The Role of Organizations in Human Right Protection

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the role of human rights organizations, such as the United Nations. We will identify how they help promote human rights on a global scale, and we will discover some of the challenges facing these types of organizations.

From the League of Nations to the U.N.

The First World War was an unbelievably horrific conflict. For the first time, the technology of the Industrial Revolution was put to use for the express purpose of killing: World War I was mechanized murder. The war was so horrible that it became known as the ''War to End All Wars''; it was hoped that this war would cause people to see the futility of war and prevent future conflicts. In the wake of the war, an international organization called the League of Nations was founded. The goal of the organization was to resolve international disputes peacefully.

The League of Nations was unsuccessful and short-lived, but following the Second World War (yes, World War I turned out to not be the ''war to end all wars''), another, more successful international organization was established. The United Nations or just the UN was founded in 1945, as an international peacekeeping organization with essentially the same goals as the League of Nations. Today, in addition to resolving international disputes, and seeking to prevent war, the UN is a champion of global human rights. As such, it serves as a model human rights organization. The UN promotes human rights by pressuring governments to abide by the standards it sets, investigating abuses, providing a forum for grievances to be expressed, as well as through other means.

UN member states as they looked in 1945. Founding members states are shown in light blue, while dark blue signifies territories of the member states.
un

Let's dig deeper and learn more about human rights organizations. Here we go!

The United Nations as a Human Rights Organization

There are numerous human rights organizations around the world. Some are local, some are national, and others are international. Because the UN is the best-known organization, we'll spend a little bit of time focusing exclusively on it.

In 1948, the U.N. adopted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was drafted by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Consisting of 30 articles, the declaration states that all human beings are entitled to specific rights regardless of race, sex, economic status, etc. Some legal experts conclude that because so many countries have adopted the declaration, it constitutes a binding customary international law. Even so, the UN has at times had difficulty enforcing its standards on human rights--we'll discuss this in greater detail shortly.

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt holds up a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
eleanor

Gender equality is an important pillar of the UN's human rights platform. The UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1979. This is basically an international treaty that can be thought of as a ''bill of rights'' for women. Over 150 countries have ratified the Convention.

Children's well-being is another important component of the UN's human rights program. In 1990, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted. This treaty spells out specific human rights all children are entitled to. Interestingly, the United States is the only member of the UN that has not signed the treaty.

Other Human Rights Organizations

The United Nations is not the only international human rights organization. Another notable one is Amnesty International. Founded in 1961, Amnesty International's stated goal is ''...to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end abuses of human rights, and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated.'' Amnesty International exists to draw attention to human rights violations and organize public opinion against violators. Tortue, unjust imprisonment and the rights of refugees are just a few of the areas of concern for Amnesty International.

Anti-Slavery International is the oldest human rights organization in the world. It was founded in 1839 in the United Kingdom. Its precursor organization, the Anti-Slavery Society, effectively abolished slavery in the British empire in 1838. Today Anti-Slavery International is involved in exposing slavery around the world and engaging in efforts to end it. Recently many of their efforts have been in African countries like Niger. The organization has also worked with the government of Nepal to ban a form of bonded labor known as Kamaiya.

Barriers to Human Rights Organizations

Remember when we mentioned that the United States is the only UN member state that has not signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child? This highlights one of the major barriers to the effectiveness of human rights organizations. See, participation in human rights organizations and compliance with their standards are voluntary. In some cases, corrupt governments are simply unwilling to act ethically and refuse to participate in human rights organizations.

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