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The United Nations was founded in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Its sole purpose was to insure that the horrors of that conflict would never again be repeated. To achieve its goal, the UN was given a broad range of powers and responsibilities that included a mandate to use force (if necessary) and to insure that international human rights would be protected. The emphasis on human rights in the planning and creation of the UN was groundbreaking. Throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, a widespread disrespect for human rights had led to countless uprisings and revolts. In 1914, one such revolt in the Balkans had been able to touch off the First World War. Nonetheless, by the beginning of World War II most nations continued to think of human rights as something that did not demand international attention. The gruesome excesses of the Holocaust and the European refugee crisis that followed changed all of that. In 1945, countries (especially small ones) began to think of human rights as something that needed international protection. If not, they feared, a third world war would be entirely possible.

As a result, Article 55 of the UN Charter pledged member states to "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights." Now that the UN's members had agreed to respect human rights, the organization needed a definition of what those rights were and a means of insuring their protection. In June 1946, the UN responded to this need by creating a sixteen-member Commission on Human Rights (HRC). The new body was given two tasks: to draft an International Bill of Human Rights and to develop plans for its implementation. From the outset, however, it was clear that accomplishing these two goals would be extraordinarily difficult.

The HRC met for the first time in January 1947 and promptly elected the United States delegate, Eleanor Roosevelt, to serve as its chairman. ER had already become one of the most important figures in the UN's human rights program and as chairman she would be able to exert a decisive influence over the commission's decisions. It was under her direction that the decision was made to move forward on the international bill of human rights with two documents instead of one: first, the commission would outline universal human rights in a nonbinding declaration; second, they would propose machinery for enforcing the protection of those rights in a legally binding covenant.

Less than two years after having met for the first time, members of the HRC were proud when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. Nevertheless, completion of the declaration was only one half of the commission's work. It still needed to agree on a covenant to propose to member states, but negotiations surrounding the covenant proved exceedingly more difficult than those surrounding the declaration. A covenant, once ratified, is a legally binding instrument, and as a result consensus on any issue was difficult to reach. By 1951, disagreement within the commission regarding the covenant was so bad that the General Assembly was forced to intervene with a decision. The General Assembly acted on the realization that the HRC had become divided along East-West lines. While the Soviets were trying to turn the covenant into a document about economic rights, the United States and its allies were trying to turn it into a document about political rights. Neither side had any intention of giving in to the other, creating a logjam that led the General Assembly to "split" the covenant into two documents: a Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and a Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

Now it was official UN policy to seek the implementation of the declaration with two covenants instead of one, but the breakthrough that the General Assembly had hoped for remained elusive. Small countries continued to squabble with large countries and Communist countries continued to squabble with non-Communist countries. Ultimately, it would be another seventeen years before both documents were ready for submission, long after many of the commission's original members had either retired or passed away.

Once it had taken final shape, however, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights echoed many of the declaration's original provisions. As with its sister document, the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, states that ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights obligated themselves to implement a long list of rights provisions. These included: the right to life, liberty, and security of person; the right to seek compensation or relief before a court or competent tribunal; the right to liberty of movement, including the liberty to leave one's country; the right to privacy; the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; and the right of peaceful assembly. The covenant went even further in some cases, outlawing torture and degrading punishment for all ratifying states, and establishing a committee to whom parties of the treaty would have to report. Furthermore, the covenant lists specific activities that states must undertake as a means of safeguarding civil and political rights. For example, states bound by the covenant's term are required to provide appropriate counsel to anyone charged with a crime who cannot afford representation of their own. It is just one of many civil and political rights enunciated in the covenant.

The covenant's provisions clearly reflect the democratic emphasis on political rights, which is what the General Assembly had intended when it took up the matter in 1951. This notwithstanding, the United States continued to resist ratification of the covenant. This was motivated largely out of a popular American dislike for the UN, but also out of a fear that the covenant's anti-death penalty language could be used by domestic anti-death-penalty activists to litigate against capital punishment. As a result, it was only in 1992 that the U.S. finally ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but even then it was accomplished with so many attached reservations that its implementation would have little domestic effect.


"International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights." Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Internet on-line. Available From

Glendon, Mary Ann. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: Random House, 2001, 38, 84-86, 87, 94-96, 108, 139, 195-202, 205, 206-208, 213-214, 216, 228, 238.