relatively short declaration, containing just 8 articles, it was nevertheless an important reaffirmation of the fundamental nature of freedom of conscience. It was prepared by the Human Rights Commission at the UN Economic and Social Council.

The Preamble – or introduction – lists some of the principles upon which the Declaration is based:

  • The dignity and equality inherent in all human beings
  • The wars and great suffering which lack of religious tolerance have caused throughout human history
  • That freedom of religion and belief should contribute towards attaining world peace and social justice, as well as the elimination of racial discrimination, ideologies and colonialism
  • That freedom of religion and belief is one of the fundamental elements in an individual’s conception of life

The Declaration states that:

  • Every individual is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. These freedoms include the right to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching. These freedoms will only be limited for reasons of public safety, order, health or morals, or if they damage the fundamental rights of others.
  • No one shall be discriminated against for reasons of religion or belief. Such discrimination is an affront to human dignity.
  • States must take effective measures to prohibit, prevent and eliminate such discrimination.
  • Parents have the right to organise family life in accordance with their religious beliefs.
  • Children shall not be compelled to receive teaching on religion or belief against the wishes of their parents.
  • Children with no parents or legal guardians shall have their expressed wishes in this regard taken into account.
  • Suitable places of worship, as well as appropriate charitable and humanitarian institutions can be set up.

The Declaration goes on to affirm that Freedom of religion and belief includes freedom to:

  • write and distribute relevant publications within areas of worship
  • teach the religion or belief in suitable places
  • solicit and receive financial contributions
  • train, appoint or elect leaders as required by the religion or belief
  • observe days of rest, celebrate holidays and ceremonies in accordance with the religion or belief

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Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners (1990)

Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1990 without a vote, this document, as its title suggests, is basically an outline of prisoners’ basic rights. The ICRC’s landmark Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War remains the main international document in this respect.

The Basic Principles document states that prisoners:

  • Must be treated with respect
  • Discrimination of any form against prisoners is prohibited
  • Are entitled to respect of their religious beliefs
  • Are entitled to all the rights set out within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, except those rights which must be limited for the sake of incarceration
  • Have the right to take part in cultural and educational activities in order to further develop themselves
  • Shall have access to health services around the country without discrimination to their prisoner status

Furthermore, it calls for conditions allowing prisoners to find work with financial remuneration to be created, as well as for communities to assist in the reintegration of prisoners into society.

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Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992)

The UN General Assembly adopted this Declaration without a vote in 1992. It contains 9 articles, as well as a relatively lengthy preamble.

The Preamble – or introduction – lists some of the principles upon which the Declaration is based:

  • The non-discriminatory, universal nature of human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • The inherent dignity and worth of each individual human being
  • The political and social stability which respect for minority groups brings about
  • The important role which the United Nations plays in the protection of minorities
  • The significant work done by intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations in protecting minorities
  • The need for more effective implementation of human rights legislation protecting minorities

The Declaration itself states individual members of minority groups:

  • Have the right to practice their own religion, speak their own language and enjoy their culture without discrimination or interference.
  • Can participate in the decisions of the national or regional minority to which they belong, as well as establish their own associations
  • Shall not be disadvantaged in any way by exercising the rights granted to them in this Declaration

States, on their part, shall:

  • Protect minorities within their territory, and encourage them to promote their individual identity. They shall also adopt the necessary legislation ensuring their protection.
  • Take appropriate measures to ensure that members of minority groups have adequate opportunities to learn their mother tongue
  • Take measures, where appropriate, to encourage teaching of the history, culture, language and traditions of minorities within its territory
  • Ensure that national policies take minority group interests and needs into consideration
  • Ensure that inter-state policies or agreements consider the needs and legitimate interests of minority groups into consideration
  • Cooperate with each other in order to promote respect for the rights of minorities

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Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993)

This was adopted by the UN General Assembly on the 20th December 1993 without a vote. It is essentially a vote of confidence in the legally-binding Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The Preamble – or introduction – lists some of the principles upon which the Declaration is based:

