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October 25, 2018

A Show of Global Solidarity – The UN and Human Rights

This week mark the 73rd anniversary of the UN Charter. The United Nations was established in 1945 to prevent a third world war, and on that end it has indeed succeeded (although it has by no means eradicated wars worldwide).

Yet the UN was also established with the aim of promoting social and economic international cooperation in order to protect universal human rights for all of the world's citizens.

When much of the Israeli public think of the UN, the image of the UN Human Rights Council discussing Israel's conduct comes to mind. For this reason many people think (and often rightly so) of the UN as a political body, in which states misuse the term "human rights" to get back at each other and escape criticism, foxes guarding the henhouse.

Much of the public is not exposed to the extensive professional work carried out by the UN to promote the protection of human rights worldwide, based on the belief that human rights are universal rights can be safeguarded by a collective sense of solidarity. This work is largely based on nine international conventions on human rights. A large majority of states have signed on most of them (and all the states have signed at least on some). These conventions stipulate the human rights that states must commit to honor. Oversight of their implementation is carried out by committees of independent expert.

All countries worldwide report regularly on the situation in their countries, are requested to provide explanations of any violations which they have committed, and are required to amend their laws and policies in accordance with the recommendations of UN experts

This oversight process is non-political and grants pardons according to equal measures for all of the countries, often producing concrete positive results. Just this week, the UN Human Rights Committee – a committee of experts which oversees the implementation of the convention for civil rights received a report that capital punishment was banned in the Republic of Benin; that the South Korean Supreme Court required the government to allow conscientious objectors to serve in the civil service instead of in the military; that Rwanda eliminated defamation as a criminal act from their Penal Code; and that Greece established a special administration to investigate complaints of police violence. Earlier this year, Ireland revoked the sweeping prohibition on abortions in its constitution, and Kyrgyzstan made reparation payments to the family of a prisoner who was tortured to death. 

All these are cases of implementation of specific recommendations of the Human Rights Committee in the course of its investigation of the state of human rights in each country.

Alongside progress being made in various areas and in various countries, there is a regression in others. Clearly, Human Rights Conventions written over fifty years ago must be adapted over time: Mass migration, the technological revolution, terror, globalization, and many other challenges. In the face of these challenges, the United Nations, with all its many flaws, along with the professional bodies that work within its framework, has an essential role to play in promoting the basic idea that any and all individuals must enjoy human rights, and that countries must abide by basic norms to which they have committed.

.About the author

Prof. Yuval Shany is Vice President of Research at the Center for Democratic Values and Institutions, and the Center for Security and Democracy.

Prof. Shany's research interests include; international courts, human rights, laws of war, cyberlaw, and legal aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is former dean of the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he holds the Hersch Lauterpach Chair in International Public Law. In 2013, he became a member of the UN Human Rights Committee.

Areas of expertise: International law; human rights law; law in war; international criminal law.


UN Photo/Mark Garten
A close view of the original copy of the Charter of the United Nations which is kept in the United States National Archives in Washington D.C.

UN Photo/Yould
The UN Charter being signed by a delegation at a ceremony held at the Veterans’ War Memorial Building on 26 June 1945.

Call to Action
A Show of Global Solidarity – The UN and Human Rights