The historical landscape is littered with examples of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, and the level of hatred, torture, and persecution he is capable of perpetrating. One does not have to reach to far back in time to reference such examples of cruelty. The world witnessed the genocide in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the plight of women at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the mass atrocities in the Darfur region of Sudan, and the current brutality of Bashar al-Hassad’s regime in Syria against his own citizens. These individuals simply yearn for greater democratic freedoms, liberty, and justice, and while the world watches in horror it asks itself: When will the global community act? When will such acts of violence ever end?
With the evolution of technology and the 24/7 news cycle, images of abuse and atrocities committed by the most unscrupulous among us are broadcasted in real time for the world to see.
With such information at our disposal, and the mounting evidence of human rights abuses in various corners of the globe, is there any reason for there to be inaction in these matters? Should the international community, acting in concert, forge a united and cohesive strategy to put an end to such acts? I would hasten to say absolutely and unequivocally yes! The world does need to act. Fortunately, there are global institutions, such as the United Nations, that have made human rights a centerpiece of their work and have taken the lead in addressing many of the pressing human rights problems of the day. Critics of the global body argue their record in this area is less than stellar; however, the facts of the matter speak otherwise.
THE UNITED NATIONS’ FOUNDERS RECOGNIZED THE NEED FOR RESPECT OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Having just witnessed the tragic consequences in the aftermath of the Second World War, the founders of the U.N. had the foresight and vision to make certain that the central focus of the new Charter would be human rights.
When the Charter of the United Nations was signed on 26 June 1945, the Preamble began with these words: “…to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, AND FOR THESE ENDS to practice tolerance and live together in peace…to unite our strength to maintain international peace…to ensure…that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples.”
The founders knew man’s capability for evil, and it was important in their minds to incorporate and explicitly address the need for respect of human rights in the Preamble.
WHAT DOES THE UNITED NATIONS DO FOR HUMAN RIGHTS?
The U.N. has achieved success in creating a body of human rights law, and has put in place mechanisms allowing the global body to protect the rights of people around the world. This benefits the entire global population.
As reform of the institution progresses, human rights continues to remain at the core of all U.N. work ranging from peacekeeping to development to humanitarian assistance.
HOW HAS THE UNITED NATIONS ADVANCED HUMAN RIGHTS?
The U.N. created the first global Bill of Human Rights, and it included the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and two 1966 International Human Rights Covenants – one on civil and political rights and the other on economic, social, and cultural rights. Each of these is legally binding on States.
In addition, eighty (80) treaties protect political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights.
The U.N. through its anti-apartheid campaign, that included an arms embargo to international conventions, ended one of the great tragedies of our time – the apartheid regime of racial segregation in South Africa. In 1994, a U.N. observer mission was able to monitor elections in the country and helped in the transition that ultimately put an end to apartheid.
In addition, the U.N. has been instrumental in securing rights for women as well as making certain that all peoples have the right to development.
There are a number of ways the U.N. helps to advance human rights:
- The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, voices her concerns with Governments with regard to human rights abuses and investigations then ensue based on the specific country violations.
- U.N. human rights treaties allow citizens of countries, where violations suspected of being committed, to issue an appeal against the State, so long as they have completed all of their domestic remedies.
- The U.N. plays an active role in monitoring specific human rights abuses by a State and alerts the international community of their findings.
- The Office of the High Commissioner provides assistance to countries that allows them to comply with their human rights responsibilities.
- Peacekeeping operations contain human rights provisions that protect the peoples where the operations are based.
HOW DOES THE UNITED NATIONS DEFEND VULNERABLE GROUPS IN SOCIETY
The U.N. is the champion of the “underdog”. It works very hard to protect the most vulnerable groups in the world including minorities, migrants, indigenous people, and children in difficult situations.
The Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities is an important U.N. human rights body that works to protect the rights of these groups. There are two very important international treaties, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1990 Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families, where the U.N. was directly involved in helping to gain passage ultimately resulting in protecting the most underrepresented groups among us.
Through U.N. leadership, international campaigns were launched such as the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People (1993) further raising awareness of the plight of the 300 million indigenous people worldwide.
There are approximately 300,000 child soldiers today and the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict advocates on their behalf.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) is involved with programs to end child labor, while the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) works diligently to help children who are the victims of terrible circumstances.
None of these initiatives occurs, nor does any of this work get accomplished, unless the U.N. and its member nations – specifically the United States – take an active leadership role. These are the facts, despite the arguments to the contrary. The importance of U.S. involvement is vital, primarily the importance of its continued funding of these programs.
HOW ARE THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN BEING ADVANCED BY THE UNITED NATIONS
The Preamble to the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights legally ensure the equal rights of women and firmly establish them as a human right.
The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, considered an “international bill of rights for women”, legally binds those countries that ratified it to guarantee equal rights for women.
There are two U.N. entities, the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and The International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW), that both specifically focus on women. UNIFEM assists women in mostly rural parts of the world with development issues. In the case of INSTRAW, it empowers women through its research and training allowing them greater access to the political process as well as further helping them both economically and socially.
In 2010, U.N. Women was created to further promote and protect the human rights of women. Specifically, it attempts to protect women during conflict and eliminate violence against them.
MOVING FORWARD: MAINTAINING PROGRESS
The U.N. Human Rights Council is a particular source of contention with critics of the global body, especially those on Capitol Hill.
In 2006, the U.S. was essentially alone as it opposed its creation. However, in May 2009, the Obama Administration reversed course and the U.S was elected to a three-year term on the Council.
Through U.S. membership and its leadership on the Council, Libya had its membership suspended and their human rights abuses investigated. In addition, Iran, who had been seeking membership on the Council, was forced to withdraw through pressure exerted by the U.S. and other like-minded nations.
A change in policy has allowed the U.S. to play an integral role in maintaining the core principle of the Charter: human rights.
Every citizen of the world wants, and should have the right to, live free from fear of government retribution simply because of their beliefs, ethnicity, or race.
The voices of the world that have been silenced by the repressive regimes they must live under need tireless advocates to speak for them; the United Nations is the one global institution that will not allow their pleas for help to go unheard.