International Human
Rights Law


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an ideal standard held in common by nations around the world, but it bears no force of law. Thus, from 1948 to 1966, the UN Human Rights Commission’s main task was to create a body of international human rights law based on the Declaration, and to establish the mechanisms needed to enforce its implementation and use.

The Human Rights Commission produced two major documents: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Both became international law in 1976. Together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these two covenants comprise what is known as the “International Bill of Human Rights.”

The ICCPR focuses on issues such as the right to life, freedom of speech, religion and voting. The ICESCR focuses on food, education, health and shelter. Both covenants proclaim these rights for all people and forbid discrimination.

Furthermore, Article 26 of the ICCPR established a Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. Composed of eighteen human rights experts, the Committee is responsible for ensuring that each signatory to the ICCPR complies with its terms. The Committee examines reports submitted by countries every five years (to ensure they are in compliance with the ICCPR), and issues findings based on a country’s performance.

Many countries that ratified the ICCPR also agreed that the Human Rights Committee may investigate allegations by individuals and organizations that the State has violated their rights. Before appealing to the Committee, the complainant must exhaust all legal recourse in the courts of that country. After investigation, the Committee publishes the results. These findings have great force. If the Committee upholds the allegations, the State must take measures to remedy the abuse.


In addition to the covenants in the International Bill of Human Rights, the United Nations has adopted more than twenty principal treaties further elaborating human rights. These include conventions to prevent and prohibit specific abuses such as torture and genocide and to protect specific vulnerable populations such as refugees (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951), women (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979), and children (Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989). Other conventions cover racial discrimination, prevention of genocide, political rights of women, prohibition of slavery and torture.

Each of these treaties has established a committee of experts to monitor implementation of the treaty provisions by its State parties.