  • The urgent need for gender equality in all aspects of human life
  • The obstacle to development, peace and equality posed by violence against women
  • Violence against women goes against their rights and fundamental freedoms
  • The long-standing failure to protect women from violence
  • That violence against women is the manifestation of the unequal power relations between men and women, and that this has led to women being unable to fully develop their potential
  • The vulnerability to violence of certain groups of women, such as refugee, migrant, destitute, disabled, indigenous and elderly women
  • Women’s movements play an increasingly important role in drawing attention to violence against women
  • The limited opportunities granted to women to achieve legal, social, political and economic equality

The Declaration defines ‘violence against women’ as any act of gender-based violence that results, or is likely to result, in physical, sexual or psychological harm. Threats and coercion also fall within this definition, regardless of whether they occur in public or private life.

The Declaration lists some examples of violence against women, citing:

  • Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the family. This includes sexual abuse of female children, battery, rape and genital mutilation
  • Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including the above examples, as well as sexual intimidation and harassment, and forced prostitution
  • Physical, sexual and psychological violence condoned or perpetuated by the state

Women are entitled to the enjoyment and protection of all fundamental human rights and freedoms.

The Declaration lists a number of state responsibilities in this regard. States must:

  • Condemn violence against women and not avoid their responsibilities towards women for any reason whatsoever
  • Prevent, investigate and punish any such violence
  • Provide female victims of such violence with appropriate means of redress
  • Develop measures and policies that promote women and protect them from violence
  • Include resources for combating violence against women in their annual budgets
  • Strive, especially through education, to eliminate gender prejudice and any customs which stem from unequal power relations
  • Facilitate, encourage and enhance the work of the women’s movement and NGOs

The various organs of the United Nations are also called to contribute. They ought to:

  • Foster international cooperation in order to eliminate violence against women
  • Promote meetings and campaigns which raise awareness regarding the issue
  • Include information on trends in violence against women within UN reports which deal with social matters

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Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1998)

This was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1998 without a vote. Its importance lies within its emphasis upon fostering an appropriate environment within which human rights can be enjoyed. While emphasising the responsibility of states, it presses for individuals and NGOs to play their part.

The Preamble – or introduction – lists some of the principles upon which the Declaration is based:

  • The importance and universality of all human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • That international cooperation is important in achieving international respect of human rights for all, without discrimination of any kind
  • The importance of individuals, organisations and associations in contributing to the elimination of human rights violations
  • International peace and security is directly linked to respect and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms. An absence of peace and security does not excuse human rights violations

The Declaration lists a number of State responsibilities in promoting human rights. These include:

  • A duty to protect, promote and implement human rights by creating all the necessary conditions for its citizens to enjoy their rights in everyday life.
  • The duty to enact all the required legislation guaranteeing these rights
  • Responsibility for conducting a prompt and impartial investigation whenever a human rights violation is suspected to have occurred.
  • The requirement to take all necessary measures to inform its citizens of their rights and freedoms. This includes the publication of the texts of key human rights laws, as well as providing full access to international human rights reports
  • The support for the creation and development of national institutions which promote and safeguard human rights within the state’s territory. These include ombudsmen and human rights commissions.
  • The duty to promote the teaching of human rights at all educational levels, especially to lawyers, police, public officials and military personnel.

Rather than discuss the various rights which individuals and associations enjoy, the Declaration mentions the different manners in which they can avail themselves of these rights and protect them. In order to protect their rights, individuals – on their own behalf or in association – can:

  • Assemble peacefully
  • Form, join or participate in NGOs
  • Gain access to information on all the fundamental human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • Publish and distribute information about human rights
  • Study and discuss human rights, and draw public attention to human rights matters
  • Submit proposals or criticism to governmental bodies regarding human rights affairs
  • Complain to the relevant bodies if they have had their human rights allegedly violated, and have their complaint promptly heard and judged in an impartial manner
  • Petition the state about policies or actions which they believe run counter to a human rights-based society
  • Solicit and provide qualified legal aid in defending human rights

