Human rights – what do they comprise?

Securing human rights compliance around the world is a major challenge. Whether human rights are respected or not ultimately depends on the goodwill of individual states. The international community and the UN promote human rights through various initiatives, instruments and institutions.

Human rights are inalienable rights to which all people are equally entitled simply because they are human beings. They are universal and fundamental rights – essential to human dignity, human survival and human development. Human rights are indivisible and closely interdependent.

Every state is obliged to respect, protect and implement human rights. Three types of human rights can be distinguished:

  • civil and political rights: for example, the right to life, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion
  • economic, social and cultural rights: for example the right to employment, education and social security
  • "third-generation“ rights: for example, the right to development and the right to a clean and healthy environment

Human rights policy instruments

The following instruments are available to address human rights issues:

  • Demarches, interventions and public statements
    Human rights are addressed at bilateral meetings around the world by means of demarches, i.e. diplomatic interventions. In addition, there are interventions and public statements, particularly in multilateral bodies, for example within the framework of the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
  • Exchanges at the technical level
    There is also the possibility of conducting long-term exchanges at the technical level, for example expert missions, seminars, study tours, publications or cooperation projects. Such exchanges are carried out with selected partner countries as part of a structured dialogue or programme in especially problematic areas. A case in point are the “human rights dialogues and consultations”.
  • Diplomatic initiatives

How do the international community and the UN campaign for human rights?

The international community has the following legal instruments at its disposal:

  • the expanded European Court of Human Rights
  • the United Nations Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia
  • the International Criminal Court
  • the UN Human Rights Council

One of the most important objectives of the UN is to promote respect for the rights and fundamental freedoms of all individuals and peoples. The bodies responsible for the protection and development of human rights are the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Human Rights Council, both of which are based in Geneva, and the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly in New York.

European Court of Human Rights

UN Human Rights Council 

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees

UN Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia

UN Tribunal for Rwanda

Human rights in the context of the United Nations

UN human rights treaties and reports by states parties

With a total of nine treaties, the UN has created a differentiated set of instruments to protect human rights at the international level. In contrast to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these UN treaties are binding on the states parties and oblige them to comply with human rights standards.

Committees have been established to monitor compliance with the most important UN human rights treaties. In addition, there is a procedure for obligatory reports by states parties. By ratifying a treaty, states undertake to submit reports on a regular basis to the competent committee about their implementation of the treaty’s provisions. The committee examines the reports and makes recommendations.

UN human rights treaties

UN reports by states parties