Building on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, some 25 global treaties and protocols today form the basis of international human rights policy. You don’t have to be a legal specialist to work in the field of human rights, but it’s important to know that the global human rights policy framework is shaped by international law. Treaties that have become recognized as valid instruments of international law — i.e., treaties that have entered into force of international law by virtue of sufficient ratification by UN member states — set forth normative agreements and arrangements for measures of implementation.
Human Rights Policy Framework
The overall framework is comprised of four main elements:
- Global multilateral human rights treaties and numerous “soft law” instruments that set forth legal standards and normative principles. (Soft law includes declarations, guidelines, and other instruments that are not subject to ratification by states.) A comprehensive list of all these standards can be found on the website of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
- Implementation mechanisms in the form of treaty bodies – committees created as a provision of the human rights treaties to monitor their implementation. Members of these committees are experts elected by states that have ratified the treaty. They serve in an individual and independent capacity, and their interpretations of the treaty are viewed as authoritative.
- The overall UN human rights apparatus operating under the authority of the UN Human Rights Council or the UN Secretary General, including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council’s special mechanisms. These include the UN human rights field offices and various country and thematic rapporteurs.
- The UN Human Rights Council, created in 2006 and comprised of 47 UN member states elected by the General Assembly (replacing the UN Human Rights Commission, 1946-2006). The Council oversees a Universal Periodic Review process, examining human rights performance of all UN member states on a rotating basis.
This website is focused on global instruments and mechanisms of international human rights policy, but it is important to recognize that global policies reflected in multilateral treaties and UN-supported oversight bodies are complemented by regional treaties, courts, and monitoring bodies as well as domestic procedures in many countries.
Elements of the global policy framework are discussed throughout the website, and the UN mechanisms are elaborated in the section on Making Policy Decisions. The historical role of human rights organizations in advocating and supporting development of the policy framework is likewise discussed throughout the website, with additional commentary on the Human Rights Advocacy page and in this selection from Human Rights: Practice to Policy.