In international law, human rights obligations are those that states have undertaken by signing treaties, which are then ratified by national parliaments and enacted through changing the state’s practice. The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights is by far the most widely accepted definition of human rights, encompassing civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights, all sharing the principles of universality and indivisibility. Its principles have subsequently been further developed in a range of international human rights instruments, some of which have been accepted by most states, others not. These instruments define specific standards for women, children, disabled persons, migrant workers and other vulnerable groups, as well as collective rights for minorities and indigenous groups.
Human rights are also defined in the many treaties generated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) since its creation in 1919.
The human rights framework is designed to be a legally, politically and morally binding set of principles for governments. A distinction must be made between legally binding treaties, covenants, statutes, protocols and conventions, and political statements such as declarations and principles. The UN human rights system also involves a series of organs and institutions designed to promote these rights, including treaty monitoring bodies and special mechanisms. This page introduces a selection of core human rights treaties and treaty monitoring bodies.
- OHCHR Fact sheets. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has produced a series of online fact sheets which provide an accessible introduction to the various aspects of the international human rights system.
This section introduces the core human rights treaties or instruments generated within the United Nations.
The International Bill of Human Rights consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols.
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
In addition to the Declaration of Human Rights, there are nine core human rights treaties which lay out in more detail what these rights mean. These include the ICESCR and ICCPR, mentioned above, and the following seven conventions. The conventions vary in status, as some have been ratified by many more countries than others.
- International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
- Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)
- Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
- International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers & Members of their Families (ICRMW)
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
- International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CED)
Other human rights instruments:
- There are hundreds more legal instruments and political declarations on a wide range of issues that are relevant to international development. The website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights provides links to the full text and ratification status of many of these instruments.
- ILO Labour Standards. Since its creation in 1919, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has generated almost 200 treaties. These treaties lay down basic standards on labour-related issues ranging from child labour to indigenous rights. The international labour standards laid out in these treaties can be accessed on the ILO website.
- ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The ILO launched a Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work in 1998, which reasserts the labour standards laid out in ILO treaties.
International human rights are protected by core international structures and organisations developed to promote and protect human rights. This includes the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, treaty-based human rights committees, and the ILO’s systems for enforcing labour rights.
- The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is part of the UN Secretariat. It works to raise awareness of human rights and to promote them through dialogue, advice and technical assistance with member governments and other organisations.
Treaty-based human rights bodies are committees of independent experts elected by governments. They work in specific areas laid out by the particular treaty and monitor its implementation by the states that have ratified it. States that have ratified a treaty are required to periodically submit reports on progress to the relevant treaty committee. All the committees consider states’ reports. In addition the HRC, CERD, CAT and CEDAW committees examine and decide on complaints.
Some regional organisations have also developed their own human rights systems, although these systems vary considerably. Further information on regional approaches to enshrining human rights at regional level can be found below.