Human Rights - Other human rights conventions

The UN and two of the specialized agencies, the ILO and UNESCO, have prepared and put into force a number of conventions in the human rights field that, while not as comprehensive as the International Bill of Rights, deal with important specific rights. (Conventions on racial discrimination and on the status of women are discussed in separate sections below.)

Prevention and Punishment of Genocide

In 1948, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention entered into force in 1951. As of October 2001, it had been acceded to or ratified by 133 states. Under the convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;(c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. One result of the convention is that the states parties place it beyond doubt that genocide (and conspiracy, incitement, and attempt to commit it and complicity in it), even if perpetrated by a government in its own territory against its own citizens, is not a matter essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of states but one of international concern. States parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law that they undertake to prevent and to punish. Any contracting party can call upon UN organs to intervene.

Freedom of Association

The Freedom of Association Convention of 1948 (in force since 1950) was the first major achievement of the joint efforts of the UN and the ILO in the field of international legislation on human rights problems. By this convention, states parties undertake to give effect to the right of workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, to establish and join organizations of their own choosing without previous authorization. In exercising the rights provided for in the convention, workers and employers and their respective organizations, like other persons or organized groups, shall respect the law of the land. However, the law of the land shall not be such as to impair, nor shall it be so applied as to impair, the guarantees provided in the convention.

Under the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention of 1949 (in force since 1951), workers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of antiunion discrimination in their employment, particularly in respect to acts calculated to make the employment of a worker subject to the condition that the worker shall not join a union or shall relinquish trade union membership.

Freedom of Information

Out of the very ambitious legislative program of the UN and the specialized agencies to guarantee through international instruments the right set forth in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any medium and regardless of frontiers, only the Convention on the International Right of Correction has been adopted. At a UN Conference on Freedom of Information held in 1948, two additional conventions in this field were drafted—a general Convention on Freedom of Information and a Convention on the International Transmission of News—but these have not yet been opened for signature and ratification, although the General Assembly has approved the latter convention.

The idea underlying the Convention on the International Right of Correction, which was opened for signature in 1953 and has been in force since 1962, is the attempt to transfer to the international level an institution that has been part of national law in a great number of countries. In the convention, the contracting states agree that in cases where a contracting state contends that a news dispatch capable of injuring its relations with other states or its national prestige or dignity, transmitted from one country to another by correspondents or information agencies and published or disseminated abroad, is false or distorted, it may submit its version of the facts (called a communiqué) to the contracting states within whose territories such dispatch has been published or disseminated. The receiving state has the obligation to release the communiqué to the correspondents and information agencies operating in its territory through the channels customarily used for the release of news concerning international affairs for publication.

Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons

In the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 (in force since 1954, with a protocol of 1967) and the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons of 1954 (in force since 1969), far-reaching provisions for the protection of refugees and stateless persons were enacted. Two principles are the basis of both conventions: (1) there shall be as little discrimination as possible between nationals on the one hand and refugees or stateless persons on the other, and (2) there shall be no discrimination based on race, religion, or country of origin at all among refugees and stateless persons.

In 1961, a conference of plenipotentiaries adopted the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which entered into force in 1975.

Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Forced Labor

The fight against slavery has been an international concern since the beginning of the 19th century. In more recent times, under the auspices of the League of Nations, the Slavery Convention of 1926 was enacted, by which the contracting parties undertook to prevent and suppress the slave trade and to bring about "progressively and as soon as possible" the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms. Under UN auspices, the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery was adopted in 1956 and has been in force since 1957. Under the convention, states parties undertake to bring about, also "progressively and as soon as possible," the complete abolition or abandonment not only of slavery but also of other objectionable practices, such as debt bondage and serfdom.

By the Convention Concerning the Abolition of Forced Labor, adopted by the International Labor Conference in 1957 and in force since 1959, states parties undertake to suppress and not to make use of any form of forced or compulsory labor as a means of political coercion or education or as a punishment for holding or expressing political views or views ideologically opposed to the established political, social, or economic system; as a punishment for having participated in strikes; or as a means of racial, social, national, or religious discrimination.

Equality in Employment and Occupation

By the Convention on Discrimination in Employment and Occupation, adopted by the International Labor Conference in 1958 (in force since 1960), each state party undertakes to declare and pursue a national policy designed to promote, by methods appropriate to national conditions and practices, equality of opportunity and treatment with respect to employment and occupation, with a view to eliminating discrimination. The fulfillment of the obligations undertaken by this convention is subject to the supervisory arrangements that apply under the constitution of the ILO.

