Article 1 of the UDHR provides an explicit declaration of freedom to all human beings. The Declaration recognises the rights of all human beings, irrespective of their territorial and geographical location. One of the major accomplishments in the history of the freedoms of all peoples has been the recognition of territorial rights. According to UN sources, at the time of its foundation in 1945, 750 million people – a third of the world’s population – were under colonial rule.
The Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples was adopted by General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960. This is a landmark document that grants all peoples an inalienable right to freedom, exercising their right to sovereignty, and the integrity of their national territory. Based on the commitment of this declaration, more than 80 former colonies have gained their independence, and all eleven trust territories have achieved self-determination through independence or free association with an independent State. The Trusteeship Council successfully met its mandate and suspended its operations in 1994 after the independence of Palau, the last remaining trust territory. The Council continues to meet whenever an issue arises that needs their intervention.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines racism as “a theory of races hierarchy which argues that the superior race should be preserved and should dominate the others. Racism can also be an unfair attitude towards another ethnic group [and] a violent hostility against a social group.”
For the first time, an international convention addressing racial discrimination under the auspices of the UN was concluded on 21 December 1965 by General Assembly resolution 2106 (XX).
By adopting the Convention, the General Assembly highlighted the importance of taking a significant step toward the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. The Convention asserts that “the doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and that there is no justification for racial discrimination”. This document not only laid the foundation for global action against racial discrimination but has been universally accepted and adopted in the administration of national legislation against racism. Today the implementation of the Convention is monitored by a body of independent experts, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. States parties are obliged to submit regular reports to the Committee on how rights are being upheld.
Article 3 of the UDHR addresses three fundamental rights: the rights to life, liberty, and security of person. While the scope of this article had been widely applied to many conventions, it was not until 2007 that the rights of the disabled were addressed in an instrument protecting the rights of the disabled from death, security, or liberty.
In 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in resolution 61/106. In its consideration of the fundamental rights of the disabled, the Convention included all elements of Article 3 of the UDHR: Article 10 of the Convention affirms the “inherent right to life”, Article 14 the “liberty and security of person”, and Article 18 the “right to life” of disabled children. These articles invoke State Parties to ensure that persons with disabilities are treated with dignity of all rights. The implementation of this Convention has provided a means to protect persons with disabilities from human rights violations such as seclusion, lack of food, and poor health. Furthermore, it has initiated a paradigm shift in the perception of disabled people; instead of regarding them as being of a limited capacity, all barriers should be removed that prevent their full participation in all areas of life.
State Parties submit their commitment to this Convention through national frameworks and periodic progress reports to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The Slavery Convention was adopted under the auspices of the League of Nations and signed in Geneva on 25 September 1926. On 7 December 1953, the General Assembly, by resolution 794 (VIII), adopted the protocol to the 1926 Slavery Convention, defining slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised”.
The progression of slavery has developed in unexpected ways which have deviated from the definition in the 1953 protocol, and which have led to additional instruments addressing modern day slavery. Amongst them are the Palermo protocols, comprising three protocols that supplement the 2000 Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. They address, amongst other issues, the trafficking of persons, including women and children, the smuggling of migrants, and illicit manufacturing and trafficking of firearms.
The UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, adopted by the General Assembly in 2001, also highlights practices related to “slavery”, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court includes “enslavement” as one of the crimes against humanity. The Slavery Convention and protocol has therefore remained an important international instrument that continues to provide jurisprudence for modern anti-slavery instruments to all State Parties.
The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was adopted by General Assembly resolution 39/46 on 10 December 1984. The Convention provided a platform for evaluating and condemning torture, and for each State Party to commit itself to “prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction”.
Further progress was made with the adoption of the Optional Protocol in the General Assembly in 2002 (A/RES/57/199), which entered into force in 2006. The Optional Protocol established a system that enabled international and national bodies to visit detention places – a step towards evaluating and curbing torture and other degrading and cruel, inhuman treatment. Reports of these visits are submitted periodically by Special Rapporteurs to the Human Rights Council. In addition, the Committee against Torture supports State parties and national human rights institutions in oversight at the national level. The latest document emanating from the progressive development of international law pertaining to torture are the Nelson Mandela Rules, adopted in 2015 (A/RES/70/175), which address the treatment of prisoners and protection against torture.