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Major Sources of Human Rights under International law

In the aftermath of the devastating world wars, the international community was shaken by the sheer scale and brutality of crimes committed, prompting a resolute commitment to safeguard human rights. This collective determination led to the adoption of the United Nations Charter, a consensus-driven framework aimed at upholding the human rights of every individual.


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The United Nations General Assembly, recognizing the urgent need for a robust mechanism to combat oppression and discrimination, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This historic document stood as a testament to the international community's resolve to prevent the recurrence of such atrocities. The diversity of the Member States of the United Nations, encompassing a wide array of ideologies, political systems, and religious and cultural backgrounds, as well as varying stages of economic development, was reflected in this commitment.


Sources of Human Rights and UN

The Preamble of the United Nations Charter notably emphasizes the respect for, protection, and promotion of human rights for all, regardless of color, race, sex, religion, or language. This foundational principle underpins the work and objectives of the United Nations.


Four major Sources of human rights has been discussed in the article:

  1. Universal declartion of Human Right

  2. International Bill of Human Rights

  3. Vienna Declaration on Human Rights

  4. Sources for Sopecific Field of Human Rights

UDHR: Most Important source of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) stands as a monumental achievement in the annals of human history, particularly in the realm of human rights. Its inception was deeply intertwined with the principles set forth in the Charter of the United Nations and the broader tenets of humanitarian law.


The Commission on Human Rights, appointed by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, was instrumental in crafting this groundbreaking document.

For the first time in history, the UDHR detailed the rights and freedoms of individuals on an unprecedented scale. It marked the first international acknowledgment that human rights and fundamental freedoms are inherent to every person, irrespective of their location or circumstances.


This Declaration laid the groundwork for international human rights law, serving as a blueprint for a multitude of international treaties, declarations, and has been integrated into the constitutions and laws of numerous countries. Today, with translations in nearly 250 languages, the UDHR is the most renowned and widely referenced human rights document across the globe.


The UDHR is distinguished by its categorization of human rights into two primary domains: Civil and Political Rights, and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Civil and Political Rights encompass a range of freedoms including the right to life, prohibition of slavery and inhuman treatment, equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest, as well as rights pertaining to marriage, property, expression, assembly, association, and political participation. On the other hand, Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights cover the right to social security, an adequate standard of living, and the right to health and important source of human rights.


Two foundational articles underpin the Universal Declaration:

  1. Article 1 establishes the innate equality and dignity of all human beings, recognizing that each person is endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. This article underlines the concept that human beings are inherently equal due to their shared human dignity.

  2. Article 2 lays out the principle of non-discrimination in the enjoyment of human rights. It asserts that everyone is entitled to the rights and freedoms in the Declaration, without any distinction based on race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. This article reinforces the universality of human rights, highlighting that these rights are not granted by any state or international organization but are inherent to all individuals simply by virtue of being human.

Together, these articles assert that human rights are not privileges bestowed upon a select few or subject to the whims of those in power. Instead, they are the inalienable birthright of every individual, a universal heritage that belongs to everyone in the human family.


universal declaration of human rights

Major Provisions of UDHR

  • Articles 3 to 21 of UDHR set forth civil and political rights to which everyone is entitled. The right to life, liberty and personal security, recognized in Article 3, sets the base for all following political rights and civil liberties, including freedom from slavery, torture and arbitrary arrest as well as the rights to a fair trial, free speech and free movement and privacy.


  • Articles 22 to 27 of UDHR ensure the economic, social and cultural rights to which all human beings are entitled. The cornerstone of these rights is Article 22, acknowledging that, as a member of society, everyone has the right to social security and is, therefore, entitled to the realization of the economic, social and cultural rights "indispensable" for his or her dignity and free and full personal development. Five articles elaborate the rights necessary for the enjoyment of the fundamental right to social security, including economic rights related to work, fair remuneration and leisure, social rights concerning an adequate standard of living for health, well-being and education, and the right to participate in the cultural life of the community.


  • Articles 28 to 30 of UDHR provide a larger protective framework in which all human rights are to be universally enjoyed. Article 28 recognizes the right to social and international order that enables the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Article 29 acknowledges that, along with rights, human beings also have obligations to the community which enables them to develop their individual potential freely and fully. Article 30 protects the interpretation of the articles of the Declaration from any outside interference contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. It explicitly states that no State, group or person can claim, on the basis of the Declaration, to have the right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration.


International Bill of Human Rights


The Commission on Human Rights, a key intergovernmental body within the United Nations, embarked on a significant mission to transform the principles of human rights into binding international treaties. This initiative was fueled by the desire to provide explicit legal backing to rights that were previously only implied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Key among these were the right to self-determination and specific protections for vulnerable groups like indigenous people and minorities.