The Declaration reminds individuals and associations that they have an important role to play in

  • making the general public more aware of human rights and the various questions which relate to their protection.
  • NGOs and other institutions must embark upon education, research and training activities in order to strengthen tolerance, peace and friendly relations between various societies.
  • Safeguarding democracy and promoting the advancement of democratic societies

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Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948)

Despite almost two decades of lobbying, it took the horrific revelations of the Nazi Holocaust for the international community to adopt a Convention outlawing genocide. To date, 133 states have ratified the Convention. It has been effectively superseded by the Statute of the International Criminal Court, but remains a milestone human rights Convention.

The Preamble – or introduction – lists some of the principles upon which the Convention is based:

  • The criminal nature of genocide, as well as its condemnation by the civilised world
  • The destructive nature of genocide and its occurrence throughout the history of mankind
  • International cooperation is essential in ridding the world of such a scourge

The Declaration begins with a definition of what constitutes genocide. The definition has withstood the test of time, and was included word-for-word within the Statute of the International Criminal Court. It therefore merits quoting:

…genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Committing the crime is not the only punishable act. A person is deemed guilty even if they

  • Conspire to commit genocide
  • Publicly incite genocide
  • Attempt to commit genocide
  • Help commit genocide

No one is exempt from responsibility for genocide, regardless of their official position.

A person charged with genocide shall be tried by a tribunal within the State where the genocide is alleged to have been committed, or else by an international tribunal when the various states involved have agreed to such a tribunal.

Any state that has signed the Convention may call upon the United Nations to take action for the prevention and suppression of genocide.

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Slavery Convention (1926) Amended by Protocol (1953)

One of the oldest key human rights texts, the Slavery Convention originally contained 12 articles. A Protocol in 1953 adapted the Convention to the United Nations, without altering any of the original text pertaining to slavery. The Convention does not contain a Preamble – a sign of its age. Practically every state in the world has ratified the Convention, either in its original or amended form – China being the notable exception.

Slavery is defined as the condition in which a person is effectively ‘owned’ by another. The slave trade includes every act of trade or transport in slaves, including the acquisition, exchange, or disposal of a person for purposes of slavery.

The Convention states that States must

  • Prevent and suppress the slave trade
  • Bring about the complete abolition of slavery
  • Prevent the transport of slaves within their territorial waters, and suppress ships engaged in slave trade.
  • Introduce adequate legislation outlawing slavery in all its forms
  • Submit any dispute between themselves which relates to slavery to the International Court of Justice

Forced labour is only allowed for public purposes (e.g. prisoners)

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International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1966)

A hugely important human rights text, it cemented the notion of human rights as being Universal for good. The Convention is quite lengthy, divided into 3 parts and 25 articles.

The Preamble – or introduction – lists some of the principles upon which the Convention is based:

  • Human beings are born free and equal, without distinction as to their race, sex, language or religion
  • Human beings are equal before the law, and entitled to equal protection by it
  • The scientific falsity, unjust and dangerous nature of any doctrine of superiority which is based upon racial differentiation
  • The repugnancy of any form of racial barriers
  • That racial discrimination is still in evidence, both on an individual level as well as within institutionalised government policy

The Convention itself lists a number of responsibilities which States must take upon themselves:

  • Prevent, condemn, prosecute and punish any form of racial discrimination
  • Protect vulnerable racial groups within its territory
  • Declare groups which promote racial discrimination illegal, and prosecute any such activity
  • Ensure that all of its citizens enjoy the right to equal treatment before the law, as well as all their political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights
  • Allow victims of racial discrimination the right to recourse, with a fair trial and adequate reparation for any damage suffered
  • Undertake measures, especially within the education sector, to combat racial prejudices

The Convention also established a Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Committee’s functions are to:

  • Consider bi-annual reports submitted to it by the State parties
  • Investigate any allegations of racial discrimination made to it by a State or UN body regarding another State
  • Report to the UN Secretary-General on an annual basis about its investigations, as well as about the general global situation with regard to racial discrimination

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International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)

One of the two legally-binding human rights Covenants (the other is the ICCPR) which provided legal backing to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this Covenant (often called the ICESCR) was signed in 1966 but took an entire decade to come into force. It contains 30 articles.

