Most important human rights documents and agreements

The most important human rights document is the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was created after the Second World War in 1948.

Officially, the declaration is a morally binding mission statement by governments. It has, however, become legally binding based on international common law.

The Universal Declaration includes an introduction and 30 articles. It covers rights extensively from the rights to life and freedom from slavery to the right to education, freedom of religion and thought, adequate standard of living and the right to apply for and enjoy asylum.

In the eyes of the international community, every country is primarily responsible for human rights being respected within its borders. The obligation also applies to foreigners staying in the country.

States or individuals who are guilty of severe human rights violations, such as war crimes or genocide, can be taken to an international criminal court

A state that is a party to suspected human rights violations can be taken to an international court of human rights. Additionally, states or individuals who are guilty of severe human rights violations, such as war crimes or genocide, can be taken to an international criminal court. This happened, for example, in the case of the Rwandan genocide.

The most important human rights agreements are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The preparation of the covenants was initiated right after the creation of the Universal Declaration, and they were approved by the UN General Assembly in 1966. The Universal Declaration and these two covenants form the foundation of the UN human rights system. They are occasionally referred to as the International Bill of Rights.

Three generations of human rights

Human rights are often referred to as having three “generations”.

The first generation is civil and political rights. They are based on securing a certain sphere of freedom for an individual in relation to public power, and enabling political participation. These rights are often about the freedom to enjoy something, which is why they are often referred to as freedom rights. The first-generation rights include the right to life and freedom of speech and religion.

The second generation is the economic, social and cultural rights. These concern the right to have or own something and they deal with the prerequisites of a person’s true well-being, the realisation of which also requires resources from the society. It is characteristic of these rights that they are not realised simply by public powers not interfering on an individual’s rights. The second-generation rights are, for example, the right to be employed in just and favourable conditions, and rights to food, housing and health care.

The third generation is the collective or so-called solidarity rights. The foundation of solidarity rights is the principle formulated in the UN Charter about the autonomy of people. Additionally, they are based on of the 28th article of the Declaration of Human Rights, according to which everyone has the right to the kind of societal and international order under which the rights and duties outlined in the declaration can be fully realised. There are no binding contracts on these third-generation human rights but, in recent decades, for example, the right to development and the right to a clean environment have been strongly featured at global conferences.

Although perhaps a useful tool, this division has been criticised for giving precedence to the freedom rights that are most important to the Western world. The Cold War-era conflict between the stresses on freedom rights in the capitalist world and economic, social and cultural rights in Communist societies shows that human rights are not free of ideology. In addition, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been criticised based on much the same logic. The universality of rights has been questioned and human rights have been seen as a value export from the West to other regions of the world.

Despite the occasional criticism, the right to life, to live without being tortured, equality, security, an adequate standard of living, peace and freedom are values, which can be justifiably argued as being universal.

When making divisions such as into “generations”, it is good to remember that the foundation of all rights lies in the declaration, and the declaration itself does not differentiate between the levels of importance of individual rights.

Keep Reading:

Freedom of speech is the foundation of journalistic work; Human Rights in Palestinian Terrirories
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This article was updated on January 20th 2020.