Introduction to Human Rights | Lesson 5: “Main Legal Documents”

The Second World War was the last grand armed
conflict in the history of humankind. Before that only the Crusades, the Religion Wars,
the Napoleonic Wars and the Great War were so intense as to divide humankind into radicalized
and uncompromising positions. To be sure, after the Second World War and
even after the Cold War, armed conflicts still exist in international relations and, even
more, within States. But there has not been another all-encompassing great armed struggle
ever since. Therefore, for us to understand the world
today, we have to appraise the meaning of the Second World War as a real “cosmogony”,
that is, a reality-shaping and paradigm-changing dramatic episode that changed the way we see
the world, just as the discovery of the Americas did in the post Medieval world. The post-Second World War order has a strong humanitarian component. The language it uses is that of international law, whose main legal documents we will examine next. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War a new international organization was born:
the United Nations. It was meant to improve in all the shortcomings of its predecessor,
the League of Nations. Thus, the United Nations was envisaged as a security system to preserve
peace, supervised by the five main world powers: the United States, the United Kingdom, the
Soviet Union, France and China. From its original 49 members, the UN now counts
193. Just as the first draft of the American Constitution
did not provide for a Bill of Rights, the United Nations Charter did not contain a detailed
catalog of human rights, although its promotion was enshrined as one of the organization’s
main purposes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be proclaimed on December
10, 1948. This Declaration has the status of a General Assembly resolution. Therefore,
technically it is a strong recommendation upon State members, but it is not binding
for them. Yet, General Assembly resolutions can influence the behavior of States and perhaps
create a customary rule under international law. Moreover, General Assembly resolutions
can initiate the process of creation of another kind of norm: international treaties or covenants.
These documents are indeed binding upon those States that sign them.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in its preamble that that the “recognition
of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human
family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. It then goes on to
proclaim the basic rights we are all entitled to as human beings, such as freedom, non-discrimination, equal dignity, the prohibition of slavery and of torture, freedom of conscience, the right to work, housing, education, among others. Also, in 1948 the UN General Assembly approved
the first international treaty on human rights of the post-war period: the Convention for
the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This document was binding upon
all those UN members that ratified it. Having the ancient laws of war proven ineffective
during the Second World War, the new world order needed to ensure that, although a last resort in international relations, once started warfare would be conducted respecting some
minimum standards to protect human dignity. Thus, four Geneva Conventions were signed
in 1949, dealing with the sick, the injured and cast away troops, prisoners of war and,
for the first time in an international treaty, civilians during times of armed conflict. The next stage in this brief review of the main legal documents regarding international
human rights and other humanitarian fields, has to do with one of the main victims of
armed conflict and political violence in general: refugees. In 1951, the UN General Assembly
agreed on the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. According to the Convention,
a refugee is a person who has a well founded fear of being persecuted in one country for
reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership to a social group, political ideas, and then
asking for protection in another country. As racial hatred became a major concern in the international community after the Second World War, this community felt prompted to
not only ban genocide forever, but to ensure racial discrimination and its pervasive influence
on social life and institutions, were effectively eradicated. Thus, a Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was signed in 1966. Its prohibitions have been
said to have reached a ius cogens status under international law, that is, peremptory norms
that States cannot overrule by any means. In 1966, the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights was bolstered by the signing of two international treaties, binding upon those
States that signed them: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Basically, this Covenant reinforces and develops some fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration, such as the rights to life and liberty. Among the main rights set forth in this Covenant, there is the right to work, to form trade
unions and to legally strike, the right to social security, food, housing, the right
to health, the right to education and the right to take part in the cultural life of
the community. This is the twin document to the Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights. Taken together, the Universal Declaration, the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are known as the “International Bill of Rights”, meaning that they are the core of the international human rights normative system. As seen in a previous class, one of the most important documents in the history of human
rights had an overt male standpoint in its very title: the Declaration of the Rights
of Man and of the Citizen, drafted during the French Revolution. It took humankind almost
two hundred years to make up for this shortcoming, by way of signing, in 1979, an international
treaty banning all forms of discrimination against half of the population of the planet:
women. This document is named the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
Against Women and will be examined in an upcoming video. After the creation of some ad-hoc criminal tribunals after civil strife or armed conflict,
such as the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials after the Second World War, or the Yugoslavia or
Rwanda Tribunals in the 1990s, some States decided to sign the Statute for the International
Criminal Court, or the Rome Statute. This treaty created the first permanent international
criminal court, with competence to try the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity,
war crimes and the recently defined crime of aggression, as will be further analyzed
in an upcoming lesson. Please visit and watch our
next class.


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