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The United Nations is an international organization 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 beprotected.

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 states 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 Political and Civil 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 Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights closely echoed many of the declaration's original provisions. States that ratified it obligated themselves to respect and implement a long list of rights provisions. These included: the right to self-determination; the right to work; the right to safe and healthy working conditions; the right to unionize; the right to strike; the right to social security and social insurance; the right of special protection for pregnant women, recent mothers, and children from economic exploitation; the right to adequate food, clothing, and housing; and even the right to attain a high standard of physical and mental health. Furthermore, the covenant listed specific activities that ratifying states must undertake as a means of safeguarding these rights. For example, countries bound by the covenant's terms are obligated to provide vocational and technical training programs as a way of insuring the right to work, and must report to the UN's Economic and Social Council about their progress periodically.

The covenant's provisions clearly reflect the socialist emphasis on economic rights, which is what the General Assembly had intended when it took the matter up in 1951. As a result, the United States and other western democracies remained unconvinced of the covenant's merits and refused to ratify it. Despite a lack of support from these countries, however, the covenant entered into force on January 3, 1976 for those states that had approved it. As of 2002, the United States had still not ratified the covenant.


"International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural 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.