United Nations Conventions and Declarations Essay

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United Nations (UN) conventions and declarations signify an important step in the promotion and protection of international human rights. They establish the international standards that are intended to be transposed into national laws and policies. Some conventions and declarations specifically address violent acts, such as torture or cruel or degrading punishment or treatment. In other cases, instruments frame protection against violence as related rights, such as the right to life, the right to liberty and security of person, and the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Increasingly, advocates and scholars have invoked the protection of UN conventions and declarations to promote the human rights of victims of interpersonal violence. For example, in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, advocates lobbied the UN to explicitly state that domestic violence is a violation of women’s fundamental human rights, which are protected by UN human rights declarations and conventions.

A convention, also known as a treaty or covenant, is a legally binding instrument for states that ratify it. Once a state ratifies a convention, it signals its intent to conform to it and is legally bound to it. Thus, the state commits to ensuring its own legal system and practices comply with these international standards. When ratifying a treaty, a state may make reservations to some of the treaty’s provisions it does not or is unable to accept. A state may also derogate from provisions in specific situations, such as a public emergency that threatens the life of a nation. However, there are some human rights that are so fundamental, such as the right to life or freedom from torture, that no derogations or reservations are ever allowed. A declaration, however, is not legally binding on states and lacks enforcement provisions. Nevertheless, a declaration sets forth agreed-upon standards and represents a statement of intent by the international community.

There are many international treaties and declarations that protect against interpersonal violence. Although some of these instruments prohibit specific acts of violence, others provide protection against related rights or situations that increase vulnerability to violence. These instruments set the standards by which to monitor compliance and, in some cases, can be used as a complaint mechanism when states have failed to adequately protect citizens from violence.

Historical Origins

The atrocities of World War II compelled nations to establish the United Nations as a common forum through which to maintain peace and security. The charter of the United Nations states the four main purposes of the organization, one of which is international cooperation in resolving international economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian problems and to promote and encourage “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion” (Article 1). Article 55 also states that the United Nations is to promote:

  1. higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development;
  2. solutions of international economic, social, health, and related problems and international cultural and educational cooperation; and
  3. universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

Importantly, member states pledge to take action toward achieving these goals (Article 56) and must make a formal declaration accepting the obligations of the charter before they can join the United Nations (Article 4(1)). In addition, the charter authorizes the Economic and Social Council to establish commissions to promote human rights, one of which has been the Commission on Human Rights.

On June 26, 1945, 50 nations convened to sign the charter at the San Francisco Conference, and the charter entered into force on October 24, 1945. There are currently 192 countries that are members of the United Nations.

International Bill Of Human Rights

The Commission on Human Rights met for the first time in 1947 when it decided to create an International Bill of Human Rights, consisting of a declaration, treaty(ies), and measures for implementation. The process for creating the International Bill of Human Rights as it exists today spanned over 4 decades and ultimately consisted of five instruments. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and its two Optional Protocols.

Universal Declaration Of Human Rights

The first and most comprehensive instrument is the UDHR. The UDHR addresses a full range of human rights, including civil, political, economic, social, and cultural, and is generally regarded as the authoritative interpretation of the UN Charter’s human rights provisions. Adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948, the UDHR is nonbinding as a declaration. Nevertheless, many of its provisions are regarded as customary international law, or law that is unwritten but practiced by states and accepted as an international legal obligation. This binding status was created partly by the delay in adopting the ICCPR and ICESCR. During these 2 decades, the international community relied upon the UDHR as the standard for human rights. Other international documents also support the position that the UDHR, or at least some of its provisions, constitutes customary international law. The 1968 Proclamation of Tehran states that “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states a common understanding of the peoples of the world concerning the inalienable and inviolable rights of all members of the human family and constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community.” Also, a 1971 Advisory Opinion by Judge Fuad Ammoun of the International

Court of Justice suggested that although the UDHR was not a binding treaty, that it could bind states on the basis of custom. The UDHR contains multiple provisions that protect against violence, such as the right to life, liberty, and personal security; freedom from torture and degrading treatment; and the right to an adequate standard of living.

International Covenant On Civil And Political Rights And International Covenant On Economic, Social And Cultural Rights

The ICCPR and the ICESCR were both adopted in 1966, but did not enter into force until 1976. As covenants, the ICCPR and ICESCR are legally binding on those states that ratify them, and they have 156 and 153 states parties, respectively. Both treaties contain provisions that address interpersonal violence. The ICCPR protects the right to life (Article 1) and the right to liberty and security of person (Article 9). In addition, the ICCPR protects persons who may be in situations that increase susceptibility to interpersonal violence. For example, persons deprived of their liberty are to be treated with humanity and respect for their dignity (Article 10); this article is an important safeguard for prisoners who may be vulnerable to abuse or mistreatment by guards and other prison staff. The right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association (Articles 20 and 21) are important provisions, particularly for human rights defenders who may face threats of violence or intimidation because of their work. The ICESCR also envisions the “highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” (Article 12). Article 11 addresses the right to an adequate standard of living, which encompasses adequate housing, an important factor in preventing violence. Inadequate housing increases women’s susceptibility to violence including domestic violence, sexual assault, or harassment both during and after a forced eviction. For example, domestic workers who are forced to sleep in common areas are exposed to a greater risk of sexual assault by their employers. In 1976, the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR entered into force, and it authorizes the Human Rights Committee to receive complaints from individuals alleging violations of their human rights under the ICCPR. In 1991, the Second Optional Protocol, which seeks to abolish the death penalty, entered into force.