The Preamble – or introduction – lists some of the principles upon which the Covenant is based:

  • Human beings can only enjoy freedom from fear and want if their economic, social and cultural (as well as civil and political) rights are respected.
  • Individuals have duties towards each other and towards the communities to which they belong

The Covenant begins by reiterating some of mankind’s basic rights. All peoples have the right to:

  • Self-determination
  • Freely determine their political status and pursue development
  • Freely dispose of their wealth and resources

The Covenant also grants citizens the right to:

  • Work. This includes a state obligation to run technical and vocational training programmes
  • Receive adequately remuneration, work in a safe and healthy environment, and get reasonable periods of rest and holiday
  • Form or join a trade union. Trade unions may establish national federations or join international networks
  • Strike or protest, provided they do so in conformity of the law
  • An adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, and housing. States must improve methods of production of food, and ensure freedom from hunger for all their citizens
  • Establish a family and marry. Mothers should be given paid leave following childbirth; children are to be protected from exploitation. Child labour is to be prohibited
  • Physical and mental health. States must endeavour to reduce the infant mortality rate, improve hygiene standards, and seek to prevent, treat and control all illness, disease or epidemics
  • Education. Primary education is to be compulsory and free to all; secondary education to be made generally accessible to all; higher education to be made equally available. The State must intensify fundamental education for those who have not received primary education.
  • Take part in cultural life, enjoy scientific progress and have any scientific, literary or artistic production of theirs protected by law.

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International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)

The ICCPR (as this Covenant is often referred to) is the second of the two International Covenants. Dealing, as its name suggests, with civil and political rights, it was given more importance by the UN than its sister Covenant (the ICESCR). Its 53 articles (compared to the ICESCR) attest to this.

The Preamble – or introduction – lists some of the principles upon which the Covenant is based:

  • Human beings can only enjoy freedom from fear and want if their civil and political (as well as economic, social and cultural) rights are respected.
  • Individuals have duties towards each other and towards the communities to which they belong

The Covenant begins by reiterating some of mankind’s basic rights. All peoples have the right to:

  • Self-determination
  • Freely determine their political status and pursue development
  • Freely dispose of their wealth and resources
  • Life. The death penalty may only be imposed for the most serious crimes, and those sentenced to death have the right to seek pardon. Pregnant women, as well as those under 18, cannot be put to death
  • Liberty and security of person. No one can be arbitrarily arrested or detained
  • Humane and respectful treatment while in detention
  • Liberty of movement and freedom to choose their place of residence
  • Equality before courts of law, and fair, impartial and public hearings. Everyone charged with a crime is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. They must be tried without delay, have their crime explained to them in a language they understand, be granted legal aid and be allowed time to prepare their defence. No one can be tried twice for the same crime.
  • Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
  • Freedom of expression and freedom of association
  • Assembly peacefully
  • Marry and freely establish a family
  • Children have the right to acquire a nationality and be registered immediately after birth
  • Vote and be elected. Voting must be secret and universal.

It outlaws any form of slavery or servitude, as well as any torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. Aliens who are to be deported are granted the right to argue their case against the decision. Ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities are guaranteed equality.

The Covenant also established a Human Rights Committee. The Committee’s functions are to:

  1. Request reports from any of the State parties whenever it deems this necessary
  2. Receive and investigate complaints by a State that another State has committed or failed to punish breaches of the Covenant.
  3. Mediate the dispute and help seek an amicable solution. If a satisfactory solution is not found, the Committee may establish a temporary Commission to act as a final mediator.