Equality in Education

In 1960, the General Conference of UNESCO adopted the Convention Against Discrimination in Education (in force since 1962). Like the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, the Convention Against Discrimination in Education prohibits any distinction, exclusion, limitation, or preference based on race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic condition, or birth that has the purpose or effect of impairing equality of treatment in education. The establishment or maintenance of separate educational systems or institutions for pupils of the two sexes is not prohibited, provided that these systems or institutions offer equivalent access to education and provide teaching staffs meeting the same standards of qualification. A special protocol adopted in 1962 institutes a Conciliation and Good Offices Commission to be responsible for seeking a settlement of any disputes that may arise between the states parties to the convention.

Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity In 1968, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity. The convention, in force since 1970, provides that no statutory limitation shall apply to war crimes and crimes against humanity, irrespective of the date of their commission. It also revises and extends the concepts of war crimes and crimes against humanity as they were defined in 1945 in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal and were applied and interpreted by the tribunal. The states parties to the 1968 convention undertake to adopt all necessary domestic measures with a view to making possible the extradition of persons who have committed such crimes.

War Crimes Records. Records of the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg) and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Tokyo) are in the UN Archives in New York. Also deposited there are the records of various national military tribunals that were submitted to the UN War Crimes Commission established in London by a meeting of Allied and Dominion representatives in October 1943, two years before the UN was created. The following 17 countries were members of the commission: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Greece, India, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, UK, US, and Yugoslavia. The commission's primary task was to collect, investigate, and record evidence of war crimes and to report to the governments concerned those instances where the material available appeared to disclose a prima facie case. The commission took no part in the detention of persons listed or in the prosecution of the cases. It ended its work in March 1948 and deposited its records in the UN Archives with the stipulation that access to the records be limited to requests by governments for information on specific individuals. Following consultations among representatives of the former members of the commission in September/October 1987, its chairman recommended to the UN Secretary-General that the files be opened to governments for research into and investigation and prosecution of war crimes and to individuals, with the permission of the government of which they are nationals or permanent residents, for research into the history and work of the commission and into war crimes.

Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons In 1973, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons, Including Diplomatic Agents. The convention, in force since 1977, aims at preventing the commission of acts of terrorism against heads of state, heads of government, ministers of foreign affairs, representatives of states, and officials of international organizations, as well as members of their families who accompany them or form part of their households. Each state party to the convention agrees to make murder, kidnapping, or other attacks upon the person or liberty of an internationally protected person or a violent attack upon his official premises, private accommodations, or means of transport a punishable crime. States agree to cooperate in the prevention of these crimes and in the prosecution and punishment of offenders.

Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment In 1975, the General Assembly proclaimed the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The declaration spells out in greater detail the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that no one may be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

The declaration was given binding legal form in 1984, when the General Assembly adopted the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In the convention, which came into force on 26 June 1987, torture is defined as any act by which severe physical or mental pain is intentionally inflicted by, at the instigation of, or with the acquiescence of someone acting in an official capacity, whether to obtain information or a confession; to punish, intimidate, or coerce; or for reasons based on discrimination. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to lawful sanctions. States parties undertake to prevent torture in their jurisdictions and ensure that it is legally punishable. No exceptional circumstances, such as war, the threat of war, internal political instability, or any other emergency, may be invoked to justify torture, nor can a torturer be excused by virtue of having acted under orders. The convention provides for extradition of persons believed to have committed acts of torture and for protection and compensation for torture victims. As of August 2002, 130 states were party to this convention.

Convention on the Rights of the Child

In November 1989, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, based on the draft proposed by the Commission on Human Rights in March of that year. The convention, which came into force in September 1990, had 191 states party to it as of August 2002. The convention recognizes and protects a wide range of civil rights and liberties. It acknowledges the importance of a secure and healthy family or alternative environment; provides for education, leisure, and cultural activities; and states that children in emergencies are entitled to special protection and that children who are in conflict with the law must be guaranteed basic rights. The convention also stipulates that children should be protected from any form of exploitation.

In accordance with article 43 of the Convention, a Committee on the Rights of the Child was established in February 1991. The committee meets twice a year to consider periodic reports submitted by states which give details of their effective implementation of the provisions of the convention. The committee submits to the General Assembly, through the Economic and Social Council, a report on its activities every two years.

International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families In December 1990, the General Assembly adopted a convention that takes into account the importance and extent of the migration phenomenon, which involves millions of people and affects a large number of states in the international community. In particular, the convention stipulates that all migrant workers and members of their families have the same right to equality with nationals of the state where they are engaged in remunerated activity. The convention will enter into force when 20 states have accepted it; as of August 2002, 19 states were party to it.

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