Core International Human Rights Treaties

There are now over 60 international human rights instruments, many of which offer protections against violence. Five other conventions, together with the ICCPR and ICESCR, constitute the core human rights instruments. These treaties constitute the human rights safeguards that protect certain classes of rights or groups of people against violence.

Convention On The Elimination Of All Ьforms Of Discrimination Against Women

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) entered into force in 1981 and protects women’s human rights through the framework of gender-based discrimination. CEDAW calls for states to condemn and work toward ending discrimination against women in all forms (Article 2). It also requires states to modify sociocultural patterns of conduct to eliminate practices that are based on gender inferiority or stereotypes (Article 5(1)). The optional protocol to CEDAW established the authority of a committee (CEDAW) to receive communications about treaty violations. One hundred eighty-three states have ratified CEDAW.

Convention On The Rights Of The Child

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which entered into force on September 2, 1990, protects children against violence, including physical, sexual, and mental violence (Articles 19 and 34), torture (Article 37), and other types of exploitation detrimental to children’s welfare (Article 36). The CRC protects children’s rights to life and the “highest attainable standard of health,” and it requires states parties to ensure “to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child” (Articles 6 and 24). Every UN member state has ratified the CRC, except for the United States and Somalia. The UN also recognized the vulnerability of children in war and the sex trade, two situations that are inherently violent, and adopted two accompanying protocols on May 25, 2002. The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution, and Child Pornography address not only prevention and punishment of such practices, but also the recovery and rehabilitation of victims.

International Convention On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Racial Discrimination

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) entered into force on January 4, 1969. CERD guarantees the right to security and state protection against violence without distinction based on race, color, or national or ethnic origin (Article 5(b)). Also, it requires states to prohibit violence or inciting violence against a group based on race, color, or ethnic origin. There are 170 states parties to CERD.

International Convention On The Protection Of The Rights Of All Migrant Workers And Members Of Their Families

The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW) contains provisions that protect the right to life, liberty, and security and that prohibit torture. Due to their migrant status and the lack of accountability sometimes found in these employment situations, migrant workers are more vulnerable to sexual and physical violence. Yet migrant workers and their families are also entitled to protection against “violence, physical injury, threats and intimidation” by public or private actors (Article 16(2)). Thirty-four states have ratified CMW, which entered into force on July 1, 2003.

Convention Against Torture And Other Cruel, Inhuman Or Degrading Treatment Or Punishment

The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) entered into force on June 26, 1987, and has 141 ratifications. CAT defines and prohibits torture in all circumstances, including war and public emergencies, and requires states to take measures to prevent and punish such acts. In addition, countries must refrain from sending a person to another country if he or she might be tortured. The optional protocol to CAT, which recently entered into force on June 22, 2006, establishes a subcommittee on prevention and a mechanism to visit people deprived of their liberty as a means of protecting against torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The prohibition against torture not only covers acts committed or condoned by state officials, but also those actions traditionally viewed as private matters. For example, there is a growing consensus that domestic violence constitutes torture when the nature of the act fits that of international standards of torture and the government has not provided effective protection to these victims.

Each of these human rights conventions has a committee to monitor compliance. For example, ratifying states are obligated to submit periodic reports detailing their compliance with the treaty provisions to the appropriate committee, which then reviews the state report and issues concluding observations and recommendations. In some cases, these committees can receive complaints from individuals (HRC, CERD, CAT, CEDAW), initiate inquiries (CAT, CEDAW), or address interstate disputes about alleged treaty breaches (HRC, CEDAW, CERD, CAT, and CMW). These treaty bodies represent an important mechanism for victims of interpersonal violence who lack or have exhausted their domestic remedies in countries that have ratified the treaty. In one case brought before CEDAW, a Hungarian victim of domestic violence filed a complaint against the Hungarian state, alleging the government violated CEDAW by failing to provide her with effective protection under the treaty. The committee found the Hungarian government had violated CEDAW and recommended that it provide the woman with appropriate child support, legal aid, and reparations.

Other International Instruments

In addition, there are several conventions that address acts or situations that inherently involve violence, such as war, crime, or terrorism. For example, humanitarian law, which governs the laws of war, seeks to minimize the impact of armed conflict and protect individuals who are not fighting in the war or who can no longer fight from acts of violence or retribution. Humanitarian law prohibits types of warfare that cause unnecessary suffering or excessive injuries and bans weapons such as chemical and biological weapons and antipersonnel land mines.


In addition to conventions, there are also declarations that provide protection against violence. Although not binding, declarations represent an international consensus on standards and can be as or more expansive in their protection against interpersonal violence as conventions. Declarations are generally thematic and protect certain groups of people or classes of rights. There are declarations on issues such as development, health, crime, terrorism, peace, disarmament, and apartheid. For example, the Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power addresses the rights of individuals who have suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, and requires that they be granted access to mechanisms for justice and redress. In addition, the United Nations has adopted declarations that protect persons with disabilities, minorities, women, children, and non-nationals. For example, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women affirms that “violence against women constitutes a violation of the rights and fundamental freedoms of women” and provides an expansive definition of violence, including private and public acts that result or are likely to result in physical, sexual, or psychological harm, or the threats of such harm.


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