Development of the International Covenants

After two decades of rigorous debate among Member States, the United Nations General Assembly took the historic step of drafting two pivotal Covenants to codify the rights mentioned in the UDHR. These were the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), both adopted in 1966. These Covenants share similar Preambles and core articles (Articles 1, 2, 3, and 5) that emphasize the inherent dignity of human beings and the rights derived from it, including the right of self-determination (Article 1), the principle of non-discrimination (Article 2), equal rights for men and women (Article 3), and protections against the limitation of human rights (Article 5).


Components of the International Bill of Human Rights

The UDHR, along with the ICCPR, ICESCR, and their two Optional Protocols, collectively form the International Bill of Human Rights. The Optional Protocols, adopted in 1976, further enhance the ICCPR. They allow for individual complaints and advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. This comprehensive bill elaborates on a wide array of fundamental rights and freedoms, including the prohibition of slavery, genocide, principles of humanitarian law, justice administration, social development, religious tolerance, cultural cooperation, prevention of discrimination, and the rights of women, refugees, and minorities.


Related Human Rights Conventions

In addition to these documents, four other Conventions that address racial discrimination, torture, and the rights of women and children are considered integral to the human rights framework. These, alongside the two International Covenants, represent core human rights treaties.


Role of the Human Rights Committee

The ICCPR established the Human Rights Committee, a body dedicated to monitoring compliance with the Covenant. While the committee's opinions on whether specific practices violate human rights are not legally binding, they carry significant moral and persuasive authority, contributing to the global discourse on human rights standards and practices.


the International Bill of Human Rights and related conventions represent a robust and comprehensive framework for protecting and promoting human rights worldwide. Through these instruments, the international community seeks to uphold the dignity and worth of every individual, regardless of their background or circumstances.


Vienna Declaration on Human Rights 1993

In 1968, to commemorate the International Year for Human Rights and the twentieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), an International Conference on Human Rights was held in Tehran, Iran. This conference undertook a thorough assessment of the impact of the UDHR on national legislation and judicial decisions globally.


The outcome was the Proclamation of Tehran, a forward-looking document addressing key issues such as colonialism, racial discrimination, illiteracy, and family protection. A significant focus of the Tehran Proclamation was on the principle of non-discrimination. It notably condemned apartheid as a "crime against humanity" and called for the global ratification of the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which had been adopted by the United Nations two years prior.


Vienna Declaration on Human Rights, 1993 Fast forward to 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights convened in Vienna to reassess the progress of the United Nations' human rights work. This conference garnered an unprecedented level of international support, reflecting a global consensus on the importance of human rights. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action were pivotal outcomes of this conference. They reaffirmed the UDHR's central role in human rights protection and, for the first time, unanimously recognized the right to development as an inalienable human right and an integral part of international human rights law.


The Vienna Declaration highlighted several key principles:

  • Human rights are universal, indivisible, interrelated, and interdependent, and should be promoted equally.

  • Rejection of the notion that human rights are optional or subordinate to cultural traditions.

  • Emphasis on preserving the integrity of the Universal Declaration.


The Vienna Declaration also outlined specific responsibilities and initiatives:

  • Recognized that the protection and promotion of human rights are primarily the responsibility of governments.

  • Acknowledged democracy as a human right, bolstering the promotion of democracy and the rule of law.

  • Urged states to ratify key international human rights treaties, particularly the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

  • Took innovative steps to protect vulnerable groups, including the establishment of a Special Rapporteur on violence against women and calling for an international decade for the world's indigenous peoples.


The World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna also underscored the importance of humanitarian assistance to victims of natural and man-made disasters. It expressed concern over ongoing gross violations of human rights in various parts of the world. The conference emphasized the necessity of a family environment for the harmonious development of children and called for special attention to ensure non-discrimination and equal enjoyment of human rights by disabled persons.

Source of Human Rights: Specific Fields

The United Nations General Assembly has adopted several pivotal human rights conventions, each focusing on distinct aspects of human rights. These conventions have significantly influenced both international and national policies and practices.


Here's an overview of some of these key conventions:

  1. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination:

  • This groundbreaking treaty explicitly defines and condemns racial discrimination.

  • It mandates national measures for the advancement of specific racial or ethnic groups.

  • The Convention also criminalizes the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or that incite racial hatred.

  1. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women:

  • Focuses on the advancement and empowerment of women in various spheres of life.

  • Emphasizes areas such as education, employment, health, marriage, and family life.

  • Specifies measures to promote gender equality and protect women's rights in both private and public spheres.

  1. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment:

  • Explicitly prohibits torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

  • Includes a ban on rape and the use of certain weapons of war.

  • In 1998, the United Nations declared June 26 as the Annual International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, highlighting efforts to assist torture victims and eradicate torture globally.

  1. Convention on the Rights of the Child:

  • Recognized as the most universally ratified human rights Convention.

  • Seeks to protect children from various forms of exploitation, including economic and sexual exploitation.

  • A significant number of Member States have taken concrete steps to align their national laws and policies with the Convention. These steps include incorporating provisions of the Convention into national constitutions, enacting new laws or amending existing ones related to child protection, extending compulsory education, providing special protection for child refugees and minority children, and reforming juvenile justice systems.


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