New Internationalist

A guide through the maze

Issue 408

What are your legal rights, simply by virtue of being human? Not many people know; even fewer are encouraging you to find out; fewer still are making sure they apply in practice. So the NI starts at square one, with an introductory tour around the labyrinth and a sample of what the legal documents say.


Every member state of the United Nations must abide by its Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two Covenants on economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. Together they are said to form an International Bill of Rights

Charter of the UN [Founding document]

24 October 1945
Preamble: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations determined:

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small…’

Universal Declaration of Human Rights [from which most other rights derive]

10 December 1948

  • ‘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.’
  • ‘Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.’
  • ‘It is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law…’

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

16 December 1966
Preamble: ‘In accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his [sic] economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his [sic] civil and political rights…’

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

16 December 1966
Preamble: As before, but says: ‘civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights…’


International Conventions put flesh on the bare bones of the International Bill of Rights. However, once they have been adopted by the General Assembly (on the date that appears here) they have to be ratified by a large majority of member states before they come into legal effect – a process that can take many years. Some states never ratify them at all.


9 December 1948
Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide
The Convention defines genocide as any of a number of acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.


21 December 1965
Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
Article 2: Signatories condemn ‘racial discrimination and undertake to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms and promoting understanding among all races’.


10 December 1979
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
By accepting the Convention, states commit themselves to undertake a series of measures, including:

  • to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women;
  • to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination.


10 December 1984
Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Article 1: ‘For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him [sic] or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.’

Migrant Workers

18 December 1990
Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families
Article 24: ‘Every migrant worker and every member of his or her family shall have the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.’

Enforced Disappearance

18 December 1992
Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance
Article 1: ‘1 No-one shall be subjected to enforced disappearance.
2 No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for enforced disappearance.’


20 November 1989
Rights of the Child
Article 2: ‘1 States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status. 2 States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child’s parents, legal guardians, or family members.’


13 December 2006
Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Article 1: ‘The purpose of the present Convention is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity… Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.’ Other Conventions cover religion, development, ethnic minorities, war crimes, apartheid, imprisonment and execution.

The full texts of the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the other Conventions and Declarations referred to here can be found on this site.

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This article was originally published in issue 408

New Internationalist Magazine issue 408
Issue 408

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