The multilateral system is both under threat and still badly needed. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 following the horrors of World War II, was the first international affirmation of the inherent dignity and equal rights of all people. The Declaration spells out the basic civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights that everyone is entitled to - and should respect and protect. It was followed by nations adopting legally-binding “Covenants” - on Civil and Political Rights, and on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights - that together with the Declaration form the International Bill of Rights. Nine core international human rights instruments spell out in detail states’ obligations with respect to rights and freedoms, like a convention on eliminating all forms of racial discrimination, a convention to eliminate discrimination against women, and a convention against torture. There are also protections of children’s rights, migrants’ rights, and rights of people with disabilities - as well as rights relating to education and standards of health. By ratifying these (and other legal instruments), states accept obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil the rights enshrined. The UN has established mechanisms to monitor states’ compliance with their human rights-related treaty obligations. These Treaty Bodies can raise awareness of violations through country visits and investigations, monitoring reports, dialogues and recommendations, and by taking up individual complaints. But, because they have no independent enforcement provisions, this system has been less-than-able to hold states accountable for gross and systematic abuses. More broadly, multilateral efforts to uphold internationally-agreed-upon standards and norms have faced mounting challenges in recent years - driven by growing discontent with globalization and structural inequalities firmly embedded within economies. This restlessness has created openings for a new generation of authoritarian and protectionist governments, which aim to undermine rights, freedoms, and democratic norms (a dynamic that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic around the world). Initiatives to strengthen the international human rights architecture are therefore critical, as systemic, existential challenges continue to mount for humanity - whether in the form of a pandemic, the climate crisis, or due to profound technological change - requiring renewed international solidarity and unprecedented, collective sacrifice.
A Stronger Human Rights System
Weakening of human rights