The international system for the protection of human rights, also known as the universal human rights system, traces its origins to adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The multilateral human rights treaties drafted under the auspices of the UN that have entered into force during the decades that followed the adoption of the Declaration form the backbone of this system.
The UN has designated nine of these treaties as core international human rights instruments, but there are many additional treaties and soft law instruments in place to safeguard human rights. The underlying rationale for these instruments is that international law has a legitimate role to play in protecting human rights. By ratifying these instruments, state parties assume obligations under international law to respect the rights guaranteed therein and to hold themselves accountable for failing to do so.
To facilitate accountability, the UN has established a variety mechanisms for monitoring the compliance of state parties with their human rights obligations. These mechanisms fall into one of two categories. Charter bodies assess the compliance of all UN member states with their human rights obligations under the UN Charter. Treaty bodies do the same with respect to the obligations of state parties under each of the core international human rights treaties.
The international system for the protection of human rights remains a work in progress. The UN's charter bodies and treaty bodies have raised awareness and helped to foster a culture of greater respect for human rights by conducting on-site visits and investigations, engaging in dialog with national governments and civil society organizations, issuing periodic monitoring reports, and evaluating individual complaints. Perhaps not surprisingly, their record is less impressive when it comes to holding nation states accountable for gross and systematic human rights abuses.
Eleanor Roosevelt holding the UDHR in 1948
Public domain image (U.S. government)